Is this the sort of insane prejudice that first led you to focus your studies on working-class art, or did you only come to be aware of this particular form of bigotry in the process of your academic career?
I don’t think Fowles is insane in saying this, as such. Perhaps he felt he could express this opinion in the early 1970s because of his own peaking, bestselling position as a growly literary lion, but also because he knew this opinion to be widely if latently accepted by the literary and publishing establishment. The kinds of people and powers he would have cared about wouldn’t have demonised him for saying it. So to my mind this means his expressing of this opinion is worse because it was sane, because it was safe for him to do so. Because Fowles knew everyone who mattered to him, in his version of the literary establishment, felt the same way. He was probably also being cattily dismissive of writers he felt threatened by, who wrote well about the kinds of working-class lives that Fowles couldn’t hope – or couldn’t be bothered – to understand. It’s a comfy thing to do – to dismiss into boring, lumpen irrelevance a whole strata of life, especially if it was encroaching into the novel and film worlds, and being treated seriously.
Weirdly, before I saw this quotation, I was in email correspondence with Fowles as I’d heard he’d written a few poems responding to John Clare (and I am always trying to get hold of new, unpublished material for the journal I edit) and he said he was going to dig them out for me, but died before he did so. So it is possible that this wasn’t his only – or a fixed – opinion about ‘lower’-class cultural work. I don’t mean to be soft on Fowles: but clearing away the class ‘opposition’ is something working-class writers are just as prone to do. There is what you call bigotry everywhere in literature. But I don’t think it is quite bigotry in this instance. Fowles says this from an arch position of masculine, wealthy power though, so it is dangerous and damaging – and also – of course – the opposite of the truth. All lives are fascinating – it’s hard to imagine he didn’t know that too. Usually class prejudice – against types of lives as well as topics of literature – is much more subtle than this, much more careful, or layered in and among representations, techniques and responses. Can anyone read Martin Amis’s London Fields now, and think it is not dripping with loathing for, and fear of, working-class cultures? The whole construction of Keith the darts player seems to me to be based on hatred and fear of working-class masculinity. In some ways, novels like that – that are garishly funny and trade in chiaroscuro but complex and carefully-drawn stereotypes – could be more damaging to the portrayal of working-class lives than anything Fowles said from on high. The fact that London Fields is still celebrated strikes me as remarkable. It’s cod-Dickensian but without Dickens’ understanding of the experience of poverty, without his bone-marrow sympathy for working-class lives. Fowles just seems ordinary, in the end. Middle class, ignorant, prejudiced, elitist, and wanting lives he cannot understand to be erased from anyone’s literary concern so that he doesn’t have to question or defend his own literary and class-informed choices. For what it’s worth, I think you can read Fowles and not encounter this kind of prejudice. He’s not very fashionable anymore, I know, but there’s some remarkable work in The Magus, The Collector, The French Lieutenant's Woman. He’s a magician, a knowing and playful theorist; and I certainly did like his work when I first read it. Amis’s work is far more troubling, to my mind, when it comes to representing working-class life, and he’s typical of a whole raft of writers whose class politics pass unquestioned.
And to answer the other bit of your question, no this was not the first time I’d seen this kind of prejudice: if you study any labouring-class or working-class writer from 1700 onwards, and read their patrons’ introductions to their collections (mostly of verse until the late nineteenth century) or reviews, you will encounter exactly the kinds of dismissive prejudice that Fowles channels here. And Kelman is just one among thousands of working-class writers to receive that kind of dismissive flak, as well he knows. Fowles didn’t invent the idea that the poorer you are, the less interesting you are: that’s a foundational truism of capitalist cultures, because money is the measure of value.
When I think of the experience of reading A Disaffection now, I feel (and it is felt, not thought) that the novel came down to me. I didn’t have to claw upwards – the novel welcomed me in. Anyway, as it happens I got addicted to John Clare in my final year at Glasgow, then did a PhD on him. After that I got into a big fight about Clare’s copyright, and so needed to get away from it all for a while, so I searched around for another topic – and Kelman was the only other writer whose work seemed worth the effort. By then I was in Oxford, so the thrill of coming back to Glasgow to do research, to stay with my best mate in Govan right near Elder Park library, to work on the Kelman manuscripts in the Mitchell – all of that was a huge draw. Plus reading everything else by and about Kelman was an awakening in itself.
I felt everyone was too precious about Kelman – too defensive, or too angry, so there was room for an outsider for sure. I surprised myself by ending my book with a celebration of his supranationalism – and I think he has maintained that drive in books like Dirt Road. It is thrilling writing about a living writer too – and to take on the work of someone who is so quick to disapprove – along with the critics who try to ventriloquize him – who are (if they are honest) made so anxious by his politics – and I liked that aspect of the work, the wrestle and the risk. The work did make me reflect on the bourgeois decadence of my own situation, relative to the subjects Kelman writes about. So there are a few self-referential moments in my book, where I just had to express the problem of writing about his fictional worlds – and some reviewers hated those bits, and fair enough. Critics are supposed to keep their guards up, the guise of objectivity going, I suppose.
Class is awkward for us all. I know a working-class writer who is doing publicly well but lives precariously still, who repeatedly has materially middle-class senior academics asking him to validate their working-class credentials. I see this all the time too – it is not only characteristic of criticism about Kelman. It’s a response born of guilt, and a desire to be identified as authentic. Any time class comes up in literary discussion, especially if you talk about it with an accent like mine, economically secure academics resort to anecdotes about their parents growing up in the gutter and eating Angel Delight in front of a two-bar electric fire – as if that makes their criticism more valid, or as if they will be dismissed as decadent and remote otherwise. Kelman used to bring this out in people – hagiographers and antagonists alike – and it’s not his fault. But it’s a fascinating by-product of discussions of class – and shows, I think, just how vexatious an issue it remains. Most academic critics of this kind of literature balk at the idea of being middle class, and yet, by any definition other than cultural and familial, that’s precisely and comfortably what they are. Class is a troubled concept indeed – it causes trouble – it’s mobile and argumentative – it makes everything awkward – and that’s why I like investigating it, at least, in literary contexts. Some of the greatest moments in Kelman are when he tenderly writes a scene in which class makes things awkward – Sammy with his doctor, Patrick Doyle with his headmaster, Rab Hines considering his varying levels of alienation from different residential areas of Glasgow – the cod-posh accents he mucks about with. Kelman is the great contemporary novelist of social awkwardness – of those moments where grown ups have to say ‘I’m no being cheeky but’ because they are faced with having to question from below an absolutely permanent class-based social structure of difference, distinction and which disempowers. The daily horror: that’s what Kelman’s acutely brilliant at conveying.
Writing is not an egg-and-spoon race, though I see how publishing as a capital enterprise, mostly, has to be about sales, about winning the market. But what of all those writers who are up for a prize and don’t ever win? What damage accrues to them and their art? And the panellists – the judges: what expertise do they have? How do we feel about a market determining what we read, what we value; and what of judges? One year, a chair of the judges – who I think was chair because she’d been head of MI6 or a cabinet minister or something – said they were after ‘readability’ (which begs the question: are spies and politicians cultured? Do they have time to read fiction?). What does ‘readability’ mean? That we have to read Mr Men books? That a ‘difficult’ read is not what the busy public has time for? Always Raymond Chandler instead of Kafka, then? Why does someone off the telly, or a former MP, or an ‘edgy’ newspaper commentator, get to be a judge of fiction on such a powerful platform? How do we get to manage the prejudices and assumptions of judges? If we’re being really cynical, in some ways the significance of a literary prize is determined by the grip of its PR partner on establishment and media power, and the way the sponsorship is used to foster and broker relations to real power – little of which has anything to do with literature. Literary festivals can be the same, of course. Such latent structures make a huge difference to the status of a prize, and the amount we talk about it as a significant cultural force.
Having said all that, the year Kelman won, there were ‘decent’ (in the sense of intellectual experience) people judging – if not the most diverse bunch (something prizes have got better at since) – so we had James Wood and Alan Taylor for example. What some judges and commentators thought to be the indecency of his novel was possibly part and parcel of a shift, of a loosening, of standard English on power, though I don’t think that’s a battle that is over, at all. If things loosened, they did so only momentarily, allowing a few more exceptions but no change to the rule, perhaps. The reaction to the novel was not about swearing per se: it was about the seeming acceptance of working-class culture written in an approximation of its own language, seemingly from within its own headspace – without compromise – constructed in resistance to accepted narrative norms, in rebellion against established ways of telling the world. As so many critics have pointed out, in How late… Sammy merges with the narrator: there is no Standard English authority explaining or accounting for Sammy. There is no standard-bearing power to hold our hands and reassure us that Sammy is OK, or the opposite, that he’s a criminal domestic terrorist and that the authorities will win out in the end. The first word of the novel is ‘Ye’: the non-standard YOU drives the novel. It offers a very specific, but immediately generalisable, account of experience – of marginalisation, of state violence, of the privations of struggling.
My friend and sometime flatmate, the critic Graeme Macdonald, said – in 1994 or ’5 – that this was a detective novel in reverse. A criminal with no crime? Was the state the criminal force? You had a choice to work it out, but you could also choose not to judge or assess Sammy, but roll with him. This was the whole novel form upended in some ways –acceptable as long as a work like this stays on the fringes. The novel delivers shock to orthodox expectations of what the novel is about, because we have to hold hands with Sammy, as he uses his fingertips to navigate his concrete-and-tarmac Glaswegian world. We have to feel it out with him, because he is blind.
I think it was that proximity to Glaswegianness that drove people like Simon Jenkins, Julia Neuberger, Gerald Warner (etc. etc.) mad. They did everything they could to get Sammy and Kelman out of their first-class carriage on the literary train: called Sammy a drunk (he is absolutely not an alcoholic) and down-and-out (he has a home), called Kelman a savage, decried miserabilism, counted the sweary words, said the book couldn’t sell, didn’t want it in bookshops – on and on. Some saw this reaction as anti-Scottish, but of course there were notable Scottish people who found the novel shameful too, so I think it was wider and more troubling than that. It was about the powerful not wanting their super-privileged spaces shared with working-class culture. Condemning swearing and langwidge was a tool in pushing working-class culture away, back into the gutter.
The novel is as relevant now, as it was when it was published, centred as it is upon themes such as an individual brutalised by the state; state surveillance; the violence of state bureaucracy; coping with disability; the privations of welfare dependency; family relations, isolation and, of course, class politics. The literary establishment might now allow a bit more swearing, a little bit of accent here and there, but this is only a surface change. Lauren Laverne is too ‘northern’ for Desert Island Discs? On the one hand – who cares – but then again, these moments where the resentment surfaces explicitly are indicators of the way power still defends its territories. Every other power structure and orthodoxy interrogated by How late… remains in place; and every other reactive force that declaimed its winning prizes, remains in power. People still take Simon Jenkins seriously. Having opinions for cash, as Stewart Lee once said of someone else.
He is political without being an ideologue or a bore; studies Burns, yes, but is intoxicated by Byron; he’s deeply suspicious of and alienated by organised and formal party politics; as fearful of violent radicalism as he is enraged by obdurate conservatism; he is satirical of snobbery and status seekers; he is a brilliant love poet at times; he offers the full range of Sturm und Drang too, in later visionary and asylum work; he apes Goethe’s suicidal Werther, and takes the mickey out of Wordsworth’s enjambment and pomposity; he offers no grand theories of poetry (as other Romantic poets tried) yet his letters offer a take on literary culture that is all his own. Some of his mature studies of the natural world are the greatest nature writing of England, still, and many brilliant poets think so. He is a proto-ecologist, and in poems like ‘The Lament of Swordy Well’ and ‘The Fallen Elm’ he offers a model of impassioned and hyper-sensitive environmental protest that is directly portable to today’s malaise (though I am quite critical of those who do that, if they are insensitive to class and the particularities of history along the way). Clare remains the most important working-class poet in English literary history – though of course he is one among thousands, most of whom are now long forgotten. The best thing is that there’s lots of ways into Clare – and you have to find your own.
I’d like to ditch my cynicism and suggest Hudson’s is a genuinely transformative work – that it could actually wield political change. But of course there is no sign that the welfare state is improving – quite the reverse. Poverty, homelessness and malnutrition in the UK just now are utterly shameful – and Brexit will make things far worse for the poorest. We know this, everyone accepts it, nothing changes. The UK establishment seems to accept poverty as the British respond to rain: with a shrug and a closing of the door.
Hudson’s is a shocking work because these stories do not have to exist in such a wealthy society as ours. We spend too much time playing with the knockabout unwashed of BBC Dickens, where poverty is a distant game in the past, forgetting that the family next door might not have enough to feed their kids or clothe them or pay for school stuff. Poverty is private. Hudson is right now doing a promo tour for her book in chip shops across the UK. She is addressing that age-old problem that always got levelled at Kelman: who reads this so-called working-class writing? Who gets to hear about it? Is it for the middle classes? Taking her readings to chip shops is a fun thing to do, but it is also full of super-serious social and democratic purpose. Hudson is using all her PR presence, and the engine of her publisher, to make a thousand small differences; she is uncomplicated about calling herself a working-class writer, and she is a leading part of a current dynamic boost to the profile of working-class writing. There have always been working-class writers – but their acceptance and prominence ebbs and flows in a fickle manner, like the fashionableness of the width of a trouser leg. Right now, there does seem to be a really supportive communitarian sense of pride among working-class novelists, poets and dramatists – and publishers and even broadcasters are taking notice. The advocacy is loud and bold. The fashion deserves to become something more permanent as there is a lot of great work coming out – but who knows. If these works sell – and that’s all that matters to publishers in the end – then a blip in trends might become a permanently well-supported aspect of mainstream publishing. Do some think working-class writing is better off in the margins, with samizdat imprints, from where it can throw sharper stones, and nurse its injuries with more self-determination? I don’t know. But it is all fascinating to watch and to read.
In fiction, I don’t think Nell Dunn is read enough by critics of working-class life – and she is an originator of so much and she does not get anywhere near enough credit or discussion (I’ve only read her recently myself, so I am part of the problem). As with Dunn, I’m going to be loose on what counts as working-class fiction, here. But if we go back a bit, and start around the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth, we have to read the short stories of Mary Mann – she is on her own in her version of extremely impoverished Norfolk rural life. I have only just encountered her, but some of the stories in The Complete Tales of Dulditch: 32 Short Stories are as powerful as anything I’ve ever read; her sensitive attentiveness both to suffering and to language is unique. Writers got more political in the early years of the twentieth century as left-wing politics asserted itself: so we have Ethel Carnie Holdsworth’s This Slavery (1925) which is brilliant on mill-town life of the ‘hungry ’20s’, and then there is the more polemical (and so less successful) Clash by Ellen Wilkinson (1929), centred on the general strike. He’s hardly an unknown, but nevertheless D. H. Lawrence gets bizarrely overlooked in assessments of working-class literature and he shouldn’t be. Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole (1933) was a smash – and was as important as a touring stage-show adaptation, for huge working-class audiences in local cinemas and so on; the film version of 1941 was the first time police violence against civilians was shown on a British screen. It’s wonderful to see Greenwood worrying about his Salford vernacular being understood – occasionally he pops an explanation of a local term in parenthesis so that everyone understands. All writers will understand his problem.
Boy (1931) by James Hanley is one of my favourite modernist novels of adolescent vulnerability, set in the docks in Liverpool, and is painfully acute about the privations of traditional working-class masculinity: that’s a must-read. There is of course always a risk in performing extremes of poverty in fiction – and that sensationalist trend of slum fiction, specifically in the Gaelic tradition, is punctured superbly by Flann O’Brien’s The Poor Mouth (originally published in Gaelic, 1941). George Orwell’s friend Jack Common published a fictionalised memoir of his early twentieth-century childhood in Newcastle in Kiddar’s Luck (1951). Welsh valley life of the 1910s is comically the setting for Caradog Prichard’s magical One Moonlit Night (originally published in Welsh in 1961). Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners (1956) and Buchi Emecheta, In the Ditch (1972) and Second-Class Citizen (1974) show, if we didn’t know already, is that most migrant fiction is – if not straightforwardly working-class fiction – often about poverty, marginalisation and prejudice. Most migrants are poor, exploited and pushed around brutally at every stage, it seems almost unnecessary to say. Barry Hines died a couple of years ago, and so I re-read A Kestrel for a Knave (1968); that’s an astonishing novel. But this list is getting too long: from the ’80s and ’90s I’d have to recommend Pat Barker’s Union Street (1982) and Livi Michael’s Under a Thin Moon (1992). Anything by the late Agnes Owens; many of her short stories are just Kelman-perfect. Ripley Bogle (1997) by Belfast writer Robert McLiam Wilson, about homelessness, deserves much more attention. But for me, towering above everything in the ’90s is Janice Galloway’s The Trick is to Keep Breathing (1999). I’ve not read a better novel about grief, isolation and lost love and, formally, it is simply a masterpiece.
We can’t do without the kinds of reportage of In Darkest London (1889) by Margaret Harkness, Jack London’s People of the Abyss (1903), George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), Robert Roberts’ The Classic Slum (1971), and memoirs like Archie Hill’s A Cage of Shadows (1973), all the way through to Darren McGarvey’s Poverty Safari (2017), Kerry Hudson’s Lowborn (2019) and Cash Carraway’s Skint Estate (2019). I can’t wait to read Lemn Sissay’s memoir My Name Is Why (2019) which is out soon.
There are so many contemporary novelists to watch out for. From Brick Lane (2004) onwards, Monica Ali has been essential reading. I really enjoy Anthony Cartwright – his West Midlands-set Heartland (2009) is brilliant on the fractures in English life that seem to be ripping us apart; Kit de Waal’s My Name Is Leon (2016) – also set in the Midlands – will have you in tears as it did me. Right now, we should certainly be reading James Clarke’s The Litten Path (2019), Lisa Blowers’s story collection It’s Gone Dark Over Bill’s Mother’s (2019) and Guy Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City (2018). My favourite writers for young adults are Alex Wheatle (who writes mostly about teens in London) and Natasha Carthew (who writes about Cornish rural working-class life). A very fine collection offering access to class issues for writers, is Common People: An Anthology of Working-Class Writers (2019), edited by Kit de Waal who, like Hudson, has been a brilliant advocate for attention to be paid to working-class writers. Similarly, Nathan Connolly edited a great collection called Know Your Place: Essays on the Working Class by the Working Class (2018), and that is essential reading too.
I’ve missed loads of great writers out of course. Nevertheless, all of the above amount to solid proof that these are good times indeed to be reading writing about working-class life. ●