My third 20BooksofSummer read and I’m getting on well with my First Two Months of Diversity (obviously a class-based exploration this time). I bought this in April 2020 and I can’t remember now if that was with my Book Token Splurge (must do this year’s) or just a random purchase (oh, look, I just wanted to read about some other lives than my own!) and it was an ideal candidate for this fun list of mine.

I hope everyone else who is doing 20 Books of Summer/Winter is having fun working through their books! And can anyone recommend me some more working-class writers to read?

Kit de Waal (ed.) – “Common People: An Anthology of Working-Class Writers”

(15 April 2020)

Even though I have lived away from home for a third of my life now, it continues to shape the way I think about the world outside it. (p. 53, Stuart Maconie quoting Lynsey Hanley’s “Estates”)

I had a good think about this and I do read some books by working-class writers or writers of working-class origin (Paul Magrs, Jo McMillan, Stuart Maconie, James Kelman, Magnus Mills, Ellen Wilkinson, Kathleen Dayus, those of the Angry Young Men who weren’t middle-class, and I have Anita Sethi’s memoir to read this month …) but not enough probably, and I do agree that their words and lives should be more represented in books – both. There’s in fact a compelling set of stats in the final essay in this book to prove how middle-class publishing and the books that are published are, becoming even more woeful when you look at any intersections at all with gender, race, sexuality or disability. So this 2019 book taking 34 working-class writers and showcasing their memoir writing (so their own-words work and their sharing of their lives) is an important one. Aaaand … it was published on Unbound, the crowd-funding subscription model publishers, making an ironic point if it wasn’t able to get published traditionally.

The authors are half published, established writers and half new writers, some never before seen in print at all. And you know what, I kept flicking to the author biographies at the back and kept guessing wrongly! The work as a whole is lovely and coherent, with a great flow even though the individual pieces are quite short – linked themes like darts, pool and greyhound racing (all enjoyed by female writers) bob up and dip down again as you go. I loved that it was all memoir, as I am not always a fan of the short story: although some of these have a more fictionalised or shaped form (and of course all are shaped in some way), most of them are straightforward narratives of a time in someone’s life or their life path and reflections on their working-class status (or not, for some of them).

These are lives different to mine – not just in the people of different genders, sexualities or ethnicities, but in a profound lack of a confidence which I can see I gained through my middle-class privilege (I’m not very confident personally but I know I can walk into a room of whoever and be listened to, and I know I can up my middle-class signifiers and gain more credentials as a result, though I do try to use that, like my white privilege, for the common good).

It would be hard to draw out favourites in the collection. Loretta Rankinssoon offers a wonderful portrayal of tower-block life, seeing posh blocks go up around her council one, destroying their view, panicked by Grenfell, with little vignettes of encounters in the lift. Cathy Rentzenbrink points out how little darts there is in modern literature, only cropping up in Martin Amis (I wonder if I will find darts everywhere now in what I read. I suspect not) and draws a great parallel between the practice boards players use to make things harder in practice thus easier out in the world. She gets accused of being middle-class but remains out there, hoping she’ll win a prize: “People like me can write books. People like anyone can write books” (p. 81).

Riley Rockford’s “Domus Operandi” is one of the more experimental pieces, interspersing a middle/upper class dinner with memories of a working-class upbringing, both meeting in the ability to eat a globe artichoke, thank you very much. Louise Doughty, in “Any Relation” talks, too, about blending in at middle-class events but also realising she profited from a short window of opportunity where you could be socially mobile which has now closed on the next generation. Anita Sethi’s portrayal of her one, life-changing visit to the Lake District makes me even more keen to read her full memoir.

A valuable and worthwhile, amusing and entertaining, not at all worthy or dry book that deserves to be out there and to have the word spread about it. I hope more working-class writers are coming into the publishing world as a result.

This was book number 3 in my 20 Books of Summer 2021!