Monday, 24 February 2020

How do you define working class?

Know Your Place: Essays on the Working Class by the Working Class "How can you call yourself working class when you live on the French Riviera?" Good question, and one I've been asked several times. Perhaps I'm no longer working class? I thought the Dead Ink publication Know Your Place: Essays on the Working Class by the Working Class might provide an answer.

The book is a collection of 23 essays, written "in response to a tweet that, in the aftermath of the EU referendum, requested someone produce a 'State of the Nation' book of working class voices". But how to define the working class? The editor tells us that the authors "self-identify as working class or [as] from a working class background".

As with any collection of essays or short stories, some connect with the reader and others don't. Dominic Grace's experience (The Death of a Pub) was nothing like my teetotal, Methodist upbringing, where the pub was considered to be a wicked place that destroyed lives. However, the two essays about accents (Kate Fox's The Wrong Frequency, and Rym Kechacha's What Colour is a Chameleon) struck a chord with someone who moved away from the North West aged 18, whose accent regularly changes depending on the listener, and whose pronunciation of "bus" and "bath" occasionally prompts tedious banter about it being grim "oop North".

Some essays were entertaining and uplifting, such as that of Wally Jiagoo (Glass Windows and Glass Ceilings) and his struggle to get into media script-writing whilst working at a benefits office. Or Alexandros Plasatis's story of sweet revenge on his dodgy landlord (The Immigrant of Narborough Road).

Others provided an insight into something which had never occurred to me, such as Sian Norris's experiences growing up in a lesbian family in the 90s, dealing with Section 28 (Growing Up Outside of Class).

And then there are those whose beliefs are in line with my own. Cath Bore's experience as and study of cleaners (The Housework Issue (the Other One)) discredits the axiom that if you work hard you'll get on. And Peter Sutton laments the privatisation of education and the desire to reintroduce grammar schools (Education, Education, Education).

In the final essay (You're Not Working Class) the book's editor Nathan Connolly has provided a neat answer for those who accuse me of not being working class because more than half a century after I was born, my life appears to have moved so far from where it began. So I'll leave the last word to him:
"Delegitimising the working class is a step towards removing working class voices. If we want working class writers, actors, politicians, and judges - and if we want those institutions to understand working class life - then we need to expect the working class to be educated and intelligent, perhaps even cultured, perhaps even partial to a high-street coffee chain latte. Otherwise, we're just telling them to know their place".


Thursday, 20 February 2020

Those who leave home, and those who don't

An American Marriage An American Marriage is an odd title for this book by Tayari Jones. True, it's set in America and it follows what happens to a married couple when the husband is wrongly imprisoned. But the story is about much more.

Three characters narrate the tale: Roy, his wife Celestial, and her friend since childhood, Andre, who was also Roy's friend at college. They slowly reveal how Roy and Celestial met, what their parents are like, and how Roy came to be in prison for five years. We also find out how Celestial coped during those five years, and what happened to their relationship when Roy was released.

An American Marriage is a character study of Roy and Celestial, not a fast-paced, exciting plot-driven story. The couple were always ill-matched. When they fell in love Celestial admits that "Roy came into my life at the time when I needed a man like him". Roy's heroics were mostly about his own ego; "I had to keep running as long as she did. How would it look if I hung back?" Once married Roy speaks over his wife, collects other women's phone numbers and doesn't always wear his wedding ring. Describing Celestial's storyboard pictures showing what she wanted out of life, Roy says they included, "a cottage on Amelia Island and an image of the earth as seen from the moon. No wedding dress or engagement ring".

If not about marriage, then what? The story explores how one's upbringing can clash with one's hopes for the future. And if anything, Roy spells out the problem in the first sentence: "There are two kinds of people in the world, those who leave home, and those who don't".

Thursday, 13 February 2020

A mysterious distribution of chapatis

The Siege of Krishnapur I had high expectations for The Siege of Krishnapur, perhaps too high.

JG Farrell's book is a fictionalised account of the 1857 Indian Mutiny and Siege of Lucknow. It's nearly all set in the British residency in Krishnapur, North India, and features a cast of characters of whom the Collector is perhaps the most important. He's obsessed with the 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations that was staged in London. Other memorable characters include Lucy Hughes the "fallen woman", Harry and Fleury who both fall under her spell, and the two doctors, McNab and Dunstaple, who hold opposing views on the causes and treatment of cholera.

But it took an age for me to get into the story. It started well enough, explaining that the "first sign of trouble at Krishnapur came with a mysterious distribution of chapatis", which held a promise of the humour I'd heard is a great feature of the novel. Unfortunately the style of writing didn't appeal to me and I found my mind wandering. I'd read around three-quarters of the book before I really felt engaged.

As for the humour, it's more absurd than funny-ha-ha, although I did actually laugh out loud at two points, both during the siege itself: one relating to the misfiring of a gun, the other to the relative merits of Shakespeare and Keats.

I think it'll improve on a second reading.