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.

Wednesday, 29 January 2020

It was grim oop North

Union Street If you want a cosy story that takes you out of your day-to-day existence, Pat Barker's Union Street is definitely not for you. It contains seven chapters, each tracing the story of a woman who lives on the eponymous street. Other reviewers have described the book as dark, but it's more accurate to label it as authentic, or truthful.

It's set in the early 1970s in north east England, when industry was in decline and traditional working class communities and values were beginning to fracture. Older people were terrified of ending up in a care home converted from "the Workhouse", family reputations were ruined if unmarried girls got pregnant, so they were banished. An embarrassing father might "hawk phlegm up whenever his son was in the room, or lift one buttock from the chair to fart". The housewives hurried "home from the shops to get the tea ready before the men came home". If the men had lost their jobs, the women worked all day and then "were anxious to get home, to cook the dinner, to make a start on the housework".

This is not a rose-coloured, romantic view of the world, although there are occasional bursts of humour, such as the mother who always turned to housework when she was especially distressed: "It was a tribute to her stoicism that so little got done". Pat Barker writes using the language of the communities that she's describing. It's stark and reflects the reality of life as survival. However, no matter what hardships and experiences the women endure, there is at the end of each chapter the glimpse of a possibility that things might get better.

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Greatly appreciated in the midst of mud and rain and shells

The Thirty-Nine Steps The thing about Richard Hannay, protagonist of The Thirty-Nine Steps, is that he's bored. "I was tired of seeing sights, and in less than a month I had had enough of restaurants and theatres and race-meetings" he tells us. In other words, he wants an adventure. If John Buchan hadn't made this so obvious in the first paragraphs of his book, it would be impossible to suspend belief and follow the frankly ludicrous story.

Hannay lets a stranger into his flat named Scudder, who spins him a tale of intrigue. Scudder is subsequently murdered and Hannay must go on the run. He's in danger of being the next victim of the murderers, has lied about Scudder to his man Paddock, might be accused of the murder by the police, and can't alert the authorities because that would play into the murderers' hands. So, he flees to Scotland.

The remainder of the story follows Hannay across the hills and glens, regularly trusting total strangers to offer him free bed and board. After all, he says, "A man of my sort, who has travelled about the world in rough places, gets on perfectly well with two classes, what you may call the upper and the lower."

Published in 1915, the book is of its time and a century on is unintentionally funny. According to its wikipedia page it was very popular with soldiers in the First World War. It's a thrilling read and in spite of, or more likely because of its fantastical story, it was "greatly appreciated in the midst of mud and rain and shells, and all that could make trench life depressing."

Thursday, 16 January 2020

Consequences of the little misplacement of a silver thimble

The Abbess of Crewe The Abbess of Crewe is about the political manoeuvering of Alexandra, who has recently been elected as the head of the Abbey of Crewe. In the first few pages we learn that her ancestry is impeccable, "fourteen generations of pale and ruling ancestors of England, and ten before them of France", she has electronically bugged the Abbey to listen to the nuns's conversations, and she has a secret, "most profitable pact" with the Jesuits. She also has a plan to discredit Felicity, the only other contender for the position of Abbess, which unexpectedly results in an "international newspaper scandal." The remainder of the book explains what happened, how it started "merely from the little misplacement, or at most the theft, of Sister Felicity's silver thimble".

Muriel Spark's book is short, humorous and littered with extracts of poetry. It's not laugh-out-loud funny, but rather farcical in its treatment of the political shenanigans of the players. The titular Abbess embodies the privilege of the elite. They believe the "rules" don't apply to themselves and are ruthless in the pursuit of their ambitions. Alexandra will stop at nothing to get what she wants, has no pity for those who stand in her way, such as Felicity, and is willing to make scapegoats of her supporters, such as Winifrede. It's considered to be an allegory of the Watergate scandal of the 70s but it also brings to mind the political antics of some leaders today.

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Rather a sad tale

The Vet's Daughter The Vet's Daughter is a curious, gothic, magical tale. It follows the adolescent Alice Rowlands, as her mother becomes ill, dies and is replaced with Rosa the "strumpet" by her cruel father. Life is neither easy nor happy for Alice.

Barbara Comyns tells her story in a simple and straightforward style, rather like a fairy tale. The characters are mostly grotesque and mostly concerned only with their own lives. It's rather a sad tale.