Being a working-class writer is fucking hard. The problem is that I have a foot in both camps so to speak. Liminal spaces are consequently my domain. For you to fully comprehend what I mean we need to go back in time.
My late father was prole-poor. As a child in the 1930s he was once given an orange as a Christmas present. Nothing else, just an orange. Whenever I recall that fucking orange I’m reminded of two lines by Paul Eluard:
The earth is blue like an orange.
This is no error. Words do not lie.
The thing is, children never forget such moments of humiliation. But at least my father owned a pair of shoes. Some of his classmates were not so fortunate and walked barefoot to school. However, he didn’t just have poverty to contend with. There was something else. He was illegitimate. Now, it was perfectly acceptable to be a bastard in those days as long as you were rich, but certainly not if you were poor and working class. For the lower orders there was shame attached and stigma and name-calling. There was opprobrium.
Despite enlisting underage in the King’s Own Scottish Borderers and landing on Sword beach during D-Day – his thigh was later ripped open near Caen by shrapnel from a German mortar shell – this brave man was intimidated by books. Even the way he pronounced the word ‘book’ was different, his characteristic North East accent making it rhyme with the Arab word souk. So you might be surprised to learn that he’d had the chance to study at Oxford after the war – at Ruskin College.
My mother, on the other hand, was thoroughly middle class. My grandmother’s house in Germany had oil paintings on the walls, and she listened to opera broadcast on the radio by Nord Deutscher Rundfunk. There were bottles of wine stored in the cellar, and you ground your coffee beans in the morning in a strange contraption that made a hell of a racket. You wouldn’t find any of these things in our council flat back home.
Given my mother’s German heritage I grew up bilingual, and because of her religious affiliation I went to a Roman Catholic Boys’ school where they put me in the top form – 1 Alpha. The priests tried to indoctrinate me, but I didn’t need Karl Marx to tell me that religion is the opium of the people. As a twelve-year-old atheist I’d relish taking on some Goliath figure wearing a dog collar and best him every time. In those days I used to get into a lot of fights as well. I once felled a boy named Crow, who was a foot taller than me, with only one punch. He was middle class, so perhaps I was already striking a blow for the class struggle.
At school I began to take an interest in books. One day I managed to gain access to the stock cupboard and helped myself to some beautiful Penguin editions of Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, E.M. Forster, Joseph Conrad, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Franz Kafka, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. I didn’t think of it as stealing – it was more a case of redistribution. I still have those books, with their distinctive orange or green covers, in my library to this day.
Speaking fluent German and being exposed to my mother’s culture, it might not come as a surprise to learn that I gravitated towards Krautrock – to the likes of Can, Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream. In my teens I also played classical guitar, teaching myself how to read music in only a week.
But it wasn’t just avant-garde progressive rock that I listened to. Since Frank Zappa had expressed admiration for Varèse and Stravinsky I felt it made sense to check out these two guys as well. One thing therefore led to another and by the time of my eighteenth birthday I bought an LP of Schönberg’s Transfigured Night and the Variations for Orchestra conducted by Herbert von Karajan with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Soon I was listening to the other two members of the Second Viennese School triumvirate – Berg and Webern – as well as Mahler, Bartok and Messiaen.
Two years later I was an undergraduate at Birmingham Polytechnic, studying for a BA in English Language and Literature, and the good thing about having a poor father was that I got a full grant. Marxist literary criticism, structuralism and deconstruction were all the rage at the time, as were Rock Against Racism and the Socialist Workers Party. But the political climate in the country at large was anathema to everything I held dear.
In 1980 – the year in which John Lennon was shot dead – I bought a season ticket for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under its newly-appointed principal conductor, Simon Rattle. I already admired his work since I owned his outstanding recording for EMI of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.
As a result of my heavily subsidised student discount I ended up paying under two pounds per concert, which was less than half the price of standing in the Holte End at Villa Park – so much for classical music being out of reach of the common man. Given Rattle’s provocative programme selections in that first season, it sometimes felt like a case of épater la bourgeoisie. Despite the fact that I had to sit on one of the hard bench seats behind the percussion section I soon found myself in my element, whereas it seemed to be the case that at least some of Birmingham’s well-off citizenry were still coming to terms with the challenging nature of this new repertoire. For the most part Rattle’s exhilarating performances won people over, and I certainly didn’t mind having a sore arse at the end of the evening.
By the time I was in my final year the new intake of students had names like Sebastian and Olivia. The parents of one of these students bought their daughter a flat in Moseley. My parents bought me a Swan electric kettle.
Once I’d obtained my degree I applied to the University of Warwick, since being a student is always better than becoming a wage slave, and after my interview with Dr Susan Bassnett-McGuire I was accepted on the MPhil in Translation Studies. The snag was that I needed to fund myself, but I didn’t have two pennies to rub together, let alone two grand, so that any plans I might have harboured were quickly scuppered. Dream on, my lad.
Thatcher was re-elected in 1983. She was born in the same year as my father – 1925. He hated her guts, as did I. We watched the aftermath of the Brighton hotel bombing one morning on the telly and cheered. When I saw Norman Tebbit being extricated from the wreckage, his face screwed up in agony and covered with a fine layer of plaster and brick dust, as if someone had just emptied a bag of dirty flour over his head, I thought let’s see you get on your bike now you bastard. But we groaned with disappointment when we learned that the bitch wasn’t actually dead. It was the Stauffenberg plot all over again.
They should have used more Semtex was all my father could say. You couldn’t fault his logic.
During the miners’ strike I was hitching along the A1 when a police car pulled up beside me. They asked me all sorts of intrusive questions and checked my name and address against their database. I knew what their game was and remained exceedingly polite and accommodating throughout. Those fuckers assumed I was a flying picket, and it seems my North East accent was enough for them to go on. When I got out of the car I laughed like a madman. I was the enemy within.
After more than a year of unemployment, I eventually blundered into the world of work. One day, in the early hours of the morning, I stood waiting for the night bus on Colmore Row in Birmingham and got talking to a youth who was perhaps five years my junior and who worked as a shop-fitter. Here I was a Civil Servant with a 2:1 degree in English Language and Literature earning a measly £75 a week, so I was astonished when this young lad casually revealed that he took home £150. Was this how the capitalist system worked, then? It seemed as if education was simply not valued or rewarded; it counted for nothing.
I made a start on a novel about my predicament – it was aptly titled The Prison. I also wrote poetry. I submitted some of my poems and translations to various literary magazines – to Stand, Agenda, PN Review and Ambit. They were all rejected. That was something I’d better get used to. The bourgeoisie have weaponised rejection. There’s a line in Goethe’s Faust that seems to encapsulate their miserable world-view. It’s Mephistopheles who speaks it:
I am the spirit who always says no.
In 1993 I enrolled at Nottingham Trent University. My digs were in a terraced house in Sneinton, near the windmill. The working-class filmmaker, Shane Meadows, was living in this area throughout the same period. During my work placement in Derbyshire I passed through a small town called Eckington. I heard a fascinating story there from the student who was giving me a lift, and who was himself a former miner. It’s worth repeating.
On a previous visit he’d asked for directions from some old geezer. ‘It’s down theer,’ said the man, pointing, ‘down scab alley.’ But by employing this contemptuous epithet he wasn’t referring to the recent miners’ strike of 1984-85. Nor was he referencing the strike in 1972. No, scab alley had acquired its name all the way back in 1926, at the time of the General Strike. Such was the power of local feeling that this nickname had managed to survive for nearly seventy years. That tells you all you need to know about working-class identity, memory and betrayal. Me, I’d put strikebreakers up against a wall and shoot them, so I could well understand the old man’s sense of grievance.
Although I was studying for the Diploma in Careers Guidance, writing was still in my blood. If I couldn’t go to Warwick and pursue Translation Studies, I’d simply do the damned thing myself. I’d become an autodidact, to use Sartre’s word in his novel Nausea. And what better poet to translate than the impenetrable and melancholy Austrian, Georg Trakl. So, that’s exactly what I did. But then, I’ve always been up for a challenge. I bought his two volume collected edition from the Otto Müller Verlag in Salzburg. And I translated all of the published works, wrote a long biographical and critical introduction and provided copious annotations to the poems themselves. It’s a stupendous achievement, even though I say so myself, despite the fact that no one will ever read it, but so what. I fucking did it, that’s all that matters.
Politically the country was going to hell in a handcart now that Anthony Charles Lynton Blair was in power. Even worse, that grinning fucker was my Member of Parliament. What an embarrassment. Not that I ever voted for him you understand – Scargill’s Socialist Labour candidate got my X every time. Bollocks to Blair and his New Labour neo-liberal snake oil. That cunt has a lot to answer for.
My dad started to deteriorate physically in the late 1990s. It was to be expected. He still had shrapnel in his leg from the war, had worked with asbestos without being provided with any protective clothing, had slipped discs in his back and suffered from arthritis and vibration white finger. He developed prostate cancer and it eventually metastasised. It’s a well-known fact that manual labour kills you whereas brainwork never does.
He knew that I was never cut out for a labouring job. Where my material was the written word, his material of choice was wood. When he worked for the Gas Board in the 1970s they were demolishing a property with a solid wood floor. Since no one else could be bothered to reclaim the oak blocks, my dad brought them back home in the boot of his Austin Maxi.
They were strange-looking objects, covered in tar, like fragments of a meteorite. Frankly, they were about as unprepossessing as a collection of black dog turds. Anyway, he meticulously sanded them down, laid them in the classic herringbone pattern in our dining room and gave them several coats of varnish. Once in situ they were beautiful, amazing. I could never do anything like that.
Mam had cancer too. She opted for a full mastectomy with removal of lymph nodes rather than a lumpectomy. The operation was a resounding success and the cancer cells got their arses kicked. But Azrael wasn’t finished just yet. Some years later vascular dementia reared its ugly head. It bumps you off even faster than Alzheimer’s. It’s a one-way ticket to oblivion.
So, after the death of both my parents I now had some spare cash in my pockets. And there was unfinished business. In 2013 I therefore began studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Teesside University. I was fifty-five years old now and still as angry as hell. For two years I worked 4pm to 2am so I could get every Thursday off from my minimum wage job and make the journey to Middlesbrough where I would be transformed for the day into a mature student.
My target was to get a Distinction. And I did. On top of that I wrote. Shitloads. Prose and poetry. Nutshells and Nuggets published two of my poems online. I also drafted the first act of a screenplay. It was called Black Art. It eventually metamorphosed into a novel. I wrote short stories as well – most of them found their way into the present collection. It’s what’s called a composite novel, in the manner of James Joyce’s Dubliners, if you want to know the technical jargon.
Along the way I had some wonderful encouragement from fellow students and lecturers alike. It was a blast to hear that my very deliberate and elaborate style of writing resembled that of W.G. Sebald. He’s a particular favourite of mine.
I didn’t bother trying to find a publisher for The Prison but I did send the first three chapters of Black Art to various literary agents in London. And, would you believe it, I encountered the same bourgeois cunts standing in my way once again. The gatekeepers as they are named. The devotees of Mephistopheles who get a cheap thrill from saying no. Shithouses the lot of them. ‘We enjoyed this…but.’ They wield that ‘but’ like a bank robber does a cosh.
So, instead of admitting defeat, I self-published. In such circumstances I always bring to mind my hero – James Joyce. He dreamed up a great acronym, and it’s one that I fondly recall whenever I encounter rejection: KMRIA. It stands for Kiss My Royal Irish Arse. Ok, I may not be Irish – although my surname does crop up in Ulysses, where a jarvey is a hackney coach driver – but I think you get my drift.
I’m not sure what my dad would have made of my writing. I certainly don’t think he would have called it shite. I like to believe he’d have approved. He definitely would have enjoyed the invective aimed in the present piece at the great Satan – Thatcher. Now that would have caused him to smile.
I’ll end with a quotation from my comrade Bertolt Brecht. Although I’ve half a mind to leave it in the original German, I’ll translate it for you:
Art isn’t a mirror held up to reality; instead
it’s a hammer with which to shape it.
That metaphorical hammer makes me think of the figure of Wayland the Smith as well as Stephen Dedalus invoking the ‘old artificer’ at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
My dad would have understood the hammer.