Yesterday I found an interesting item of news on Facebook. It was about an article featured in the Bookseller, announcing that a working class writers’ festival was being planned for 2020. It is being organised by a Cornish writer called Natasha Carthew and it seemed to me to be both admirable and necessary. It provoked a lively exchange, some writers welcoming it and seeing the need for it, others aggrieved that we should be discussing class at all because as one said, ‘We are all the same now.’ I wish! So here’s my sevenpenn’orth – for what it’s worth.
I have been a published author for the last thirty two years and my thirtieth novel is currently with my agent, so I’ve had plenty of opportunity to observe what happens in the publishing world and to wonder why it does. One thing was obvious right from the start and that was that the big publishers were only interested in a novel if they thought it would earn good money for them. Fair enough. But it wasn’t long before I also became aware of other things too, one of them being how snobbish and superior some of the Oxbridge crowd could be.
My new agent, who had not only discovered me but had got me a staggering advance for my first book, took me to lunch in a prestigious restaurant to get to know me. In the course of the meal, he quizzed me about my education and asked if I’d gone to university. I told I him I had – with some pride because it was a relatively rare thing for anyone at my grammar school to have done. And he pressed for details. ‘What college?’ I told him King’s College London, again with pride. His answer brought me down with a bump. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Poor you!’ London University plainly wasn’t good enough. He’d gone to Cambridge.
Two weeks later I was taken to lunch in a seedy café by two of the young Turks from the publishing house, pretty girls with long blonde hair, false eyelashes and upper class accents. They didn’t have much to say to me, they were too busy polishing their own egos. They compared the colleges they’d attended, both Oxbridge needless to say, and spent the rest of the meal pulling one of the company’s star earners to shreds. Her name was Lena Kennedy and she was a huge best seller, who wrote stories about the East End where she’d grown up – a bit like ‘Call the Midwife’ and good strong stuff. But one of the young Turks had been given the job of line editing her latest book and she was scathingly critical of it. ‘You should have seen her spelling!’ she said, and she gave her friend some examples, screaming with laughter. Then she turned her attention to Lena’s grammar and tore that apart too, while her friend enjoy the mockery. I listened and thought how arrogant and self-satisfied and unkind they were. And how inaccurate. The grammatical ‘errors’ they were mocking were examples of perfectly grammatical East End speech but they didn’t know such a language existed. Class prejudice again.
From then on I was careful to keep my opinions to myself and do as I was told, more or less. But I gradually became aware of how often upper and upper middle class writers only wrote about their own class. The working class didn’t seem to exist in their world. There was the occasional butler who spoke in carefully smooth butler-speech and various servants and underlings who said ‘yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir’, but the raw speed and power of working class speech was missing. To find that you had to read popular working class writers like Lena Kennedy, Catherine Cookson, Maeve Binchy, Gilda O’Neill and our superlative and working class Charles Dickens. Even more significantly, none of the modern working class writers appeared on the list for any prizes beyond that run by the Romantic Novelists Association, and they were spoken of rather scathingly as ‘women’s fiction’. I certainly never found any put up for the Booker Prize and I checked it every year. There were times when I used to think that all the good people who worked in the great publishing houses simply couldn’t see us. Or was it that they couldn’t hear us.
Recently, as the class war has got steadily more powerful and vicious, I’ve been watching the antics of our obscenely rich rulers and noticing how difficult it is for them to make any sort of contact with the men and women who are not multi-millionaires of their own class. I noticed that, although Jeremy Corbyn went there at once to commiserate and listen and offer what comfort he could, Theresa May never visited the people of Grenfell. She doesn’t seem able to communicate with anyone except a small and specially selected group of followers. You never see her addressing a huge crowd. Perhaps she doesn’t know what to say.
So strength to your arm Natasha Carthew. It’s time working class writers stood up on their strong working class feet and spoke loud and clear in their strong working class voices. The powerful, mega-rich elite have been side-lining us for far too long. Maybe the time has come for them to recognise that we are human just like them, all of us different and individual – we are not all the same – and all of us with something valuable to say about out human condition.
‘Rise like lions after slumber’, fellow writers. I will help in any way I can, Natasha, and God willing I will see you in 2020.