On Class and Writing a Novel

I’ve never really worried about class. When the historian EP Thompson wrote of class as a “very loosely defined body of people who share the same congeries of interests, social experiences, traditions and value-system, who have a disposition… to define themselves in their actions and in their consciousness in relation to other groups of people in class ways” he went on to conclude that “class itself is not a thing, it is a happening.”

This is class not as a fixed state but a series of interactions. A mutable condition, you might say. And it suited me fine. Because – like many people I knew – I didn’t have a fixed state.

On my dad’s side, I’m working class. My great granddad worked in an abattoir and punched cows for a living. My dad spent twenty years as a teacher but ended his working life as a porter at a college. He was also a barman and a county standard darts player. On my mum’s side (note the spelling), I’m middle class. Her dad was a vicar. She was a full-time parent and occasional part-time cleaner or clerical worker. She sang with the Birmingham Choral Union.

So far, so muddled. And the situation becomes less clear. I passed the eleven plus and went to a grammar school, from which I was expelled, at the age of 12, for bad maths. (I opened a book on a fight in the playground. Got the odds wrong, couldn’t cover the bets I took.) At 16 I left school to work in the fish market on a Youth Training Scheme. I’ve since laboured, skivvied, gimped and driven forklifts, remained unbeaten at league pool, ignored football, watched rugby,  saved no savings,  travelled nearly everywhere I’ve been by bus, enjoyed mushy peas (non-voyeuristically) and bored for Blighty on the subject of the fifth taste. To my Desert Island, I would take at least three recordings of Mozart piano compositions by Mitsuko Uchida. I read Litro.

I am mixed class then. Half-classed. Multi-social. And I liked being like this. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I had my moments. Down the pub I was sometimes looked at with suspicion, as though I should be at a dinner party. At dinner parties, I could be sniffed at. As a consequence it’s safe to say – as I would in certain pubs and at certain dinner parties – that my experience of class had left me a well-balanced individual. That is to say, someone with a chip on each shoulder. But the chips were small. I wasn’t weighed down. And there were consolations. Points to be made. Working in a shop at just-about-minimum-wage, someone once asked me for a biography of Wagner. “That’s spelt with a W,’’ he said. “I know,” I said. “I read something about him once. By that, oh whatsisname? Adorno. That’s it. Theodore Adorno.” Similarly, my time on building sites had left me comfortable with the tests of tribal loyalty that invariably coloured the notoriously awkward seventh hour of an all day city centre session.

On balance then, the problems I encountered were little more than a series of peeves: if class was a happening, it meant I could flit between middle and working as the mood took me, or circumstances demanded. I was free to enjoy a consequence-free dally with the idiosyncrasies of their respective cultural traits. Class didn’t matter.

Then I started to write a novel. And things changed. Suddenly the game was up. Down the pub, the mistrust increased: “you’re writing a what?”; at dinner parties, the snobbery intensified: “it’s published by who?” I’d be asked what my book was about and reply variously: “Road protesters. You know. Do you remember Swampy?”; “a satirical look at the century of the self”; “a book about partying”; “a sort of bildungsroman”. Sometimes I’d get my answers mixed-up and the disingenuousness of my response would result in a humiliating eyes-down slug of Guinness or five grape Rioja.

Of greater concern was the impact of class on my prose. Who I was, where I was coming from, and where I belonged – all had implications for what I was actually putting on the page. Because whilst no novelist worth his potatoes writes with an eye to how he’s going to be received, every single novelist worth his potatoes writes with an eye to how he’s going to be received. He has to. This isn’t about creative timidity. It’s not about setting out to produce fiction that might sell or abasing yourself before the tyranny of the literature of recognition. It’s about communication. It’s about establishing external points of reference, without which the novelist is just sitting in the corner of a room, muttering.

To reach people, a writer needs to draw on his experiences. I had many. But how would I communicate them? I planned to include allusions and sub-culturally specific come-hithers. Would anyone get them? I fancied the idea of using deliberately misquoted quotations, attributed to the wrong people. Who would pick up on these and recognise them as the works of character-driven genius they were? Pastiche, near-plagiarism, homage – all were modes of expression I hoped to employ. Get them wrong and most people wouldn’t have the faintest idea what I was trying to say: to get them right I needed to wrestle with people’s receptiveness to particular signifiers. Which meant, of course, wrestling with my readers’ reading habits, their upbringing and their education. Which meant, of course, wrestling with class.

Similar questions arose during the writing of my second novel. In it, a character who is a dedicated booknut will only read writers who make him “think or feel differently about life.” The authors he chooses – for reasons that need not detain us here – are presented in the form of a list. But who should I include? Irvine Welsh or Katherine Mansfield? Ann Quin or Henry Sutton? John Fante or Richard Brautigan? Jim Crace or Stewart Home?

It was a tricky decision. I was trying to communicate my experience and each of these writers had made me think or feel differently about life. I could have truthfully listed them all. But would anyone buy into such a mixed shelf of influences? Any suggestion of disingenuousness – any indication that I was hedging my bets – and the character’s motivations, his behaviours, his reasons-to-be might be rendered fatally implausible. My writing would be looked at with suspicion, sniffed at. Could I take the chance? Or was the time for flitting past? Was it time to nail something to the page?

And if so, what? A character inspired by Irvine Welsh and Stewart Home, by John Fante and Henry Sutton would – however unintentionally – reach the reader as a different animal from one who got his kicks from Katherine Mansfield, Ann Quin, Richard Brautigan and Jim Crace. It was a choice that was – once again – inescapably loaded with class.

In considering the relationship of my writing to my readers, I began to realise that I may have been deluding myself. Maybe class wasn’t something you could dally with, at least inconsequentially.  It mattered. I also saw that perhaps EP Thompson had got it wrong with his “happenings”. The way in which class is implicated in – and underscored by – how we respond to the books we read, suggests it may be a little less fluid than this. It might even be a thing.

Read at Litro