Give Me Sand Before Gold: Working-Class Literature


Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1961)

Although I never doubted reading was a worthwhile pursuit, I didn’t develop an interest in literature until after I left school and could read merely for pleasure rather than out of obligation. My parents owned a few books when I was growing up, but none that my teachers would have considered “proper literature”, which was something I regarded with both reverence and suspicion. I was in college when I began seeking out all the books I presumed were required reading—that is to say, the sort that appear on “best of” lists. Although I enjoyed many of these they did little to challenge my view that literature was chiefly a medium for the middle classes. As much as I enjoyed reading Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, books such as Enduring Love, in which Ian McEwan devotes pages upon pages to detailing the sour dough bread lifestyle of the novel’s protagonist, convinced me to seek out fiction I could related to on a personal level. I wasn’t so much after gritty social realism as I was down-to-earth characters: not the typically dippy, cloth cap-wearing oafs that sometimes pop up in fiction, but believable working-class characters written by an author who actually understands working-class people.

The first book I read that sufficiently met this criteria was Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, a novel by Alan Sillitoe. It follows Arthur Seaton, a Nottingham bicycle factory worker who works all week and spends his Saturday nights at the local pubs. The post-war world Arthur inhabits—a world of factories, cobbled streets and back-to-back houses—no longer exists, though he is in many ways a timeless anti-hero: a typical angry young man, who enjoys fighting with drunken loudmouths and has little patience for his fellow workers with designs of “getting on”. He wants to have a good time, and a good time in his eyes is getting leathered on dark ale and carrying on with Brenda, an older woman and wife of Jack, his mate and fellow factory worker. Initially Arthur is delighted when Jack is put on the night shift, since he can now see Brenda without the fear of Jack finding out. Yet soon Arthur becomes bored with this arrangement. Seeking new thrills, he begins seeing Brenda’s sister, Winnie, and on one of his drunken night outs strikes up a fairly innocent relationship with a younger girl called Doreen.

Arthur’s hedonism is partly a response to the monotony of his life. He knows that he has no future beyond the factory, and having grown up in the shadow of WWII, he lives with the threat of new war. He doesn’t want to end up like others at the factory, who are subservient to an establishment that undervalues them, or like his father, who spends his nights watching the telly. Yet since he has few prospects (a symptom of his being working-class) he feels that conforming to the system he loathes is surely inevitable. Living in the post-war period, a time of unprecedented levels of prosperity for working-class people, he is fortunate in some respects. He earns a decent wage, and has led a far more privileged life than say, his parents, who are products of a desperate time. What troubles him more than anything is the status quo, the prospect of settling for what everybody around him has. Yet when his fast living catches up with him he is forced to contemplate doing just that.

Alan Sillitoe always maintained that the novel was not especially autobiographical. But since he actually worked in bicycle factory in Nottingham, it’s probably safe to presume Arthur’s thoughts and feelings on working-class life come from Sillitoe’s own experience. Having failed his 11-plus exams to go to grammar school, Sillitoe left school at 14; his father, who was violent and illiterate, was unsteady with his jobs, and the family often struggled for food. That Sillitoe was able to write such a self-assured debut novel as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, despite his difficult start in life, is nothing short of inspirational, though not exceptional. He emerged during the literary world’s brief flirtation with the working-class perspective, a flirtation that gave rise to a small group of talented working-class writers, including Stan Barstow, Keith Waterhouse, Shelagh Delaney and David Storey.

A Taste of Honey

A Taste of Honey (1961)

There had been working-class writers before them of course: the farm labourer turned poet, John Clare; Walter Greenwood, whose novel Love on the Dole explored unemployment in 1930s Salford; Jack Common, author of Kiddar’s Luck, a novel about Common’s own childhood growing up in Edwardian Tyneside. But Sillitoe and his contemporaries represented their own generation’s disillusionment with life in post-war Britain. Their work tackled many themes, though ultimately they became saddled with a reputation for being angry, and Sillitoe in particular became associated with the “Angry Young Men”, a group that though not strictly comprised of working-class writers tended to express solidarity with the British working class. John Osborne, a middle-class playwright, was the group’s central figure. His seminal play Look Back in Anger laid the foundations for what became known as kitchen sink realism, a movement that often depicted the domestic situations of working-class Britons and explored controversial social and political issues. It was the antithesis to the escapism of the previous generation’s so-called “well-made plays”.

Osborne’s company, Woodfall Film Productions, helped bring the working-class perspective to the masses. Its adaptation of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning utilised real Nottingham streets lined with back-to-back houses as opposed to purpose-built sets, and in Britain became the third most popular film of 1961. For the first time the British working class could watch their own lives depicted on screen. Films such as A Taste of Honey, adapted from Shelagh Delaney’s play of the same name, gave credence to the notion that working-class people deserved to be heard; that their emotions were as complex and valid as anybody else’s. No longer were they confined to supporting roles. In kitchen sink dramas they were the captivating central characters represented often by genuinely working-class actors such as Albert Finney and Tom Courteney.

In my opinion several kitchen sink dramas (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, A Taste of Honey, This Sporting Life) are some of the finest British films ever produced. My only criticism of the movement is that as the 1960s pressed on some of the films failed to move with the times—often, I suspect, because they were adapted from literature that had been written some years earlier. Young working-class people in the 1960s had fashion and youth culture; they had The Beatles and The Rolling Stones; they had, to an extent that their parents never did, access to small luxuries. Yet most kitchen sink dramas rarely reflected this, and several of the films feel formulaic in their approach to the source material.

Kitchen sink realism was not merely confined to the medium film of course. Since 1960, television viewers had been tuning into Coronation Street, the popular TV soap that depicted the lives of a working-class community in Salford, and by the end of the 1960s kitchen sink realism had assumed the form of the single play, regularly broadcast by the BBC as part of The Wednesday Play. Among the best plays featured in the series were Cathy Come Home and Up The Junction, both directed by Ken Loach, who shot in a drama documentary style that lent the plays a powerful feeling of authenticity. Loach used this style again for his landmark 1969 film Kes, about a working-class boy who, despite having few prospects and being routinely tormented by his older brother and classmates, finds temporary respite by training a wild kestrel. Shot on location in Barnsley and starring mostly local nonprofessionals, the film is a moving adaptation of the novel A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines, a working-class author who possessed a deep understanding of humanity. The media and in particular the British tabloid press often reduce the British working class to a repulsive stereotype—violent, wilfully ignorant, racist and incapable of complex emotional thought. Yet many of the working-class novelists who emerged in the ’50s and ’60s wrote with keen observation and sensitivity. A Kestrel for a Knave is an unflinching portrayal of domestic belligerence, but also a moving coming of age tale that firmly established Hines as an unpretentious writer who understood working-class people.


Kes (1969)

Although his later work never achieved quite the same level of success—understandably, perhaps, given the public’s fondness for Kes—Hines continued to demonstrate his compassion for the community in which he was raised, most notably in his TV drama The Price of Coal, about a Yorkshire colliery preparing for a visit by the Prince of Wales. Directed by Ken Loach, it was a vehicle for Hines to scrutinise class politics: while the colliery spend money on painting the offices and planting flowers, miners risk their lives because they are forced to work with faulty machinery. For Hines the story was personal. His grandfather had been a miner and had died in a pit accident. Hines knew the daily risks of mining and he also recognised in his community an unquestioned admiration for the authority, a tolerance of the bosses whose greed put miners in danger.

Of all the working-class authors I have read, a large percentage have come from or otherwise worked in mining communities. There must have been something about the prospect of having to go down the pit that inspired so many to take pen to paper—the feeling, perhaps, that each new day could be their last, or the overwhelming sense of being trapped in a community that depends on the success of one industry. In A Kestrel for a Knave and The Price of Coal readers can discover what it feels like to grow up living in the shadow of the pit. The same is true of the novels of Stan Barstow, another Yorkshire writer who wrote with compassion and warmth for the characters of his youth. Although best known for his novel A Kind of Loving, which is an unmitigated classic, I enjoy his short stories and have particular fondness for Gamblers Never Win, about a miner’s wife and the emotional abuse she endures from her ungrateful, self-centred husband. The story exists in a similar world—a world of rugged community spirit, but also of broken men and women—to the work of Sid Chaplin, a former miner from Shildon, County Durham, who championed the fortitude and generosity of community. He was in a sense a precursor of the working-class novelists of the ’50s and ’60; less indignant than those he influenced, he wrote with genuine passion and love for the North East of England, where he lived for the majority of his life.

Although the pit probably brings to mind very masculine images, much of Chaplin’s work features strong, resilient women—those who ran households, washed clothes, cooked, swept, scrubbed and supported their husbands and children through strikes and hard times. It is true all the same that most novels that fall into the bracket of working-class literature were not written by women. Coal, an otherwise enlightening anthology of stories and essays about mining, contains no contributions from women, and the kitchen sink realism of the ’50s and ’60s was an overwhelmingly male-led movement, with Shelagh Delaney being something of an anomaly. Ethel Carnie Holdsworth (1886–1962), a writer from Lancashire, was the first working-class woman in Britain to publish a novel. She started composing poetry while working as a winder at the St. Lawrence mill, a job she began at the age of thirteen, and between July and December of 1909 edited The Woman Worker magazine in London. As a novelist, she held a reputation among middle-class readers as a provincial writer of entertaining domestic dramas until the publication of her novel This Slavery, her first attempt to, in her words, “portray a horrible social struggle”. The novel was radical and unapologetic in its convictions, a condemnation of the life imposed on working-class women by an exploitative society. It is no longer in print and old copies are hard to come by—as is true of all ten of her novels—but clips of her journalism and poems are well worth seeking out.

Another early example of a novel written by a working-class woman is Clash, which was written by the Labour politician Ellen Wilkinson. Born in Manchester, the daughter of a cotton worker who became an insurance agent, Wilkinson served as Minister of Education in Clement Attlee’s 1945 government, but is best remembered for her prominent role in the 1936 Jarrow March, an organised protest against the unemployment and poverty suffered in the Tyneside town of Jarrow. Set against the backdrop of the 1926 general strike, Clash draws on Wilkinson’s own experiences from that time. It tells of a period of political chaos in which a Tory cabinet struggled to lead the country into an era of industrial modernisation; in which the Left failed to win votes or wage revolution; in which disillusionment was rife among an impoverished working class. Yet the novel is also a work of romantic fiction that depicts the clash between the career and personal relationships of the book’s central characters. Unlike This SlaveryClash is still print. It is an entertaining novel and historically important, too, for its vivid descriptions of the period and first-hand insight into contemporary attitudes on race, gender and class—attitudes that challenge the narrative that figures such as Churchill were “of the time” and not in fact fiercely reactionary.

Union Street by Pat Barker is another fervent, though altogether different, novel written by a working-class woman. Set in the North East, it centres on the life seven working-class women who differ greatly in age and circumstance, but are all stricken by poverty and struggle. If the book has a main character it is Kelly Brown, an eleven-year-old girl who after being raped becomes increasingly distrustful of adults and isolated from other children. Her story is handled by Barker with brutal honesty. It could easily have been a joyless, unrewarding novel if Barker did not have such a gift for writing dialogue and developing characters: she writes with humour and a deep compassion for working-class people, a compassion that is founded in personal experience. She was born in 1943, in Thornaby-on-Tees, in the North East of England. Her mother became pregnant with her “after a drunken night out while in the Wrens”, and subsequently, in an age in which illegitimacy was regarded with shame, Pat was raised as if her grandmother was her actual mother. The family was poor, but Pat was a keen reader and at the age of eleven won a place at grammar school. She began writing fiction in her mid-twenties. Her first three novels were never published, and by her own admission did not deserve to be because they were not written in her true voice. But Union Street was written in her true voice. It was her first attempt at writing a working-class novel, a work that did not apologise for its ruggedness, being deeply rooted in her upbringing. And for ten years Barker struggled to get it published.

The working-class perspective is underrepresented in fiction and always has been, but not because there is a paucity of working-class talent. Publishing is a middle-class industry that sells books primarily to middle-class readers. Although some might enjoying reading about the working-class perspective, the majority want to read books they can relate to. It is true that working-class people are less likely to read literature. Having grown up in a house in which books were by no means in abundance, I can attest to this, though I also feel that this would be different if society held a more egalitarian view of literature. I grew up believing that literature was something only the educated could understand and enjoy. I would have been comforted to know that there were people far less privileged than me who had written novels, and I’m not convinced that most working-class people are simply not interested in literature. From an early age they are forced by the curriculum to read stories that say little or nothing about their lives, and if they fail to engage with these stories then they reach the conclusion that all literature is impenetrable to the average person. That in any case was the conclusion I reached as a teenager. As a young man I reconsidered it, in part because my disdain for school was so intense that I began to suspect that school had been the problem all along, and not me.

While researching working-class literature for this essay, I came across an article on The Guardian website. It suggested that the demise of the working-class novelist is in part a result of the end of grammar schools, though I’m not sure this is true at all, since many working-class novelists of the past, including Alan Sillitoe, whom the author mentions several times, did not attend grammar schools. To my mind, the reasons why there are so few working-class novelists these days are easily identified. The country has changed considerably since Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was published. We no longer live in communities defined by a particular industry, and though class is still a major part of British life the structure of our class system is harder to pin down. Fewer people, including the extremely poor, work traditional blue collar jobs, so it’s hard to look at somebody and determine to which class they belong. Partly for this reason, the class system on the surface appears less oppressive than it once did, even though more people than ever before are struggling with debt and an extremely high cost of living. Mining communities had band halls and solidarity; today’s call centre workers and Amazon warehouse packers have no such thing. The stories told by television depict young working-class people as gleefully ignorant heavy drinkers with little dignity, while glorifying the more privileged actors, comedians and Bake-Off contestants as witty, good hearted and emotionally complex. Becoming a novelist in not an option for young working-class people in Britain. And I doubt in any case whether most publishers would be interested in stories told from a working-class perspective. In contemporary fiction the working class, if they are mentioned at all, are more often than not depicted as repulsive, unscrupulous scroungers (see Lionel Asbo: State of England, Martin Amis’s nightmare about an uncouth working-class man who, despite not having a wealthy novelist for a father, has more money than Amis does). There is no pride in being working class in an era that champions the pursuit of material wealth and home ownership above all else. In novels such as Shawnie, set in Knowle West in Bristol, near where I grew up, the working class is an underclass: a herd of thick degenerates for the reader to loathe. They are seldom the heroes in contemporary fiction. Rarely are they portrayed with dignity.

For a period in the 1950s and 1960s middle-class writers were keen to sound as if they had grown up in a back-to-back terrace house. Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Nell Dunn and Jeremy Sandford all adopted the voice of common people in the hope of producing exuberant, rugged fiction; but unlike Sid Chaplin or Pat Barker or Ethel Carnie they had privilege on their side: they could use it to their advantage when it suited them. That’s not to dismiss their talents in any way, but no working-class novelist has ever benefited from his or her standing in society, except in the sense that life experience tends to breed good stories. Being working class is not beneficial to the career of a novelist. Yet occasionally, against all odds, working-class novelists do break through the system. In the last couple of decades they have tended to be people of colour: Zadie Smith, Monica Ali, Courttia Newland, Andrea Levy and Hanif Kureishi. Britain is a multicultural society. There is more need than ever before for literature to represent underrepresented voices. But I have hope—hope that publishing industry will publish more fiction by working-class and ethnic minority writers, and hope in a generation of talented young people who can, if given the chance, tell the story of regular people.

“Sunday is the only day we have to live our lives. Out of the House of Bondage into the field of liberty.
They did well to allow us this one day in the week in which to have a taste of home—otherwise we should have broken loose long since. Once I saw a picture of the crucified Christ. That wan brow, and anguished look—you need not go into a picture gallery to see it. Stand at the gates of a cotton factory at the end of a summer’s day, and see the operatives trail out. The little half-timer by the loom, straining to reach—with thin hands throwing the shuttle, you may see it there.”

From The Home Life of Factory Workers (The Woman Worker), by Ethel Carnie

“Give me sand before gold, sea instead of champagne, and all the common things, like air, and wind, and clouds, and people.” 

– From The Day of the Sardine, by Sid Chaplin

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