Sunday, 27 January 2013

A class act

On Saturday in Nottingham there was a Five Leaves' event in support of the Saturday Night and Sunday Morning photographic exhibition in Nottingham. Over 100 people attended the half day discussion on "Alan Sillitoe, then and now" which focussed on issues of class. Six locally born working class writers - Peter Mortimer, Derrick Buttress, Elain Harwood, Nicola Monaghan, Alan Fletcher and Matthew Welton - discussed issues raised by the exhibition, working class culture in Nottingham, Alan Sillitoe's legacy and the influence of Alan's work, and Nottingham, on their own writing. Peter Mortimer set the scene in describing his own upbringing, among other things describing how his father tried to modify his accent as he moved from factory floor to golf club membership, trying to become middle-class. Derrick Buttress, now in his eighties, talked primarily about the first twenty-five years of his adult life during which he worked in a total of twenty factories, turning up at WEA evening classes in his boiler suit to find he was the only Worker there. Until then class gradations were within his class - those who had cars, those who worked in the pits - not between the working class and  middle class people ("We didn't know any - apart from teachers, doctors and factory owners - who we had nothing to with"). At school he'd been told that he'd never make anything of himself as was the case with Nicola, brought up on the same Broxtowe Estate. Except in her case this was in the 70s and 80s. She took great pleasure in sending the teacher who told her this a signed copy of her first novel. More astonishing was the story of Elain Harwood. Though she was there to show architectural slides about places of working class culture - football grounds, pubs, cinemas - she said that at her workplace (English Heritage) someone had suggested she take elocution lessons.
Returning to Sillitoe, Alan Fletcher drew out the similarities between Arthur Seaton and Mod culture, the subject of his three novels, when there was full employment and young people had money in their pocket, to be spent on dressing up well and on having a good time at the weekends. Alan and Peter Mortimer both have two pictures in the exhibition - Alan of Mods, of course, and Peter of a lads' day out in the Nottingham-on-sea resort of Skegness.
Matthew Welton concentrated on Alan Sillitoe's poetry and in the subsequent discussion began to raise issues of how the publishing industry is changing, allowing more and more people to write, in different ways, without the filter of publishers. He remarked that writers might get much smaller advances, but more people can now be writers.
A speaker from the audience - in discussing the future of working class writing - said that it was not working class writing that has vanished, but writing from the point of view of the industrial working class. Nicola agreed, saying that we still live in a world where some people control the means of production and others work for them and there is no reason why there can't be a great call centre novel. Peter Mortimer - ultimately agreeing with Alan Sillitoe's view that there is no working class writing, there is simply writing - argued that the writing that is important, and any subject can provide material.
The Saturday Night and Sunday Morning exhibition continues until February 10th. So far over 80,000 people have attended, a fantastic achievement for the Lakeside gallery.
I was pleased to organise this event, and to chair it. For me class - and the discussions around it - sit at the heart of my politics, my response to my reading and much of my thinking yet I rarely hear issues of class debated at book festivals and the like, but when the issue does arise it is rare to see a line up entirely made up of working class writers. Not that people all agreed with each other, but it was good to feel on home territory. 

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