I’ve been so busy running workshops, running the latest online course, planning the next course, going to National Poetry Day readings and catching up on unpaid work that I literally haven’t had a chance to look at my blog. Apologies if you’ve been on the edge of your seats waiting for it to fall into your inbox.
Today I want to celebrate someone working in the arts who grew up poor and not only over come all the obstacles, internal and external, associated with poverty but who is now using her platform as a successful working class writer to make sure the industry knows that it’s time to change.
I’m talking about the brilliantly talented writer, Kerry Hudson. If you don’t follow her on social media, ( @ThatKerryHudson ) you should, because she’s funny, articulate and is one of those people who enriches lives. All this might sound a bit arse kissy, but I am of the opinion that good people should be celebrated, and Kerry has taken a few unwarranted kickings lately. Kerry is a hero of mine. I’ve been social media friends with her for a while and have worked with her on the womentoring project for a few years, something which I have gotten so much out of and I know that countless women have benefitted from. She’s that sort. She doesn’t just sit on her laurels in an ‘I’ve made it out of the pit, yay’ manner, she reaches back down into the pit and hauls other people out too.
Kerry Has been writing a book, and writing for The Pool about her experiences and her background, and the difficulties faced by working class writers trying to be writers. This week I watched Kerry take a completely unwarranted and vicious beating on social media, all because she’d been asked to write an opinion piece on which working class writers to watch out for: Where are all the Working Class Writers . The title is definitely a bit click baitish, but the article itself is just a light opinion piece. So I was astonished when so many writers, including well known writers with large twitter followings, jumped on Kerry to tell her she was wrong. Why was she wrong? Because they were successful, so any working class writer could be successful.
It’s such a sweeping genralisation. There is no one rule for all the working classes. It’s not just about what you do for a living, or what your parents did for a living, it’s not even wholly about the amount of money you make in a year, it’s much more complicated than that and a lot to do with the social stigmas attached to being working class and working in an arena which is dominated by the middle classes. Art and literature are for everyone, art doesn’t belong to one sector of society, but it’s much easier to break into the arts and much less stigmatised in your own community if you’re not working class.
To watch working class writers attacking working class writers because they were trying to shine a light on working class writers doesn’t even make any sense. And whilst it’s great and I’m glad some working class writers have made it to the top, there is absolutely no avoiding the fact that being working class DOES throw more obstacles in your path.
I identify as working class, I always have. My family didn’t live in poverty, but we did get a lot of our clothes and toys second hand, we couldn’t afford holidays, we never had the latest stuff, we didn’t eat out, we relied on the library for books (thank god we have libraries) my parents worked hard and we never went without, but I did get picked on a bit at primary school for it. I mostly grew up around working class people. I come from a seaside town with high unemployment (because jobs are only available half the year) and a high drugs mortality and suicide rate. The running joke is that Scarborough is 43 miles from England, it’s out on the edge and rural in location, surrounded by the dales, the wolds and the moors. I still live in this area and I am very proud of my working class roots and my working class family and my little home town. But I can’t, for example, afford to travel from Scarborough to England very often, I do have a monthly allowance for readings and such like, but it doesn’t stretch very far unfortunately. Which means promoting my work becomes difficult and so does taking work in other areas. Monetary problems aren’t a solely working class problem, but you are much, much more likely to be on a low income if you’re working class and much more likely to be lacking routes to financial help.
Also, being working class isn’t so much about where you come from, it’s a lot about never feeling you are meant to do anything outside of your class. I have three degrees which I completed mostly through distance learning. When I came to do my PhD I really struggled with confidence. I hadn’t gone to do A levels after school, I’d gone and got a job like just about everyone I knew, and that meant I didn’t really get to my university education until I was in my thirties, and doing the PhD meant that I was around people who had climbed academia from the inside. I’m certain that they have struggled to fund their living expenses while they studied, and I wouldn’t dream of belittling their experiences, but I don’t think they fully comprehended what being on your feet all day in a cake factory could be like or working in a shop or in a printing factory, or working in a hospital working all your breaks and feeling like the government wants to crush you. I struggled with huge imposter syndrome and still do. I ‘m a writer now, I worked very hard, but finding work is difficult because funding for art tends to be less available in the north, which means jobs in the arts are less available here, and tend to fall into the areas where arts and culture is already established. I also can’t afford to subscribe to the journals or societies of my trade and I struggle to afford to enter competitions, a lot of the time, those avenues to success are closed to the working classes, and if journals ask for payment to submit, more doors close. This isn’t meant to be a whine to elicit sympathy, I work hard and I am slowly, slowly getting to where I want to be. I’m happy, for the most part, with where I am in my career. But I wish I didn’t carry my class around like a big sign that says ‘I am not worthy’. So much of the work I’m offered I am expected to do for free, or for ‘exposure’ (I tried to pay my mortgage with exposure and they called the police) which again means that writers who need the money to survive have these opportunities closed to them, and because working class writers, as I’ve already said, are less likely to be able to find financial stability in the form of spouses, family or funding to support working for nothing, essentially, they miss out, or they’re like me, working seven days a week to be able to fit paid work and unpaid work in because they’re trying to forward their career.
When I mentor working class writers through the womentoring programme, I generally have to start with a basis of ‘your work is important, you have just as much to say as anyone else’. Which is sad. Working class writers are prone to low self esteem and a feeling of being an outsider, no matter how hard they work.
When the working classes are portrayed in dramas and literature and art it’s often through the lens of gritty ‘reality’. I’d like to see a more normalised version of working class life being portrayed. Not just the ‘my coal miner dad is going to kill me because I want to be a ballet dancer’ type story lines but more of the ‘it is normal to buy your shopping in a supermarket and carry it home on a bus without it being the precursor to a story of drugs/violence/both story line’. I’d like to see more representation of people like me, and the people I know who love art and literature too. Incidentally, I think Happy Valley is quite a nice one for capturing normal working classes alongside the drama. And I’m dead chuffed that the new Dr. Who is a northern lass too, but that’s by the by.
Kerry wrote this article in response to the backlash she received and, true to form, she writes clearly and eloquently, finding the crux of the problem in the divisions within the industry itself. There is a great deal of shame attached to being working class, and a lot of chips on shoulders. It would be nice to move away from that.
Please do check out Kerry’s work, she is an incredible writer and an all round good person. It’s good to celebrate these things.