Monday, 25 October 2010

Literature is for posh people

So an acquaintance said to me after he had come to hear Hugo Williams and I read at The Bicycle Shop. 'I'm a working class boy,' he says. 'Literature is not for me.'

Well, Hugo is Eton and glamorous in a sort of Bohemian theatrical top-notch sort of way, and if you're feeling sensitive about these things, then he is just a toff, and writes toff literature, because literature is for toffs.

It wasn't always like this, of course. The great project at the beginning of the 20th century - the WEA project, the Everyman project, the Penguin project - was to bring litterachewer to the masses, because litterachewer was not simply a class signifier, but the written experience of being human, and that written experience had been denied those without education. Certainly it carried its class origins with it, just as it carried its gender, ethnicity, and personal genes, but then educated people die too. They too are born, get sick, lose people, fall desperately in love, are disappointed in love, cheat and are cheated, grow old, wet themselves, and go ga-ga. The fact that they had eddication doesn't prevent the human cycle running them over. The human cycle is the great leveller.

The best most terrifying poem about ageing is by Hugo Williams. When I Grow Up is savage and funny and sad. It is not the poem of an Old Etonian. It is the poem of a man contemplating indignity and death. It is not litterachewer, it's a poem, and, frankly, class doesn't come into it at the point of contact.

There's no point in choosing your reading on the basis of social rank alone. Don't tell me that a working class boy is beyond litterachewer, that it's all posh talk and nothing to do with him. To think that is to bring shame to your class. Read John Clare, read Robert Bloomfield, read Blake, read Rosenberg, read Harrison. Read bloody Lord Byron! Don't just stand there, looking gormless and cross. Read something! You might learn something!


Diane said...

Am very pleased you wrote this, George. I had tried to make the same points to the same person (on email) and completely failed. You have now succeeded.

Poet in Residence said...

Well, I've just listened to Hugo reading his poem on your link and I must say it terrified me. I don't know if it terrified God. Perhaps not.

There's no class when it comes to poems. Poems stand or fall by themselves. It's what's in them that counts.

George, is this eccentric view of poetry as an upper crust pastime, like going to the opera or ballet, a sign of a uniquely English psychosis that you highlight? The Americans don't appear to have it, or for that matter the French, the Germans, the Scots, the Welsh, the Irish etc., etc. almost ad infintum

panther said...

Have to take issue with you, Poet in Residence, when you say "there is no class when it comes to poems." A poet cannot eradicate his/her class any more than he/she can eradicate gender. I do agree with you and George broadly, though, that poems (and other art forms) are about life, the human cycle, the great whirligig which we all get caught up in.

George S said...

I recognise the complexity, intensity and sheer weight of class consciousness in England. Nothing seems to bring out a greater sense of hostility. Us and the bosses. Us and the toffs.

In one important way it is a compliment to those who feel it most intensely, in that it reflects a desire for justice. At the same time it is as atavistic as tribal loyalty. You only have to consider sport to see how strong tribal loyalty is, how focused, how formal, how it employs available energies bred and concentrated out of frustration and anger, and gives them an occasion.

I feel like an old fashioned humanist in arguing for art as an area - not entirely unbound - but only partially bound by class.

England is fascinating from a semi-outsider's point of view. There are great repressed furies here which have made the army into a much feared fighting force. They are the same furies that propose passion, loyalty and self-sacrifice as the highest values in - to return to that crucible of social forms - sport.

Sport and art are not different, alien worlds. Sport, one might argue, has become (maybe has long been) the art of the non-literary classes. Art, then, is the sport of the literary classes. But passion, loyalty etc have historically tended to make one camp reject the other. In that antagonistic world one is 'posh', the other 'vulgar'.

This is, I am aware, a crude distinction. I expect the more sophisticated answer might lie in English history - in Protestantism (mind / body, posh / vulgar), in the early industrial revolution, in the lack of an actual revolution, in the latitudinarianism of the English establishment, church and authority, also known as as the gift for advantageous compromise that others, at the receiving end, perceive as perfidy (cf Perfidious Albion).

Maybe it is frustrated rebellion: suspicion and hatred of untouchable latitudinarian privilege. That's my best guess, anyway. The problem with that position is: no bath water, no baby. You end up throwing everything out because you trust neither.

Poet in Residence said...

Hello panther, I must apologise for sloppiness. I was in a hurry as I always am. George is by now quite used to it and forgives me. (I hope you are and do!)

What I really meant to say when I said "there's no class when it comes to poems" is exactly that but from from the point of view of the "acquaintance in the Bicycle Shop" as we may from hereon call "the man on the number 7 bus" (or whatever no. bus it was).

We don't expect English poets to throw their Englishness out of the proverbial window but I think the poets have a right to expect the audience, the acquaintance in the Bicycle Shop" to appreciate the poems for the poetry that's in them. for the poems that they are, and not for the reason that they come either from Eton College or the Ragged School.

I often think that writers who live not on their native soil have some advantage, if only because they at a distance can see the wood and the trees, over those writers who remain at home. Auden (USA and Austria), Lawrence (France, Germany, Mexico), Joyce (Italy, France, Switzerland), Hemingway (France, Spain) etc., etc..

Of course, there are always exceptions. But, to get back to the sport metaphor, the footballer let's say John Charles as he's Welsh like me would never have risen to the heights had he remained in Wales instead of going to Italy, but the football supporter or the fan that's another story. They are the audience in the bicycle shop. They have have their fixed points of view. These are written in blood. Maybe even in stone. I hope not.

The Plump said...

The greatest - and I mean greatest - piece of social history that I have ever read is about the autodidact tradition and the working class love of literature. It is a history of reading. The only thing that is not gripping is the title, "The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes".

Read it and then throw away your class stereotypes.

(And George, there is a chapter heading you might recognise - A General Theory of Rubbish)

George S said...

Plump, I have done the obvious thing. I have ordered it. Beacons of hope.

So that's where General Will got his insignia!

George S said...

A poet cannot eradicate his/her class any more than he/she can eradicate gender. I do agree with you and George broadly, though, that poems (and other art forms) are about life...

I like that 'though'!

What did I actually say, Panther?

[Litterachewer] carried its class origins with it, just as it carried its gender, ethnicity, and personal genes

My one qualification to that was: ...litterachewer was not simply a class signifier

Which part of what I am saying are you disagreeing with, the part that earns the 'though'? Not so grudging with that 'though' please :)

James said...

Seconding the Plump: one of the most cheering books.

Despite it, there IS also an anti-intellectual English tradition in all parts of society (I wanted to say to your bloke who didn't think poetry was for him that the Queen, as a girl, is supposed to have had "The Wasteland" read to her and Margaret by Eliot himself - and is reported to have laughed both at it and him).

So also throw in Alfred Williams "Life in a Railway Factory" (1912)which, as well as being one of the best accounts of factory life written by someone whom factory life damn near killed, is a horse's mouth account of what being an autodictat in pre-WW1 times could actually be like. (AW collected folk songs and traditions in a way to rival Percy Grainger, built his own house, and taught himself Greek and Latin during his work hours in the boiler shop).