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Issue 33, December 1998

Working-class Fiction: from Chartism to `Trainspotting'

By Ian Haywood, Northcote House (in association with the British Council), 1998, 8-99
Reviewed by Victor Paananen

WHEN I MENTIONED to a fellow Socialist at a meeting in London that I was teaching a course in working-class fiction, he replied that he hoped that I would tell the students about working-class reality too.

One of the many strengths of Ian Haywood's Working-class Fiction is that it does keep working-class reality very much in view. In the front of the book there is a five page chronology of events in working-class and socialist history that also keeps an eye on economic developments as well.

In fulfillment of Ian Haywood's conviction that "the most productive context for enjoying and interpreting working-class fiction is within a labour movement and political tradition", each chapter opens with detailed discussion of the phase in the history of British labour struggle which produced the fiction that he will examine.

To say, however, that working-class reality needs first to be acknowledged, does make one wonder why that reality should be rendered as fiction at all, particularly when the novel is defined by bourgeois conventions. As Haywood notes, by the time working-class people started to write fiction, "the British novel was deeply biased against reflecting a working-class perspective on society". The Chartist novelist Thomas Cooper "understood that nineteenth-century realism reflected a bourgeois view of the world, with property and marriage the driving force of most storylines". If DH Lawrence in Sons and Lovers does not need to expand the conventions of the novel to include industrial struggle and solidarity it is because his novel is written to say good-bye to working-class origins, and affirm, as Haywood says, "bourgeois individualism" (p21).

On the other hand, Robert Tressell in The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists must re-invent the novel so that it will be about a class as well as an individual, depict actual work, and incorporate teaching chapters about socialism. When a novel reaches a working-class readership as successfully as Tressell's did, it becomes an interpretation of reality that can begin to change it.

Working-class fiction can then fill an important role by contesting ruling-class notions about what does constitute reality. Education in Britain, including of course the education provided for the working-class, has been and remains predominantly a literary education - not the Greek and Latin classics that were once the rites of passage for ruling class youth, but 'English Literature'.

  Reading, including the reading of fiction, has been an avenue to truth approved by the dominant class in society ever since the English Revolution (when the Puritans insisted that the Bible be available to all). Socialists, including especially socialist teachers, have a special obligation to see that books depicting working-class life are read. It is encouraging that Barry Hines's Kestrel for a Knave, a book that Haywood writes well about, is now among the most read books in schools. Similarly, it is gratifying to see that Haywood's book is part of the Writers and Their Work series that has the support of the British Council behind it.

If working-class fiction demands that work itself be acknowledged - as it is not in, for instance, a Jane Austen novel - that can only be done if the characteristic work-related moments in the lives of ordinary people are described.

Haywood identifies the scenes that occur again and again in novels over the decades - the first day at work, in the factory or down the pit; then the routine of rising early to go to work, 'proletarian dawn', as Haywood names it - as well as strikes, periods of unemployment, and accidents at work. If education is based on books denying these realities, it is productive of illusions about life under capitalism.

The reality captured by working-class fiction can of course make the ruling classes uncomfortable. For instance, the British government refused to allow a film version of Walter Greenwood's 1933 novel Love on the Dole until 1941.

Meanwhile, the Communist Party of Great Britain was similarly aware of the potential power of working-class fiction and encouraged its production - while opposing modernist experimentation and holding party authors to support of the party line. Novels could be critical of the non-Communist leadership of working-class organizations in the ultra-left 'class-against-class' period, before the change to a popular front policy at the Seventh Congress of the Communist International in 1935, but not afterwards.

Haywood has done an outstanding job of finding the working-class novels of all periods, most of which are unfortunately out-of-print. It is extremely valuable for future work to know, for instance, which novels to read for scenes from the General Strike of 1926.

Readers will differ in their estimation of the individual novels. I find Lewis Jones's We Live (1939) a novel of lasting power even if not perfectly executed. The claustrophobic descriptions of the underground life in the dark for miners during a stay-down strike; the exultant moment when the women take more militant action against the local council than the men had envisioned; Mary's assumption of the leadership in party work; the exhilaration of demonstrations and marches - all these are scenes that can still inspire activists. That the hero dies in Spain in service of Stalinist efforts to prevent revolution adds a historical irony which is rendered tragic by the knowledge that Jones also died in the year of the novel's publication, because of his work for Spain.

  Haywood makes a convincing case for Room at the Top as one of the important novels of the post-war boom period, alongside the customary Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Pat Barker's Union Street, a book about the shared identity that women feel, gains additional depth from being brought into the tradition that Haywood studies. There are, however, so many important - and generally neglected - authors that Haywood discusses in his short book of only 178 pages, that a brief review can only name a few other authors, about whom Haywood's book must be consulted, that is (alphabetically): Stan Barstow, Walter Brierley, Sid Chaplin, Allen Clarke, Len Doherty, Nell Dunn, Buchi Emecheta, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, James Hanley, Margaret Harkness, Harold Heslop, David Storey, Ellen Wilkinson.

Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh's picture of urban youth in the 1990s, rounds out this history. Its success in the cinema serves to remind us that in this century film has often successfully challenged the privileged interpretative function previously granted to print. Since Love on the Dole - once permission for shooting was finally granted - working-class films have, both as adaptations of novels like Kes or Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, or in the original work of directors like Ken Loach, brought new resources to the depiction of what is, after all, the class struggle and the prime agent of history.


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