Bookish Chat

Common People Edited By Kit De Waal – A Review

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Publisher: Unbound

Publication Date: 1st May 2019

I have read and thoroughly enjoyed Kit De Waal’s novels, My Name Is Leon and The Trick To Time, so when I saw that she was responsible for putting together a collection of essays, poems and memoir centred around the subject of being working class, I was VERY interested.

When Unbound offered me an advanced review copy I jumped at the chance to read and review it.  The front cover shows an illustrious list of 33 working class writers.  Names which jumped straight out at me were Lisa Blower, Cathy Rentzenbrink, Damian Barr and Louise Doughty.  I recently read and reviewed Lisa Blower’s short story collection It’s Gone Dark Over Bill’s Mother’s and absolutely loved it, so I was particularly eager to get to her piece (which I adored by the way!).

This collection kicks off with a poem called Tough by Tony Walsh (aka Longfellow) and this perfectly captured the tone of the book and set the scene for what was to follow impeccably.  I remember sitting next to my book trolley and just flicking through the book, not actually ready to sit down and read it yet but devouring that poem and re-reading it a couple of times to myself and thinking, in fact knowing, I was going to love the book.

What followed for me was an almost perfect reading experience which struck so many chords within me and sparked myriad memories of my childhood that I felt like I’d been transported back in time.  You see, I live in the North of England, had a working class upbringing and still consider myself to be working class. Many of the essays/memoir were centred around childhood and various aspects of working class life.

I can honestly say that bar one essay, (which I think went a little over my head!), each and every piece resonated in some way with me.  I found comparisons to draw with my own childhood or adult life, and if not, there was nuggets of emotion that chimed within me anyway.

I obviously can’t talk about every single story much as I’d love to (I know they aren’t ‘stories’ as such but I shall refer to them that way). But I will just mention a few to give you a feel for some of the subjects touched upon.

Don’t Mention Class by Katy Massey is the story of Katy’s childhood, growing up in Leeds as a half-caste child of a single parent who makes her living in the sex industry. Katy credits her education in marriage, sex, relationships and life in general to the various women who passed through her mothers brothel Aristotles. The idea that most people now in her adult life consider her to have ‘overcome’ her working class northern upbringing is fascinating given that Katy herself doesn’t see it as ‘overcoming’ at all, rather her childhood ‘constructed’ her. I love this sentiment.

Then we have Little Boxes by Stuart Maconie which details his childhood growing up on a purpose built housing estate. Warrens of alleyways, cut-throughs and entries linking blocks of houses together. Estate life with street names designed to give an air of intellect to the area, Keats Avenue, Eliot Drive, Blake Close, Milton Grove. This immediately brought back memories for me, having had grandparents who lived on one of these purpose built estates which they moved to when they were brand new in the early 60’s. Also with literary links Shakespeare Road, Stratford Gardens, Shottery Walks. There is a paragraph in this story which struck me as oh so true:

There is no point telling working class mums that you ‘had a nice lunch’ or ‘will grab something later’. They will not let you sit in the house without eating; food equals love in houses where hugs and kisses are still awkward currency

Peoples relationships with food was a subject being talked about at work one day and I happened to have Common People in my bag. I read the paragraph above out loud and so many people could identify with it.

One story which really sticks in my mind is The Funeral And The Wedding by Jodie Russian-Red. The idea that the only two occasions in life where the whole of a family gets together is either a funeral or a wedding. From deciding who’s wearing what, debating whether there will be a decent buffet, worrying about who’ll be there and whether there’ll be any tensions between so and so and you know who. Then of course there’s the slightly hungover debrief the next morning, the gossip, the scandal. It is of course entirely true that all extended family come together for these occasions and I’ve attended many a wedding and a funeral at our local working men’s club to identify. Again another piece of writing full of memories for me.

As I said, I can’t possibly talk about all the stories but between life in a high rise flat where most interactions with neighbours begin and end in the lifts, darts teams, nights out at the dog track and life growing up in the Stoke potteries, there is something for everyone here.

Obviously all the writing styles are different as you would expect but there is a common thread which binds them all together into one brilliant cohesive collection. The thread of working class honour, pride and determination. And not just that, also this idea that you can be from a working class background and be a writer, of course you can!

This is a beautifully curated collection and I can now fully stand by my bold tweet that the lovely Kit De Waal can do no wrong in my eyes.

Not only has this book stirred some lovely cherished memories it has given me a deep sense of working class pride. Pride in my family, my upbringing and the way I’m choosing to raise my own children, in the hope they have lots of cherished memories too.

I have spent time with some favourite writers and been introduced to some exciting, fresh new voices which I will absolutely go on to explore.

A stunning collection that I can’t recommend highly enough!

Thank you to Unbound and Becca Harper-Day for allowing me to read an advanced review copy. Thank you also to the lovely folk who crowdfunded the publishing of this book.

See you all soon.

Amanda – Bookish Chat. Xxx

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