Don't mention the word class! The theft of working-class culture
Monday, 22 October 2018 14:28

Don't mention the word class! The theft of working-class culture

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock exposes the hypocrisy, classism and elitism in contemporary liberal attempts to edit, erode and police working-class participation in the arts, and she calls for the radical, systematic democratisation of culture.

Here she goes again!

Over the last few months I have been asked to contribute to or participate in four separate projects exploring working-class creativity and voice. Being the Millwall FC of the London poetry circuit (no one likes me, no one likes me, no one likes me, I don’t care) it’s a rare pleasure to be taking part in anything, but these projects are exciting in very particular and important ways, in that they are conceived and driven by working-class people, and that they extend the possibility of an expanded and polyvocal concept of community. This is timely. And it matters to me enormously on a personal as well as a political level. It should matter to you too.

It’s timely, and it matters because the old rhetorics of representation and cultural inclusivity have often led to a selectively edited picture of working-class identity in literature and the arts; a situation in which one or two – usually white, usually old, usually male – voices become icons and ambassadors for a complex network of cultures and experiences. To give a recent example close to my heart: it didn’t matter shit one to me that Simon Armitage became Oxford Chair of Poetry. Nothing against Simon Armitage, as a poet or a person; he’d more than earned his right to be there as far as I’m concerned. What is troubling about his appointment is the way in which it has been uncritically trumpeted as a triumph of working-class representation. And it’s not, it’s really not. A post-war northern male version of working-classness is one of the few acceptable faces of working-class identity permitted to proliferate across mainstream media platforms. This is deliberate: the poetry’s distance from the material realities it describes presupposes and encodes a nostalgia, a looking back that defuses potential threat (social or poetic), softens the language of experience, and makes safe what might otherwise be challenging to the cultural status-quo.

Don't mention the word class!

This creates a dangerous situation, and here I think about something that the trade union leader and activist Bob Crow once said in response to a shitty tabloid heckle about how his taking a holiday in France was somehow antithetical to his left-wing politics and his working-class “credentials”. What do you want? Crow asked, for me to spend my holidays crouched under a bridge reading Das Kapital? This makes us laugh, but it’s also telling about the bind in which working-class cultural creators continually find ourselves: expected to conform to and to constantly perform a very narrow, very specific version of working-class identity. Power elites pick their icons and ambassadors with care, using them as standards against which to weigh, measure and validate our authenticity. We are expected to relentlessly enact somebody else’s idea of what we should be. And if we’re not being and doing that, then we are found to be “inauthentic”, we are dismissed, and our exclusion from any meaningful cultural conversation about class is effectively engineered.

This matters, because the people traditionally holding the purse strings, controlling the presses; the people responsible for funding us and publishing us, are the same power elites who decide what constitutes a valid working-class voice, and an acceptable working-class identity. Arts Council England, for example, has nothing to gain from supporting people and projects who challenge or threaten their traditional business model, and most major publishers are wary of a working-class poetics that openly and explicitly acknowledges the politics of its own oppression. To have your work “out there” in any meaningful sense, to secure the invaluable financial assistance by which a creative project lives or dies, is to accept that your work, and that you, as a person, will be mediated, filtered and enmeshed, by and in the machinery of a grossly unequal hierarchy. By this method we are compromised. We tailor and shape our voices and ourselves to fit their image of us, and our working-classness is depoliticised and de-fanged through an act of caricature. By this mechanism is the triumph of working-class representation transformed into the tool by which working-class participation in the arts is edited, eroded and policed.

When I hear arts and poetry organisations talking about the importance of “accessibility”, and of writing in “the language of the people” it drives me absolutely bat-shit. Firstly, because who says “the people” shouldn’t find poetic difficulty stimulating and inspiring? And secondly because my poetry is perfectly fucking accessible; it’s the way in which education circumscribes and abbreviates working-class imagination that’s at fault, the way poetry is taught in schools, hand in hand with a hidden curriculum that tells kids like me this is not for you.

The onus shouldn’t be on the poet to limit their field of expression to cater to the imagined ignorance of people who were never given the opportunity to understand or enjoy poetry in the first place, particularly not when the poet herself is from those same social margins. The pressure should be on governments, funding bodies, and on the same organisations making these asinine pronouncements, to implement real, radical systemic change to the way resources are allocated, to the way poetry is taught, to the provision of not merely equal but fair access to creative cultural participation.

Co-opt their language before they win the argument!

When I hear organisations and publications bigging up the “accessibility” of a particular artist, text or movement like that’s the be-all and end-all of existence, what I hear is the desperate attempt of an out-dated and culpable power elite to absolve itself of responsibility for the grinding inequality and misrepresentation that faces working-class people as a class within the arts and literature. What leaves a truly special cat-shit taste in the mouth is when the language of radicalism is used to prop up the status-quo, usually at the expense of the communities and movements whose fearless campaigning and artistic activism generated this language. What is worse is when they use the deployment of socially conscious buzzwords as a way of silencing criticism.

For a prime-rib example of the former we need look no further that ACE’s recent publication of the mildly nauseating “Cultural Democracy in Practice”, which appropriates and misapplies the language and concepts of the Movement for Cultural Democracy without ever once acknowledging the relationship of cultural value to the exercise of power and authority.

MQ pi 04 2016 map

ACE's vision of Cultural Democracy in Practice

Despite Cultural Democracy’s absolute embeddedness in ideas of class struggle, ACE’s document ignores class altogether and minimises the relevance of race, gender or age to cultural participation. It has been suggested that ACE’s paper is more about shoring itself up against probing questions surrounding equity, distribution of power, and the redistribution of funds, than it is about challenging or changing these things. In other words, ACE has co-opted community engagement in order to perpetuate the economic and cultural status quo.

There’s a wonderfully perverse bit of manoeuvring here, and it’s typical of the systems inside of which art and literature are expected to operate. An organisation – in this case ACE – pays vocal and public lip-service to the idea of “cultural democracy” or “social inclusivity”, or any the hell else other thing, without ever acknowledging or altering the inherent inequality at the heart of its deep structures. Rather, the language of radicalism and social justice is cynically exploited to legitimate that organisation’s attitudes and behaviours, and any criticism of the way they interpret or deploy this language becomes a de facto criticism of the things for which those words and phrases stand. An organisation that wants to present itself as progressive, equal and inclusive, can then wheel out one of its safe icon-ambassadors as a kind of human-shield: look, we can’t be institutionally racist, sexist, or classist because here is a black, female working-class spokesperson, and if you criticise us, you criticise that person, and if you criticise that person it is you who is racist, sexist, and classist.

Pretty sneaky. Sticking with poetry and class it’s easy to see how figures like Armitage function like the One Black Friend of the idiot who just made that unspeakably racist joke: his mere presence categorically proves there is no problem with systemic classism in the arts, and that absolutely no one has to take any responsibility for the shit they say or the things they do.

But there are so many difficulties inherent in bringing any kind of systemic critique to bear upon either the arts in general or the “Poetry Community” in particular. It’s a small community, after all. Insular, pretty incestuous even, and the exercise of applying analysis has a way of making waves few at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder can afford. Dissent is neutralised by creating dependence (the elites run everything from major presses, to courses, to competitions) and ensuring complicity (we need to play nice to get our work out there, to keep our heads above water), which ultimately compromises our credibility as critics.

Either that, or the act of criticism in invalidated via the expedient route of dismissing the individual critic. There’s an awful Catch-22 here which goes something like this: if you are un- or under-published, if you have little by way of formal education, then you forfeit your right to be taken seriously and your criticism amounts to nothing. However, if you are published, and you are educated, then you have no right to complain, your criticism is so much empty histrionics – worse, you are biting the hand that has so consistently fed you.

We need more acceptable faces of feminism!

We see evidence of this tactic in the media’s treatment of “instapoet” Rupi Kaur, and the serial twitterstorms and social media fallout that followed her publication by Simon & Schuster late last year. Because Kaur was continuously touted and positioned as the “voice” of young women of colour, her work single-handedly credited with making poetry “accessible” and exciting again, removing it from the “ivory towers of academia” and giving it back to a hungry general populace, to criticise Kaur’s poetry was to be racist, misogynist, or some kind of grotesque elitist snob. But it requires only the bare minimum of analytical effort to unpick this tangled tapestry of bullshit. Who, after all, was doing all this touting and positioning? Kaur’s agent, maybe? An elitist mainstream media? Her publisher? Look closer and Kaur’s publication and subsequent rise to stratospheric poetry-stardom emerges as a manipulative marketing exercise.

To acknowledge that doesn’t make a person a snob, or a racist, or a fucking misogynist. It makes a person somebody who cares deeply that marginalised women and girls have better representatives and poetic role-models than Kaur and her pallid, directionless pap. True, her subjects are vital, necessary and engaging, but that doesn’t make her poetry good. If we don’t demand rigour and richness of ourselves or our so-called “representatives”, we impoverish ourselves as cultural creators, we promote a dangerous underestimation of ourselves as artists. We have to ask ourselves why Kaur is picked up and promoted at the expense of other, better young women writers of colour, of which there are so, so, so many. Go to Rap Party, or to one of Out-Spoken Press’ live nights; take a casual scroll through the archives of Peter Raynard’s Proletarian Poetry, read Arshi, Mahfouz, Shire, Osman, Minamore, Lola, Allen-Miller, Miguel, Sur. And understand that what Kaur represents is the co-opted and compromised “acceptable face” of feminism, a commodified, consumer-friendly feminism with the edges rounded off, a feminism that nods vaguely in the general direction of all that besets us without ever offering a meaningful challenge to or analysis of those forces.

Typing the above has made me feel extremely uncomfortable. I understand the importance of sisterhood and solidarity, and I don’t particularly enjoy trashing other people’s work. But I’ve been wondering lately if a desire to be “nice” or “supportive” isn’t killing the necessary work of criticism. Should the fact that there are so few working-class women poets, and even fewer working-class women poets of colour mean that I’m bound to support even those writers whose poetry is hackneyed, misguided or unhelpful? This isn’t a rhetorical question, it’s a genuine and pressing one. And I understand that art is subjective, and that Kaur’s poetry isn’t for me. It has a right to exist, and I’m glad, I guess, if there are young women out there who get something from it. But – and this is a big but – isn’t it possible that young women would get more from any of the other artists I just mentioned? What would happen if they were given the opportunity to meaningfully choose? If media coverage and publishing trends did true justice to the sheer depth of diversity that exists in contemporary poetry, rather than fastening on to one or two commercially viable cash-cows and milking them dry? It’s the disproportionate emphasis on a couple of big safe names that bothers me. It’s tokenistic and it’s patronising, and it’s limiting to our collective voice, and it’s diluting to our collective dissent.

Let Coke democratise culture! Let them eat McDonalds!

Discomfort abounds for me in poetry. Discomfort abounds for me in other areas too, but poetry has the upmost sweetness and meaning to me, it’s the sea I swim in, and so those anxieties are the most vivid and acute. Poetry fulfils this role for me largely because – and this is another of my oft trotted hobby-horses, so bear with me – poetry, as an artistic medium is so sublimely suited to the material conditions of working-class existence. Growing up, to do literally anything else: paint, act, sing, learn an instrument, play a sport, required time and resources neither myself nor my family could afford to commit. To write a poem all you need is an eye, a voice, and something to scratch your rage out on.

Fran Lock unlovablelabour 2

Unlovable labour, by Steev Burgess

Its method of production suits a population mired in the wretched life-consuming hell of poverty and unlovable labour. It can be practiced alone, anywhere; you don’t need pricey tuition, you get better by doing it, and who, after all, is more attuned to the music of your own experience than you? Growing up, I also felt a tremendous need for poetry, its immediacy and urgency spoke to me in ways prose could not reach; it bypassed the banality and circumlocution of everyday speech and made me feel emotionally connected to people and places far beyond the narrow confines of my life. It was both a way of expressing and understanding my daily experiences, and of escaping them to somewhere different, somewhere better. And so I feel powerfully that poetry is ours, by right and by necessity both.

Which is why this sense of discomfort pervades. In the past year I have seen poetry used to advertise everything from building societies to mobile phones, from Coke, to McDonalds. Fucking McDonalds. And I’ve followed the online debates about how this is actually a good thing: poetry is the language of the people, it’s not some precious, rarefied medium that needs to be kept, protected and unsullied from the grubby hustle of commerce. It’s democratic, I’ve been told, and anyway, who died and made me moral arbiter of “the scene”? What right do I have to judge the decisions of others? People have got to eat, and you can’t claim to support working-class poetry then shit on working-class people who are selling their art to survive. Right?

Yeah, okay, up to a point, but I don’t know whether reducing art to a shitty little cash-nexus is really such a staggering victory for cultural democracy. And look, I guess it’s fine if you want to contribute a poem to an institution or a product that manages to avoid abject moral bankruptcy, but, and I feel this is true in the case of the Nationwide ads especially, what you’re selling isn’t just the poetry, it’s yourself, the poet, it’s your working-classness; you’re allowing this building society to co-opt your “credentials” as a signifier of their authenticity and integrity. You’re using your heritage, your history, your bloody accent, on someone else’s behalf. Nationwide isn’t us. It isn’t grossly exploitative, and it’s owned by its shareholders, but it still isn’t us. It’s £2.3m in chief executive pay’s worth of not us in fact, and this in a time of mass unemployment, stagnating wage growth and in insanely hyper-inflated housing market that’s making it difficult for most of us to eke out an existence.

MH the employed poor

The employed poor, by Martin Hayes

I think what bothers me most, though, is the way in which the ghosts of working-class history are summoned up in the service of this financial product. Unfairness is acknowledged, but in the most cursory way possible, as if poverty and suffering were a force of nature, something that just happened to people in the bad old days, not something done to people systemically and systematically, deliberately, continuously, still.

But shit, Nationwide are not actually terrible, so who am I to pick holes in other people’s choices? You’ll grant me I’m on safer ground with my other examples, right? McDonalds, I mean, catch yourselves on, what a crock. If I read one more article about how “populism is good” or “it’s bringing poetry to a wider audience” I swear I’ll blow a gasket. Firstly, because this isn’t poetry, it’s something cooked up by an ad agency pretending to be poetry, and secondly because this isn’t populism, its cod-populism, it’s a corporation riding poetry’s coat-tails to position itself as your mate, in order that it might more effectively peddle its deep-fried patties of eyelids and arseholes, sawdust and spit.

Poetry, the way its rhythms encode and invite intimacy, its direct address, its person-to-person quality, these things are hijacked by the God-awful “just passing by” ad. The rhymes are reminiscent of McGough or Mitchell without being written by either, delivered by Neil Morrissey in a suitably blokey brogue. These signifiers of working-class identity, working-class poetics are tactically exploited to legitimate this shitvert, and position McDonalds as essentially inseparable from everyday working-class experience. As a working-class person I call bull-crap. We deserve better. Even if you can bypass the animal cruelty, and their stellar contribution to world-wide deforestation (I can’t, but that’s just me), McDonalds are still incredibly exploitative of their working-class employees, and historically one of the most aggressively anti-union chains in the fast food industry. Their food is also linked to malnutrition and obesity among the poorest communities worldwide.

And yeah, I will eventually stop flogging McDonalds, but as a corporation it’s just so beautifully illustrative of the way not only working-class culture, but working-class identity is appropriated, distorted and exploited by corporate capitalism.

I think what grinds me most about that crappy advert is its chummy tagline: “There’s a McDonalds for everyone”. Everyone. Like there’s not a version of my existence that isn’t bound up with and tied to their substandard fast-food. As if they’re somehow emblematic of, or synonymous with my culture. I don’t know, you can over-think these things, but that “everyone” still grates. I fear it’s probably the same “everyone” that thrilled to the Olympics and its community-disrupting corporate-sponsored descent upon London, and the same “everyone” that lined the streets to wave flags with feckless abandon at the spectacle of another Royal spawning. “Everyone”. Because if they can’t co-opt you and manufacture your consent, they edit you out of the picture, out of the dominant narrative. I am so entirely sick of being edited out.

The middle class is just better at acting!

This brings me back – somewhat less than neatly – to the arts and literature in general, and to poetry in particular. There’s a vision of working-class culture at work in these spheres that I can only describe as blinkered, monolithic and homogenous. Sorry, I’ll rephrase that: blinkered, monolithic, homogenous, and ubiquitous. This shit is everywhere. And once you’ve seen it, you cannot unsee it, it’s in every advert, every book or television show. It follows you around out the corner of your eye, a very bad case of Baader-Meinhof complex.

I noticed it first in the vox-pops, those little segments of the news where some poor beleaguered reporter has to go out and canvass the general public, get their take on the burning issues of the day. Why were the working-class people they picked to interview invariably inarticulate? Or ignorant? Or prejudiced? Maybe because most populations are inarticulate, ignorant and prejudiced in ways and for reasons entirely unconnected to class? At first I was able to tell myself I was being paranoid. But then came that slew of shit social-safari television: Benefits Street, Can’t Pay? We’ll Take It Away! and my own personal bête–noire, Big Fat Gypsy Weddings. Here we come, the undeserving poor, an eternal cast of either criminals or victims, an undifferentiated mass of scrounging, skiving profligates. I’d see this and I’d think about my childhood, about the lives of my family and my friends, and I’d think: okay, but where’s the rest of it? Where are we?

Programmes like Benefits Street and Big Fat Gypsy Weddings are problematic in so many ways, but chiefly, I think, for the way in which they present carefully – and highly selectively – edited footage as documentary fact. Because how do they choose which families, which “characters”, and what stories to film? And how is the way in which these stories are framed, and cut, and scored contributing to a skewed and generally inaccurate representation of working-class people? Further, and more germane to this discussion, what kinds of narrative are these portrayals propping up? Whose interests do they serve?

Let’s face it, when we appear in the mainstream media at all it’s generally in the form of cynical copy-paste poverty porn, and this is absolutely strategic. It’s a way for our cultural elites to have their cake and eat it: they’ve included working-class characters and working-class voices, they’ve included working-class lives, and working-class experiences, and for this they earn a nice big box-ticking pat on the back. But they’ve included them within very narrow, tightly circumscribed parameters: striver or scrounger; the bluff northern male or the brassy cockney blonde; the swaggering black yout’ in a gang, or the fist-fighting congenitally sexist pikey.

This kind of phoney representation extends to fiction too, and I’ve lost count of the times I’ve sat through some middle-to-upper-class actor doing us pikey in different voices until I wanted to punch holes in concrete. They put us on like working-class drag in order to to flex their hip credentials, to win awards and plaudits for being socially aware, and worse, they do this at the expense of real working-class actors with just as much talent, who don’t have the recourses to compete in the incestuous, nepotistic snake-pits of film and television. Further, cultural expectations of the working-classes have been so successfully engineered, that we are no longer trusted to be the authors, spokespeople or archivists of our own experiences. Instead I’ve got Brad Pitt in Snatch, Michael Fassbender in Trespass Against Us, and the always heartwarming news that everybody’s favourite posh twit Benedict Cumberbatch is going to play Mikey Walsh’s father in a forthcoming screen adaptation of Gypsy Boy.

And poetry’s the same. And I spent such a long time hearing that my voice and my background were unacceptable, that they were things I’d have to minimise in order to “get on”, only to catch people doing me back at me, ventriloquizing me and my life, rocking up to my stages squatting in my postcode, forcing the rent up, garnering right-on points from my edgy poverty but bearing absolutely no responsibility towards the communities and cohorts they’d come crashing into. It pissed me off so much, in fact, I wrote a poem about it.

And you know, there’s what you’re allowed to say, and then there’s the way in which you’re allowed to say it. It isn’t that poetry has a problem with the working class, but it only wants us in certain venues, in particular enclaves whose borders it can effectively police, keeping us away from the business of “serious” cultural labour. “Slam”, for example, is increasingly hyped as “the poetry of the people”, imposing a false dichotomy between page and stage, and drawing an ugly, somewhat arbitrary dividing line between “elite” and “street”. This is patronising, disingenuous and gross. For all the paraded “right on” status of slam and spoken-word, it too has its regular staple of middle-class practitioners. And to assert that it accurately or completely represents working-class poetry is to pretend that there is one singular definitive voice of working-class experience. This is arrant nonsense.

Nothing wrong with slam, of course, and there’s so much about its ethos of community engagement that’s laudable, vital and exciting, but its over-emphasis as somehow exemplary of working-class poetics risks irreparable damage to the complexity, diversity and nuance of working-class poetics and working-class voice. A great deal of the slam I have encountered is – and I’ll admit, my experience might not be typical – samey, in terms of its thematic concerns, syntactic structure, delivery, and in the rhythmic formulation of the work. This only bothers me because the “poetry of the people” label is often used to sententiously confer moral status on personal, stylistic choices. Further, I think there’s an argument to be made that a strong moral agenda is sometimes used to legitimate or excuse lazy-arsed writing.

slambassadors

SLAMbassadors

Again, I’m not lumping all slam poetry together, or saying it’s lazy and bad. SLAMbassadors, for one, is a mad-exciting project, full of promising, talented young poets from every walk of life writing and performing hair-raisingly good material. What I am saying is we have to be so wary of any attempt to homogenise working-class poetics, or any other aspect of our cultural production under this or that banner, particularly when it risks dividing us from wider cultural participation and contribution, and especially when it means uncritically feting work just because it ticks the right boxes. What I am saying is we need to be on our guard against attempts to regiment and codify working-class poetry under the guise of challenging the dominant culture – page is x, so stage is y – it weakens working-class imagination and sets proscriptive limits on the way we are allowed to access poetry.

The working class mustn't become class-conscious!

But what even is “working-class culture”? As a phrase I find it condescending, dismissive and descriptive of nothing. At best it lacks nuance, at worst it becomes a way of corralling together a disparate collection of traits and customs, reducing them to a few tired tropes, and kicking them to the kerb, out of sight, out of mind. This is one of my most recursive and enduring rants, so bear with me while I hammer this sentence out again: there is no single “working-class culture”, and the idea that there is is a deliberate and insidious lie.

Working-class experience is, rather, characterised by its hybridity, its intersectionality. It is a melting and merging of cultures and customs under the impetus of overwhelming economic and social pressure. It’s what drives our creativity and resilience, our flair, our beautiful shoe-string inventiveness with language, with fashion, with music, with food. And it’s this that’s under threat: our image of ourselves as capable of embodying all of these things, and our right to know them and claim them as ours.

During my teenage years one of the hardest things for me was understanding where I fitted in, feeling mongrel, partial, neither one thing nor the other. At school my image of myself oscillated wildly between the belief that I was some kind of sub-genius, and the paralysing certainty that I was fraud, a fuck-up, and a failure. This is because the adults I encountered in the institutions I passed through either wrote me off as soon as I opened my mouth, or were so astonished that I could so much as string a coherent sentence together they immediately began weaving my fairly mediocre abilities into a narrative of individual exceptionalism. Reason being, neither side could accept someone like me had exactly the same capacities and potentials as the assimilated middle-class kids. Nothing they had seen or read or allowed themselves to experience had prepared them for the surprising possibility that I was a normal adolescent with a fairly decent brain. It just did not compute. So, when I bollixed something up it confirmed the worst suspicions I had about myself, and when I did something right I felt like a freak. Two years into a Ph.D. and I still struggle with this. What helps is understanding how this situation was engineered. How cultural elites operate to exclude, omit or erase the stories and voices of people like me, to wipe out our sense of ourselves as active participants in the cultural sphere. How these elites create self-loathing, how these elites create shame.

When I listen to a lot of the conversations about the “theft of working-class culture”, I feel this is an element that’s missing. It isn’t that the middle-classes or any group of power elites want to monopolise a particular uniform territory or set of traditions, it’s that they appropriate and cherry-pick arbitrary elements across a broad set of cultures and practices, exploit those elements for kudos and cache while telling us that we, our cultures, our lives, are the shit that’s left. Scrap. Offal. They sneer at us for not speaking well, but selectively adopt our linguistic ticks and flourishes to enrich their own verbal excursions. They steal our music and our clothes, they gentrify our dancehalls and our mosh-pits and our open mics, then they sell the resultant mess back to us at inflated prices, forcing us off of our stages, out of our mouths, out of our own skin.

Long live mainstream capitalist culture!

To take a non-poetry example that’s still very near to my heart, look at what happened to punk, to ska and to two-tone; look at the way in which the music was stripped of its radical political message, how the low-budget nuttiness and fevered invention of working-class kids was hoovered up, homogenised and returned to us as white male junkies in studded leather jackets. Same with hip-hop, how intense, socially conscious lyric flyting of kids with jack shit was sucked in and spat back out as slick misogynist crap, underscoring the same acquisitive, competitive, toxically masculine values as main-stream capitalist culture.

Caravaggio Taking of Christ rev

The Betrayal of Christ, by Caravaggio, c. 1602

And here, on this weird cultural margin, as a working-class, culturally “other” poet, you’re told there’s a part of you that’s defective or offensive, and if you want to get anywhere, you need to scrub that part out. I tried, I really tried, to my eternal shame. When I first come to London, because my image of myself and any pride or joy I might have taken in my heritage – ancestral or familial – had been so effectively destroyed, I negated myself: I wrote these terrible, monumental Fruit & Fabre-y poems, and I poshed my voice when I went on stage and read aloud. When this became too great a schizoid betrayal of everyone and everything I ever loved, and I started to write and speak as me, I was told I was “fetishizing” and exploiting my past. In time I realised that there is no version of my work that would be acceptable, that wouldn’t be used as a stick to beat me with. If I write my culture then I’m “playing the race / class card”. If I choose to write about anything else then I’m inauthentic, failing in my duty as ambassador apologist for “my people”, a sell-out and a fraud.

This is how elites and their cultural structures and institutions contrive to obliterate working-class voices, and tactically remove working-class people from the arena of literary and artistic participation. If they can’t control or co-opt you they make the effort of expressing yourself so exhausting, confusing and dispiriting, you just want to give up. And I have really wanted to give up this last year. Academia is horrible, exclusionary, alienating and fatiguing. My life is hard in material and emotional ways ninety-nine percent of my peers have absolutely zero hope of understanding, and the loneliness of that, of being a statistical freak inside a system designed to exclude me is really starting to take its toll. Nevertheless –

Oh no, they're waking up!

I will keep going, because working-class people are waking up to the urgency of this situation, because for the first time in a long time it feels as if we are galvanised and primed to become the authors and the archivists of our own experiences and stories. I am excited to be a part of this. I am excited to show people the sheer breadth and depth of what we can do. I’m excited that this could mark a genuinely significant turning point: no longer obsessed with defining or defending some invented and illusory idea of “the culture”, singular, we’re expanding, extending, exposing and evolving the notion of what that might be.

A gorgeous, shameless, hybrid beast.

B and R award

A gorgeous, shameless, hybrid beast, by Anon.