Lyndsey Ayre

Lyndsey Ayre

Lyndsey won New Writing North’s inaugural Sid Chaplin award for Working-Class Writers. She has an interest in challenging stereotypical perceptions of working-class communities and culture.

Narrow Streets: publishing and the class conundrum
Thursday, 10 September 2020 20:41

Narrow Streets: publishing and the class conundrum

Published in Cultural Commentary

Lyndsey Ayre writes about the class problem in publishing

On the inside cover of the 2019 edition of Tove Ditlevsen’s Childhood – the first of her autobiographical Copenhagen trilogy  there is a short paragraph describing the writer’s class and upbringing. It goes something like this: Ditlevsen, one of Denmark’s most important writers, grew up in the early 20th century, in a working-class neighbourhood called Vesterbro. From an early age, she knew she was different, that she was going to be a writer with ‘long, mysterious words crawling across her soul.’ ‘Inevitably,’ the bio continues, Ditlevsen came to the realisation that to pursue this dream she would have to ‘leave the narrow streets of her childhood behind.’ The message is clear: her working-class background was a problem that had to be navigated and escaped before she could blossom into the successful author and poet she was destined to become.

The articles I could find about Ditlevsen online told a similar story. The Guardian in 2019 described her as a ‘dreamy working-class misfit,’ while The Spectator applauded her journey from ‘slum girl to literary prodigy.’ Hers is a rags-to-intellectual-riches story: a young woman with a burning vocation for art who escapes her narrow street and winds up having dinner with Evelyn Waugh.

Yet I wonder how helpful it is for Ditlevsen to be described this way. Why was it inevitable that she would have to leave Vesterbro? Is it always necessary, or helpful, to point out a writer’s class on the blurb of a book?  And what about the framing of her class? What if she had stayed living on her narrow street at the same time as being a writer, and it hadn’t been something to be escaped: a rein on her creativity, a hurdle to be jumped over in pursuit of finer interests? Is it really still considered an extraordinary feat for an author to be from a working-class background?

Working-class writing

These are complicated questions whose answers I’ve not yet been able to decide upon. My feelings are confused and constantly shifting, not least because I, myself, won an award for working-class writers – the Sid Chaplin award – in 2019. I am endlessly grateful to the panel of judges who read the first chapter of my novel and saw enough in it to award me the prize. I’m thankful for the support I’ve received since, which secured me an agent. I feel an immense amount of pride in my background and was honoured to have won an award in Sid’s name. And I think schemes and awards that help working-class writers and artists to navigate worlds that are largely set up in ways that make them inaccessible are important for communicating that the industry recognises that it needs to effect change. 

Still, I’ve never really been sure that I fit into the mould of what a working-class writer is expected to be. I feel that this is, in part, because I’ve been repeatedly told what my class experience should be, via a complex web of texts and codes fed into popular culture by a publishing industry that often seems to have little grasp as to what real life is like for so many of us.  I’ve always felt a strong affinity with the kitchen-sink writers of the 1950s and 60s, for their insistence on the everyday nature of class experience. Their characters are smart, witty and funny. They go to work and are frequently frustrated by dead-end jobs, finding release in the lager-drenched pubs and clubs of the weekend. Many of the attitudes of these books have aged badly, but I still think that their portraits of the drama that plays out against the day-to-day business of people’s lives sparkle.

When I think about my class identity, I often think, too, of Alan Bennett’s description of his own childhood. Now in his 80s and referred to – pejoratively, you can’t help but feel – by some as a National Treasure, he is hardly considered to be at the vanguard of class writing. Yet his descriptions of his parents – shy, uncertain, fearing being thought of as ‘common’ – are still some of the most nuanced and relatable class portraits I’ve read.

I didn’t grow up in deprivation: my childhood was mostly quiet and composed of Sunday dinners at McDonald’s, caravan parks, Babysitter’s Club books and bottles of Panda Pop. Class, for me, wasn’t something that I railed against or felt the need to escape from – or that I remember seeing anyone else railing against. I knew that our cousins lived in a more expensive house than we did, that they went to a better school, and had different accents, yet I only knew this vaguely, as a sort of abstract concept. While the inequality gap yawns ever larger for so many people, I cannot claim to have experienced anything like the worst of it myself: only to have worked and earned my own wage since I was 16; to have gone to a struggling school and received middling exam results; to have attended a polytechnic; to have avoided speaking up at readings and conferences, conscious of my regional accent; to have no savings and no financial safety net to fall back on.

As I've grown older, bad experiences of the world of writing and the arts have stacked up: a snide comment made on my glottal stop; a major publisher who wasn’t sure where Newcastle was; a prestigious journalism award I was once shortlisted for, where senior journalists at a major, left-leaning publication expressed surprise that I was there ‘from the North.’ These are comparatively small hardships and slights compared to those faced by many people, and yet, at times, they have been enough to make me feel like giving up. I have written on work lunchbreaks and stayed up until 2am writing, drinking so much coffee on shift the next morning that my hands shake and my vision blurs. I’ve spent my 20s writing articles for various publications – few of which have ever been in a position to pay – in the hope that one day they would lead to something more substantial. I have taken on more hours in my day job and felt the time I have for writing squeezed ever smaller. I have wondered why I continue to put myself in positions and situations where I feel, at best, fundamentally misunderstood and at worst, unwelcome.

I've continued partly out of a real passion and love for reading and writing, and partly out of sheer bloody-mindedness and the idea that voices like mine should not be forced out because they don’t easily fit into a publishing industry’s idea of what a working-class voice should be. It has been hard. For many working-class people – people who have more responsibilities than I do, people such as young carers or young, single parents – it is even harder.

So – what can be done about it?

Class diversity in publishing can’t be fixed by simply allowing a handful of working-class voices through, no matter how explicitly and loudly you tell people that that’s what you’re doing. After all, diversity isn’t really diversity until it becomes normality: before that you are simply in the process of attempting to effect change. There are no quick fixes to the problem, which has its roots in wider, societal issues. But perhaps a starting point is to reframe how we think about writing and about culture more broadly.

What is needed is not so much a set of solutions to the ‘problem’ of greater class diversity in the publishing industry, so much as a shift in understanding as to what, and who, reading is for. We might best address the issue by going back to the very basics of how the industry is run, applying socialist principles to the publishing industry as we might apply them to any other resource that everyone should have access to. The narratives that an era produces speak volumes about the time in which they were conceived. Books, plays, films and song have the power to summarise complex societal conversations around race, gender and class struggles. They have the power, also, to speak to people about their everyday lives and to reflect and legitimise their experiences, lending them the permanence of art. Narratives are not superfluous: they are what societies are built on. 

The class problem in publishing

But despite schemes from publishers such as Penguin – who, in 2016, took away the requirement of a university degree for job applicants – and the emergence of a number of small, Northern-based publishers, it still remains uncomfortably true that publishing on the whole is populated by people who are predominantly white, predominantly London-centric and predominantly from the middle and upper classes. Entry-level roles in publishing are often low-paid and located in London, where sky-high rents and cost of living effectively block out people without prior means of supporting themselves. Many roles now advertise as remote working, yet still inexplicably require the employee to live in London. Simply moving the seat of publishing from London to Manchester is not the answer to ensuring a greater variety of voices get through. Yes, it is a step in the right direction, but creating a second capital in the North risks creating a sense of complacency that real change has been achieved.

There is clearly a class problem in publishing. In 2019, the Labour Force Survey conducted by the Office for National Statistics showed that 43% of workers in the publishing industry (authors, writers, translators, editors, journalists etc.) came from middle-class backgrounds, and only 12% from working-class backgrounds.

This is in contrast to the rest of the population, where around 14% of the population are from higher professional and managerial origins, and around 35% are from working-class backgrounds.

In 2019, a survey in The Bookseller of people who worked in or were connected to the publishing industry found that nearly 80% of respondents from a working-class background felt discriminated against in their field of work due to their social class – particularly because of discrimination based on accent, and nepotism in the industry.

Focussing on the experiences of working-class writers, meanwhile, Common People, a 2020 report between Northumbria University and several regional writing agencies, provided a detailed breakdown of challenges and prejudices faced by a selection of writers in England and Wales. Again, nepotism was highlighted as a major issue faced by working-class writers, alongside impostor syndrome, a lack of peer support and off-putting experiences of inclusivity schemes which paid lip service to change but did little to really help and support attendees. The report made several recommendations: moving publishing outside of London; making routes into the industry more transparent and fairly-paid; investing in regional writing agencies; and learning from the good practice of the third sector.

These are crucial conversations: that we are able to have them at all now signals a real desire for change. And yet, if we are to effect progress for coming generations, the work needs to begin much earlier to improve diversity in the industry. I loved reading as a child: when it came to choosing a degree course, the only option that was ever explained to me was English Literature. For many working-class teenagers who are likely to be the first in their families to go to university, doing a degree in a subject like publishing simply wouldn’t ever be discussed. A drive to make the vagaries of the industry more transparent, accessible and welcoming for young people is one way we might target change for the future.

Meanwhile, the gap between the well-off and those in our society that are struggling the most grows ever wider. A report commissioned by the National Literacy Trust (NTL) in 2018, Literacy and Life Expectancy, found that 44% of children from disadvantaged backgrounds were not at a good level of general development by the time they started primary school. At age 5, their vocabulary was, on average, 19 months behind children from higher-income backgrounds. 

Work by charities such as the NTL to localise literacy campaigns and set up regional literacy hubs is one example of how real action is needed inside of our communities to ensure that all children are given an equal start when it comes to language and communication. In Middlesbrough, for example, after the first NTL hub was set up in 2013 the number of children reaching the expected level of communication by age 5 rose by 31%. The trust now has 14 such hubs across the country. Whilst the work that the NTL has done and is doing is invaluable – including sending out 1 million books to children who may not have access to them at home – it has stepped into a space out of necessity where there should be no space at all.

The punishing raft of austerity measures

For it can be no coincidence that the NTL set up its first hub in 2013, three years after the formation of the Coalition government and the punishing raft of austerity measures which began thereafter. The state should be supporting literacy: that 43% of working age adults can be allowed to be without the literacy skills required to make use of health literature is a scandal. Since 2010, 800 public libraries have closed. While much has been made of the crucial role libraries play in providing access to people without the internet at home, I think it is equally as important to consider that children are now growing up without ready access to free books.

What could the labour movement do about the systematic bias in the publishing industry in terms of the workforce, and the lack of affordable and meaningful material for working-class readers? One way of addressing this could be for trade unions to form a not-for-profit publishing house of their own, focusing on using digital technology to maximise accessibility and keep costs low. Free or very cheap e-books could be produced, not only for trade union members but for working people generally. At the time of writing, David Walliams’ latest children’s bestseller is priced at £12.99, well above the National Minimum Wage of £8.72 an hour. 

When you consider that this is the case, it is unsurprising that publishing – both for writers and for workers – remains a closed industry. If generations of children grow up without access to books, how can they be expected to want to work in – or indeed write within – a publishing industry whose motives and purpose remains opaque and remote?

Publishing, reading, literacy and writing must be for everyone at every stage: from those children who start school without access to books and reading, to the adults suffering impostor syndrome who feel out of place at misguided inclusivity events. Until it is, working-class people working in the industry will remain in the minority – with those that do feeling their class background has impeded their careers. Working-class narratives should eventually be recognised as narratives that are simply rooted in the various experience of the majority of people. A diverse publishing industry means a diversity of stories: without which, ultimately, we all lose. 

Common Ground: rebuilding community and co-operation after Covid-19
Saturday, 25 April 2020 15:37

Common Ground: rebuilding community and co-operation after Covid-19

Published in Cultural Commentary

Lyndsey Ayre reflects on common ground, coronavirus, and the values of the labour movement. The image is of  a piece of embroidery by Melanie Kyles

This must be the beginning of change. Whenever we reach the other side of this crisis – whenever and whatever that might look like - we must begin to plan immediately for a better future. We must count the dead and hold those to account who failed them. And we must stand together and say: enough. Things cannot be allowed to return to the way that they were. The way that they were was the problem.

We must remember the people who worked tirelessly when so many of us stayed indoors: the checkout workers, the nurses, the refuse collectors, the teachers, the doctors, the librarians, the postal workers and delivery drivers. These are the people that we should value the most. These are the people who should be honoured, and whose salaries should reflect our gratitude.

We have lived in a culture of endless greed: of belligerent hedge fund managers, grubby-fingered billionaires and sneering, public schoolboy politicians. Though we dress it in the lineaments of modernity, beneath our filters and slick user interfaces is the same system: moth-eaten, broken, old.

The way that things were was the problem. This must be the beginning of change.

Common ground

It is 8.30am and I am walking down silent suburban streets towards Newcastle’s Town Moor. The morning is bright and cool like a whistle. The main road that runs in front of my flat is usually thronged with cars and busses, commuters rushing for early shifts and hectic parents on the school run. For several weeks now, it has been empty. Sunlight shines on red brick and daffodils, on faded chalk hopscotch daubed on cracked paving stones. Rainbows beam from high windows. Curtains are drawn. English Ivy reaches above garden walls, trailing wistful fingers towards the cherry blossom.

There is nothing. There is no one. The day is draped in a veil of yellow and blue. I’m looking for common ground.

 It has been over 100 days since the Chinese government declared an unknown pneumonia had been detected in the area around a wet market in Wuhan. In the weeks and months that followed, the world has been brought to its knees by what we now know to be the coronavirus named Covid-19. Previously titanic industries – oil, air travel – are at the edge of collapse. Businesses, large and small, have been forced to close their doors, with thousands of people furloughed. Arts organisations – scoring low on the list of public sympathy - face turbulent and uncertain futures. At the forefront, of course, the human cost: the days tick by with little to differentiate them other than the bleak death toll. 759, 823, 449. Every one a person. Every one a history: a favourite song, a favourite scent, a way of smiling.

At present in the UK, we are still allowed to go out for one walk a day. I’m grateful for these trips outdoors that afford respite from the trek between bedroom to the dining room table, where my work computer looms over the room. In many other countries, access to the outdoors was cut much earlier on. People across the globe find themselves legally confined to their own homes. We’re a world under house arrest.

Still, well-meaning Instagram videos tell us, that doesn’t have to be so bad. We may not have freedom to do as we please, but there’s one thing that we do have an abundance of: time. Finally, we can take up baking, learn a new language, plant strawberry bushes and tomatoes in our gardens and yards. There are worse things, after all, than to find yourself confined to the safety of home.

d14 07 08 Town Moor 12

Newcastle's Town Moor. Photo: Chi Onwurah MP

Yet home is the first frontier against inequality. Contrary to the wartime rhetoric adopted by some commentators, this is a virus that discriminates – both in the pre-existing conditions and geographical factors which can make a person more vulnerable to serious illness and in the impact of self-isolation on a person’s physical and emotional health. Poorly-maintained, privately-rented property; anti-social neighbours; small, cramped living conditions and blocks of flats still wrapped in lethal cladding. It is a mental health timebomb, and with every day that passes the problem intensifies, threatening to swamp the already submerged NHS even further.

Access to the outdoors is a lifeline to so many people – people living alone, people who do not have backyards or gardens, people who need to exercise for their mental or physical health and those who face the danger of domestic violence. Since lockdown began, Refuge reported a 700% increase in calls to its helplines in a single day. Hotels across the UK wrote to the government to offer their rooms to victims of domestic abuse. At the time of writing, the government had not taken them up on their offer.

Few could dispute that we must all stay at home as much as possible and do our part in slowing the transmission of Covid-19. But the existing conditions in which so many people now find themselves prisoner cannot be allowed to go unaddressed.

In the coming months and years, as we attempt to rebuild our societies across the world, we must make this a priority. ‘Home’ should not be a word that means safety for some, danger for others. Home should be a place of solace for everyone.   

People coming together

When I reach the edge of the Town Moor, the gate closes behind me with a heavy, metallic sound. Here there are no cars, no closed-up cafes or small shops with printed statements pinned to their doors. Here there are none of the houses of surrounding affluent Gosforth, each of them a display of wealth and security. The vast expanse of the moor – larger, Wikipedia tells me, than both Hyde Park and Hampstead Heath combined – opens up around me, flat, parallel, the pages of a book cracked open. On the horizon, the buildings of the city are held at a distance: the lone chimney of the RVI, the pale skeleton of St James’ Park. 

The Town Moor has been a largely unchanging green space on the fringe of the city centre for many centuries. Not landscaped, not neatly ordered with child’s play park and paving stones and smart displays of Spring flowers, but something bleak, desolate and disordered, instead. It is an enduring landscape somewhere between a rural and urban space: a sort of ancient edgeland, connecting the different suburbs of the city like an immeasurable village green. A place of vast emptiness, it echoes, paradoxically, with years of people coming together.

In 1873, the moor hosted a demonstration in favour of universal male suffrage. Some 200,000 people attended. From 1721 until 1881, horse racing was held at the Town Moor. When the racing was moved to Gosforth Park – a location difficult for many of the poorer people living in the city centre to get to - the North East Temperance League stepped in and organised a week-long fair, instead. 1,000 of the poorest children in the city were given food. 150,000 people attended the fair and the event was deemed to be such a success that it continued as the Hoppings to this day. The Town Moor has many other uses as a public gathering place: as the host of the Northern Pride Festival, the weekly Park Run, the August bank holiday mela. Over the past couple of years, it has been host to the This Is Tomorrow festival, headlined in 2019 by Johnny Marr, whose melancholic guitars drenched the distant city streets with poetry and longing.

The Town Moor is – and has been, since it hosted the horse races of the 1700s – a highly accessible place for the people of Newcastle to visit. The importance of this cannot be overstated. By contrast, the countryside can often feel like a distant and alien place to many of us without our own means of transport. A DEFRA review, in 2019, highlighted that the National Parks were failing to attract people from working class and minority ethnic backgrounds. And yet the obvious benefits of access to the outdoors have been thrown into sharp relief by this crisis. The ‘right’ to air and exercise was enshrined in law in the Law of Property Act 1925. We have to do more to make these spaces work for everyone. School trips should encourage children to think of our National Parks as their own to explore. The benefits of the rural environment need to continue into our city centres, too: as the impact of the closures of our urban centres seems likely to topple the already precarious High Street, we have to rethink what we use our cities for, and come up with ways to make them greener.

Rebuilding the commons after the coronavirus crisis

On the moor, on an April morning, there are people: all of us drawn here by the will to see something other than the inside of our own homes. The path is wide – wide enough for two people to pass safely, but many people walk by as normal, perhaps uncertain of the safe distance, perhaps absent-minded, perhaps, even, in blatant denial that there’s any need to stay apart. I leave the path and walk across the grass, instead. The land is uneven and difficult to walk across. There are ditches and clumps of compacted grass: scars on the land from its yearly events. I head towards two large hills at the West of the moor, where a tiny figure stands silhouetted against a blossoming sky.  

Halfway across, I realise I’ve gone the wrong way. The tiny figure has descended the hill and is walking briskly towards a gate onto Grandstand Road. There is a much simpler route, here, with a well-trodden gravel path ascending the lowest slope of the hill. In contrast, I find myself picking slowly though long grass and nettles, surrounded by cows. I wonder, briefly, how often cows kill humans and then reassure myself that these cows must be safe: the Freemen have grazed cattle on this land for centuries. Later, I google this and learn that, in fact, if there are calves present – there are not on the Town Moor, thankfully - herds of cattle do kill people. In fact, the Independent says, they are the most deadly large mammal in the UK. I don’t know this at the time, and I walk straight through them, smiling as they chew mouthfuls of grass laconically, flicking tails against flies. Somehow, this feels right: the point of walking on land like the Town Moor isn’t to go the easiest or simplest way – it’s to immerse yourself in the stretch of the land around you.

Near the foot of the largest of these hills – the imaginatively named ‘Cow Hill’ - I stop and take a swig of water from the bottle in my backpack. There’s a chilling moment as I realise where I’m standing: I’ve been reading about the history of the moor, and have learnt that in the thickness of these trees, still circled by a fence, there was once an isolation hospital for Small Pox. Grainy black and white photos on Google from 1898 show a man lying in a hospital bed in a dark room, and the horse drawn ambulance cart that would have taken patients there. It’s difficult to believe that this is the site. The buildings were demolished in 1958 and there is nothing to commemorate it. No plaque, no statue: only the trees. I stand there for a while, thinking about that hospital, thinking about those people.  

Then I begin to climb the hill.

It’s hard to know how to write about this time. Online, people scramble to make sense of a crisis of global proportions unseen in our lifetimes. There are videos and lists, hints and tips and tricks and hashtags. We are a world that cannot stop talking. And yet how should we navigate discussion around a time of so much pain and suffering?

The city stretches out around me. Chimneys and trees and distant high rises. The Byker Wall squats like an alien spaceship. Rows of miniscule terraces branch away, their windows glinting in the morning sun. In every one of those buildings, a person.

There will be time and space for us to come together again. I know this, standing on the top of the hill, overlooking the city. The Town Moor invites us to think about it: about space and community, about the past and the future, about the things that are possible and the things that have been. The commons has always been a key tenet of the labour movement. Now, more than ever, their significance is vital as we look to rebuild our societies in the wake of Covid-19.