“Working class” is obviously a broad term that isn’t nearly nuanced enough do describe one of many groups that are being increasingly marginalised in the arts. Associations are moving away from industrial work and manual labour. I’ve always, as far back as I can remember, identified as working class, though like most aspiring writers these days I don’t fit the traditional definition too neatly.
The associations I have with the term myself are of people from a financially disadvantaged background, whose parents have a low level of education, who grew up in an area where the culture places heavy importance on financial escape and none on the arts, from a culture where the arts are actively discouraged, who don’t receive financial support from their parents or other family, who don’t have social access to, or the confidence to attempt to gain access to the tiers of society absolutely necessary to progress in any creative industry.
There are hard and soft barriers that prevent people with these characteristics, along with women, ethnic minorities and other disadvantaged groups, from entering or progressing in the arts. These are generally defined as an artist’s access to cultural and social capital as “soft” barriers and access to financial capital and experience of discrimination as hard barriers.
The industries into which I have experience and insight are the music industry (particularly the “trad” world of Scottish and Irish music) and to a lesser extent the writing/publishing world, and that being from the perspective of a lack of access to social and financial capital.
In the worlds of traditional and classical music, film and acting, a chasm is steadily widening between people whose parents are able or willing to subsidise their efforts until they reach some kind of financial tipping point. As Vanessa Thorpe wrote in the Guardian in 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2016/feb/27/class-ceiling-working-class-actors-study 73% of actors in the British film and theatre industry come from middle class backgrounds.
In Glasgow, access to the film, theatre, traditional and classical music industries are focused around the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and the social network that stems from it. Reaching a starting point in these worlds will require years of extended practise, focused socialising and time to develop. The RCS have, like all Universities, a policy for diversity and equality. Their 2017 mainstream equality report showed that 12.5% of admissions were from deprived areas. If a student from this background manages to traverse the “soft” barriers such as the stress of a low income school and family life, imposter syndrome and deeply instilled lack of confidence and cultural pressure to avoid intellectualism, lack of access to private training leading up to the audition to the Conservatoire, gains acceptance and graduates, they will then be met with the reality. While they may graduate with more skill and contacts than they started with, they face tens of thousands of debt which children of medium to high income parents can wipe off, if they allowed it to accumulate in the first place. This will be followed by the daunting prospect of having to focus immediately on survival rather than further development of their craft. A person coming from a household where their parents cannot afford to subsidise their ambitions fully will be competing, in some cases, with graduates whose parents have bought them outright, or are renting them property near the social centres of those industries, who will have purchased them and will continue to purchase them the necessary thousands/tens of thousands of pounds worth of media, equipment and marketing necessary to get started.
My own attempts to compete in the world of Scottish traditional music without these financial advantages culminated in their inevitable mental collapse in 2017 and thousands of pounds worth of debt, which I’m still paying off today. It’s fairly straightforward to explain how this happened: I payed for my own tuition, payed for my own instruments and attended the social events that needed to be attended, while myself and my partner, also a musician, were completely responsible for our own earnings. Through my seven years absolutely battering it in the “trad” world, I didn’t meet a single other person who was in any way successful in that industry in the same situation, though I’m sure that statistically they exist.
We started a business through the “New Enterprise Allowance” (NEA), the equivalent of the old “Enterprise Allowance” (EA), the difference being that the NEA encourages a business to take out the maximum (admittedly low interest) loan of £5000 whereas the EA was focused on grants and bursaries for sole traders and artists that would not be required to pay back. This is a fundamental difference between my generation and my parents’. A whole generation of artists, musicians and writers in the 80’s were subsidised by the taxpayer, a support network that has completely disappeared, your choice being between searching for any job at any cost or signing up for masses of debt with the NEA. Many of artists from this generation, that would today be looked on as “underclass” for their lack of immediate contribution to the pot, are now successfully contributing and creating wealth for the whole country, including in my parents case, bringing in money into this economy from various different corners of the globe.
I used this loan to buy my first ever professional quality instrument, a debt which lasted five years. The value of the instrument purchased was still below that of the standard owned by the average 18 year old student at the RCS. I lived with my partner at the time and neither of our incomes were subsidised. The debt was accumulated by following the advice that I’d learned in college and through the NEA: making it is earning nothing except through music, somehow survive until you reach the tipping point.
The extent to which I tried, between leaving college and deciding, finally, to transition away from the life, took me about 150,000 words and 8 months of hard writing (around a full time job in a supermarket) to make sense of, which I then refined and whittled down to about 85,000. This is ironically what earned me my own first real artistic achievement: my first novel being accepted by a publisher.
The writing world is somewhat practically different to the music or theatre and film industry. In terms of equipment, a decent laptop will do the job (though again this is arguably unaffordable for low income families). It is technically possible to do around a physically demanding modern job like the one I have now, that would present problems for a musician. Being a musician, like being an actor or an artist, is an expensive game. Constant renewal and maintenance of equipment, materials or promo material, travel costs, having to physically be in a different place regularly to work, and working these things around a full time job is the reality for all artists without some for of subsidy. The same barriers cannot be said of writing. A new report by New Writing North (available here: http://newwritingnorth.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/NWN_CommonPeople_36ppA4_Web2.pdf
cited the main soft barriers to progressing in the writing world for working class writers as: 1 Confidence and Imposter Syndrome, 2 Lack of Access to Peer Support Networks 3 Industry Networks and Knowledge 4 Gatekeepers, Influencers and Role Models.
All of these points hit home for me. Point 4, for me, is literally the difference between beginning the writing process and not bothering, and being published or not. In my case, the beginning of the overcoming of my specific confidence void; having never been accepted to a University, was after reading a specific book about class and race, by a black, working class autodidactic author. After reading this, being on the 3rd draft of my book, I decided that what it was really about, was class, toxic masculinity, and mental health in the music industry. Very fortunately for me, Arkbound publishing like to publish books on social issues, and accepted the book on the strength of its class focus. If I hadn’t read this book at this time, I might have taken it in another direction and likely not been published. It takes working class authors being in positions of influence, being given exposure, to prove that it’s possible.
Though I couldn’t be described as working class in the traditional industrial sense, I grew up in Allison Street in Govanhill, Glasgow, before moving to Pollokshields aged 11 and then Cathcart aged 17. My parents are both artists, their income constantly changing. I remember my ma telling me that their average combined yearly become was, on a very good year, £20,000. I grew up thinking that anyone whose income was north of this was absolutely minted, (laughable now at 31 as my wife and I work 7 days a week, unable to afford childcare, holidays or to buy clothes except special occasions.)
My parents are both highly educated, therefore I had access to cultural but not financial or social capital, which I might have had if I’d followed them into the world of fine art. We read, painted, listened to a wide range of music, and I could write well at a very early age, performing extremely well in every academic subject. Despite this, I went to primary and secondary school in Govanhill, one of the most deprived areas in Britain, which neutralised the academic competence by the time I finished the first year of secondary.
I’m sure most children in most schools at the time experienced some degree of turbulence, but the secondary school was, at the time, the nexus of a dozen surrounding heavily deprived areas, and for some reason I became a focal point for a lot of the tensions between the different gangs which this started in primary and developed into secondary school. There were some children with wildly unstable home lives. The academic and disciplinary philosophy at the school at the time generally mirrored the Blairite philosophy of the day: focus on the academically capable and dinghy the troubled ones; they’ll be gone by fourth year anyway. The first four years of secondary were pure, unfiltered survival. My class was particularly brutal, several of the less fortunate kids are now in prison for murder or attempted murder, and for some reason, they particularly didn’t like me. Looking back, I can vividly remember several occasions where I realised that I’d have to start doing worse academically. One, while sitting next to a lad, his own dad himself in jail at that point, told me “I’m going to kick your c*** in if you dae that again.” He meant scoring 29 out of 30 for the History exam.
When we lived in Pollokshields, during the time that we were all preparing to sit our highers, the threat inside school had calmed but the threat of living in Pollokshields became the defining factor of my own life at the time, as well as my family’s. Their was a local gang that for some reason, like the now jailed anti historical success mob, focused their energies on me and my small group of pals that lived between Pollokshields and Govanhill, culminating, after a few batterings, with the threat of a good old fashioned stabbing that I was to watch out for any time I walked home from school. This was not an idle threat, the widely covered case of Kris Donald’s murder had happened in the area a few years previously by the same gang just two streets away. My cousin, who also went to the school and lived within the radius of conflict at the time, was stabbed and axed briefly after. The state of survival that this period initiated extended well into my twenties, before crashing, finally after about ten years. This is a phenomenon I’ve heard articulated by a few people who have grown up in schemes, but the account that hit me was by Akala in his book Natives, Class and Race in the Ruins of Empire. Reading Natives was a bit of a game changer. It validated something about the lens of constant defensiveness and paranoia through which I saw everything, and clarified my conflicted feelings about wanting to develop intellectually. He articulated the reasons that he, an academically advanced young, working class, black male, had spurned academia. He described this survival state’s eventual “drop” in his mid twenties, and his decision to self-educate. Though obviously his experience would be drastically more severe through encountering racism in London at the time, his experience of class and male pressure to underperform and adopt traditional male behavioural characteristics was extremely touching and relatable.
After this gang’s promise to “pure stab me”, I did what people do in this situation. My pal had given me a shillelagh to carry, and because the violent drinking that is deeply ingrained in our culture had started, I lost it. My pal then gave me a BB gun to carry, which, coincidentally, had just been made illegal. Crazy move eh? I was arrested for carrying it and a court case ensued, all when I could have been focusing on exams. I was jammy enough to avoid “Juvie” since Scotland’s most prominent criminal defence lawyer at the time, Joe Beltrami, took interest in the case because of recent murders in the area and represented me for free. Yikes.
Needless to say, academia wasn’t high on my priorities at the time, and I arsed the lot, except for a C in intermediate 2 English, as did my other male friends who lived in the area at the time. (Pollokshields and Govanhill.)
The year after, me and some pals had gotten into music, punk specifically, and the focus and relief that that can bring allowed me to quieten things down to an extent, apart from the violent sport drinking that we all engaged in. A habit of obsessive practising and binge drinking and destructive behaviour began and lasted ten years exactly. Akala’s theory is that most people who have experienced any kind of gang culture crash or experience a wakening at twenty five. It was pretty close for me (27). This crash was the point where various roads converged in my case. The real life example of someone who had experienced this specific culture and developed late into a widely respected polymath (another specific validation for me since most people I knew in the arts advised against switching art forms at 27) was crucial in my decision to continue writing and submit my work to a publisher. This is an obvious but practical example of inclusivity bearing fruit in the art world.
I’ve lucked out. The chances of your first book being published are, as most people will know, toty. I’ve somehow bypassed the process of acquiring a literary agent and attending relevant social events. My ability to write well in the first place is likely a product of my access to cultural capital, though I arsed it in school, my parents made books a thing, it was normal in my house. My life is hectic these days, but I’m absolutely resolved to continuing on this journey of developing as a writer. It’s likely that, without the validation of being accepted by a publisher, I wouldn’t have the confidence to describe myself as a writer and carry on through the exhaustion of raising a child, or be able to justify writing to myself as we continue to struggle for money and time.
Writing of fiction, life writing, script and play writing and poetry provide source material for the other creative industries. The more heavily those sources are written from the perspective of the upper classes, the more heavily all entertainment/art will reflect a much narrower section of society, the less working class people will find validation in real life examples of success that they can relate to, as I did, and the cycle will perpetuate. What are the practical solutions then? I’ll throw in my tuppence in the next blog.