From The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists to Love on the Dole, from A Kestrel for a Knave to Trainspotting, the way in which working class people are portrayed in British fiction has varied through the ages, often indicating our social and economic status. As a working class reader, it is interesting to reflect on how our lives have been fictionalised in the first decade of this century.
Maggie Gees Orange Prize-nominated book, The White Family, is a story about racism within a white British family and has been praised for its writing style and handling of the subject. What interests me most about this work is the authors choice of a working class family as the central characters; working class people often appear in the context of race relations, with very little else to provide balance.
Its ironic that the work of black authors is often more even-handed. Andrea Levys Small Island, a novel about the Windrush generation of post-war Caribbean migrants, doesnt shy away from the harassment endured by her characters. The beating inflicted on Gilbert by his postal worker colleagues is shockingly vivid, but so is the supercilious derision encountered by Hortense from middle-class education workers when she enquires about a job.
As someone who grew up in inner city London, I often find myself looking to the work of black London writers for characters, places and situations that I recognise. In 1981 Alex Wheatle and I were both 18 and living in Brixton at the time of the riots. I didnt know Alex, but the historical accuracy of his novel, East of Acre Lane, takes me back to that time. Interestingly, one of the main characters is white, reinforcing what I knew: although the riots were sparked by police brutality against black youths, many white people were involved.
Another of Alex Wheatles novels, The Seven Sisters [currently out of print], looks at a group of friends growing up in care and the way this has affected them as adults. One of the characters is a white boy who becomes so involved with an abusive ex-army house father he later becomes a soldier himself. In one scene the house father is trying to discourage him from associating with his black friends, but the boy stays loyal. Whatever else this sadist can turn the young boy into, he cant make him racist.
Getting away from the victims-or-villains portrayal of working class characters is harder, but can be done with a bit of searching. Ann Donovans Buddha Da is written in Glaswegian dialect, which takes some getting used to, but works as the characters speak straight from the page without paraphrasing. I was cautious of this story of a Glaswegian painter and decorator exploring Buddhism. It seemed too much like that old sitcom chestnut where a working class person is taken out of their environment and transferred to a gallery, posh restaurant or cultural event so that the audience can laugh at their faux pas. Luckily the story is nothing of the kind. Its a family comedy about discovery and transformation. Class is incidental.
There wouldnt be a working class without work and I was amused by Magnus Mills latest novella The Maintenance of Headway. Many people engaged in public services will recognise the petty rules, conflicts and resentments expressed in this story. The internal and external dialogue of the characters is impressively real and so it should be: Mills was a bus driver when his first novel was published.
Twenty-first century fiction so far shows working class people to be more diverse today than ever. It can only be a matter of time before we break away from literary stereotypes for good. But for that to happen, more working class authors need to use their experience to inform their work. These novels demonstrate the richness that is available to be read and enjoyed.