Cracking Coal by Lisa Tippings

I learned to use my roots as literary inspiration and to acknowledge that I have every right to be proud of where I come from.

My university days were painted grey. I remember how grey the sky was, how grey the sea was and how the grey campus buildings disappeared into a ghostly grey horizon. Only on the day I left did I notice for the first time how the clouds skittered across the surrounding mountainside, and that when they did they left behind forks of blue sky. It was the first patch of blue I could remember seeing for many months.

University life was far from the hedonistic experience I had been promised. For four years I battled with an intermittent depression that lurked in my wake like a black sheep with a limp. The corridors of my halls of residence spun with a heady fusion of vomit, stale alcohol and hash, but

I sat like a shade on my bed, unwilling to cross the threshold of my room, convinced that I did not fit in.

I am certain my university lecturers thought I was an elective mute. In the close confinement of their tutor rooms, I sat in silence. Answers to questions would drift in and out of my head but not one of them was uttered.

I was too conscious of the way I spoke, too embarrassed by my thick south Wales valley accent, which carried with it decades of working class deprivation.

When I was nervous words tumbled out of my mouth, gathering speed until they made no sense. The first person who spoke to me in my halls asked me to repeat my first sentence several times, claiming they found my accent too difficult to understand. I immediately withdrew into myself and stayed there.

Everyone else spoke with voices that cut glass, but mine cut coal.

I was the first one from my family to go to university. Mum was a home carer and Dad worked in a local factory, cutting leather. They were so proud of my achievements that I couldn’t bear to let them down and drop out. I never once told them that all I wanted to do was to return home to my valley town of Brynmawr, and be near people who spoke like I did and who could understand my colloquialisms.

In spite of this, by the end of my first term, Mam had become Mum, dinner had become lunch and I realised I was existing in an odd limbo, no longer speaking like a true working class south Walian, but at the same time always a crisply cut syllable away from being accepted as middle class.

My only escape was to read. I gorged on the classics, Dickens, Eliot, Bronte and Austen, but although I studied English Literature, a subject in which I had flourished at A-Level, my love of words caught in my throat.

I left with a second grade result; a lower class degree for a lower class girl.

I was desperate to write, but believed I had nothing of value to say. I settled for a career in teaching, and was kept busy as a single mum; another failure to add to my growing list. Reading kept me sane through the misery of financial hardship and sustained me during those  weeks when in order to ensure my son did not go without, I lived off packets of Rich Tea biscuits. I scribbled stories and poems in old notebooks, but resigned myself to being my only reader.

A lack of money and class can be the strictest of silencers.

Thankfully, however, I was shown that there are always people willing to listen. After a year of saving hard, I was finally able to attend a five day Arvon writing course, a long held ambition. One of the tutors, Horatio Clare, was completely inspiring and took the time to compliment me on my work. He made me feel that I had something of value to say. He grew up on a sheep farm not far from Brynmawr, and he understood my working class reticence.

He also taught me to use my roots as literary inspiration and helped me to acknowledge that I have every right to be proud of where I come from.

Finally I can see that being working class has strengthened me; it’s made me who I am and taught me to work harder for what I want. Since the Arvon course I have begun an MA in Creative Writing at Swansea University and I no longer believe my tutors think I am a mute. I answer questions and share my work safe in the knowledge that I am not being judged on my background, but being listened to because I have something of value to say.

I am a Welsh working class writer, and proud of it.

Author: Carmen Marcus

As the daughter of a Yorkshire Fisherman and Irish Mother, my writing brings together the visceral and the magical. My debut novel #How Saints Die was published with Harvill Secker in 2017. It won New Writing North's Northern Promise Award as a work in progress and was longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize in 2018. My poetry has been commissioned by BBC Radio, The Royal Festival Hall and Durham Book Festival. As a child of an 80s council estate I am an advocate for working class writers and stories. I’m currently working on my first poetry collection The Book of Godless Verse and my next novel. I try to live up to the words of my first critic and primary school teacher ‘weird minus one house point.’

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