Words Love Them Hate Them by Meg Kemp

It stops now: the shame, the hiding. I am a person who writes.

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The shelves seem to go up forever. I look up with both delight and fear at the wall of books. The floorboards creak alarmingly and the gaps between them seem cavernous. There is a musty but chocolatey smell of foxed paper, dust moats float around.

Standing in the reading room with Grandad … is one of my earliest memories.

Life at Nan and Grandads was full of anecdotes and reminiscing.

How she met my granddad; dropping her glove on purpose so he’d retrieve it for her.

How Mrs Baily next door lost her brother overboard during the Second World War.

The holidays they spent in London, visiting the Victory Club on the Mall.

We would go through her jewellery box; there were lucky rabbit’s feet!  Jet broaches and strings of fake pearls a story went with every item.

Sitting on the bus damp and steaming we would eaves drop on the sagas of others.

I was constantly transported to other realms.

There were books at home. I read in my own way. Sometimes I could not pronounce a certain word but could guess its meaning by looking at the context of the other words in the sentence.

I have never had trouble falling under the spell of the worlds that lie behind the covers of books. The Famous Five and Secret Seven, given for Christmas and birthdays appealed to my wild independent nature I could feel the hardness of the beds in the Ring O bells public house and feel the sea spray on Kirrin Island.

The excitement and danger was compelling but I remember feeling prickly when ‘poor children’ with scuffed shoes were always the wayward ones, who needed showing the proper way to behave.

When I was thirteen Grandad gave me a subscription to readers digest condensed books. I slept with the colourfully bound books under my pillow.

I moved on to paper backs smuggled from the attic; Valley of the Dolls and the Mallen trilogy

It was at ‘Secondary’ school the problems started poor eye sight, pink national health glasses, grey socks and cheap shoes were not worn by would be writers. Too self-conscious to sit at the front yet I couldn’t see from the back.

No matter how I tried I could not get to grips with the written word, I spelt the same words wrong in different ways in the same paragraph.

My writing was illegible the pen didn’t sit comfortably in my hand making it ache and I could not keep up with note taking. I had no organisational skills.

My work was literally held up by teachers has an example of how not to write an essay.

Don’t tell me the dog did your homework this week, Miss Worrell: home economics.

Did you use the most creased piece of paper you could find, Miss Smith: English.

Useless, useless, useless, Mr Parker History: as he threw the exercise book over my classmates’ heads aiming for either me or my desk. I was never sure.

Yet still I read. When I found Wuthering Heights at fourteen, the flow of the text seemed inextricably linked to the tumbling and sparkling moorland streams.

Words that gathered momentum picking up boulders and rocks, depositing them with great impact: you could feel the how precious each word had been to the author.

I scribbled scripts for Starsky and Hutch and songs for the Bay City Rollers.  One day I came home from school to find them torn to shreds dumped in the kitchen bin with mouldy tea bags and vegetable peelings.

‘They were disgusting,’ my mother screamed, ‘where did you learn words like that?’

‘From Valley of the Dolls’ I replied; the slap was quick leaving a hand print that lasted for hours.I still can’t read or watch the scene from ‘Oranges are not the only fruit’ where Mrs Winterson is burning books in the back yard without crying.

I did have access to books at home at my grandparents, at the school library.

The library van came once a week; the same man drove it for years.  It parked in the bus stop near the swings.

I preferred going in the winter months so I could sneak in without being seen.

What still haunts me, giving me the chills was me the apathy:

Nobody likes a clever clogs’ or ‘There’s sum ‘at wrong with that one always has her head in a book.’

‘Don’t get above yourself my girl’.

A fortune teller said there would be a family member who would have some success with the ‘written word’.

‘I was told it must be your sister, it couldn’t’ possibly be you could it?

In my forties dyslexia was diagnosed like a woolly mammoth in my brain, that was being  uncovered in an archaeological, dig, bit by bit until all the pieces fitted together.

This explained lots of things that had dogged my school years, my poor spelling, uncoordinated handwriting, lack of organisation and poor memory and exam performance. In doing an online Open University course, a degree especially chosen so I do not have to meet other students face to face very much.

Stan Barstow was the first author I read who I felt wrote about my world. I was about nineteen when I discovered him.

I still write but hide my work.

Only this year when listening to ‘Where are all the working class writers’ on Radio 4 I realised that it’s okay be from a working class background and have the temerity to want to be a writer.

Okay to have an opinion, to speak out, to listen to Radio 4 and Radio 3.

There are others like me.

It stops now: the shame, the hiding. I am a person who writes.

Bio I live in Lancashire, I have lived on a narrow boat working and traveling the system. My favourite water ways are the Shropshire Union canal and the Upper Thames but all canals have their unique beauty. My passions are nature, reading and writing and … Jack Russel terriers.  I have a degree in psychology and English.

Twitter: @megski1

Firstly by Douglas Bruton

I am not sure where it is I belong or even what this class thing really means…

Firstly, (and there will only be a ‘firstly’ for reasons that will become clear) I find it hard to know which class I belong to. My parents were brought up in the poorest part of Edinburgh and they were not educated – my father was bright enough but his poverty held him back… he had three jobs by the time he was fourteen and there was no money for school and no time… he joined the army when he was twenty as an escape from poverty and as an escape into some sort of education.

My mother kept a house that was clean as a new pin and my brother and I were always turned out smart – she’d have been mortified if we weren’t. Debt was never countenanced and we never bought anything we did not have the money for.

Education was held up as the golden ticket into a good future. Everything was sacrificed to my education – including my place in the family.

When my father was posted to Germany at the end of the 1960s I was forced to attend a forces subsidised boarding school for two years. Then after this I stayed with my uncle in Edinburgh so I could finish my education all in the one place – my uncle was a refuse collector (we called them bin men in the 1970s). I wore second hand clothes at high school; my school bag was a rescued miner’s haversack that had seen better days; I washed and ironed my own shirts, and cooked (if frying potatoes can be called cooking), and I slept in an unmade bed that held my shape like a nest. There was no money in my pockets and no money in the house I lived in. I did not really feel I belonged there.

Then a teacher and her husband adopted me in 1974 and seeing the potential in me they steered me successfully into university.

They were middle class – he played the Bassoon in the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and she was a graduate form Oberlin college in America.

I did not feel I belonged in their house and I did not feel I belonged at university either.

I did not think I was clever enough or from the right background – mostly because my background by then was quite blurry.

Now I own my own house and I have been a teacher for all my working life and I have two degrees and I am as far away from the boy I was growing up as I could ever have imagined – as far away from that wee boy as my father could ever have imagined for me. I am broadly socialist in my thinking and work hard for those who need a leg up in life.

But I cannot be said to be working class in any conventional definition of what that means. Indeed, whenever I think of class I have a crisis of confidence…

the same crisis of confidence I had as a kid living with my uncle and four male cousins and again as a fish out of water at university –

because I am not sure where it is I belong or even what this class thing really means… does it have any meaning or relevance in today’s society?

Is it to do with money or education or what school you went to or who your parents were or who you vote for in an election or the sound of your voice or what you eat or drink or manners or cleanliness or life expectancy or culture or what?

Seems to me that nothing is as fixed as it was and everything is in transition.

So, you see, I am stuck on that ‘firstly’ of my opening paragraph and not knowing if I am being a fraud to say I come from the working class. It is not a quiet shame that holds me back from taking ownership of the right class; it is a genuine misgiving about whether this division by class is in any way real in our modern multicultural society.

The impact of my origins on my writing: There were no books in my house (except a copy of a biography of Scott of the Antarctic, which my father kept on the top shelf of his wardrobe, a prize he won at school and never shared with me). My parents were not into books and any contact with reading that I had was through school. The quality of that experience will always be dependent on the teachers you have. I had a great Primary school teacher in Miss Keeble and she read lots to us and I fell briefly in love with books: ‘Stig of the Dump’, ‘The Borrowers’, ‘The Family From One End Street’ and ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ – a wonderful year. Then later at high school when I wasn’t reading again another brilliant teacher said I should read Lawrence’s ‘Sons and Lovers’; I did and that led to me doing a degree in English Literature and Philosophy. Somehow I knew that I wanted to be of the world of literature, even in Miss Keeble’s class, but I always thought that was as a reader… until one day I got a computer and wrote a whole novel in snatched time over six months and there were moments when it was nearly as good as sex; I was thirty-one by this time.

I think I had to get an education in reading before I found I could write, as though I was catching up on what was not part of my background growing up.

I write about people and I hope I write with a universal compassion and maybe that is somehow tied up with not being rooted to one place or one people but being of all people.

Estates of Mind by Karla Neblett

It’s a manor house. Half of which is rented by a university to teach postgraduate students. Rectangular lawns lead up to it. They’re trimmed short, with perfect straight edges, and a path runs through the middle that tolerates the only sound, your scuffing Timberland boots. There are peacocks, of course, wearing single blue feathers as crowns and they stare at you, wondering.

Where are you from?

A council estate in Somerset, but dad’s is a nice one because the houses are brown brick, not painted in that giveaway social-housing-terracotta and even though the half of the road who have bought their homes don’t speak to each other, they drive nice cars, plant freesias and mow the grass. Mum’s estate isn’t pretty. Walls are grey, wire fences are fallen, bushes overgrow and number eleven still hasn’t moved that mattress from the driveway. People don’t talk there either, but they know how to argue about the bins and parkingspace.

Deep breath in when your tummy turns as you near the country manor which is ten windows wide, four in length and has frowning gargoyles which stick their tongues out at you. The type of estate that has history, where the family knows its family tree and the rooms are filled with books, exotic ornaments and singing instruments.

You can guess what’s inside because your mum’s cleaned posh houses and you helped her out a couple of times, understanding why she developed tennis elbow.

Not a life you wanted.

You wanted more.

Teachers drummed that in at school. Thirteen years ago you took your first loan and studied for an undergraduate degree. You were afraid to speak because of your accent and wondered how you could have anything intelligent to say to the learned classes? These were students who debated economics and politics at home, but you’d left your family shouting about X Factor results. Others on the course asked you what your parents did for work and you answered, ‘Mum’s a cleaner and dad’s on disability.’

The father of one of your course mates owned one of the most popular brands of crisps in the country, and for the past ten years you’ve remembered her chiselled chin each time you opened a packet of lightly salted and crunched, happy that on Facebook, she’d become a therapist.

You hadn’t. Back then loans didn’t exist for postgraduate study so psychology was out the window, not that you particularly enjoyed it. You’d just been told that it would be easy to create a career with. Undirected, you hopped from job to job, miserable. Watched your three younger brothers work in trades and earn more than you. Celebrated university friends’ promotions to thirty grand a year and seen their parents help them secure mortgages.

Your nan’s always had a spare bedroom, there’s no room at mum’s, so that’s where you live at thirty-two.

Nan has a porch full of tiny china cottages and a front door that squeaks in the winter when you have to yank it open because the wood swells.

The huge black door at the manor house is closed. A sign directs around the side of the building. You pass a tree whose leaves drape to the floor, not a willow, something else, and there’s space beyond the leaves to hide, but you can’t. Today’s the day for a writing workshop.

At thirty-one you’d had a smidgen of a breakdown, asked your old uni friends for advice, and left a support worker job to work in HR so you could ‘move up the ladder’.

Three months later you walked out, but not before winning a short story competition at the company, which made you remember the first thing you ever wanted to be when you grew up.

A writer.

You? A writer? Seriously? People like you weren’t novelists. But you’d always written bits; diaries, poetry and recently, short stories. Wasn’t it a secret fantasy to be a novelist like J K Rowling? Not that you write make-believe.

You write about working-class things, real life. People call it ‘gritty’.

Finally, you were only left with your dream to chase, and last year you were accepted onto a creative writing master’s degree. You’ve been studying for six months. In the politics module there was a discussion about appropriation.

The teacher himself assumed, ‘We’re all white, middle-class.’

You retorted that you were working-class and in fact, mixed race. He snorted. And you burned red, heart pounding, as another student jumped in, in your defence because you don’t articulate in debates.

You’re used to keeping your uncouth working-class mouth shut around the middle-classes for fear of proving their preconceptions about your uncontrolled self-expression.

At the side of the manor house there’s a large square button with a wheelchair on it. Press. The heavy door whirrs open. You’ve been attending writing events to learn about the industry, where people snigger when you say your manuscript tackles drug themes, and sometimes it makes you think that you don’t want to be a writer. There’s too much snobbery. But then you decided to be your own kind of writer, writing stories that anyone can read without any fancy words and just hope the industry will be interested. Because you need to make money for yourself, and for mum. And you have a voice fighting to be heard.

You step onto the worn stone, wondering how many others have walked through these doors hoping the same, and if in a year’s time you’ll be able to submit to agents. Surely this degree has to be more successful than the last? It’s practising what you love. Crafting a skill that will enable you to communicate in a powerful way.

This is it. And you know as sure as blood runs through your veins that writing is what you’re meant to do because of your background.

So a month ago you started a story about something familiar, forcing readers to look at lives like the ones you know.

ABOUT ME:

Karla, from Somerset, decided to write seriously in January 2016. Along with a bachelor’s degree in psychology she has worked in various environments supporting teens and is interested in the motivations of people and barriers they face. She decided to write about topics she knew and issues experienced in her social demographic because she felt there was a gap in current literature. Her first novel draws attention to the reality some young people face who are, unfairly, labelled. Of her first draft, completed on the Bath Spa MA, Lucy English described it a ‘dark piece of social realism.’ Karla graduated in 2017 and is currently working on the second draft. Until her website is finished and published, Karla can be contacted by email: karlaneblett@gmail.com or on Twitter @KarlaNeblett

Monster Boy by Jack Hook

Asking scuffed-shirted, pack-lunched me to be a writer was like asking Batman to have a nice sit-down and a cuppa with the Joker.

I was maybe nine or ten when I first wrote a story. The fiction bug had already bitten me a few years before, I was a voracious reader. Mostly horror stories, or the juvenile equivalent. Anything with slime or fangs suited me fine. My teachers had noticed this of course, mostly because I would spend half of every class holding that day’s gory story open under my desk and constantly bobbing my head down to read. I thought I was the pinnacle of subtlety. It was also impacting on my schoolwork though, gifting me a budding vocabulary and the crudest possible form of wit. I remember the beaming pride I’d felt when I used the word “dilemma” and was congratulated for what may have been the first time in the entirety of my education.

The result of all this was that I was drafted into a “Gifted and Talented” class, wherein a few children would get sat down on a Thursday afternoon and given rudimentary lessons on how to write fiction.

I got to skip a maths lesson, so that was a plus. Other than that, I didn’t really know why I was there. I didn’t know what a writer was.

Writers weren’t people you’d meet on the street, not round my way. Writers were off in the nebulous somewhere, inhabitants of another world that didn’t intrude on mine.

Asking scuffed-shirted, pack-lunched me to be a writer was like asking Batman to have a nice sit-down and a cuppa with the Joker.

In hindsight, I was a lucky little bugger. Just a decade before, when my brother had started at that same school, they had to warn the kids not to pick up used needles off the street. Now they were trying to poke daydreaming little sprogs like me into actually using the creativity that would otherwise go to waste. So I wrote. I had my first brushes with drama and comedy and fantasy, all in a little terrapin hut at the far-end of the playground. I’m not usually one for memories but that poky portable classroom is still vivid and always shining.

Those first few times I scrawled out a story, it felt like I was casting a spell.

Maybe I was. By some occult definitions, all a spell requires is intent and effort. The effort was there and the intent, though I didn’t fully understand it at the time, was to simply escape. I had this idea that writers, wherever they were, prodded at the walls of reality, stretched them just a little bit. Without even realising it, I was beginning to do the same. If I was older, and even more achingly pretentious, I would’ve said that I was suffering from ennui.

When facing down the existential barrel of a life filled with limited prospects and endless terraced mazes, children fantasise.

Being lost-lost royalty or saving the world with your superpowers, these are the things that sustained us. As I continued to fill my schoolbook with loose vignettes and strange characters in that stuffy classroom, I started to become aware that what sustained me could also save me.

Not too long after, there was a writing competition in the school. Participation was mandatory for the students of the Gifted and Talented class. Tiny, burgeoning anarchist that I was, I tried to worm my way out of that one without much success. There was no real reason to, I’d fallen in love with writing by now, but I just hated anything that was compulsory. That impotent spirit of revolution is probably what inspired the story I ended up entering for the competition. A young boy moves to a new school, in which almost every student is vacant, docile perfection. A night-time trespassing reveals that the headteacher is a hideous lizard-being, hiding inside the skin of a middle-aged man. Our intrepid protagonist is taken and eventually converted into another ideal student. Like I said, pinnacle of subtlety. Yes, if you’re wondering, I did think I was a punk visionary sticking it to The Man. The Man was apparently into that sort of thing because the silly story only went and won the competition. It was a bizarre feeling, standing up on stage and being handed a certificate. It didn’t matter that it was just a piece of laminated paper, didn’t matter that the teacher said my brother’s name instead of mine (A common occurrence, he a was a much more memorable student), didn’t matter that this would be forgotten by the next day.

I had discovered something, a rudimentary door to that other far-flung world where all those writers lived.

What’s more, I had been rewarded for it. This child had only excelled at one thing before, getting into trouble. Making a mess is what was expected of me. Tousled and grubby working-class kids aren’t usually taught that fiction can be an outlet. Honestly, we’re not given many outlets at all. Not ones that are legal, at least.

To learn that there was something inside me capable of creating rather than just destroying, something that I was good at… I hate to sound cliché but it truly changed my life.

Annoyingly, I can’t remember the names of those teachers now. If I did, I would thank them here. Those nameless wonders gave me the means of production, if you will. They showed me that I could do better than borrow other people’s worlds for a temporary escape –

showed me the art of flailing wildly at a page and presuming it’ll be editable later.

I hope that those teachers influenced many others over the years and are still doing so because they don’t know it, they probably never will, but they took me by the collar and flung me onto the road that I’m still travelling down today. It’s not well-lit or very well-paved, someone should probably talk to the local council about that, but it’s got a certain charm to it. It feels like home.

—-

J.H. Hook is still raging against the machine and still hopelessly obsessed with monsters. He was born and raised in Liverpool and can confirm that Penny Lane is not worth a visit. He and his published stories can be found at @MrHookman, ignore all the tweets about underpants and Twin Peaks. He’s currently writing The Cavendish Files, a short story collection about a hardboiled P.I. facing Lovecraftian horrors with nothing but bare knuckles and sarcasm. Your pirate jokes do not amuse him.

—-

Wild horses of Suburbia by Astra Bloom

I got hold of a laptop and began again, one finger typing till I had 756 pages of mildly promising chaos.

Jennifer MorrisonMay 2004 I found myself alone and bedbound in a motel in Dorset. I’d been struggling with a traumatic, debilitating illness for two years, feeling a bit stronger, I’d hoped to manage a camping holiday with my family. Shortly after setting up our tent I collapsed.

For three days I slept, stared at the wall and cried.

I thought, not for the first time, of ending my life. Instead, not for the first time, I took up my pen.

I started a novel which has just been longlisted for the 2017 Mslexia novel award. For years I was so ill I only wrote for twenty minutes a day. I showed no one my writing for ten years.

Every day I shooed away voices in my head – You can’t even put enough money on the gas metre, some days you can’t walk to the end of the garden, how the hell can you write a book!

The finished novel was handwritten in fifteen giant, kid’s sketchbooks from the pound shop. I got hold of a laptop and began again, one finger typing till I had 756 pages of mildly promising chaos. Then I began again. Writing for longer and longer periods, I took breaks by writing poetry – on days when nothing could help my pain – poems got me through.

I’m working class, I expect slog and boredom with flashes of joy or wonder.

I learned that stories are wonderful, great, whopping lies with seeds of truth at their core. I fell in love with this realisation pretty young. Now I can only shake out my naked-truth-back-story if I sort of jig it, clapping and stamping as I go – it’s a survival thing, a need to turn pain and ugliness into beauty – or at least something new. ‘Make your worst art,’ someone said – so please, if you fancy it – see below.

First of five. Suburbs London. Big sister. Weird one.

Teach him read. Teach her dance. Teach her run.

Father 60’S Mod. Slog stress shout.

Jobs long shifts left school fifteen.

Telegram boy butcher house removals airplane cleaner mini cab driver.

Mother 60’s Beehive Girl.

Angry grieving mad times bad times chase-hit-scream.

Telephonist cleaner pub cook. Nineteen pregnant baby me.

Nan bought me blue pocket dictionary.

Words!

Dynamite!

Mine!

Taught me to write

my name

flow-loop-deep-blue in this spell book.

Kind-worn-hot-butter-toasty sunflower in a Socialist badge.

Nan showed me Ladybird Books on the paper shop twirling rack.

Then everything

fell –

including me –

Splat! –

when she died suddenly.

Early school crayons-books-smells-colours. Teachers are Posh-

still, a tall kind one teaches me to read on her lap. And.

Wait a Minute! No one can bash this new sense out of me!

Even if. People in books are posh, like doctors and people in posh houses and people with posh voices. Even if posh is better. Even if only common is not better. Even if Mother says I am common if I say Aint. Even if I get my head smashed against the sink for bringing Aint home from infant school cos Aint is one of her only rules.

Even if we are a house in chaos and we don’t have friends round.

We play war in the streets, on the heath. Mum says she could have got an exam but she wanted to leave… She likes some books like Valley of the Dolls. Later time I discover she loves Laurie Lee.

Dad reads the Daily Mirror and The Sun – I hate big bosoms. Women are for tits not for words. I hate some words, tits is my hatest. Dad buys us Kit Kats or Curly Wurlies when he comes off night shift.

Mum says Don’t Tell Tales about what you see, hear (one day I will). She whacks me with a carving knife, chases me with a rolling pin – I’m fast but you can never be fast enough (remember that) – I get used to getting knocked down, who cares, I get used to getting up.

Mum says I’m No personality Not funny Not a looker, and if I was any of these I might have a chance of Friends and a Rich man.

I watch her and I listen and I hurt deep to my toes through the earth to its core.

I do quiet-sad, quiet-angry, quiet-scared; school calls these Shy, Cat Got Your Tongue, Learn To Contribute, Moody. But I learn like I drink. Thirsty-quick-quick.

Posh kids have books, bookmarks, happy-slept-faces. Parents want to them do homework, learn piano which costs Youmustbekiddin.

Grandad did house removal, tea chest of old plays – a foreign language – angry – no one to explain them to me.

But Library in town is beautiful. Oh wooden twirly stairs! Oh shelves polish and deep! Oh paper is important.Oh Thank You to the trees!

Dad takes us from under her feet – he’s late returning things – down bear-brown stairs, away we troop, dad shouting about fines he Can’t Won’t Pay. Looks so shamey I ache for him. Tear up our tickets. Who cares, no one from our street goes libraryin anyway.

And soon I have a school library – safe – ah – space and back and back, stretching soft light and quiet ticktick time. Only a librarian, brush of her rough tights, squeak of her stamp; only children – mouse ones, tired ones, frumpy-handkerchief-up-sleeve-teased ones, brain boxes, ironed-grey, slim-flick-page-fingers. We put down bags, sigh, sigh, eyes flick over each other like light. No Oi Tramp, Oi Lesbo, Oi Frigid, Oi Wierdo in the library.

Always secret scribblin. I hide my dear diary. New place each day. Mother finds it, tears out pages about her, puts it back. Tore at my skin, now she’s goin at the paper me.

I give up this thing I love. Remind myself of Jesus from junior’s assembly. Inside my head is a holy sanctuary. Flush away diaries, she Will Not take my words from me.

Watch listen remember create. Watch listen dream create.

But. It’s a killer, I hate big school. I must write my worst in English, I put A for effort and creativity into stoopid-dimbo-mistakes and dull-idiotness. Can’t afford to be a Swot as well as a Freak.

Fifteen, dad says Work. No. Had jobs since I was 12 gotta save for pads, bras deodorant, magazines. Pennies don’t go far when you turn woman.

Teacher says A levels.

Dad says Thinkyou’rebetterUselesspieceof

Air Stewardess is better – but you have to be…And languages, and taller,  says mum.

Still. I turn A* Girl in my ripped tights and eyeliner. Hardy, Orwell, Shakespeare

blow my weirdo mindo! I’m waking up – this might be happiness.

I dream one night of daffodils opening. Dreams of a future, I have, but no not hope.

Hope is for Luckies with hope already. Dreams are wild horses, beautiful-unrealistic.

No more waste of time school. Dad wants me out from his roof, not a kid anymore.

Mother going to court for shop lifting. I’m a tear-face every morning. Teacher says

University. I want oh I want. But mum is never home, baby brother’s depressed alone.

How can I stay? But how can I soddin go?

Exam. Freeze. Hand writes name. Then only sweat streaming.

Only ticktock End of University. Nice teacher spits

Stupid girl!

Thinks a Teenage Rebel’s let her down.

Can’t explain. She won’t talk to me.

Soothed by Katherine Mansfield kept from the school library. I run.

Paris. Useless au pair. Sleeper on floors, lover of a boy, keeper of a notepad God.

An acher of pain in London. Homeless. Bin bag of clothes. Two books – K M’s short stories, Great Gatsby. Sleeping in a phone box, and a doorway. Squats. Penniless. Waitress. Shops. Airport. Evening classes. Fashion biz. Magazines, shoots. Can’t speak to the PR girls, that skin those teeth, they’re posh gloss. I am nothing.

But

Maya Angelou. Oh my god, Maya Angelou.

Emily Dickinson. Oh, and The Beat Poets. The bloody Beat poets!

And Woolf! And so many! I chant their names. I love my angels and my angels love me.

Partner. Babies. Happy. Play. Parks. Ducks. Stories. Childminding while home educating my kids. Partner long shifts. Running, always running. Writing till 2 in morning. Want to be everything my mum wasn’t – till everything stops with sudden illness.

Bang!

Bedbound, housebound, can’t hold a toothbrush. Can’t sit up, walk, write or read…

And years.

Till a bursary. A Creative Writing class.

Where this tutor man tells me

The difficulty is you write from your imagination.

Also

You have a willful disregard for convention.

Is he venting cos I don’t write from the right class and learning?

You must think of your reader, he says.

I wrote to survive – I was my reader.

Now I think of my reader. Hah! My reader will probably not be him…

I’m not middle class, no degree, rarely go to the theatre, not been skiing…

Still, one day some women and one man listening; all tremble-sweat,

I dare to share a story. They say Love, they say Good, and Wow.

And so before self-doubt can stop me

I  must  run  free  with  all  my  wild horses.

Astra Bloom has won and, or, been shortlisted in short story and poetry competitions, including Bare Fiction, Bridport, Live Canon and The Brighton Prize. She has poems forthcoming in Magma and Under the Radar, stories forthcoming in A Wild and Precious Life (an anthology about recovery of all sorts) and two novels sitting on the Mslexia novel award longlist.

 

She loves this poem.

Late Fragment BY RAYMOND CARVER

And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so? I did. And what did you want? To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.

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.

Fear of Words by Helen Donohoe

Writing and publishing is overwhelmingly a world set apart from the working class. But show me a profession that isn’t? So much needs to change and publishing has so much to gain.

There were barely any books in our home. Once a year the comic story books Oor Wullie and The Broons would arrive in the post from family in Scotland. There were Blue Peter annuals at Christmas and my Irish mum must have had a Bible tucked somewhere. But we didn’t have ‘proper’ books. There was no bookshop near my hometown. What money my dad earned from shop-fitting and my mum from cleaning jobs and factory night-shifts occasionally brought in the Daily Mirror, but no more.

So I grew up surrounded by stories but intimidated by the written word.

We had the classic Irish and Scottish tradition of verbal story telling in abundance – mine was a huge, sociable and funny extended family. I was also brought up by the narratives of folk and country music.

I learnt to tell a good story, with comedy timing, but I couldn’t spell, my grammar was (and remains) atrocious and at school I was kept at the back of the room with the other scruffy kids.

We weren’t allowed pens (pencils only) and it was assumed we didn’t do books. We were written off before we’d had a chance to get started.

I was curious though. Despite my appearance (a school-dress wearing football obsessive who was regularly chastised for beating up boys) I wanted to know what books had to offer. So, as I approached my teens, I quietly accumulated a few books via jumble sales. Something made me afraid to read pure fiction, so I started with Every Girls Judo and A Beginners Guide to Fishing. I read both, not with ease, but I became better at fighting and catching carp. But, they weren’t enough. I wanted stories. I had a curiosity about other people’s lives and how they compared to mine. So, I acquired battered books about Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer and Pippi Longstocking. Those three sat proudly on my little shelf, but I couldn’t bring myself to read them.

Whenever I picked up a novel I would read the first line then turn immediately to the back page to see how things worked out. It took me years to break that habit and it was a revelation when I finally enjoyed the evolution of a good book and saw how an enthralling story develops and grows.

The first novel that allowed me to do that was Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín. The honest, concise writing, with words that I could relate to and understand, was an inspiration. From there I scoffed up every word he’s ever written.

I saw that stories about vulnerability and human relations are valid and can be built from personal experience and, if I were to ever write, it’s okay for me to write about human struggles as well.

My head, however, still said no. Writing was for the privileged, those with independent money, the confident and connected. People that I’d never met before.

But it eats away at you. I’m an introvert with things to say and writing is my natural home. So, for many years I tried to read more. I read books about reading, books about writing and, from the safety of my kitchen, I signed up to an online writing course. It was affordable and pretty much anonymous; a perfect introduction to the terrifying prospect of having somebody else read my writing.

It remained a sideline while my paid work, young children and dependent parents were my priority. I had a job that in many ways fulfilled my need to tell the stories of the disadvantaged. I worked for Action for Children, a charity that with some of the most vulnerable children and young people in the UK.  Nonetheless, the itch to write, to create complex characters and take them on a journey, would not fade.

There were a number of catalysts that led me to a single minded determination to get on with it. I turned forty. My Mum was diagnosed with a serious illness and having snapped my Achilles, I spent months in bed.

From there I read extensively, but also burned with rage as I listened to the middle class monotone of Radio 4 and kept asking myself, where are the people like me?

So, with blind courage, I walked into the open evening at City University. Did I have to be well-read? Did I have to be published? Did I have to be… I asked of the course Director. Whatever he said must have reassured me. I applied. I blagged the interview and through a process that felt like jumping out of a plane without parachute, I put the fees on a credit card and took the plunge.

The City University creative writing MA requires a complete novel manuscript to be written. I needed that discipline. The environment was competitive but collegiate and my fears of humiliation were unfounded. My tutors were inspiring and exasperated in equal measure (I struggled with grammar and some novel writing basics). However, they saw in me, not finesse, but a decent story and a determination to tell it.

From there Birdy Flynn arrived in her naïve, vulnerable but fighting glory. I wrote the story that I wanted to read when I was thirteen with honesty and realism.

I won the course prize. With that came representation and with much more work came publication through Oneworld, a publisher with proven commitment to diversity.

Birdy Flynn was turned down by many more though. It was ‘too dark’ for some.

It’s not dark, it’s real and actually softened up. I was astonished to be asked, ‘do people really live like that?’ Yes they do.

Throughout that process my suspicions and fears were confirmed.

Writing and publishing is overwhelmingly a world set apart from the working class. But show me a profession that isn’t?

My career in the charity world has been just as fraught with self-doubt and imposter syndrome.

Tragically, social mobility in this country is whimpering.

So much needs to change and publishing has so much to gain.

An industry that depends on original, compelling stories must open its eyes to the rich seam of authentic working class voices that it has yet to mine.

Helen Donohoe

I am a writer of fiction and non-fiction and a personal coach.

My debut novel, Birdy Flynn was published by Oneworld in March 2017. It’s set in 1982 and covers three turbulent months in the life of a feisty twelve year old.

Pre-order Birdy Flynn at Amazon

I’m passionate about personal development and so I teach creative writing to children and provide one to one mentoring to adults who want to write. I also practice as a personal coach for individuals who want to make the most of their life, be it career based or creative, or both.

My roots are Irish and Scottish but I have lived in north London for over twenty years. I’m interchangeably obsessed with curry, Arsenal FC, good Guinness and books.

http://www.helendonohoe.org