Finding My Voice by Kathy Hoyle

‘Knowledge.’ Such a big word for a five-year-old.

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My Mam’s hands are what I remember most about her. She always had a bottle of Vaseline Intensive Care next to the little lamp on the coffee table. She drank tea. Coffee was what people on the telly drank. She would rub the sunshine-yellow cream in every night. They were scorched, chafed to a red-ness that no amount of cream would ever soothe but she kept on, said it helped take away the burn from the fibres. She was proud of those hands, best seamstress in that factory, she proclaimed. Those posh lads down in London wouldn’t get a nicer suit jacket if they tried.

I hated those posh lads down in London. Look what they’d done to me poor Mam’s hands.

Dad was a voice at six o clock. ‘Home!’ he would boom while we struggled into Pyjama bottoms that rode up to the knee and washed our faces in ice-water in the sink. He would grab us as we ran toward the outhouse and rub our faces with his whiskers. Then he’d smack us on the arse and finish his pie and we would take the bucket upstairs and fight over whose turn it was to empty it in the morning. Dad always looked mucky. I liked to sit on his lap and pick the dirt from his fingernails with the cocktails sticks from Mam’s party cupboard.

On my first day at school, our teacher wrote a word on the blackboard. She asked us to put our hands up if we knew what it said. Mam read to us every night. I’d lean into her fluffy dressing gown and follow her finger across the page. My hand shot up. When the teacher pointed at me I beamed with pride. ‘Knowledge.’ Such a big word for a five-year-old. At playtime, Rachel brown and her big sister, Leanne called me a scruffy, swotty, bastard and kicked me so hard I skidded across the playground and lost a bit of my front tooth.

On my first day at school… I learnt to keep quiet.

Mrs Calvert was kind. She let me into the library at lunchtime. I could borrow any book, she said. I showed Mam. She said Mrs Calvert should treat us all the same and I should learn to stay out of trouble.  When I was ten, my sister grassed me up. Mam came upstairs and shouted at me for crying when Aslan died.

‘What the frig is an Aslan?’ she shouted. She took the books back to school the next morning. I watched through the glass while she shouted at Mrs Calvert. She clouted me later when I asked what was the point in teaching us to read if we couldn’t do any actual reading.

When Dad left and Fridays were Mam’s night out, I would stay in and read all night, listening to Motown records I’d bought with my wages from the pet shop. It was a shit job but Mam said you only get stuff if you earned it. She would come in late and lean against the wall, unfocused and spoiling for a fight. That last night, she flicked the light on an asked me why I was such a weird little bastard. She stumbled under the bed and pulled out the notebook.

‘I’ve read it ya know… ya daft little diary. Who the fuck do you think you are? fucking university? London? We not good enough for ya round here, then?’

I left the next day. Went to dads for a bit . He never asked about the split lip. Got into to university. Failed. Slept with those posh boys in London in those nice suits and watched them marry posh girls in nice dresses from pretty villages in Suffolk or Hampshire.

Still I kept quiet. I travelled and had fights and more shit jobs and I had a kid and had my heart broken … and still I kept quiet.

When I went home to bury Mam, I found that diary under the bed in the spare room. And ten others. She had kept them all. I found a set of Narnia books with a post- it note for my daughter, from Grandma. At the time, she was just ten weeks old. I gave them to her on her tenth birthday. My hands were shaking. I had to go into the kitchen afterwards to wipe away the tears. I found the people in my home town, older and worn, yet still the same. The familiar places and the warmth of the accent and that salted tang of the North-East coast.

I found a flint-sharp grit in my belly and memories long ago buried. ‘Knowledge.’

My knowledge, the things I knew. Not the things in story books or in London, or Kenya or Seattle or Spain or anywhere else I’d searched for truth. Not in the lies I’d told the posh boys, almost believing them myself. Right there, in my Mam’s back bedroom.

Days later I started to write.

Much later, I signed up for a course at the Open University, ‘Creative Writing.’ After six years of study I will graduate in May. And now? … Well now, I won’t keep quiet. I have finally found my voice.

Kathy Hoyle is a Creative Writing student with the Open University. She loves to write short stories and flash fiction and links to her published work can be found on twitter @Kathyhoyle1. She is currently working on a novel based on her working-class childhood. She will write for chocolate.

The Gift of Boredom by Jeanette Flannery

I began erasing parts of my working class roots when I was seventeen.

When I was fifteen, a friend and me were almost mugged.

Sat on the wall, basking in the warm glow and vinegar scent of the local fish and chip shop, a girl, no more than seventeen, got out of a black car and walked straight up to us. She was very matter of fact about wanting to take our money, and there was a dramatic pause as we exchanged glances, before I burst out laughing.

‘Do you think we’d be sat here freezing our arses off if we had any money?’

‘Erm well…’

‘Because if you can find anything in my wallet, I’ll be the first to give you a round of applause!’

The girl glanced back at the car, unsure what to do next. This was not how a mugging should work.

‘Jewellery then! Rings? Watches?’

My watch from Argos apparently wasn’t the sort of thing she was looking for, and we watched as she walked back to the car she had stepped out of, shaking her head and tutting, as though we had let her down.

When she’d gone, we got up and ran home, mostly because we were concerned she might have realised that I’d mocked her, and would come back to enact revenge. We never reported it the incident to the police. What would there have been to say? That a crime very nearly happened?

I mention this anecdote because if you read fiction or watch TV drama, you would be forgiven for thinking that every working class teenager’s favourite hobby is crime. I’m not saying crime doesn’t exist, just that

for every kid in a hoody robbing someone, there’s also one sat reading a book, or playing with their siblings or doing their homework.

In fact, my overwhelming memory of growing up working class isn’t of crime, but of being bored.

Boredom is what fuelled my first attempt at a novel when I was around eight years old. I still have it. It was called ‘The Adventures Of Wiggle-Bottom’ and was essentially a Sherlock Holmes/Eastenders mash-up with bunny rabbits. It remains an unfinished, illustrated classic, kept in my spare room in a plastic folder of mementos.

Boredom also led me to spend hours at our local library where the tales on the page allowed me to visit places I could never afford to go to. They fuelled my imagination for the short stories I loved writing.

But I began erasing parts of my working class roots when I was seventeen. I would love to say it was because I wanted to fit in with others, or even that it was out of misplaced ambition, but the truth was it was because of a boy.

James* was in my English A-level class. He was smart, funny, and I fancied him. That summer, he invited me over to his house.

But it was as I arrived, that the initial excitement of meeting up, was replaced with a feeling of inadequacy. His house was around three times the size of ours. He had a driveway you could walk down for goodness sake! We sat eating pasta in the dining room, instead of off our laps in front of the TV, and I remember thinking it strange how he slept on a futon that pulled out onto the floor, when his family clearly had enough money to buy him a proper bed.

On the return bus journey, I knew there was no way I could invite him back to the area where I lived. If I did, he would know how different our lives were. The next day on the phone, I lied that I had changed my mind about us, and that we were better off as friends.

Through the years I occasionally jotted story ideas down while on trains, when that childhood boredom returned. Cut to a teaching career and a failed marriage later, and I still hadn’t managed to write anything.

But then, one summer a couple of years ago, as I was sat in the garden with my then partner (now wonderful husband) reading whilst the sun shined. I announced how much I loved the purple heathers of the Yorkshire Moors, and the coastline that ran from Saltburn-By-The –Sea to Whitby.

‘I’ve always wanted to write a novel set there,’ I confessed.

‘Well then, why don’t you?’

It was a good question.

So I did. I’m still very proud of it, but it is a tale set in 1888 about a girl who uncovers a sinister cult – something far removed from my own experiences. After all, what else would I have to write about?

Then, last year, I heard that an old childhood friend had committed suicide.

Despite not having seen him for more than twenty years, I cried when I heard the news. I didn’t go to the funeral. I would have felt like a tourist; so far removed now, from the places and people I grew up with.

But it was with this sadness for a life lost, and a longing for the friends I had as a kid, that unlocked the tales of my past: the time we thought we saw a UFO. The notorious stray dog Zak the Canine King of Dog Shit Alley. The greatest crab apple fight anyone has ever seen.

These tales have become the beginning of a story I’m writing now as I’ve finally realised that working class stories are worth telling.

Not just that: if we want a more diverse representation of ourselves, then no one is going to write it for us. It is up to us to write the characters we want to see.

*Names have been changed to protect identity

Hi I’m Jeanette and I love to read and write stories. I live in Warwickshire with my husband,  regularly snuggling the neighbour’s cats, wishing they were my own.

I grew up in Birmingham and was a teacher of English and Media Studies for 11 years, so unsurprisingly I love films and video games as much as I love books. I also love dying my hair bright colours (it’s currently bright purple!)

When I’m not writing, reading, or playing video games, you’ll often find me doodling and crocheting. I also once tried a new craft every month for a year, in my own self imposed 12 Month Craft Challenge.

JLFlannery.com

Faking It by Lorna Thorpe

I do believe you have to own your story, and write from somewhere inside it.

7th January 2018

I’m standing at the front of the class, reading out my essay on ‘Having a Bath.’   Cheryl Henderson has just read her story, which is about how she lives in a house without a bath.  No surprise there.  Cheryl’s hair is lank and greasy, her school uniform looks faintly grubby.  My essay is about how bath salts turn the water silky, how I lie there, hot water up to my neck, feeling like Cleopatra.  It’s all fiction.  We don’t have a bath either, or we do but we can’t afford to heat the immersion.  But I wouldn’t dream of telling anyone.  It’s bad enough that every Monday morning, Cheryl and I are the only two girls in the class signing up for free school dinners.

It’s 1968 and I’m at grammar school, even though the head teacher of my primary school insisted I wasn’t grammar school material. (My mother had marched up to the school to ask why, despite coming top of the B stream three years running, I hadn’t been promoted to the A stream.)  Getting here was one thing. Surviving is another.  I soon learn that if you want to fit in, it doesn’t do to have a builder for a father or a mother who takes in lodgers to make ends meet. I change my accent.  On the one occasion I take a friend home, I’m as ashamed as Pip is when Joe Gargery visits him in London.

Bit by bit, I shed my background, my story.  I start faking it.  There’s so much to hide.

The paper-round.  How I’m sent to the bookies on Saturday mornings to place my dad’s bets, that I know the difference between a Patent and a Yankee.  The aunts with their leopard-skin coats and jangling gold charm bracelets.  The family knees-ups that inevitably end in a fight.

Around the time of the bath essay, I start writing my first novel.  It’s a story about a young girl from a poor family who climbs through a hole in the hedge to be adopted by the richer, bohemian family next door.  The book begins with the girl crawling through the hedge.  It doesn’t look back.

Thirty years later I take a couple of writing courses.  By now I’m so used to faking it, so used to hiding – booze, drugs, men, careers – I don’t even realise I’m doing it.  It’s not just about class – it’s way too complex and layered for that – and I’m no longer the girl reading out her essay about having a bath, but I’m still trying to write my way through that hedge.  I invariably send my characters abroad, as if to distance them from the story I’ve spent my life trying to escape.  See, I want to take writing seriously, but I don’t feel entitled.  Because deep down I know people like me don’t become writers.

Still, I get away with it for a while.  I have some early success with short stories.  I take the MA in Creative Writing at UEA.  My tutors are encouraging.  An agent expresses interest in the novel I’m working on.  I should be in heaven.

But the thing about writing is, it eventually finds you out.

I can’t finish the book.  I’m stuck, truly stuck.

I take a poetry course.  Not because I want to write poetry.  I have no intention of becoming a poet, no desire to become a poet.  No, I take the course with the idea of tackling the problem – the writing – sideways on.

Maybe it’s the change of form that frees me up.  Maybe it’s the knowledge that I’m never going to publish this stuff.  Maybe I’m just sick of hiding it all.  I start writing my story.  I write about the free school dinners and betting offices.  I write about my dad beating me up.  Not with shame, but with grit, with defiance, with humour.

This is where the story turns into a Hollywood movie.  My tutor, Brendan Cleary, insists I’m a poet.  He encourages me to read at a poetry night.  Standing at the mic I think, this is it, this is the moment I get found out.  I have six poems to my name and I read four of them.  Amazingly, people like them.  Some even thank me for putting their experience into words.  John Davies of Pighog Press is in the audience.  Then and there he signs me up to write the pamphlet he’s going to publish.

A few months later, weeks short of my fiftieth birthday, Dancing to Motown is launched in a pub in the centre of Brighton.  It’s Friday night, the bar is packed, and the PA is dodgy.  I start with a poem about dancing and snogging.  The bar goes quiet. People listen.  They buy my book.  One of the people buying a book is poet Jackie Wills, who tells me she wants to send a copy to her publisher, Arc.  Two years later they publish my first collection, A Ghost in my House.  A few years after that I follow it up with a second collection, Sweet Torture of Breathing. Oh, and the pamphlet wins an award.

See what I mean about the Hollywood movie?

Look, I’m not saying everyone has to write their own story. I’m not even convinced you have to write what you know. But I do believe you have to own your story, and write from somewhere inside it.

Until I started writing poetry, until I learned to inhabit my own voice, I wrote from somewhere outside of myself.  I had to turn around, crawl back through the hedge and reclaim the house without a bath. I didn’t have to write about the aunts with leopard-skin coats, but I did invite them into the room, knocking back whiskey and showing their drawers as they danced.  Sometimes I let myself dance with them, charm bracelets and all.  After all, look at me. I’m a writer.

Lorna’s first home was a pub.  Her father was a builder with a love of opera.  Her mother loved to dance.  Music, drink and dancing feature throughout the poems in her books, Dancing to Motown, A Ghost in my House, and Sweet Torture of Breathing.  Lorna has always worked to support her writing.  Among other things she has been a barmaid, clerk, social worker, freelance copywriter and Royal Literary Fund Fellow. She is currently working on a novel about another barmaid, Annie Miller, who became a pre-Raphaelite model.

Website:  www.lornathorpe.com

Twitter: @lorna_thorpe

Books:  A Ghost in my House and Sweet Torture of Breathing are both available direct from the publisher – www.arcpublications.co.uk – or through Amazon.

Dancing to Motown is out of print.

How to Submit

Writers at all stages of development are welcome to submit. You do not need to be published. It’s important to hear everyone’s story, the stages you have reached, the obstacles you’ve encountered and the champions who keep you going.

Please email your stories about how you became a writer or broke into the industry to  Carmenellen@hotmail.co.uk  as a word .doc attachment.

Please edit your work carefully.

Guidelines

1000 words or less

12pt and single-line spacing

No current deadline for submissions

Please include:

Links to your website and publications.

An image you’d like to include with the story (optional).

Disclaimer

I hope to share all stories I receive to inspire others, to highlight champions and to be honest about the barriers. The goal is to bring about positive change for us all. So please keep this positive, inclusive, forward looking and kind.

The Story and Stories of Working Class Writers

In November 2017 I cried at the radio. I was listening to Where Are All the Working Class Writers? The show had been put together by Kit de Waal. It featured writers and editors who came from working class backgrounds telling their stories of how they broke into the industry. They talked about libraries as refuges and publishing institutions as gated palaces they didn’t feel they belonged inside. I cried because this was my writing story too, the risks, the highs and the barriers.

So I contacted Kit and asked what needed to be done to get Working Class voices heard. She said people like me should join together to form a collective. Right then! So I floated the idea on Twitter and writers started to show their support. And that’s how it happened – a movement to get Working Class stories heard.

We’re just at the beginning and I’ll be sharing news as we go along. But I thought we could start with a place to hear the stories of how working class writers got their stories out into the wild world: from their first school story to final draft. Who championed these stories and how barriers were overcome? These tales of breaking in are so important as they show it can be done and how, they also reveal where the pitfalls are that our collective needs to address.

I’m Carmen Marcus, a writer from Saltburn by the Sea on the wild North Yorkshire coast. I’m the daughter of a Yorkshire fisherman and an Irish chef. I write performance poetry and have been commissioned by the Royal Festival Hall, BBC Radio and Durham Book Festival. I also write literary fiction and my debut novel HOW SAINTS DIE was published with Harvill Secker in July 2017. It is the story of ten-year-old Ellie Fleck and how she copes with her mother’s mental illness through the power of stories.

If you’d like to know more about the Working Class Writers’ Collective or add your story to this blog please email me at carmenellen@hotmail.co.uk.