Headstuff Article on class and reading

Headstuff published a short feature article of mine today on their site about what it means to be a reader from a working-class background. It’s a topic I’ve wanted to write about for many years, but haven’t had the courage until now to tackle it. This is a topic I’ve been thinking about since I first started thinking about class way back in my teenage years. Books like Richard Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy have helped me think through the meanings of being a working-class reader and the uses to which I put my own literacy. Here’s a short extract from the full article, which can be read here:

This is what happens to the self-conscious, the working-class reader: their education – set by those who they seek most to impress – teaches them to reject out of hand, because of its register, the place where they might actually first engage with reading – the only place perhaps.


Reading History: Preventing the Future by Tom Garvin


As this year’s budget is released in Ireland, I think it is timely to reconsider this book by Tom Garvin.

Garvin, a professor of political science at UCD for most of his professional career, wrote the book in 2004 at a time when – they tell us – we were all partying. Or at least, that’s what they would tell us once the hangover set in late 2008. I read this book while studying at UCC, and so far as I can recall, I didn’t read it until post-crash, sometime in late 2008, early 2009, in the final year of my degree.

The book, I recall, had an extraordinary impact on me at the time. Despite being written at the height of the boom, one reviewer notes that although “there is some discussion of later periods, this is not the place to look for an explanation of the “Celtic Tiger” era.” True enough, but that it was written in that era is not insignificant for how Garvin looked at the 40s and 50s, the period which receives the most sustained attention.

In essence, the argument of the book – and one which at base  I continue to think is nearly impossible to refute in most ways – is that the combined emergence of a new political elite from the revolutionary generation of the 1920s who were largely quite socially, economically and intellectually conservative combined with the rising power of the Catholic Church actively attempt to prevent the modernisation, and indeed secularistation of society in Ireland which was the hallmark of the postwar consensus across much of western and northern Europe. They were intent, as the books title suggests, to prevent the future.

And in some ways we live still with the success of their attempts to prevent the future, whether that be the future represented by the emergence of social democracy or something else entirely.

As the complainers on social media about a €5 increase to social welfare – miniscule in itself when we consider the same government just weeks ago sought to actively refuse €13 billion euro of owed taxes from Apple – indicate, Irish society sees social welfare safety nets not in terms of a collective responsibility to care for the vulnerable in our society. Emigration has rocked Ireland in the past eight years as it did during the period Garvin examines in Preventing the Future. Our homelessness crisis continues and looks set to continue as rent increases in our major cities show no sign of abating. The resistance to repeal the 8th amendment and finally provide women living in Ireland with the right to choose how to live their lives without fear of criminalisation and stigma remains. The idea that some are deserving of our sympathy and charity and others not persists. Ireland has yet to move beyond this.

Whatever future might have been imagined for Ireland once, it is hard not to feel that any number of these futures have been prevented. In many cases, this has been a mixture of the active insistence of Irish elites that the country works just fine as it is, and the passivity of the population in general not to change its own habits in terms of voting. This has meant the continued acceptance that our elected representatives have more often than not completely failed us as a people in making the choices that will actively make Ireland a fairer, more equal society. That is “just how it is”.

It is further evident from the mean-spirited attitude of those who see the €5 increase as a sign that life on the dole is better than working that many members of the Irish population, rather than reflecting on the experience of the past eight years that has seen services slashed, emigration rise and homelessness reach unprecedented levels, they have swallowed the rhetoric that pits us against one another. The deflection away from the staid thinking of economic policy in Ireland, away from the continued failure to account for the fact the current generation of under 30s have inherited a social and economic mess largely not of their making but for which they have paid the heaviest price, suits those who continue to espouse the orthodoxies of the market as king. In other words, as they did in the 1940s and 1950s, those with power in Ireland continue to prevent the futures of many as those many had imagined it. The longer we continue to accept that that’s “just how it is”, then eventually we will be culpable for preventing our own futures.

Reading History: Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles

I remember it well, the first time I encountered this story. I was in I think probably fourth or fifth class in primary school in St. Paul’s. Our teacher was out sick, and we had a substitute teacher in the shape of Mr Ryan. Of the many teachers I had over the years, I never was actually taught by Mr Ryan, few have gifted me with something as profound as he did by choosing to ignore the usual run of our schooling while substituting for the other teacher.

The cover of the novelised version of the story in 1902.

Instead, over the course of probably two or three days, he simply read to the class the story The Hound of the Baskervilles, perhaps the most famous of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. At the time Mr Ryan read this story to us, I was first beginning to discover fantasy writing and was reading The Hobbit by Tolkien at home. It seemed to me a lovely coming together of new ideas and ways of hearing stories. Mr Ryan relished the telling of The Hound of the Baskervilles, and it was often requested apparently that he read it in whole or in part usually when he was prevailed upon to cover as a substitute.

Since then, I have only grown to love this story more and more. It was almost certianly my first introduction to the idea of a meta-narrative – a story within a story – through the letter explaining the Baskerville curse and in Watson’s own telling of things. It is also I am sure responsible, as Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes must be for millions of others, for my love of mystery, detective fiction and historical fiction.

Few stories manage to combine so many elements as this one story. The cleverness, the misdirection of ourselves, the reader, through our unreliable narrator Watson, who is – like us – desperate to emulate and outwit Holmes, is astounding.

There are few books, and even fewer fictional stories, which I can read again and again, but The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of those rare stories. There have been countless television, film and radio versions of this classic tale that makes us question the gap between what’s rational and what’s fantastical, but there is no greater pleasure than sitting down by yourself to read that opening paragraph that spins out to one of the most remarkable tales written in the English language:

Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who was usually very late in the mornings, save upon those not infrequent occasions when he was up all night, was seated at the breakfast table. I stood upon the hearth-rug and picked up the stick which our visitor had left behind him the night before. It was a fine, thick piece of wood, bulbous-headed, of the sort which is known as a “Penang lawyer.” Just under the head was a broad silver band nearly an inch across. “To James Mortimer, M.R.C.S., from his friends of the C.C.H.,” was engraved upon it, with the date “1884.” It was just such a stick as the old-fashioned family practitioner used to carry — dignified, solid, and reassuring.

The story too, after all these years is itself still solid and reassuring. The reason why, when you read it, is no mystery.

Reading History: Teacher Man by Frank McCourt


As with other posts in this series, I want to focus not on the book which made Frank McCourt so famous, but one of the books that the success of that book enabled him to write. Most people will have some passing familiarity with McCourt’s autobiographical memoir of his life in Limerick, Angela’s Ashes published in 1996. Many will know it, if not from the book, than certainly from the 1999 film adaptation by the same name.

Following the success of the book and the movie, McCourt produced two more books: ‘Tis: A memoir published the same year as the film came out and Teacher Man which followed in 2005. It is to the last of these three books to which I want to turn my attention.

I was young and impressionable when first reading this book, and was figuring out who or what I thought I might want to be. I was 17 when reading this, and it details McCourt’s life in the main around the time he was about 27, only ten years older than me. Now that I am roughly the same age as McCourt in Teacher Man and having, in no small part I think having settled on becoming a teacher of sorts myself because of reading this book, I find it even funnier than when I first read it.

As anyone who tries to write a memoir, but who is, by the normal measure of things, no one particularly important, McCourt manages to make himself his greatest subject. Indeed, so compulsive is his need to tell his story that he is scolded for this very act by a mother at a parent teacher meeting:

See? she said. That’s what I mean. I ask you a simple question an’ you give me the story of your life. That’s what you wanna watch, Mr McCurd. These kids don’t need to know the life story of every teacher in the school. I went to the nuns. They wouldn’t give you the time of day.

The book is especially interesting now, as I say, for having stood in front of classes of people and tried to teach them. Although the bulk of my experience has been in college, teaching first and second year history students doesn’t strike me in some certain fundamentals as being all that different from what McCourt, and other teacher friends I know, have experienced. The book is divided into three parts and the first part ‘It’s A Long Road to Pedagogy’ details McCourt’s early years as a teacher figuring out how to deal with all the things that the pedagogists fail to teach about:

Professors of education at New York University never lectured on how to handle flying-sandwich situations. They talked about theories and philosophies of education, about moral and ethical imperatives, about the necessity of dealing with the whole child, the gestalt, if you don’t mind, the child’s felt needs, but never about critical moments in the classroom.

McCourt worked for thirty years teaching English, a long time when contrasted with his four years of education training at NYU. Like most teachers, he acknowledges that theory and philosophies of education are important, but they don’t teach you everything. I have tutored and lectured in university and taught English as a foreign and second language to adults. Knowing, understanding and using pedagogical theory is important and ought not to be dismissed but McCourt knows, like many experienced teachers, that classroom management is the key. He also knows that you are more than merely a teacher. While he writes that “Instead of teaching, I told stories. Anything to keep quiet and in their seats. They thought I was teaching. I thought I was teaching. I was learning. And you call yourself a teacher?”, he goes on to say that

I didn’t call myself anything. I was more than a teacher. And less. In the high school classroom you are a drill sergeant, a rabbi, a shoulder to cry on, a disciplinarian, a singer, a low-level scholar, a clerk, a referee, a clown,  a counselor, a dress-code enforcer, a conductor, an apologist, a philosopher, a collaborator, a tap dancer, a politician, a therapist, a fool,  a traffic cop, a priest, a mother-father-brother-sister-uncle-aunt, a bookkeeper, a critic, a psychologist, the last straw.

He is both hopeful and cynical about the profession of teaching. Sometimes he clearly hates the place and the job. “There are days I’d love to walk out of here, slam the door behind me, tell the principal to shove this job up his arse, head down the hill to the ferry, sail to Manhattan, walk the streets…” This is what is best about this book. It is as good a memoir of the business of teaching as I’ve come across. It is honest, and it is at times absolutely hilarious. While I’m sure it’s message left some bearing on me when first reading it, re-reading it a decade or so later, I recognise far more in it than I did, or could have then. Perhaps one of its key values of reading it at a young age was that it gave some insight into how the teacher looked at us while we were still in school. It also helped me to grasp the idea that teachers were people too. Human, all too human, very often. But as McCourt notes himself

Facing dozens of teenagers every day brings you down to earth. At eight a.m. they don’t care how you feel… There they are and there you are with your headache, your indigestion, echoes of your last quarrel with your spouse, lover, landlord… You couldn’t sleep last night… They’re looking at you. You cannot hide.  They’re waiting. What are we doing today, teacher? The paragraph?

Teaching isn’t easy. And there’s no glory, and certainly no money in it. And there’s a lot less time off than people think. Teaching is bloody hard work. And McCourt’s book captures its highs, lows and its doldrums with  great style and flair, with real wit and a deep understanding of what makes teachers, students, principals and parents tick.

Reading History: Ill Fares the Land by Tony Judt

My first encounter with Tony Judt was brought about by my sister. One year for Christmas, I was given a book that, thrown at a person’s head and striking it with its full weight and the right angle, could probably knock them clean out. I mean of course Judt’s magnificent doorstop history of Europe from the end of the Second World War, PostwarPostwar, like all of Judt’s books, like any historian’s work indeed, is not above reproach. For many, Judt’s apostasy around the new left is particularly troubling, especially in his treatment of the various revolutions on either side of the Iron Curtain in 1968. Nonetheless, Postwar stands as a magnificent history of Europe after the end of the war. It is, in my view, as essential a  book of reference on the second half of the twentieth century as Hobsbawm’sThe Age of Extremes. But that is the not the book I want to use in this next post in my Reading History series as my jumping off point. Instead, I want to look at one of Judt’s last books instead – Ill Fares the Land.

ill fares the land

I began to really fully encounter the writing of Tony Judt just as his body was giving up on him. I was recommended the first book through which he challenges his illness: The Memory Chalet. This was followed up by Ill Fares the Land and Thinking the Twentieth Century, co-written with Timothy Snyder, chiefly famous for his history of post-Second World War eastern europe, Bloodlands. The last book to emerge from Judt – posthumously – was When the Facts Change. All of these later books, the last being a kind of collected essays, exhibited what I think is best about Judt’s writing style – the ability to mix the personal, political and the historical with clean, intelligent – but only rarely simplifying – prose. While The Memory Chalet is surely the most affecting of these four books, and Thinking the Twentieth Century the most intellectually engaging, I think that Ill Fares the Land may be the most useful, and the most important.

It is, in the words of one (of two) ungenerous Daily Telegraph reviewer’s words a cri de couer. The implication being in the review that such a cry from the heart is an irrational one: that the cold hard truths of the market are still a better guide to how to change and shape human life than the ideas which underpin social democracies. Another reviewer of the book at the time of it’s publication was scathing of the ‘trente glorieuses’ which are at the heart of Judt’s lament, the same ‘trente glorieuses’ which allowed Judt and many others born in the wake of the Second World War to achieve a great deal. This reviewer, writing for the Indpendent says that:

were the three post-war decades so glorious? There were wars galore. Europeans in east or Mediterranean nations lived under tyranny. There was more equality between workers and the middle classes but only for a limited number of men. Women, gays, immigrants benefited little from the patriarchal, trade-union, Fabian world that Judt so admires. In fact, in this book every quote is from a dead white English-writing male.

That may well be the case; but, as the world looks at the (limited though frighteningly real) prospect of a Trump presidency, Brexit, a continually resurgent right around Europe and a backlash against refugees in the wake of the war tearing Syria apart and the increased violent attacks in Europe from Brussels, to Paris, Nice and around Germany, for all its faults the kind of social democracy which is vaunted in Ill Fares the Land seems much preferable to the race to the bottom that has characterised the world not alone since 1979 but especially 2008. Judt notes in the book that ‘distant upheavals with disruptive local impact… are the threats chauvinist politicians will be best placed to exploit, precisely because they lead so readily to anger and humiliation.’ This follows a brief discussion of Sarah Palin’s Vice-Presidential bid in 2008, which 8 years on, seems the thin end of the wedge.

Undoubtedly the world from 1945-1975 or so tended to favour the white, hetro male but it is on the back of identity politics for women, LGBTQ people and more besides that first emerged in those decades that have provided the few good news stories of the past 10 years or more in terms of social progress. We are far from perfect, but I’ll take the vision of the world which Judt offers – and in truth this isn’t just nostalgia mongering – than that offered by any of the various demagogues currently flaunting their wares in Europe and America. He knew himself it was no panacaea writing ‘Social democracy does not represent an ideal future; it does not even represent the ideal past.’

Writing almost aphoristically at times, it is nonetheless difficult to disagree with Judt when he notes for instance that ‘the discounting of the public sector has become the default political language in much of the developed world’. One of the most impassioned sections – and one of the best arguments ever against the excesses of privatisation of a public good – relates to trains. He writes that

If we cannot see the case for expending our collective resources on trains, it will not just be because we have all joined gated communities and no longer need anything but private cars to move around between them. It will be because we have become gated individuals who do not know how to share public space to common advantage. The implications of such a loss transcend the decline or demise of one system of transport among others. It would mean we had done with modern life itself.

The merits of the book on the whole outweigh its negatives for me and were a powerful example to me as a PhD student that a historian is allowed also to engage with the present as well as the past.

Reading History: TS Eliot’s The Wasteland


I open this blog in my little Reading History series by saying that what follows offers nothing that I have the arrogance to imagine is any kind of new perspective on one of the English language’s most famous poems. I am no literary critic, nor was meant to be. This is more of a reflection on what reading this poem, and Eliot’s poetry more generally did for me as someone coming to poetry first through school and later as part of life.

Somewhat terrifyingly, as we approach the beginning of a new school year, I note with some shock, and not a little awe, that it is fully ten years since I first moved to Cork as an eager, and vastly overconfident (about how well read I was), young student to study Arts at UCC. I was lukewarm at best about drama, and novels I loved, but couldn’t get into the meat of unpacking them. Then, and now, for me poetry was the thing.

The period between 2004-2006 when I was in the senior cycle and preparing to do my Leaving Certificate (and doing Transition Year), was when I was first really fully properly exposed to poetry. Perhaps the best thing I can say about the experience of learning about poetry for my Leaving Certificate was that our redoubtable teacher, Mr Whittle, was insistent that while studying to the exam, and preparing appropriately, was paramount, we nevertheless covered at least six poems by all eight of the poets that were on the syllabus for the Leaving Certificate, 2006 edition.

If I recall rightly, in those years, that meant engaging seriously with the poetry Elizabeth Bishop, Thomas Hardy, Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Donne, Michael Longley, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath and, the maestro of early twentieth century modernism in many eyes, TS Eliot.

The sheer weirdness of Manley Hopkins’ poetry – the neologistic aspect to his work, his strange annotations of pronunciation – best exemplified for me in his poem The Windhover, shifted permanently my capacity for imagining what poetry could do. But to read Hopkins’ work and to then move on to the seemingly otherwordly poetry of Eliot was absorbing. For my teenage brain, it provided a great deal of ideas and many awful bits and pieces of poems were scrawled into the margins of my copy of New Explorations. the boook has long since been dumped, but I can still remember furtive inspiration to rob baldly ideas from the poetry in the pages of that textbook to write my own juvenalia into margins mid-lesson.

I grew to really enjoy Eliot’s poetry but remember especially being intrigued by his strange religious journey in life, recounted very much abridged, in the back of New Explorations.  Oddly, I also recall the weirdly muted discussion of Elizabeth Bishop’s sexuality from thosebiographical sections of that same textbook.

Squaring his many apparent contradictions – his evident enjoyment of the popular with his erudition and the edits of Pound – were all part of the pleasure of discovering ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’, the stillness of ‘Prelude’ and the baroque obscurantism of ‘The Waste Land’. In Mr Whittle’s class I think we battled most with section II. A Game of Chess from ‘The Waste Land’. If I know this with any certainty, it’s only because it was this section of the poem with which I was most familiar when, in college, I took a modernisms class under Lee Jenkins and Alex Davis. This was the class that forced me to really engage with the poems, and the poet, who had – Hopkins excepted – helped me make my way into a world of twentieth century poetry that was not, to say the least, conventional.

My much scrawled on copy of The Waste Land & other poems from college.

I grew especially to love the entire mythology that grew up around ‘The Wasteland’. Of particular interest to me being the vicious re-edits of Pound, and the red herring notes. It reemained for a long time somewhat inspirational to how I could re-edit and re-imagine the poetry was beginning to write more seriously myself. From that period when the only book of poetry I owned as a teenager was New Explorations, my most abiding memory is of struggling really hard to imagine the scene as painted in the opening lines of A Game of Chess.

At base too, something of my unease with the term poet  – one of several hats which I wear depending on the circusmtances – may be rooted in this early preference in my poetry reading life for Eliot. In his introduction to The Oxford Book of English Verse, Christopher Ricks writes of Eliot, whom he describes as ‘the central poet-critic’ that he ‘preferred the dry, well-nigh clinical term practitioner.’ I have often said I am writer of poems, but not as such, a poet – wary in part of all the baggage that comes with such a term. I think the idea of being practitioner is a good one. I have always felt my efforts to be fairly workmanlike. Unlike Eliot – or any number of other serious critical readers I have known, I have no real critical faculties to be a critic of poetry except as far as my own tastes extend, but undoubtedly,without encountering him inside the turquoise blue covers of New Explorations a decade and more ago, I couldn’t even have the temerity to describe myself as a practitioner, a writer, of poetry.

Reading History: The Fight for English by David Crystal

One of my favourite poems in the English language is Six O’Clock News by from ‘Unrelated Incidents’ by Tom Leonard. Here it is in all its short, furious glory:

this is thi
six a clock
news thi
man said n
thi reason
a talk wia
BBC accent
iz coz yi
widny wahnt
mi ti talk
aboot thi
trooth wia
voice lik
wanna yoo
scruff. if
a toktaboot
thi trooth
lik wanna yoo
scruff yi
widny thingk
it wuz troo.
jist wanna yoo
scruff tokn.
thirza right
way ti spell
ana right way
to tok it. this
is me tokn yir
right way a
spellin. this
is ma trooth.
yooz doant no
thi trooth
yirsellz cawz
yi canny talk
right. this is
the six a clock
nyooz. belt up.

A deceptively straightforward poem, in its short clipped lines, it is a coruscating riff on the place of accent in how we define class in the English language.

Our accents place us not just geographically, but in Ireland and in Britain, socially and culturally. As a kid, I knew that you made fun of people who went to what was then still a private school, Newtown School in Waterford, by saying the name of the school in the over-exaggerated way that it was imagined those schooled there spoke: Nootaunn. This was reverse accent and language snobbery in action. Knowing for most of my life almost no one who went to the school, I had no idea if they sounded like that, or if that’s how anyone who had ever gone through the gates of that famous Quaker school had ever in fact sounded. But I knew that when talking about Newtown you had to talk about Nootaunn. From early on in life, I learned that how you spoke and sounded impacted how people perceived you. Accent was a giveaway. It allowed others to place you.

When I got to college, I was acutely aware of this and so quickly adopted (and subsequently dropped) a bizarre version of the ‘posh’ Cork accent as a kind of defense mechanism. Language, and all its baggage – dialectical terms, accent –  I was learning in college, continued to be a means of placing and defining you. It sometimes seemed inside of UCC that having the right accent, and having gone to the right school were very important things indeed. Most people probably cared a lot less about my accent and the way I said things than I did, but I was very aware that I didn’t always sound like most of those around me who I met. A poem like The Six O’Clock News helps explain why that is perfectly.

My interest in poetry that took language as it was, in all its weirdness, inconsistency, malleability, that has persisted was sparked in the same years when my accent was more variable thanks to my awareness that in this new social context, among peers from different social backgrounds, my accent placed me – geographically but also socially and culturally. I got to meet some great people in those years who were interested in poetry that was experimental and innovative and playful when it came to spelling, accent, voice, dialects and more – the stuff of language that makes it most interesting. Without them I would have never heard of Tom Leonard, would never have heard or read the Six O’Clock News. Another important factor was studying English in my first year in UCC. Back then, just coming on ten years ago now – as part of First Year English, some of the course was given over to the field of linguistics. We were taught by Elizabeth Okasha. I must confess I don’t remember much about the actual lectures now, but Dr. Okasha’s lectures had one piece of required reading that helped to fundamentally reshape my entire understanding of the English language and was the start of a relationship with a writer which persists to this day. That required reading was The English Language by David Crystal. Although it would in time to come be replaced by The Fight for English as my favourite of Crystal’s books, it was in those lectures, and through this book I first encountered his take on the language. It was one which at the time to me seemed part of the same momentous shift in how I understood what poetry was and could potentially be. But The Fight for English is the David Crystal book which I would most strongly recommend to anyone to read.

Written in the wake of the popularity of Lynn Truss’ Eats, Shoots, & Leaves, Crystal in The Fight for English takes on not just Truss but many who came before her (and it will stand against many grammar obsessives who have surely come in her wake) who want to fix the English language in a particular time and place and say that this way of speaking, writing and using the language is the only correct one. If it is correct, it is because these are the people who wield the power to say what is correct and incorrect in a language – they are, in other words, the powerful; those closest to the centre of power whoo can say that their accent is “neutral” or that yours or mine is “regional”. The arbiters of taste and propriety since the eighteenth century. Luckily, Crystal’s book by taking a long look at the development of English as a language is capable of putting such nonsense to rest. It is vital reading for anyone who understands that language is a system that like all systems can exclude and attack those who do not control its reins. The English language is forever shifting and changing. The diversity of accents, the sheer number of loan words, the dialects of it, all point to the essential truth of Crystal’s book: English belongs to everyone not just self-appointed gate keepers. This truth is not one on which Crystal has ever reneged on in his writing since either, especially when you consider his book TXTNG: D GR8 DB8 which was a serious linguists early attempt to really understand what was happening in the development of text and online speech patterns, rather than dismissing them out of hand as infantile, or worse, illiterate.

The writing of poets like Tom Leonard, and the writing of linguists like David Crystal were vital in helping me understand that my accent, that the wordhoard which I inherited because of the place I was born, was an asset and not a liability. It was a rich social and cultural history in which to play, to discover and relate to my home. That goes not alone for the local but even the national. Without a book like The Fight for English, I would be ill-equipped in many conversations to argue what I always felt to be true. That language is not static. That we do have different voices, different lexicons upon which we call. That the variety to be found in English is part of what makes it so fun to learn, teach and create with. Not alone that, but by thinking about language in this way – who has access to writing it, having their voices heard on the page or through a recording devices – also has huge implications for how we understand the past and how we shape what eventually becomes history.

In the poetry of Tom Leonard, and others like him, once more the enormous condescension of posterity looms large. Such poetry is a pushback against that posterity.  This is something that David Crystal’s The Fight for English has taught me, and with each re-reading of it, continues to remind me of. There are few enough books that I will read in my lifetime from which I will take away so much.

Reading History: George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier

wigan pier

I can still remember it well. In history class in St. Paul’s Community College, we came to a section in our textbooks (Dermot Lucey’s Modern Europe and the Wider World for those of you interested) on the Great Depression and the changing political situation in Britain. Here was the Jarrow Crusade in vivid detail, with the most extraordinary of photographs. And along with it there was a quote from a book by George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier.

To that point, all I knew about Orwell was Animal Farm and 1984, neither of which I’d yet read. But this quote jumped out at me – something about the condition of working-class English people in this period resonated with me. Curiously, this was around 2005 or 2006, during “the good times”. I was completely enthralled, and in what I am nearly certain was my first ever Amazon purchase, I sought out this book and began a relationship with the writing of George Orwell that has scarcely altered since. While I may be more circumspect about some of his writing now, at the time I was utterly dazzled by it. And with The Road to Wigan Pier, I was struck by its sense of justice. It’s sense of what was unjust and what might change it.

I have re-read the book several times since, but have not now read it for many years. Like with other books I’ve written about for this little series, The Road to Wigan Pier exists as part of my mental furniture on several different levels: first, as a book which I devoured and when I had read less books than I have now, thought it unsurpassable. Second, and more importantly perhaps, it exists as a reminder to me of the kind of work I one day hope to write; it is a book moreover which encourages me to constantly think about the value of not alone what write, but about what use writing can be for at all. If by writing we cannot affect change, then what are we, as historians, social commentators, or even bloggers writing for, exactly?

And one might ask, what use reading, if not to have a similar effect? This was a question posed some time after by Richard Hoggart in his classic The Uses of Literacy. Hoggart’s was a book which I only read for the first time during my PhD, having been introduced to it by a friend. Now as I look at my decade old, Penguin  Modern Classics edition of The Road to Wigan Pier, I note that it is Hoggart who penned the short introduction that prefaces Orwell’s text. Perhaps most astutely observed by Hoggart is this (the introduction was written in 1989):

it is easy to see why the book created and still creates so sharp an impact; so much adverse notice on the one hand, so much grateful fellow-feeling on the other. Above all, it is a study of poverty and, underlying that, of the strength of class divisions. Orwell notes with contempt how in 1937 it was fashionable to say that class divisions were fading in Britain. Twenty years later I published a book which made similar points, and was told by some reviewers that I was grievously mistaken, that class feeling was virtually dead. Thirty more years on and the same things are being said. Class distinction do not die; they merely learn new ways of expressing themselves. Orwell’s stance in this matter is completely up to date. Each decade we shiftily declare we have buried class; each decade the coffin stays empty. (vii)

Hoggart here fixes upon something which makes The Road to Wigan Pier timeless in many respects. Orwell’s ideas as expressed in it, are still vital to someone who wishes to understand the real social impact of unemployment and who wants to really understand the ways in which class functions. Take this for instance:

In the kind of shabby-genteel family that I am talking about there is far more consciousness of poverty than in any working-class family above the level of the dole. Rent and clothes and school-bills are an unending nightmare, and every luxury, even a glass of beer, is an unwarrantable extravagance… In such circumstances you have got to cling to your gentility because it is the only thing you have; and meanwhile you are hated for your stuck-up-ness and for the accent and manners which stamp you as one of the boss class. (115-117)

Here we have Orwell discussing what in many ways has been and continues to be a defining feature of class formation in the post-industrial age: what Pierre Bourdieu identified as social and cultural capital. And in this single passage we also see why Hoggart in his introduction is able to say that the book is a study of “the strength of class divisions”. It is not just an antagonistic working-class who make themselves distinct from other classes but also the downwardly mobile middle-class (a growing constituency today) who make sharp distinctions between themselves as people with superior social and cultural capital. This is especially the case when their actual monetary situation is no better, and perhaps even worse, than working-class counterparts. Orwell would undoubtedly recognise the anxiety of today’s downwardly mobile middle-class easily. Consider this passage on the real impact of unemployment:

When you see the unemployment figures quoted at two millions, it is fatally easy to take this as meaning that two million people are out of work and the rest of the population is comparatively comfortable… This is an enormous underestimate, because, in the first place, the only people shown on unemployment figures are those actually drawing the dole – that is, in general, the heads of families. An unemployed man’s dependants do not figure on the list unless they too are drawing a seperate allowance. A Labour Exchange officer told me that to get the real number of people living on (not drawing) the dole, you have got to multiply the official figures by something over three. (69)

Not only was Orwell able to distinguish the difference between an individual living on a means tested dole, but the impact this would have on their dependants, in a passage that followed immediately after, he was able to pinpoint the reality of being underpaid – in contemporary discourse, precarity:

…in addition there are great numbers of people who are in work but who, from a financial point of view, might equally well be unemployed, because they are not drawing anything that can be described as a living wage. (69)

Thus, Orwell in writing this book, though written many years ago and in a very specific context has provided anyone who reads this book with an extraordinary weapon: an ability to critically analyse a situation, to empathise with but also distance oneself critically from people and assess the material conditions in which they find themselves. So we find a critique of class distinction, of means testing, of precarity, of a failure to provide a living wage all in words that ring true today, first penned in 1937.

Reading History: Crosstown Traffic

As I continue this series of posts on books that have been important in shaping me as a historian, writer and, frankly, a person, and I was scanning my shelves to consider what to write on next, I happened on my extremely battered copy of Charles Shaar Murray’s Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix and Post-War Pop. Originally publishd in 1989, my edition was published in 2001. I’ve read few books as many times – attested to by the fact that it is split completely in half down the spine, yellowed, dog-eared, blood-splotched in places and generally in dreadful condition. It remains, many years after first reading one of the best books on music that I own. Continue reading “Reading History: Crosstown Traffic”

Reading History: Tom Hunt’s Sport and Society in Victorian Ireland

Moving on from my last ‘reading history’ post, I’ve decided to speed forward a little in time to a book I read in my first year as an undergraduate in University College, Cork. This book has had a profound influence not alone on me, but on my field of specialist research since it was first published in 2007. Continue reading “Reading History: Tom Hunt’s Sport and Society in Victorian Ireland”