Of Place and Identity: Working-Class Writing in 21st-Century Britain

By Simon LeeSeptember 4, 2018

Of Place and Identity: Working-Class Writing in 21st-Century Britain

Know Your Place by Nathan Connolly

FOLLOWING BREXIT AND TRUMP, the working class has been blamed for the nationalist turn in Anglo-American politics, even though polls show that wealthy suburban voters were a far bigger force in those twin electoral shocks. A new British anthology of literary writing, Know Your Place: Essays on the Working Class by the Working Class, speaks directly to this cultural moment by offering up a polyphony of voices that reveals anything but an angry monolith.

The book was published under the imprint of editor Nathan Connolly’s own Dead Ink Books, one of four indie presses that make up the Arts Council–sponsored Northern Fiction Alliance. Most of the pieces come from Northern England, a place with a rich history of working-class writing that is traceable to the origins of the Industrial Revolution and the development of the class system itself. Although the genre of working-class writing is often parsed as the province of “white men in hard hats,” Know Your Place offers a more accurate portrait of working-class life and writing that sidesteps the traps laid by genre motifs and media-driven stereotypes.

One aspect of this portrait is the notion of intersectionality, specifically the tension between identity politics and a politics of class unity. The collection responds to such concerns well, often exploring the notion of “double stigmas” such as being poor and an ethnic minority at once. For example, Sylvia Arthur, in her essay, “Britain’s Invisible Black Middle Class,” discusses the tension between classed and racialized identities, citing as evidence her own struggle to gain a foothold in life. Arthur notes how class delineation can strip away ethnic roots through imposed sameness, even when markers of racial difference remain, rendering the individual as a perennial outsider. Yet, Arthur adds how the impact of racial discrimination often surpasses the kind of discrimination associated with being working class, concluding that tension between cultural identities is best reconciled through self-definition.


A word about how this collection came to be: Connolly noted in a blog interview about the project, “I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with class and I certainly define my background as working class. I think for a lot of reasons we don’t like talking about this issue, but there are very good reasons, especially now, why we need to be talking about it.”

British taste may be catching up. This year’s Orwell Book Prize, an award given to celebrate political writing on current affairs, went to the Scottish rapper Loki (also known as Darren McGarvey) for Poverty Safari, a book chronicling a life of poverty on a Glaswegian housing estate. The announcement drew applause, in part because it demonstrates the latitude of what constitutes working-class authorship. Yet, some commentators took issue with the choice, citing the ambiguity of Loki’s political leanings as the reason. Such responses reflect assumptions about working-class people and their communities, often based on stereotypes reiterated in the media.

The collection also helps navigate some of the concerns surrounding the production of literature and the notion of genre — especially the question of what demarcates working-class writing and who gets to participate in its production. The essays suggest that becoming a writer does not automatically elevate an individual from their working-class status, invalidating the assumption that writing itself is a bourgeois endeavor distanced from manual labor. Instead, the collection implies that prior conceptions of what working-class people could accomplish are far too limited.

Durre Shahwar Mughal brings up a related point in her essay, “Navigating Space,” showing how working-class environments that lack sufficient resources inhibit creative work produced within them. Mughal reiterates the collection’s refrain of complex identities, noting: “If we are to really know what it is to be a working class [sic] writer today, we must dismiss skewed and monolithic examples of the working class and start from scratch.” Her main dispute, however, is the lack of creative spaces and literary events that, more often than not, alienate and dissuade marginalized writers from contributing at all. She criticizes the “atmosphere and accessibility of physical spaces,” noting how events held in venues centered around drinking or in spaces that lack disabled access can dissuade individuals from attending. As Connolly contends, the collection seeks to broaden representation away from the nation’s capital, and Mughal’s concerns seem to reflect a similar line of thought.

Similarly, Wally Jiagoo’s essay, “Glass Windows and Glass Ceilings,” outlines the way that working-class writers often find themselves at a paradox in that their labor is considered bourgeois, and yet the notion of the starving artist still circulates as a romantic ideal. Jiagoo’s essay indicates how institutional hurdles and gatekeepers police the publishing industry in ways that shut working-class writers out, a point mirrored in his own experience working as a housing benefits officer whose job required him to impose similar limits and deny assistance to working-class people.

Kit de Waal’s essay, “An Open Invitation,” calls for working-class voices to surface in the literary arts. De Waal states early in her essay that she returned to literature and writing at a later age, first consuming classic and canonical texts, taking issue with how they represented working-class people soon after. She ends her essay by stating that “[t]here are writers and readers in the working and underclasses, ready to see their lives depicted in literature, stories that speak to the concerns and their lifestyles, written with authenticity and humor from beyond the metropolitan elite” — a claim that suggests that a representational lack exists within the arts. What is curious about this claim, though, is that working-class writing does indeed have a rich history “beyond the metropolitan elite,” and has been well recorded by literary scholars and working-class historians. But none of these texts — from the Chartists to the Dialect Poets to the Kitchen Sink Writers — are mentioned in de Waal’s essay, suggesting that the history of working-class cultural production would still benefit from better representation.

Cath Bore, in her essay, “The Housework Issue (The Other One),” speaks to class and gender, discussing her first job as a cleaner at a residential home for the elderly. Bore claims that her early introduction to custodial labor showed her how such work subjugates women within class confines, adding that “[i]f you work as a cleaner, people confuse you with the rubbish you pick up.” She writes that “[c]leaners are not only working class, but are often older women at that,” raising a notable point: “How ironic that the status of being a cleaner is so low, yet having a cleaner oneself is a status symbol.” In addition to outlining the way class intersects with other stigmatized social categories, Bore’s essay — like Arthur’s — underscores the fact that hard work and diligence are not enough to emancipate an individual from social limits — a point that challenges the notion of tenacity and “grit” as a way to get ahead.

As Connolly shows in his own contribution to the collection, class migration and shifts in notions of labor play a key role in the need to redefine what it means to be both working class and involved in the arts. In “You’re Not Working Class,” Connolly raises the question of the biographical authenticity often used to police genres centered on social categories, inferring that since class consciousness is dynamic and contingent, working-class writing should follow suit. Connolly notes that “[t]here is a vision of the working class that we like to cling to: a romanticized, fetishized idea,” taking nostalgia to task and suggesting that attempts at class delineation are often futile in terms of literary production. But whereas Connolly’s essay serves as a terse denouement, the collection itself considers this issue throughout. For example, Peter Sutton’s essay “Education, Education, Education,” troubles the notion that attending university produces social mobility by raising questions about student loans and debt. The cost of education today dissuades many young working-class people from attending at all.

Rym Kechacha’s essay, “What Colour is a Chameleon?,” looks at similar concerns of class movement, explaining the notion of code switching that occurs in instances of class migrancy. Noting how “received pronunciation” serves as a barometer of social status, Kechacha investigates the necessity of performing dialects in order to pass in scenarios where class discrimination thrives. Yet code switching also exists for purposes of identity fetishism in that being working class connotes a certain sense of gritty pride worth appropriating:

It means that you didn’t inherit your advantages, that you have a real-life rags to riches story. It’s why business tycoons on the television call people mate. It’s why politicians, trying to appear as down-to-earth-kind-of-blokes, will discuss the price of a pint of milk in election season.

However, Kechacha suggests that the performance of class migrancy is primarily a one-way street in that “[t]he tongue is an honest muscle, it never stays still. When you exercise it by speaking a certain way, it gets stronger and more versatile, but it always holds a memory of how it used to move.” As is the case in other narratives of social ascension, one’s roots are never left far behind, with Sutton’s essay reminding us that “[t]he can take the boy out of the working class, but you can’t take the working-class out of the boy.”

The variety of topics in the collection is matched by the variety of stylistic approaches taken, with essays vacillating between conventional exposition and wildly creative narratives that experiment with structure and form. As such, the collection reflects how working-class writing can be much more rich and creative than the kind of cheerless social realism that often defines the genre. In this sense, the essays in Know Your Place undermine assumptions about social and political writing associated with class-based narratives, highlighting the ingenuity of expressive representation that the genre has to offer.

For example, Alexandros Plasatis’s essay, “The Immigrant of Narborough Road,” narrates the comic experiences of an immigrant trying to escape the horde of bedbugs following him from one residence to the next on what the London School of Economics has named the United Kingdom’s “most diverse” road. The story centers on the final stages of the author’s experience in a creative writing PhD program, doubling down on other essays in the collection that show how education is hardly a guarantee of social elevation or stability. As such, Plasatis’s essay builds on Wally Jiagoo’s discussion of institutional hurdles associated with writing, deploying much of the same creative prose and detail that helps to break stereotypical motifs of working-class writing — specifically writing grounded in social realism and representations of manual labor.

Abondance Matanda, in her illuminating “The First Galleries I Knew Were Black Homes,” discusses the way marginalized groups develop and sustain cultural artifacts of their own outside of institutional walls, even though those artifacts are inevitably fetishized as consumable identities. What’s fascinating about Matanda’s essay, though, is the diction and use of vernacular — a common technique of working-class writing, echoing Rym Kechacha’s discussion of class-based code switching. While the essay begins with relatively straight prose, the language relaxes into a representative Caribbean vernacular that helps distinguish the kind of art under discussion as distinct from conventional forms: “We dun know already about art and heritage and all them things there, you get me,” and, “We haffi mash it up, then collectively build it back badder and better from the debris, whichever side of its white walls we’re posted on — then we can gwan paint the ting rosy red, black art an’ done.”

Dominic Grace, in his essay, “The Death of a Pub,” draws attention to class delineations, specifically how they have become increasingly blurred in the post-industrial moment. While fueled by romantic nostalgia, Grace’s essay registers the purging of traditional forms of community by locating the pub as a cipher for a forgotten working-class culture. For Grace, the loss of the community pub — supplanted by soulless franchises and chains — suggests a strategic amelioration of community spirit. Furthermore, Grace posits that little effort has gone into preserving working-class solidarity on a national level, noting that the government has ignored the issue of social disenfranchisement, “perhaps seeing no merits in a working class that is in touch with itself and can feel not just its muscles but sense the power that resides within itself.”

In addition, Rebecca Winson’s alarming essay on the connection between mental health and working-class life helps clarify how class contours have become increasingly blurred — not just in terms of economic subdivisions, but in the way that working-class people experience ambiguity in their social status. Winson begins by outlining statistics that reveal an increase in suicide linked to the austerity measures that followed the 2008 recession. Offering examples of the way working-class signifiers like accent reduce access to treatment, she notes how individuals in working-class communities seeking mental health care are sometimes regarded by their own community as performing class migration, as though visiting a therapist is a bourgeois concept. Such violations reflect a breaking of the working-class tradition of “getting by” or “making do” — a posture that signifies gritty, self-reliant pride and is also indicative of social alienation.

Sam Mills reiterates similar concerns in “The Benefit Cuts,” one of the more sober and data-driven essays in the book. Mills outlines palpable changes underway in British culture that contribute to class disarticulation, largely through cuts to social welfare programs and the promotion of the kind of “bootstrapping” solutions of self-reliance that Winson touches upon. These notions, of course, mirror the kind of neoliberal individualism promoted during the Thatcher years in which self-reliance became encoded into British life as a mechanism to undermine class solidarity. Mills recounts stories of people like David Clapson, who could no longer afford to power the fridge that housed his insulin, and Paul Reekie, whose body was discovered next to two letters informing him that his benefits would be ending. In doing so, the essay hammers home the life-and-death stakes of class discrimination as well as the kind of problems that class demarcation itself can produce.


When taken together, the collection’s essays help to sharpen the focus on working-class diversity, but also allude to the fragmentation of a once-robust notion of shared struggle: what Émile Durkheim has referred to as the class consciousness required to ensure a social entity’s continuity.

While several essays veer toward nostalgic romanticism, the reasons why are clear: with the gradual erosion of class solidarity and the commodification of cultural identities, bureaucratic forces can capitalize on this instability, stripping people of their collective power and systematically undermining their basic existence. This can lead to a sense of loss, but what is lost is often difficult to pinpoint, and the despondency that results is what populists seize upon to further their own political agenda.

What’s significant, though, is that the collection is not just an attempt to elucidate the state of working-class life in the 21st century — it is a book about the nature of writing, especially in terms of access that working-class people have to the arts. And, as several contributors note, there exists a desire to reconcile one’s presumed shift in social standing that accompanies success. Several of the essays focus on the act of linking working-class roots to work in the arts, most perceptible in Connolly’s closing essay about the way a career in literature raises questions about notions of “labor” and one’s connection to working-class traditions. The American critic Sherry Lee Linkon recently discussed such reconciliations in the context of “Rust Belt Chic” — a way for fiction writers to engage in productive nostalgia that “envisions a future that builds intentionally and appreciatively on the material and cultural remains of the past.” The essays in Know Your Place reflect a similar attitude, championing working-class writing that’s deferential to the past but sensitive to the manner in which diverse identities interact with shared social concerns.

Although the collection does not raise this point directly, one issue associated with representations of classed identities is of them being codified as a coherent set of signifiers for the purpose of selling something. In such cases, the line between appropriation and celebration becomes blurred, with TV shows like Roseanne and Shameless aimed squarely at demographics that presumably fit the mold of the working-class stereotype. These approaches are not uncommon in marketing, and consumers are often herded into groups and then sold products that homogenize social characteristics and traits. From the 1990s on, attempts to capitalize on classed identities became increasingly perceptible in a variety of media forms, and such attempts only reiterated and hardened the kind of stereotypes that render working-class people as a fixed monolith. The degree of diversity in Know Your Place helps undercut these stereotypes, broadening comprehensions of classed experience, and consequently helping to mitigate profiteering through the kind of identity fetishism seen in poverty porn and the performance of “poorface.”

Having said that, one topic that the book perhaps does not fully address is the point raised by critics of Loki’s Orwell Book Prize — that for many working-class people, political affiliations exist on the margins. Simon Winlow and Steve Hall recently called for a more complete narrative of the reason why certain members of the working-class veer toward far-right and nationalist positions.

While Know Your Place explores intersections of identity well, more might be done to analyze this particular dimension of 21st-century working-class life. While the collection focuses on a heightened understanding of intersectionality, Winlow and Hall seem to advocate for universality: a shift from identity politics toward a politics of equity in order to regain a lost sense of unity. Despite the book’s subtitle, Know Your Place is hardly restricted to a working-class reader; yet, through the range of experiences presented and the nostalgic references made throughout, a working-class reader will most likely come away from the text feeling like they know themselves and their “place” better than before.


Simon Lee is a British scholar and critic currently based in Los Angeles.

LARB Contributor

Simon Lee is assistant professor of English at Texas State University. He researches and writes about British literature and culture, specifically on the intersections of space, identity, and working-class culture. He splits his time between Los Angeles and Austin.


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