Inspiring Older Readers
The archaeology of working class writing : Part One - Leslie Halward
The more digging you do to try and uncover the stories of working class writers, the more tasty little titbits you uncover. When I did my degree in English Literature back in the mid-1970s we were given no indication that there had ever been any significant contribution made to the literary canon by working class authors – in fact I can’t remember one instance when the notion of the social class background of writers was ever mentioned as a significant or consequential part of their identity. I think this selective class blindness is part of what helped to fuel my sense of separation or even alienation from what I was being exposed to. Even then I had a feeling of unease about the fact that the pattern of my own life, values and culture as a working class young man were not being reflected in the books we were being asked to study.
Since those rather narrow and blinkered days of the 70s the study of working class or proletarian literature has certainly expanded and has been able to reclaim authors that would otherwise have vanished into the mists of time. Some great work has been done by academics and writers such as Andy Croft, Christopher Hilliard, Jonathan Rose and John Kirk – to name only a few. They have found themselves working alongside a dedicated group of social historians and cultural commentators working hard to uncover the hidden stories of women, many of them working class, who have also found their stories squeezed out by a white, male, middle-class establishment.
However, it still seems to me that the real picture of the contribution working class writers have made to our culture is only recorded in a sketchy and piecemeal way – available but only if you’re prepared to dig. And the process of excavation can reveal things you’d never imagined existed.
I now live only a short distance from a Worcester village called Guarlford which has a small local history group that produced a fact sheet on the writer Leslie Halward (1905 – 1976 ) – about whom I knew nothing but who turns out to be a significant figure in the fight to give working class writers a voice.
Halward was a Birmingham born ‘toolmaker, plaster and labourer’ who dedicated himself to becoming a professional writer and was considered an integral part of the so-called Birmingham Group – a loose coalition of writers that met between the 1930s and 1950s in a pub on Corporation Street in that city and who were interested in representing working class life. Their membership included, at various times, W.H. Auden, Louis MacNeice, Henry Green and Henry Reed as well as Halward himself. It’s pretty clear to see from this list that actually being working class wasn’t a necessary qualification for membership and it was Halward who had the most well-developed ideas about the need to allow the working class to speak for themselves rather than expecting their concerns to be expressed by middle-class fellow travellers. He gave a lecture in 1939 on the subject of writing about the working class at Fircroft Workingman’s College in Selly Oak. The content of his lecture contains what is probably the most direct and unequivocal statement about the neo-colonial tendencies of a middle-class literary establishment:
Such writers “should leave the working class alone…if for no other reason than that working class people don’t care to be examined and written about as if they were African savages.”
The frustration inherent in this statement was a common emotion for working class writers. However fashionable it was for working class issues to be explored in the 30s and 40s, it tended to be middle class authors writing about the working class rather than the working class being allowed their own voice. This issue of the authenticity of the working class experience is one which I still find echoing through the current literary establishment.
Halward’s published works include To Tea on Sundays (1936), Money's Alright (1938), and Gus and Ida (1939) and the autobiographical Let Me Tell You (1939) – all of which are currently out of print as far as I can tell. Copies can be obtained on the second hand market but they don’t come cheap – you must expect to spend well in excess of £100 for editions of any of the titles mentioned above.
In Part Two of this occasional series I will look at the work of Harold Hislop – a working miner and novelist who found fame in Russia before his books were published in his native land.