On 23rd November, a documentary by author Kit de Waal was broadcast on BBC4. It was wonderful, a complete breath of fresh air, because Kit aired an issue that has been skulking around in the shadows of the publishing industry for years - Where are all the Working Class Writers?
It struck a chord with me. A number of years ago I wrote a blog post prompted by a job advertisement from a leading publishing house for an 'Entry Level Editorial Assistant' that would be 'perfect for those wanting to start a career in the publishing industry'. At the time, I was seriously considering moving back to my original career trajectory and so I clicked on the link with anticipation ... only to find that the so-called entry level perfect for new starts required three years work experience in the field. Sorely frustrated I delved a little deeper into publishing opportunities based off my own experience. I found some very interesting stats, an eye-opening report, and wrote a rather long blog about what was wrong with the system. But ... I was scared of what might happen if I posted it. I was worried my research wasn't solid, that people would object to what I'd written and counter with something that would make me look like a fool. And the more I read through it the more it sounded like I felt sorry for myself. So I never posted that blog. It stayed in my drafts for weeks, and eventually I deleted it. Now, after listening to Kit's documentary, I really wish I hadn't.
So, why did the documentary strike such a chord? Well, I consider myself working class. Hear me speak and you might not think so. Looking at my name you might not think so either. Coming from Lichfield - a city typically considered middle or upper-middle class - you would be forgiven in thinking I fall into one of those categories. But what I don’t tell many people is that I grew up on an average street - one certainly not considered by my classmates as the ‘posh area’ - and my parents had very little money. The majority of my clothes and toys, even my books, were charity shop and jumble sale finds. My sister and I were bullied at school for not owning cool stuff, for being in their eyes, very obviously poor. Friends were difficult to find.
My father had been in the Fleet Air Arm, but personal circumstances forced him to leave that life behind. His time under service was the only time, I suspect, he had ever been truly happy. He spent many years after that flitting from job to job, trying to support a family of four and always struggling to pay the bills. I think it was during a fit of frustration at being treated so badly in one particular role that Dad changed his middle name of Stokes (passed down from his grandfather) into a double barrelled surname, hoping that by sounding more middle class it would improve his prospects. Sadly, it didn't. My mother - also a divorcee - had been a struggling theatre actress who had worked with Ken Dodd and Anthony Higgins, but had similarly been forced to quit her dream to take care of her ailing mother, uncle, and her physically and mentally handicapped sister. She became a typist, a secretary, then some years after that she became a dinner lady and worked in Poundstretcher. She spoke beautifully - Queen’s English - because her mother taught her to do so, and that way of speaking has been passed down to me. But both my parents were pure Brummies. And none of us, ever, had it easy.
I was a naturally quiet child. Being shunned by the other school kids meant that I spent a lot of time on my own day dreaming. As a result I became extremely shy and unsure of myself. I spent a lot of time immersed in books instead - the first I remember loving was Anne of Green Gables - or making up my own stories. Stories were a fantasy land, something that took me beyond the drear of school which, for reasons already stated, I never really enjoyed. I was intelligent enough but never excelled, partly due to my shyness and my feeling very alone and having no support, as I was often shunted to the back of the class. Despite all this, I was actually a happy child. I became very independent in my thoughts and generally preferred my own company - something I don’t think I’ve ever really grown out of. Unsurprisingly English Literature became my passion, books my companions. By the time I was 14 I knew I wanted to write. Or at the very least work with words. Or teach them.
My father died when I was 16. Money became even more of a problem after that because he was the main bread-winner. I got a job as a waitress and worked as many shifts as I could around school. It was never enough to support Mum, but it did pay for things for myself so she wouldn't have to pay for them. My sister also had a difficult time of it - she left school at 18 and went right into full time work that was ever-changing and difficult. She has struggled through some things that would have broken even the strongest of people. Our working class backgrounds became something we resented because money, in so many different ways, would have solved a lot of problems. But. Our working class backgrounds also made us strong, resourceful and determined.
I was the first of my family to ever go to university and I got in by the skin of my teeth. The student loan was given to me in full because of my family’s personal circumstances. I chose to do a Joint Honours in Education & English Literature, then an MA in Creative Writing (funded by a Barclays Career Development Loan) with the idea that I'd either become a teacher, or work in publishing. At that point, becoming a writer was a pipe dream because the need to make money overrode the inclination to put pen to paper. I had debts to settle. A 'real job' had to come first.
After university I moved to London, with the intention to get a position as an editorial assistant. I had two hard-earned degrees under my belt and a naive optimism that this would be enough. What I didn’t realise though that aside from the recession having hit (it was 2009), the publishing industry was damn difficult to get into anyway. My first three months were spent sending out CVs and emails to publishing houses asking for placements. Only one publishing house ever responded. I spent 18 months interning there on and off, unpaid. During this time I attempted to get more placements and began applying for jobs. No one else would give me a placement, and I only managed to get two interviews the whole time I was in London. I couldn't understand it - I hadn't realised it would be this hard - and I spent a lot of time in tears because my overdraft was expanding to accommodate my growing debts and I couldn't see a way out. I just wanted someone to hire me. I was desperate to prove myself. I was lucky in that my partner at the time supported me financially where he could, but it put a strain on our relationship and eventually the money ran out. We simply couldn't survive on one salary and occasional handouts. In 2010 we moved back to the Midlands where I was forced to get a job as an admin assistant at an accountancy college. I was neither teaching or working in publishing. I felt all the doors had been slammed in my face. And I do genuinely think that was partly down to class and the boundaries of money. You see, if I had come from a privileged background I could have kept working in London for free until I managed to get a job in publishing (which, according to that job advert, could have taken three years), because I'd have been supported financially by my parents. Or, there might have been connections that would have helped me get a foot in the door. If I had support on the outset I might have been an editor or even an agent by now. Instead, by then single, I spent seven and a half years in a job I disliked trying and often failing to pay the bills. One month things got so bad I spent a week in the dark (in winter) because I couldn’t top up my electricity metre until payday. I had no help in the end. I had no one. Debt begets debt and I continually struggled. Only in the past year or so have I managed to break the surface of the money pit and breathe.
When the publishing door closed on me, I wrote instead. But I didn’t write loads of different things, I didn’t write short stories or poems which I probably should have. I didn't write about my working class experiences, though working class themes play a key part in my writing. No, I stuck instead with this one idea that I’d had at university (anyone who knows me can attest to the fact I’m stubborn to the point of impracticality). But the writing too I did on my own. I hadn’t the time for writing groups, not with the hours I was working. I did it all bit by bit in stolen moments and with little sleep. When I got to the point I felt I needed help, I could only send the novel out to friends because editing services cost too much. I had some great feedback but I know for the most part it was biased and therefore not really helpful. The only thing I had to go on was my Creative Writing degree as it taught me to understand structure and form, but the support I needed at the time of writing the novel simply wasn’t there. It still isn't. And it really is down to the hefty price tag that comes with the opportunities available to writers in general. Three quarters of us simply can't afford it. In the past I've applied for a scholarship to an agent-led writing course, the WoMentoring project, with no success. I'm not vain enough to think my writing deserved the help as it is possible my writing simply isn't good enough; it's a competitive industry. But as someone who felt the doors were always shutting in my face, it was hard to accept that help was hard to come by. As both a writer and someone who had wanted to work in publishing, I've been left to find another way. The one route will never happen now - my career has gone down a different path - the other, we can only wait and see.
More help, more support for the working classes is desperately needed. I'm so thrilled to hear from Kit's documentary that moves are being made to overcome all this, but more is necessary if the barrier is to be breached and the road opened to people from more diverse backgrounds. If you’ve been keeping up with my blog posts you know I’ve been making progress, but I'm still not there yet and I won't be for a while. I'm working on what will be the final draft of the current novel but I have accepted now that if after this it gets nowhere, I shall work on something new. I shall write short stories, begin to dabble in poetry. And I'll do it all holding down the day job, not because writing is a hobby but because I consider it a career and my passion. For all of us, perseverance is key. It's just that for the working classes, the word 'perseverance' seems to take on a whole other meaning. And it really shouldn't have to.
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