Tuesday, 30 April 2019

The Working Class Writer

There’s been a lot of talk about this lately. Is there such a creature? And do we need to distinguish this concept from writing about the working class?  

It may all depend on how you define working class. 

I remember the great joy I experienced when our teacher at primary school started reading us The Family at One End Street. We’d had Wind in the Willows and Secret Garden and now at last was a book with a family in it a little more like mine than the ones you found in the The Famous Five or The Chronicles of Narnia. Alas, we never got beyond two chapters. Only now am I wondering whether someone stopped him reading it?

Of course part of the joy of reading and indeed watching commercial television where I sometimes enjoyed the adverts even more than the programmes, was being introduced to a more luxurious life style than the one with which I was familiar. 

”But who wants to read about poverty and people who work hard for their living?” asks one of my writing friends. Plenty of people, apparently. Look at the popularity of Charles Dickens, D H Lawrence, Emile Zola and Catherine Cookson. 

But what of the writing class writer? 

What is working class and at which point do you stop being working class? You become literate, you acquire the skills of reading and writing, perhaps you go to a Grammar School  and maybe you then go on to university and become  teacher as I did. You are paid monthly and your salary goes straight into your bank account. You become what people call middle class. Are you still a working class writer because you were born into the working class? 

My father wore a beret to work and carried a knapsack. He was paid weekly and received his wages in a little brown envelope in cash. However, when he and my mother started buying a house, the firm agreed to “put him on the staff” and he stated receiving a monthly salary. Yes paid straight into his bank account. His job hadn’t changed. He was quite a skilled graphic designer. Now though, he enjoyed the trappings of the middle class: a mortgage, DIY at the weekends and an account with Burton’s. Later he got a Barclaycard.   

I argue that if you work for a living, whether it be as dustbin man or a brain surgeon, you are working class. You are perhaps particularly a working class writer if you earn most of your money from your writing. You are beholden to a boss – even if in the case of the writer it is your public and your publisher and if you don’t work you don’t earn. 

And why wouldn’t you write about people like that? Aren’t we encouraged to write what we know?   
So, let’s recognise our working class writers and I might just go an buy a copy of The Fanily From One End Street.  

Friday, 26 April 2019

How to Make Friends with the Dark by Kathleen Glasgow

Key Stage 3, Key Stage 4, lower secodnary, upper secondary, ages 11-13, ages 14-17, YA, teen,  2019,

Tiger has lived with just her mother all of her life. She has never met her father. Her mother’s attention becomes stifling. They row about Tiger going to the prom but then her mother suddenly dies before they can make up. The dress that her mother had bought for her for the prom is hideous but Tiger keeps on wearing it after her mother’s death. 
 There are now quite a few novels that deal with grief in young adults but perhaps none that bring us quite as close to the protagonist as this one does. Tiger has a variety of concerned adults looking after her: Karen, her social worker, a one-night stand foster parent, a couple of more effective foster parents, her best friend’s mum and dad and finally the half-sister she had not heard of before.
She is shown much sympathy but few can offer empathy. However, Kathleen Glasgow enables the reader to feel Tiger’s pain. 
Tiger eventually finds others who are suffering as she is and understand her sorrow.  Glasgow has the courtesy not to magic the hurt away and though the novel ends on an optimistic note we know that Tiger will continue to suffer.
This is not a comfortable read but it is an important one.      

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Hilary McKay’s Fairy Tales

2017, fluent reader,  Key Stage 2, ages 9-11, upper primary

Here are some familiar fairy stories though the titles may fool you:  Rapunzel becomes The Tower and the Bird, Rumpelstiltskin becomes Straw into Gold, and Cinderella is Roses Around the Palace. We are also offered some rather interesting details about some well-known stories. The mayor of the town with the rats tells us how the children who replaced the lost ones were much more amenable than the ones who were piped away. A young girl has a sliver of the looking-glass that once belonged to a wicked queen.  Whilst the girl has chickenpox her grandmother tells her Snow White’s story.  It is true she assures her granddaughter. How does she know? Because she is Snow White. Hansel and Gretel tell the story of what they did in their holidays.       

There is perhaps an assumption that the reader will be familiar with the original stories. Certainly they are amusing and not just for the young reader.  Adults can enjoy them too. 

This is quite a hefty volume with a nice fat spine. The text is blocked and the font is just a little bit larger than we would normally find in a book written for adults. 

There are some black and white illustrations that are partly decorative and partly informative. 

At the end of the book we have information about the author and the illustrator. Hilary McKay also suggest further reading and points us towards the work of the Grimms, Charles Perrault and of other significant writers.      

Saturday, 13 April 2019

Combining Writing with a Day Job

Most of us have had to do that and even if we now work as full time writers we have done that in the past.    

When I first started writing seriously I held down a job as a head of Modern Languages, wrote several novels one after the other, entered every appropriate writing competition I could find and started a Masters in Writing for Children. I’m not sure how. It makes me feel tired just thinking about it now. Oh, and the children were still at home then. 

Eventually I gave up the day job but still did a lot of supply teaching and one-to-one tuition. This gave me more brain space even though not necessarily more time. 

It’s a necessity for many of us. We have to pay the rent, feed and clothe ourselves and keep warm.  
One Masters and PhD later I managed to secure a dream job – that of university lecturer in Creative Writing.  A promotion to senior lecturer bumped up my income nicely and now that I am retired my pension leaves me comfortably off – and I still do a little work for the University of Salford. Does that count as earning money from my writing? I like to think so, and in fact nobody would have frowned when I was working full time if I’d sat in my office writing my novel. I have done that occasionally but working in the academy also has its demands. Still most of the writing was completed in my “spare” time. 

I was glad to retire. More time for my writing, I thought. Maybe. But I’m busy and slightly behind on my writing targets. U3A – I’m off to French conversation in a few moments. The gym. National Women’s Register.  My choir. Supporting Guide Dogs for the Blind. My publishing activities. I’ve given myself a timetable.

It isn’t all about needing the money, though. In fact, many people who have to fit something else around their day job, such as their writing, getting a new qualification or acquiring a new skill often work in a very focussed way when they do get some time and are as productive if not more so than if they had all day every day to get to where they wish to be. 

With writing in particular I suspect there is another factor. Seriously: if you’re locked away from the world all day on your garret, what have you got to write about? 

Recently I’ve been taking the bus into town.  I come back with at least one idea for a short story each time. 

Some people manage to become full time writers by taking on any sort of writing. That isn’t for me. I’d rather have a bit of fun working in a bar, picking fruit or doing a post round that write a report that doesn’t thrill me or write to please a commercial market that compromises what I want to say. Some solitary activates such as ironing, driving or walking the dog give you thinking time. I really also believe that writers need to interact with other people.

That is perhaps why I have created my retirement timetable.                 

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

The Monster Café by Sean Leahy and Mihaly Orodan

2019, pre-school, ages 0-4,  

This delightful picture book is published by innovative publisher Unbound. This works a little like crowd-funding.  Would-be readers pledge a certain amount and receive an appropriate award. More often than not this is a special edition of the book. Obviously friends and family may vote with their cash, hopefully so will fans and followers. There could be some dangers there. Thankfully most books make it to funding because they have merit.    

Indeed, this has many of the usual characteristics of a picture book that a young child who has not yet learned to read would share with a caring adult: it has quirky, stylized pictures that tell more of the story, a limited amount of text, a sophisticated font and reasonably complex language. 

The story might be scary – is the café cooking people? Indeed, the final dish to arrive is “Baby food”. “Oh,” thinks our protagonist. We pause for a moment. That might just be food for the baby or it might be food made from the baby. We just need to reflect a little. We’ve seen “Mummygatwany soup”  “father beans” and “nana split” and Mum, Dad and Nana are alive and well.         
This is a very attractive book with great attention to detail; even the end papers are amusing.