The Language of Your Fathers

The impossibility of working-class achievement.

The Language of Your Fathers

Credit: Vaidehi Tikekar

At some point towards the end of 2019 I became overwhelmed by the feeling that my life had reached an impasse. Personal and professional turmoil left me even more precarious and unmoored from my immediate social surroundings than I’d been before; the life I had tried so hard to construct for myself seemed to be slowly crumbling around me. I was in my early 30s, listless and unsatisfied. Many of my generation are. Yet, most have a stability that comes with both learned as well as inherited cultural capital, a familial anchor that keeps them from floating too far. I’d often wish for such anchors myself. Maybe this is why I began to feel the loss of home more acutely than ever, however distant that home now felt.

I’d feel the pull in the most unlikely situations. Talking to friends after work at the pub, I’d be struck by memories of home, and the smell of stale beer on sticky floors would bring back vivid memories of my youth; the drop of rain on my skin reminding me of days and nights spent in parks and fields, bunking school and mucking about. The pull, experienced as though I was dragged back against every part of me that I had consciously organised to prevent it, brought me back to Crewe, my hometown and where my family still live. I was obviously, however unconsciously, searching for something, some answer to a question I could not yet define. Would being around those people whose presence early in life formed the person that I am today, the person who chose to escape, offer some sense of permanence, of belonging? Could it fill the hole that threatened to open in to chasm?

It was this longing, this feeling of loss, rather than any burning desire to be back in the familial bosom, that drew me back up north. Or maybe that is just what I told myself. There was also a strange yearning, a yearning for something more — a community perhaps — and a feeling I hadn’t experienced before, at least never willingly. Home had always been more an obligation than a desire. Every 6 months or so I would hear the admonishment in my mum’s voice on the phone growing stronger. Usually in summer and then again over Christmas I would visit, never staying for longer than a few days. But this time the pull was there.

Crewe’s train station, that famous terminal once so grand and gleaming, is now in a rather sorry state. The station itself is in many ways Crewe’s reason for being. The station preceded the town, the coming of the railways summoning Crewe from nothing in the fields of the Cheshire plain. Without it, and the work it provided, there would be no Crewe.

The line from London ambles through several miles of flat countryside before it hits the town. The industrial architecture, some very old and others new if in no better condition, gives some sense of the power of the town in years past. The decrepit state of the buildings is perhaps a sign of its future. But if that is so, then the station itself is even more foreboding.

My relationship with my family had long been fractured. There’s little unusual in that. I have come to realise that, against the idealised image of happy middle class families, very few of us have perfect home lives. I suppose it’s here that I should quote Larkin (They fuck you up, your mum and dad./They may not mean to, but they do./They fill you with the faults they had/ And add some extra, just for you.). My parents certainly contributed quite a lot to my many fuck ups, but I’ve always seen the process that Larkin compares to the deepening of a coastal shelf as something more Ballardian: a crumbling facade of civility, the seemingly perfect front of the suburban family hiding dark secrets and twitching curtains, every home a potential disaster area. There is also a danger at this point of slipping into the usual narrative of working-class escape, in making my family exceptional. This is not a Hillbilly Elegy, there’s no look at my fucked-up family, am I not wonderful and brave and smart and exceptional for getting away story. My family is just one of many thousands like it, living in the same conditions, getting by in the same ways, trying to make something out of the pieces handed them. But there is something different here; very few people in these situations are given a voice. They aren’t allowed to speak, so their existence, their place in the world and in the towns and cities and villages of Britain is forgotten.

When I was very young my family fit into the category of the “respectable working class” that Lynsey Hanley has so wonderfully surveyed. Between chapel and union hall, steady jobs and close families, for generations they had worked to forge something more than that which was given to them. My grandparents on either side took pride in their industrious nature, their hard-working lives, the many hours making something for their children and their families – however meagre the results may have seemed.

This form of respectability manifests in strange ways. Whenever I think of it I picture my Grandmother boasting to anyone that could hear her that her husband, my dad’s dad, John, had not touched a drop of alcohol in decades. The stream of industrious, often Methodist-inspired, teetotalism flowed strongly through this part of the north, gathering up even those whose place was church not chapel. It was a sign to those around to other that against “them over there,” whether the drunken louts in the pubs, pissing their life away, or even the overstuffed and overboozed elites, “we” were hardworking and honest folk. And yet family lore, passed between the lips of cousins and nephews, gave lie to such boasts. As teenagers, we always knew exactly where Grandad would hide his 6 pack of Boddingtons in the shed, knowing also that they were there for the taking. This was not a simple class hatred, it was also a self-hatred, a fear of others much like yourself.

By the time that I came around in the late 1980s, though, all that had started to disintegrate. My parents were typical of many in working-class towns in the north who, on seeing the decline in solid industrial employment of their own parents’ generation, sought escape in independent business. My father, ten years my mum’s senior, was a mechanic; my mother a cook at the local police headquarters. Soon after my sister and I were born, they took out the lease on a pub in Nantwich — Crewe’s near neighbour, but culturally about as far away as you could imagine, more like the bucolic market towns of the home counties than a northern enclave. For them, middle aged and with no formal qualifications, this was the ultimate dream of freedom. A life without the constraints of long hours, gruelling work, without the drudgery of the commute or the constant needling harassment of superiors. Finally, they could be their own boss, work for themselves, build something for themselves, for their kids.

Yet the dream quickly soured. By the early 2000s my dad was declared bankrupt. The pub, stuck between a declining rural-urban population just outside of Crewe, the increases in taxes on alcohol and cigarettes and the rise of cheap watering-holes like Wetherspoons, stood little chance. Although to claim that these were the only causes of the pub’s failure would be to ignore both the broader changes in life in the town (why exactly did cheap, soulless places like Wetherspoons in Crewe, often ranked the worst in the country, or even drinking lukewarm tinnies at home, appeal where the expensive local pubs no longer did?), as well as their fundamental business failures.

From the dreams of escape, the plummet to the bottom was sharp. Anyone who has lived through such crashing falls can tell you that it isn’t just the bank balance that is affected: it alters your sense of self, your relation to the world, your mental strength and resilience. When living standards fall, or even drop off the cliff like this, all of these things are casualties and many people are sucked into the wreckage. There were some compensatory measures, all tried, none good. The only one that seemed to stick was drinking. By 2019, life for both of them was becoming increasingly difficult, with ill-health, more time spent in the pub drinking away what little they had, poor housing and even poorer connections with the world around them.

Even if there is nothing exceptional about my family life, there is something exceptional about the experience of working-class families. When those stable jobs left, something had to take their place. Families collapse, they fall in on themselves. But it is their exceptional status that also leads the problems of working-class family life to be ignored. After the years of New Labour, when the family life of so many was pathologised as delinquent (think of the cultural representations of those years, the Little Britain’s and the Jade Goody’s filling up the schedules of every channel), since then they have receded to the background, and with that retreat so too have many people’s understanding of the causes of the country’s divisions.

When I tell people that I am from Crewe, the usual response is to tell tales of long, hungover layovers at the station, hunched over a lukewarm sausage roll as they wait for the inevitably delayed train to take them away from that wretched place. This seems to have been a rite of passage for everyone who has travelled north of Stockport. My own experiences of the station are not much better — long waits in the cold for trains that never arrive and the expectation of a return to my life away from there.

It is as if, for anyone who didn’t have the misfortune to grow up there, nothing at all defines the town except for its station. In his memoir, William Cooper, a now nearly forgotten novelist and one of the town’s only famous sons, describes Crewe as “a notable railway junction”; only later adding some human details about the place (in this case its many bridges). He talks of the famous buzzer, the rows upon rows of uniform workers’ houses built by the railway, the delight he experienced later in life in telling people he grew up with “steam in his veins” as a child of that illustrious train town.

There are other memories of the train station too. A generation or two before mine, the craze for trainspotting gripped boys up and down the country. Crewe’s status as a busy junction made it a mecca for young lads, clutching tight to a thermos of tea in one hand, a notebook and pencil at the ready in the other, waiting for the 4.30 from Glasgow or the cargo trains from the coal fields of Yorkshire and south Wales to race past them.

If there is something here, it is that Crewe is itself merely a waystation. For me, at least, and for many of the commuters who traverse the station concourse. But not for everyone. My parents never left, in fact, and rarely now leave at all. When I got married a few years ago, in Canada, illness and disability prevented them from coming. Their marriage may have faded, as so much else, but they remain, still here. Stuck inside. In Crewe.

Just a few days before I was meant to return, my mum rang me from the hospital. For a few weeks beforehand, my dad had been confused and restless. His memory would shift in and out. Some days he’d be bright and lucid, and others he’d forget to eat or drink. He’d confuse names, forget what he was doing, walk into rooms and immediately back out again. His condition then deteriorated rapidly. My mum heard a thud in the bathroom and walked in to find him passed out on the floor, unable to move. When he got to the hospital we found out that he’d had a series of strokes, the first as many as 18 months beforehand. His chances looked stark: the diagnosis was vascular dementia, a condition that would severely affect his memory and his ability to function for the rest of his life.

Despite protests from my mum, I rushed home early. When I arrived, my dad was sitting upright in the hospital bed. I’d never seen him look so old. There he was, surrounded by geriatrics, confused and disoriented. Your parents help you navigate your own life. When you’re a child, they seem almost superhuman, invincible. They exist in some ageless realm, watching over you. As you get older, passing through your teens, you may notice the first signs of ageing in them. Once you leave home, and the gap between visits gets longer, the ageing becomes more and more visible.

But this time the ageing seemed to have accelerated far beyond anything I’d thought possible. It was less than a decade ago that his health really started to deteriorate. Poorly managed diabetes caused the main arteries in his legs and feet to clog, eventually reaching such an extent that a few minor cuts and scratches to his toes led to the onset of gangrene. First, his toes were amputated in an effort to save him. Then his veins were artificially inflated — small balloons were slid into the arteries that connected his legs with his heart, and air was pumped into them to dislodge the blockages. Yet nothing seemed to work. The infection spread further and further. Eventually the entire leg, just below the knee, was amputated. Decades of alcoholism and poor diet finally caught up to him, nearly 15 years after his best friend had died of liver failure caused by a lifetime in the pubs and bars of Cheshire. Any hope that this would calm his drinking quickly vanished. Almost as soon as he was released from hospital, false leg and wheelchair in tow, he was back at the bar.

Not only was he ageing before his time, but his politics started to harden and curdle as well. He’d always had a streak of reaction in him, but in recent years I had begun to find this malodorous Little Englandism increasingly present, and increasingly repulsive. Decades of surrounding himself with motley crews of builders, mechanics, tradesmen and ex-cops gave him a perverse view of the country’s social and economic problems. Yet, whether or not my influence was ever felt, my family maintained a kind of knee-jerk Labourism, a small reminder that the politics that people form, and that comes to form them, is forged in a contradictory social system, one that is often opaque even to those within it. There seemed no contradiction between his sometimes vicious anti-immigrant thinking and his support for the Labour Party, or between his social conservatism and me, his child whose life seemed so distant.

By December, his decline seemed near complete. Propped up in a hospital bed, he barely recognised me. I’d sit with him as he scolded the nurses for imagined indiscretions, shouting at them from across the ward, complaining about the conspiracy to keep him, a perfectly healthy man, in hospital for no reason. One of the most damaging aspects of dementia is the sufferer’s inability to recognise their illness. It’s an insidious condition, one that corrodes social connections, all the while leaving the person affected oblivious to its worst symptoms. As I sat beside him, I could see him struggling to remember my name, the cogs whirring. Andrew? Jason? Something like that. He’d repeat himself constantly, asking where his water was, or what we’d done with his glasses. He’d tell my mum to drive him home, despite her blindness having prevented her from driving for the past 5 years.

It was around Christmas when he was finally allowed to return home. This was perhaps our most awkward Christmas. Me, alone again. My dad, confused and forgetful, his confusion often turning to anger. Minor issues would quickly flare into huge arguments and shouting matches between rooms. Fists were raised. He told me he never wanted to see me again — to get out of his house and never come back. It wasn’t the first time, but it was the most severe.

A day or two later I could see the pain in his face. He didn’t discuss it, but it must have summoned painful memories for him. I have a family, two half-sisters and a brother, whom I have never seen, I’ve barely even heard talk of. I know their names, somewhere, although I can’t remember them. Rarely are they ever mentioned, except when he’s telling me that he never wants to lose me. No matter how far away I am, no matter what happens in my life, he never wants to lose me like he has lost others before.

All of this brought back feelings I’d tried hard to suppress. At 18, I vowed to never look back. The act of leaving home offered a freedom from my past. As a teenager, I would sneak out of Crewe, to the nearby cities of Manchester and Stoke. Cities offered a sense of possibility. Like Baudelaire’s man of the crowd I was anonymous, able to be whoever I wanted to be. Yet there is a form of community that working-class towns like Crewe offer, one that provides a form of basic social safety net, however meagre that may appear from afar. Family and neighbours look after your kids for the evening, allowing a momentary respite from childcare, or help if you fall sick or unemployed. But to have this means the presence of an invasive surveillance, even if it is meant as a loving form of care. Community can be both freedom and subordination, often at the same time. Growing up, it was this sense that came to dominate. An often-overbearing feeling that I couldn’t escape, that I was being watched, observed, mapped, that what I was doing and when was known by all, that the communities that formed around my family were holding me back. It was this that came to define my relation not just to the town but also to those around me.

To move away, to try to escape the bonds that hold you so firmly in place, always feels like a rejection of a sort. A rejection of who you were and where you came from. Yet, it is also to walk into a world where you are never quite at home. Even though the universities I studied at weren’t the kind to be filled with precocious sons and daughters of the ruling elites, neither were they filled with the horny handed children of toil either. Despite being in Salford, another working-class area on the border of Manchester, I couldn’t help but experience a profound jolt on arrival. I quickly realised that it wasn’t merely knowledge that school offers. Perhaps more importantly, it imparts a confidence born as much from your social surroundings as the school itself. Those who go to better schools are instilled with a sense that this is their world, that they can do whatever they want to and work towards it. The only feeling I could see that would get me there was escape.

The more you try to run away from home, though, the greater this feeling of loss becomes. For large parts of my life after I’d left I tried to hide my background, keep the basic facts of my life before 18 hidden from all but the closest friends. I constructed, through patient labour, a wall of cultural capital to hide behind. I learnt to play the games of the middle classes more effectively than they could, not because I was smarter, but because to them the game was hidden, it was all they knew. I had to learn the rules myself.

As such, I seemed to exist in the gaps between social classes. I was neither one of them, nor one of us. In British society, more often than not, it is simple signifiers that come to stand in for proper analysis of class. Think of the endless articles and TV reports filled with vox pop on the streets of whichever northern town the reporter ends up at. All that is required for someone to become the voice of the authentic, white, working class is a regional accent and reactionary politics. I had spent years consciously hiding my accent, developing some form of placeless, classless, generic southern voice dashed with the occasional short A (I can still never quite bring myself to say baarth instead of bath, or graarse not grass). I became bookish, educated, for all intents and purposes the same as anyone else in the rarefied circles that I started to frequent. But, through this occlusion, this darkening of a fundamental part of who I am and how I came to be, the sense of loss of self slowly became overwhelming. If little else remains of the lessons of Freud, then the truth that the repressed always comes back to haunt us, ever more the more we try to repress, surely remains.

To live without a complete sense of self, not feeling at home anywhere, is all too common. But those who change social and class positions feel this loss in a particularly acute way. Returning then, in the words of Didier Eribon, is to somehow turn “back upon yourself, rediscovering an earlier self that has been both preserved and denied.” Eribon’s Returning to Reims is maybe the best document we have of this ambiguity of loss and return, what it means to try to reconnect with a social world that you have tried so hard to deny. Eribon, a French sociologist who himself grew up in the working-class town of Reims, begins the book with a simple question: why, when he has spent so long studying the sense of shame associated with coming out as gay, has he not done the same with class? What is the difference between class and sexuality that has opened this chasm? He concluded that the establishment of a conflicted identity or subject position had “become these days valorised…that is was even strongly encouraged in the contemporary political context - when it was sexuality that was in question.” Class, on the other hand, “was extremely difficult, and received no support from prevailing categories of social discourse.” It was this that explained the difference in his reactions to each, and to his shame when confronted with his working-class origins.

In many ways, my own background is similar to Eribon’s. Both of us grew up in formerly industrial areas — Eribon in Reims, northeast of Paris — both of us born into working-class families, and each torn between our lives as newly middle class coverts living in big cities, surrounded by those who did not share the same background as ourselves, and our lost homes. Yet there’s something particularly French about Eribon’s work. While I too felt a sense of shame when revealing my working-class background after I’d left home and joined the ranks of the middle-class intelligentsia, I would also, at times, find myself falling into a kind of working-class pantomime, playing up my difference to those around me. I’d accentuate those aspects typical of a working-class identity — whether accent, or tone of voice — and constantly remind those around me that I wasn’t like them, that I’d grown up beyond their world. It was, I suppose, a striving for a very particular form of authenticity in this playing to type. Yet, it was always modulated by those around me. Never would I do this around those who I felt I would need to impress, only around friends or comrades, the kind of people with whom having roots away from London and the southeast could confer some social capital. It’s hard to imagine a French version of Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen, the famous lampoon of just this kind of nostalgia for tougher times, but versions of this, to my shame, I have done. The playing to stereotype, the acting up of class markers. Often, it’s easiest to play to type, to act out the fantasies of others’ than it is to question your own place.

Likewise, however, I’ve seen the reverse. Usually with those I don’t know well, and who themselves come from wealthy backgrounds or private schools, I get a kind of embarrassed confession of guilt for their familial wealth. Often again, it comes with a story of how in fact their parents would scrimp and save to put them through public school, and how actually Oxbridge most certainly wasn’t worth the hassle. I’ve never asked for such an apology, and apologies they are, from anyone. In fact, when I admit my jealousy it is normally met with shock: how could you possibly want this? It was so tough!

Identity is always ambivalent. Was this pride, or shame? Home or loss? How can you relate to a social world that now feels so alien, lightyears away from what and who you have become? Yet, conversely, that background turns the minor differences between yourself and those around you into great gaping chasms. The process is subtle, and may never be recognised by others, but the psychic conflicts caused by growing up working-class never leave no matter how deeply they are buried. The ability to never feel able to bridge that divide, always set against the other, that is one of the great hidden injuries of class. There is also a political divide that opens in this gap. To quote Eribon: “politically I was on the side of the workers, yet I detested being tied to their world.” It’s shocking to see such frankness from someone on the left, but if I admit my own worst instincts then I know the feeling well. There’s something of this in my own political commitments, too. Not to detest the workers as such, but the conditions they live in, the situations they are forced to endure, the ones that ultimately make them so detestable. At least that is the positive version. I’m sure there are many who, if they were ever to encounter workers, would be shocked, if not terrified. There’s certainly more honesty to Eribon than there is for those who valorise the heroic worker, the mythological men in white overalls who bear no relation to the actual working class. But there is an inner torment that is created when those whom one detests are so much a part of one’s past, and not only past, but one’s present as well, however hidden. The desire to escape leads in strange directions.

This fact was readily perceived by my parents. My mother never fails to comment on my “weird and wonderful” interests — the books I read, the music I listen to, even the food I eat. When I left for university, I stopped eating meat. When I was a child, meals were invariably the standard English combination of overcooked veg with a slab of whatever meat was on offer that day (it rarely mattered much). Much to my parents’ now very understandable annoyance, I announced my decision the day before I came for Christmas as a newly embourgeoised 18-year-old. My mother, having no idea what to do nor any conception of what a vegetarian Christmas dinner might even look like, was distraught. I realise now that this step helped me in some way put some distance between who I was and who I wanted to be. This isn’t to say that there are no vegetarians in Crewe — I’m sure there’s plenty — but that this was a move away from my roots. I wanted to be incomprehensible to my family, and that I became.

No writer has understood this divide more than the great, and much-missed, Mark Fisher. His writings on his blog K-Punkwere formative for me, as for many of my generation. Of all of his writing, one essay, on The Fall, always stands out. In it, Fisher seeks to understand the particular, very late, modernism of that Manchester post-punk band. I’d been a Fall obsessive since school. There was something in the angry, tearing, surreal autodidacticism of lead singer Mark E. Smith, along with the band’s jagged edged punk, that gripped me from the off. Smith himself grew up a working-class lad in the estates of Salford, and spent much of his adolescence and twenties working odd jobs around the town. And yet his lyrics showed great flashes of deep learning, laying “waste the notion that intelligence, literary sophistication and artistic experimentalism are the exclusive preserve of the privileged and the formally educated.” It’s worth quoting Fisher here in full — not least because I couldn’t hope to summarise Fisher’s acute, lyrical writing in such terms:

“Perhaps all his writing was, from the start, an attempt to find a way out of that paradox which all working-class aspirants face — the impossibility of working-class achievement. Stay where you are, speak the language of your fathers, and you remain nothing; move up, learn to speak in the master language, and you have become a something, but only by erasing your origins — isn't the achievement precisely that erasure? ('You can string a sentence together, how can you possibly be working-class, my dear?’)”

Nothing better sums up the distinctive position of the working-class boy done good, and the ambivalent social and psychological space that this produces. But, more than this, Fisher links this peculiar, and peculiarly damaging, position with other maladies, not least depression. As Fisher writes, “My depression was always tied up with the conviction that I was literally good for nothing,” and this feeling is rooted in a particular part of the working-class experience, one that no amount of cultural or economic capital will ever erase. Class leaves behind hidden markers, indelible stains on those who have lived through it.

Repression is no cure. The maladies only get stronger, return with more aggression, the more they are pushed down into the recesses of the unconscious. Returning to Crewe then, returning to my family and the social world that made me who I am, had a therapeutic element to it. Perhaps if I could understand where I was from, I thought as I sat in that damp sitting room on that cold December day, TV blaring at me from across the room, I could understand better who I am now?

Something has been eating away at me for years now – and that is the question of how exactly we, as representatives or apostates of the working class, its returning heroes or its wayward children, can narrate, or understand, that experience. As I’ve shuttled back and forth between London and Crewe, my two lives, feeling the peculiar pull of forces — both repulsion and attraction — to the place I once knew, I’ve wrestled with this question. It’s not an easy thing to answer, and the more I read, the more difficult and indistinct even the shape of an answer becomes.

After my visit in late 2019, I once again avoided seeing my parents, perhaps even more so now that my dad’s condition was getting worse. And then, the pandemic came. Lockdowns across the country made travel near-impossible, and even if I could have ventured out the fear of passing on a potentially lethal infection to my aged parents didn’t endear me to the idea. Come summer, though, it all seemed a little less risky, so I took the plunge and went back north. The train was oddly empty heading out of London. Ever since I moved down here, I’ve taken the cheaper, slower train, the one that stops at every gatepost between Milton Keynes and Stafford, and I had been used to it filling with people as we edged our way through the midlands. The quiet was disconcerting, and even the trip to Euston station, from where the train departs, was stranger than I have ever seen, with facemasks hiding the faces of my fellow commuters, London’s anxious social distancing even more distancing than ever.

COVID restrictions and my own fears made me stay away from their house as much as I could, and I’d booked myself into the formerly grand Crewe Arms Hotel that overlooks the train station rather than stay in my parents’ rather shabby spare room. Once a symbol of the town’s standing and the oldest railway hotel in the country, the hotel is now rather tired and sad. The grand room names — the Gladstone room, the Disraeli suite — belie the sad reality that it is today just another regional travel hotel, very little separating it from the thousands of Travelodges and Best Westerns up and down the country.

I’d booked online and I hoped, as I walked out of the station and crossed the road to the hotel, that I would be given a room that overlooked one of the platforms. Every time I’d head to and from the town I would gaze up at the strong red brick of the hotel as the train pulled in, filled with slightly romantic notions about the building, and dreaming of waking up, pulling back the curtains, and staring down at the quiet early morning platforms. Instead, I was stuck in a small, rather bleak room at the front of the building with a view not of the morning locomotives but the steady thrum of cars circling a busy roundabout.

I’m ashamed to admit this now, but I was glad to not stay with them this time. Even 24 hours now feels difficult, not least for the deep well of shame I experience of seeing them like this, of being myself brought back to the lives they live every day. I, much like Eribon, detested them — or, at least, having to see them in this way. Who was I, what had I become? Why did I leave so readily?

On the journey there, as I sat watching the fields and hedgerows of middle England fly past, I read Raymond Williams’s Politics and Letters, a collection of interviews with the great Welsh cultural and literary critic that I’d grabbed from a stack of books on my way out of the house. The book is the transcripts of a series of interviews Williams did with the New Left Review in the late 1970s, and provides a searching analysis of his personal and intellectual development. I’d first read the book some 6 years earlier, once again having started it on the train to Crewe — a fact of which I was reminded only on the journey. On the first occasion, I’d been mesmerised by Williams’s democratic vision of culture, borne from his working-class upbringing in the border country of south Wales and fostered by his experiences working in adult education after the war. Now, though, it was the section on his novels, one of the less celebrated or even remembered aspects of his work, that pressed itself into me.

Three of his first four novels, published between 1960 and 1979, form a semi-autobiographical narrative that tells the story of Matthew Price and Peter Owen, two characters from working towns in the Welsh Borders who both become university lecturers. This trilogy itself can be seen as Williams’s attempt to find a form suitable for the narration of working-class life in the twentieth century. In Politics and Letters, he expands on this aim, splitting the history of the novel into three periods. In the first, the period of high capitalism and the realist novel during the late nineteenth century, you have a form that is also dominated by the bourgeoisie that working-class writers related to as detached observers, writing so as to ape the style of the primarily bourgeois novelists. The second follows the pattern set by D.H. Lawrence: the novel of escape. This expands during the first decades of the twentieth century, reaching its apogee in the great swelling of books and plays and films by the “angry young men” of the 1950s. These writers each show the revolt from class, often exemplifying a contempt for both working-class life as well as the newly affluent middle class that they have joined. Making this possible was the great post-war upsurge in social mobility, an escape route from the working class that was afforded to many for the first time – whether through scholarships or the educational opportunities afforded by grammar schools, or the boom in new clerical jobs. Each of the novels here involves characters looking back on the seemingly static existence of their childhoods from the “room at the top,” narrating, whether with contempt or pity or anger, the feeling of separation.

The third form that Williams outlines is both more speculative and more ambiguous. When he was composing his first novel, Border Country, Williams wanted to find a way to match the “experience of uncertainty and contradiction” that he himself felt about his life both now and then. What interested him most was the “continuing tension, with very complicated emotions and relationships running through it, between two worlds that needed to be rejoined.” Yet, for this, there was no adequate form; Border Country is thus such a search for form. It is the story of Harry Price, the son of a signalman in a Welsh border town, who now is a university lecturer in Cambridge. On learning that his dad is ill, Harry returns to the house he grew up in and the town and social world that formed him, and in doing so we see the complicated emotions and feelings that this return provokes.

Few novels since have reached this level of formal innovation in narrating working-class life. Yet, in doing so, it demonstrates the difficulty of telling these stories. Coming back to Crewe, reaching the railway station, seeing my parents once more, how could this be conveyed without caricature, all while keeping open the distance that keeps us apart, not reducing that to nothing as if all was well again? Harry is, as a cypher for Williams himself, split. And it is this split that is the object of the novel. In the book’s final pages, after his father’s death and as Harry has left the village of his childhood, we are left with an intensely moving portrait of loss and dislocation. This is traversed literally in a series of train journeys that comprise a central component of the book’s plot – journeys both to and from the fictional Welsh town of Glynmawr. At the end of the book, Price remembers that first trip of his away from the town when he “watched the valley from the train.” There is something both literal and figurative here, a movement between places and a movement between social realities:

“In a way, I’ve only just finished that journey…Only now it seems like the end of exile. Not going back, but the feeling of exile ending. For the distance is measured, and that is what matters. By measuring the distance, we come home.”

Reading these words again I have become overwhelmed with emotion. This is a distance I know only two well, and I can feel that struggle between two worlds, two existences, two homes, both of which are mine and yet within each I feel a lack, a homelessness, forcing its way out of me. On the train, reading these words again, I feel the tears filling my eyes.

Nearly 50 years since the publication of Border Country, you would be hard pressed to see that third option as anywhere near to being realised. So much of what passes for the representation of working-class life in literature or memoir falls far short. Even Williams himself never successfully manages it. I’d put off reading Border Country for many years, partly as I knew that the plot would weigh heavily on my own emotional journeys, but also due to the fear of disappointment. The copy of it that I owned, an old and battered Hogarth Press edition, I had bought from a second-hand bookshop in Leeds in my early twenties, and I had rifled through its pages for years before I finally began to read it through. Maybe it was this that in the end produced such a feeling of rejection. Perhaps I expected too much of the book, thinking that it would quite literally narrate my own life back to me. I found the characters flat, the prose ponderous, despite the obvious moments of beauty and clarity.

Yet, it is the consciousness of distance, the journeys between worlds and places, that separates his work from so many of those who have come since. In recent years, there has been a slew of memoirs about being working-class published. Speaking with friends a few years ago after the huge success of The End of Eddy, everyone seemed to be searching for the British Edouard Louis – a new working-class writer who could give voice to the sense of class injustice felt by so many in contemporary Britain. To write about the working class today, though, it is nearly impossible to be of the working class. To find the time and outlet to be able to firstly write and then to navigate the publishing system, requires a level of cultural capital that suggests that one is no longer within the class of which one speaks. We’re back, then, to the novel of escape.

When one writes of escape, from a distance, there are two modes that come easily. The first is the idealisation of the past. Rose-tinted glasses fit easily, and the world we once knew that is seen through them is one filled with the kind of unchanging and static social world where everyone knows everyone’s name, where you can play in the streets and leave your front door unlocked. The second mode, intimately related, is the indictment of the condition of the working class today. This is the “poverty safari,” the litany of degradation and misery that is the stuff of so many memoirs and works of reportage. Here we see how the writer escaped their certain fate, running away from the crime, drugs and poverty of their youth into the sunny uplands of the middle class. Either this is polemical, against the condition that thrusts so many into that state, or the tale of moral degeneracy of the class itself. Whichever is chosen, the end is the same. What is key being that the author is no longer there, and the distance that Williams finds so painful and contradictory is relegated to the background, if anywhere at all.

Journeys are central to Williams’s writing on class. Not only Harry Price’s train journeys into and out of “exile,” but also in Williams’s beautiful essay “Culture is Ordinary,” on a bus between Hereford and his childhood home in the Black Mountains. Williams had been visiting Hereford Cathedral and its magnificent medieval depiction of the world, the Mappa Mundi, with its rivers out of Paradise, Noah’s Ark, and Jerusalem in the centre around which the world is built. He describes getting on the bus, and seeing the driver and conductress “absorbed in each other.” Perhaps this is a romantic encounter, the gentle flirting and teasing of lust, but it could just as easily be the absorbed conversations of two who have “done this journey so often.” It’s not only the driver and conductress who have done this journey many times before, Williams says, “in one form or another we all have.” This is the journey from the world of high culture – its cathedrals and ancient artwork – out through the country, passing Norman towers, farm houses, people working the land, its steel mills and its gasworks and grey, stony terrace houses. This is the journey that each of us takes, repeatedly, every day of our lives. It is the journey between cultures and lifeworlds. Culture for Williams, as it should be for us all, is not just held in the high institutions. Rather, “culture is ordinary.” Every society, every community, has its own culture, its own way of life and forms of meaning and communication.

There is an invigorating, democratic vision to these journeys that Williams takes us on. In their profound equalisation of life and culture, I can begin to pick through my own journeys – the journey that has not only shaped me, but the one which I continue to wrestle with: the journey between classes.

Perhaps we could even follow Williams and see exile as that journey from home — from a particular social world or habitus, whether from a region or from a class, to another. Could I be an exile? I think to claim so would be to force the point too much. I certainly felt the wrenching from home, from comfort. The other side of the exile is, even on return, one is never at home. How could I talk to my parents in the way I once did? Often, we just sit in silence, the TV on in the background shouting football commentary or soap operas at me. Could I ever go home?

Edward Said defines exile as an “unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home.” This rift produces an “essential sadness,” one that “can never be surmounted.” How we deal with such sadness is a thorny issue. We have all lost something, we all, each of us, make journeys every day, whether of our choosing or not. For some, that journey is forced upon us; time, aging, is one such journey. Nothing is ever like it was when you were a child, the bread isn’t quite as sweet, the tang of the fizzy pop becomes less satisfying as the years roll by. For others it’s a choice, we want to move away, create something new, become something different. Yet in its place it’s easy to find a rosy nostalgia for the lost golden days, all Hovis adverts and a desire to Make Britain Great Again, each of which is trying to fill a hole left by the sadness of exile. I certainly feel the pull of this. By writing I’m trying, forlornly perhaps, to move away or take stock of this desire, this nostalgia. Maybe this is impossible, maybe this hole will be forever there, burning inside me. How does one create a home?

For others, though, this sadness can easily become political. Mourning becomes melancholy, and thus it curdles into resentment. It’s not just a home that we all, inevitably, move away from. Sometimes that divide becomes an unbridgeable chasm. The divide becomes a tear, a vast gulf, dividing families, dividing nations.

If there’s one thing we have learnt in Britain over the past decade, it’s that the vision we have so often been sold of a country as a harmonious community, one big happy family with its politicians as the paternal figures and the people as its needy children, has been a lie. As with all families, Britain is fractured and split, filled with petty grievances and legitimate concerns, hated uncles and passive parents. And this has always been the case. During the 1990s it was easy to ignore these rifts. Yet, the financial crisis of 2008, and the many convulsions that followed, has left the rift a gaping wound. While some members of the family spend their days in relative prosperity and comfort, others have been thrown on to the scrapheap of history. And it is this latter group who have so often been ignored, forgotten about. How did we end up in this mess? How has Britain become such an alien country, divided into two opposing camps, barely speaking to one another?

As I sit on the platform, I’m reminded that the railway station was at one time a rather grand structure. You can see fragments of the Victorian architecture, ruins of the former grandeur occasionally poking through on some of the many unused and derelict platforms. Most of the station that is used today bears the hallmarks of the typical post-war rebuilding programme, the cladding and cheap construction that will be familiar to commuters up and down the country. For me, though, it is only a way-station now, quite literally, and the declining opulence a symbol of the state of the nation outside of London.

John Merrick

is a writer and an editor at Verso Books in London. Follow him on Twitter: @johnpmerrick

All contributions from John Merrick

Latest in Essay