(A longer version of this essay was long-listed for The Notting Hill editions Essay Prize, 2017)
Imagine if you will: I am six years old. I have big blue eyes, the sort that tell my stories whether I like it or not. Life is pretty peachy despite the smog, the strikes, the glue-sniffers who hang out in the backs behind our house and here I am telling a story to the apple trees. Cookers mainly. I call them Bonksik, Jumba and Jonty. I am telling them the story of the two girls. The one who has the posh pram and the other who pushes a tin cart with a wonky wheel that falls off and rolls into the pond.
This was one of my Nan’s stories and she’d end it with – “it’s all true, duck. We should all have the chance of pushing the posher pram.” It was also true that she once wrote to Mr Del Monte to tell him that she’d found a pear in a tin of peaches. “When you buy peaches you expect peaches,” she told the global fruit merchant. “And a pear don’t make a peach.”
Mr Del Monte sent her a 50p voucher for a tin of pears. But she hadn’t wanted pears so she sent it back.
“I didn’t want pears,” she wrote. “I wanted peaches.” But he never replied.
So she wrote him a third time to tell him he wasn’t listening.
“50p is 50p to me,” she wrote. “And I didn’t want pears. I wanted peaches.”
Again, he did not reply and we’ve boycotted his fruit ever since.
I love telling this story but the more I tell it, the more I realise what a powerful story it has become, however trivial the bee in my Nan’s fruit bowl became. You see, my Nan was working class Stoke – a dipper who married a placer and who honestly thought that this island would one day get so full it would simply tip into the ocean. My granddad, a gunner in WW2, was likewise convinced that the next world war would begin in the middle east and you would not know the face of your enemy to ever know that you were actually facing them. They had opinions. They had experiences. They believed in the many not the few. And along with 70% of the Stoke-on-Trent population they would have voted Brexit. Not because they were racist or against immigration or because they didn’t believe in second chances or helping others: my Nan was the go-to nurse and estate counsellor with her scruffy wisdom told in bingo dabbers. Rather, these ordinary people who owned neither a car, passport or mortgage were the fruits of industry in a city defined by its fifty shades of pits, pots, canals and clay. But then the peaches got bruised by Maggie, bitten by New Labour before being squashed completely when those slow boats from China promised cheap, cheap, cheap.
The thing is, these peaches weren’t chavs on benefits street or mothers of Lionel Asbo. They weren’t addicts, gang-lords, alcoholics, violent perpetrators, predatory landlords or fallen flawed Catholics. Because according to my Nan, “You stuck nowt to the man in cowardice.”
No. These peaches broke no rules, got gen and made do, and they certainly wouldn’t thank D.H Lawrence for romanticising their struggles in a city Orwell called the ugliest on earth when it was once the pride of every dinner table producing some of the best ceramic art in the world.
That’s not to say that their stories aren’t juicy. David Lawrence, for example, was a shopkeeper married to my Aunty Jenny who used to recite his products in alphabetical order during sex. Yet somehow, since the heyday of Sillitoe, Dunn, Barker and Greenwood, the stories of white English working class folk have become the pear in the tin of peaches. Irish working class fiction has never been so strong – see the success of Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies triology – Scotland boasts the rich stock of Ali Smith, Irvine Welsh, AL Kennedy, Alan Warner, James Kelman; as the spiritual decay of welsh mining towns explored by James Hanley, by Rhys Davies, by Thomas Morris and Rachel Tresize ensures that here in Wales, the working-classes and their urban isolation remain a crucial part of their literary landscape. But if “A pear don’t make a peach,” as my Nan told Mr Del Monte, then where do those English stories belong?
Because these too are post industrial life stories. These too are stories about when you take the work out of working; about when self-worth is bound in paid employment: when you’re more brassick than brassed off but you’re brassy and sassy and you will make this work. They too are about marginalisation, homogenisation, willing back nationalisation and the infatuation with right to buy and buy now pay nothing til next year. So why aren’t we writing them? Why aren’t they valued enough?
The fairy tales and fables often began with the dispossessed looking to acquire elevation or purpose as a way to survive and taught us much about greed, envy and power. Even then the apples were poisoned though you could spin those fields of wheat into gold. And though we were appalled by the raw realities of I, Daniel Blake, as Jimmy McGovern will no doubt win Baftas for Broken, always remember we adored the Royle Family for sitting around the telly as if it were a vital organ: and that’s the beauty working-class fiction can achieve. People told stories without realising they were stories: people lived not understanding they were contributing to history. The problem is that it’s not just gone dark over Bill’s mother’s as they used to say in Stoke when it looked like rain, because Bill’s mother is dead and so is Bill. Brexit saw to that.
But we should not be afraid to write Bill’s and his mother’s story. Because it’s no longer about representation or even reflection, but time for a unified reclamation of what it means to be ‘working-class’ and be a working-class fiction writer because this has been increasingly silenced by the Mr Del Monte’s of publishing too.
So imagine if you will: my six year old little girl with big blue eyes stands talking to three apple trees telling them the stories that I have told her and long may our stories continue to be written, as you’ve had a taste of mine to remember those who were part of a tradition that should never be silenced just because they found that pear in a tin of peaches and spoke up.