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Common words and the wandering star – Keith Armstrong

Friday, December 4, 2009

A northern giant

David Douglass reviews Keith Armstrong's Common words and the wandering star University of Sunderland Press . pp296, £7.95

There have been few British socialist writers of note, even less working class ones and still less those of the northern working class. In this respect, Jack Common occupies a unique position, almost in the category of the Ashington artists, or more contemporary pitmen painters. He is of the working class northern artistic genre and all that represents in terms of ethnicity, regional identity and a distinct, bold, northern voice, which defies – confronts even – southerno-centric modes of class and culture.

Like the later Sid Chaplin or Alan Plater, Common's genre occupies areas of art and folk tradition rather than that of social realism or the no-nonsense industrial novel. Perhaps it did not start out that way, and has simply been absorbed into the folk music and Beamish mining village museum features which now dominates ‘ Northumbria culture'. Jack wrote from the background of a living, breathing, harsh working class reality. A culture of the teaming streets and industry, a description in words that Lowry perhaps achieved in oils.

Why he wrote his two most famous works, Kiddar's luck and The Ampersand , as novels rather than autobiographies I have never really understood. That they are more autobiography than simple invention is obvious – the places, people and events are not only real, but are modelled accurately on family, friends, neighbours and location. Perhaps Common sought to use the clever characterisation of Tressel in the most famous of socialist novels, The ragged-trousered philanthropists , so that in caricature the subject would be more amusing and pronounced.

Jack is at the centre of a generation of writers attempting to describe the industrial life, labour and aspirations of the 20s and 30s. Ironic that two of the men he virtually tutored, and who used him as a touchstone of realism, Lawrence and Orwell, went on to fame and fortune. Lawrence , of course, was a man much like Jack – the son of a coalminer, where Jack was the son of a railwayman. A man in touch with dialect and real working class perspectives. He was in regular discussion with Common on the ‘true prole novel' and how to capture language back from the upper class.

Jack, however, despite the most vivid of writing, the earthiest of descriptive prose and insights into the true position of the ‘northern prole', languished in some quiet and unvisited social and academic backwater. Though he frequently took up literary initiatives, in reviews and literary forums, and notable and senior authors such as those mentioned wrote and consulted with him incessantly, the kind of national fame he deserved was never to be his – although if he resented it, he keeps that resentment well hidden. Rarely was he able to earn a crust from writing and spent most of his life in dead-end, low paid, odd job work. More often than not as a preview film critic and book reviewer, highlighting potential film lines from acres of story print.

Aside from his teenage years, which put an indelible stamp on his character, carved in stone his culture and gave him his literary edge, he lived down south the rest of his days. It is a well-trodden path for northern writers, actors and singers. Perhaps it was his quest to find a literary challenge, to be among intellectuals, to find outlet for his work, which dug him up from his roots and cast him south. It is true to say he never took root again, and always it seemed then wrote from the memory of his early and formative years. Did he not experience and absorb the working class culture and experience of the south? He did, of course, but never with the passion and identity of his northern soul.

Common's literary skill and endeavour was of itself a contrast to his muse, and a path which otherwise would have led him into the railways like his father and other members of his family. That surely though would not have been a reason for his failure as a professional writer at least in financial terms? His early works are as least as good as Orwell's or Lawrence's and clearly he had many of the same literary connections, yet still national exposure escaped him. As a northern writer myself and author of a forthcoming trilogy ( Stardust and coaldust ), I found Common both an inspiration and a cause for demoralisation. On the one hand, here we have brilliant historic and social description of my class and ethnicity, which makes you look to your own humble efforts; then there is the knowledge that, despite his far superior wordsmanship, he still did not sell books, did not see his works on the shelves of national book distributors. Indeed the works were not really published on any sort of scale until after he was died (in 1968).

Keith Armstrong is a notable northern poet, with a finger on the rhythms and pulses of modern Tyneside and its dark, industrial cultural roots. Throughout the work, he adds his own poems at various junctures and considerations of Common's canon. Certainly, this book is an almanac of Jack Common's themes, writing, correspondence, political and class outlooks, etc – everything you could possibly wish to know about Jack Common is in here somewhere. However, this is a failing, I think: Keith, in an effort to be thoroughly comprehensive, to include every last morsel of knowledge he has discovered on Common, has tried to fit it all in somewhere.

The book is the result of a PhD study undertaken for Durham University , which awarded the prestigious title of ‘Dr' to Keith for his undoubted hard years of research and exploration. The downside of this is that there is far too much of a PhD feel to the book – too much demonstration of knowledge of associated fields of study, of the literature and authors.

Having said that, this is a damn good book by a fellow Geordie, passionate in his love of the region and Common as one of its literary giants. It is thoroughly informative, exhaustively researched and a font of knowledge on all things Jack Common. I have great pleasure in recommending it.

 

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