Keith’s book on Jack Common grew from a Ph.D thesis. As his supervisor over the five years of part-time study that resulted in a successful Ph.D, I am very pleased to see the book in print. We always hoped that the academic thesis would re-appear as a book and this hope has now been realized.
Keith’s relationship to Jack Common is much more than that of biographer and literary critic. And the thesis from which the book derives is no conventional academic treatise. For a start, Keith was no stranger to the subject. He grew up, as did Jack Common, in Heaton in the east end of Newcastle. Like Jack Common, he knows well the society from which he came. He knows the streets on which Jack Common played and the pubs in which he drank. Like Common, Keith is a writer, a poet of some standing whose work strikes notes that Jack Common would have recognized in an instant. There is a keen interest in ordinary people. There is a powerful sense of ironic distance as he observes the world around him. There is a strong social commitment to the building of a better society and an interest in the radical political traditions of the North East of England.
Like Common, Keith is no politician. His journey to a better world has been through the arts, poetry in particular, but that would not have been possible without his work in community arts and in encouraging people from all over the North East to get down to their writing and to tell the world about their lives. Like Common, Keith is from the North East but in some ways he is not of the North East. Unlike Common, he has stayed here plying his arts whenever there is a chance to do so.
In the 1970s and early 80s Keith was part of a small but active group of writers, social scientists and political activists called Strong Words that was inspired in part by the writings of Jack Common. Indeed, they edited and published some of his unpublished papers. In this sense, Keith was part of the re-discovery of Jack Common, a writer whose star had waned in the post-war world, but which had once shined brightly in the inter-war years when he was friends with Orwell and other literary giants, especially on the left.
Keith’s poetry and community arts background were his membership qualifications but this former librarian strengthened his academic credentials through two Durham degrees in social science. That was a few years ago but he got the academic bug and carried on with a Ph.D.
Jack Common was a good subject for Keith. His life and work opened up themes that Keith has been working on for the past 30 years: the nature of class society in Britain, the culture and values of the North East of England, the role of art in politics and the possibility of enabling working people to re-gain control of their lives and live them to full. For this reason, Keith’s art, like Common’s, has an oppositional, transformative thrust. He wants to change the world but he doesn’t want to impose some plan on it. He wants to celebrate the best of working class culture but is not naïve about the worst of it. In any case, the lives of working class people have changed profoundly between the times of Common and Keith Armstrong and the nature of those changes has been at the heart of Keith’s work, particularly of this biography of his hero.
The thesis Keith wrote was not the usual run-of-the-mill study in which a student, well-trained in he latest research methods, grinds through a programme of data collection to reach limp, though balanced (and often insignificant)conclusions about topics that are often so specialized they interest only a small group of like-minded academics.
Keith’s study has taken him an adult lifetime without which it could not have been written. He brings to literary criticism and to the art of biography, a keen sociological eye that enables him to see the subtle interplays between context and experience, attitudes and lifestyles and to reveal in particular, how some people – Jack Common in this case – can break through the constraints of their lives or, to use Common’s typically ironic expression, overcome ‘Kiddar’s Luck’ and look forward to new horizons, new experiences, new possibilities. Like Common, Keith knows what this takes. It takes new learning. It takes courage: the courage to be different, to think, to challenge orthodox opinions and to have your own ideas tested in debate. Jack Common, and Keith is no different, liked pubs. He liked nothing better than being in a pub talking to people. Keith does this professionally and through this, at least in part, keeps in touch with the changing lives of the people of this region. Like most academics, and like all poets, his head is mainly in the air, but this man has his feet also on the ground. What this means in practice can be seen in his work, especially in this new study of Common. I hope very much this book will keep both of them in the public eye for many years to come.