COMMON WORDS & THE WANDERING STAR
A biographical study of culture and social change in
the life and work of writer Jack Common (1903-1968).
By Keith Armstrong
ISBN 978 1 906832 025
University Of Sunderland.
A son of the north-east himself, Keith Armstrong approaches his subject with as much affection as rigour which gives his book that sense of enthusiasm which always invests reading with an added dimension. Much more than a straight biography this is an exploration of Common’s roots, the influence of his milieu on his writing, the difficulties which writers of his class and time faced, the ingrained prejudices of the literary establishment, the interplay between creative writing and political theory, not to mention literary style and structure and the perennial problem of inclusion and exclusion in the face of an established canon. Armstrong has done his homework: the research behind this book is as thorough as you could wish and one of its delights is the extensive use of quotations from, themselves, fascinating sources. Common suffered the usual fate of gifted children from poor backgrounds: bored at school, his talents more or less overlooked, essentially an autodidact, he found entry into the literary world all but impossible and once he was published, earned next to nothing in spite of critical praise. There are exceptions of course. Lawrence got a relatively early start, scoffed at the idea he’d ever starved in a garret and though he earned little in his first decade and ran into trouble once his books strayed beyond the bounds of standard taste, after Sons And Lovers was accepted as a major writer and knew his place in posterity was secure. Lawrence was a proletarian writer in both senses: he came from the working-class and he wrote about it. Class, however, wasn’t his self-conscious theme. Common, like other writers from his class and era, was a politically conscious writer. There is one question at the heart of all his writing: can socialism displace capitalism ? Everything else is treated in the light of this question, or at least, that’s the impression this book leaves. Like Marx, Common admires capitalism’s productivity, its breathtaking development of technology, its stunning command of nature. Every socialist, he asserts, must share this admiration. He accepts the view that capitalism, the system that trammels him and against which he kicks, is a necessary phase of historical development. My own view is that capitalism is a mistake. The evidence for inevitability doesn’t seen convincing. Was the evolution of humanity inevitable ? Perhaps a Darwinian will correct me, but as I understand it there’s an element of contingency in evolution. Environmental pressure in conjunction with random mutation drives the process but a curious feature of determinism is its capacity to throw up contingency. Nothing in nature is accidental, but accident is not the same as the contingent. It seems to be precisely the Goldilocks phenomenon- that the universe is founded on perfect relationships – which gives rise to significant contingency. Certainly, when we leave behind the world of Physics and consider history, the complexity of the relations involved, from neurons and synapses to the subtle ways social and cultural forms emerge and develop, there are too many possibilities for a strict determinism to eliminate contingency. If capitalism isn’t an inevitable stage of development, then it deserves to be condemned without reservation for its injustice, for precisely those assaults on individual dignity and freedom which are Common’s accusation. Curiously, both orthodox Marxists and neo-liberals argue the inevitability of capitalism. Lawrence, who believed no such thing, was able to infuse his work with a sense of alienation, even disgust, which works much more powerfully than explicit ideology. Inheriting from Ruskin and Thoreau deep scepticism about industrialism, Lawrence attacked the mechanistic nature of modern civilization; the whole tenor of modern life was his target, but in his best creative work he offered no solutions. The essays where he descends to theory are confused and feeble. Literature, as the cliché has it, is much more about questions than answers, about evoking sensibility rather than setting the world to rights. The problem for a writer like Common is that his self-conscious socialism – a solution – intrudes on depiction. As Marx said, one Balzac is worth a hundred Zolas. Balzac, a conservative royalist, fulfilled his self-defined function as “the secretary of French society”, or so Marx judged. Precisely what gives Marx reservations about Zola, is his adherence to a socialistic ideology. Then we must ask, if capitalism is a necessity and if its achievements must be lauded, why not make the best of its meritocratic phase ? To a degree, of course, Common did exactly that: he left his native Tyneside, was published in and worked for The Adelphi, corresponded with Orwell and Middleton Murry; in short, escaped the topography and mentality of working-class life. This, of course, is all and exactly that has been on offer politically as an alternative to conservatism: a way out, a way up, an escape to betterment for a few. The British mass party of the working-class has never seriously embraced the notion of root and branch, democratic reform of our economic and social arrangements. Get out if you can and there’s a safety net for those left behind, is the message. This, of course, makes the position of the working-class intellectual or creative artist impossible: either you renounce your working-class sensibility, or you’re doomed. Lawrence, who never answered to any name but Bert, called himself D.H. to fit in with the middle-class assumptions of the literary world. Common wanted to be a writer yet remain working-class, an impossible aspiration and, incidentally, just the contrary of Orwell who found being a writer relatively easy ( when you’ve been to Eton you’ll always find some editor who’ll publish you because of your pedigree) and who tried to discover what it means to be working-class, but could only ever see the life he didn’t know through the window of a train. The contradiction at the heart of Common is that he accepts capitalism as inevitable and progressive, yet wants to devote his energy and talent to exposing its darkness. Why should capitalism reward and celebrate its enemies ? Well, because literary value should be seen for what it is. But this, of course, is naïve; it’s to presume the rich put truth before money. And not only the rich but also those with just that little bit more which allows them to cultivate fantasies of superiority and election. The choice is atrociously hard: stick to your oppositional guns and accept failure and denial or accept that the price of success is compromise. Common’s work is full of the bitterness of recognizing this trap and what he managed was a little bit of recognition and reward but dismissal to the periphery where he rests as a curiosity ignored by the influential.
Common’s status as a creative writer rests on two novels: Kiddar’s Luck and The Ampersand. The contrast between the titles is intriguing: his working-class would have recognised the former at once, but the latter would have sent them for the dictionary. It even has a bit of Latin tucked into it, the preserve of Grammar School boys and girls. It’s the kind of title the literary world likes, while the former speaks too redolently of cobblestones, street corners and chutzpah. There are enough quotations from the novels here to see Common is a writer of high gifts, and as some of the critics quoted point out, his work is full of humour, gaiety, joyousness in the midst of grim conditions. He never pleads for pity and his implied narrator has a Figaro-like wiliness in the face of the manipulations of his “betters”. From a purely literary point of view, there’s no doubt Common wrote two novels which should be classics. He is every bit as good a writer as H.E. Bates, Alan Sillitoe, Margaret Drabble and her sister, Penelope Lively, Beryl Bainbridge, Julian Barnes, Martin Amis, Anthony Burgess and a better one than Hilary Mantel. Why then aren’t his novels in print ? Why don’t you find them readily in Oxfam bookshops ? We all know the answer. It’s all very well for Proust to document in minute detail the sensibility of the upper reaches of French society but there’s something distasteful about doing the same for the inhabitants of an industrial town in the north which does the dirty work on which the stockbroker belt depends. Denial is a fundamental operation of the human mind as stroke patients with right parietal damage, paralysed on the left ( just like Britain itself) who blithely reject all suggestions of their disability, amply demonstrate. All cultures operate denial. In the capitalism Common saw as unavoidable, the essential denial has to be that profit is made at the cost of crippling millions of lives, physically, morally, emotionally, intellectually, creatively. How much of our literature deals with work ? Most of us devote the best hours of the best years of our lives to it, yet it’s deemed unworthy of the writer’s attention. For capitalism to maintain itself, it must magic away the connection between labour and money. Entrepreneurs and financiers produce wealth, the rest of us are supernumary. Then there’s readership. A great effort has been made ever since the masses got education, to feed them superficial cultural pap, while simultaneously preserving higher culture for a middle-class largely southern in attitude if not location. Wolf Hall is exactly what the latter like : remote from contemporary life, unchallenging and, apparently, a little edifying. The systematic destruction of a substantial readership for writers like Common leaves him to be appreciated by a thinning number of aficianados. This book itself is testimony: it’s unlikely to get a notice in the LRB or the Literary Review or to be on the shelves of every Waterstones in the land.
Keith Armstrong hasn’t done himself any favours as far as literary advancement goes: he could have written a biography of Kingsley Amis or a study of Larkin; but he’s produced an excellent and fascinating book which grants to Common his significance and rescues him from obscurity. Many writers contribute to the literary life of any epoch and, as Carey Nelson’s Repression and Recovery shows, most of them get forgotten as a standard view of a period is imposed in the universities. The majority of contributors aren’t great talents, though at their best they may produce some work which matches that of the geniuses, but Common is much more than a marginal addition; Armstrong’s original approach, which makes this broader and better than a standard biography, reveals Common as the literary equal of Orwell in his discursive prose and a novelist of extraordinary accomplishment. Constantly referring to the cultural, social and political landscape of Common’s time, and also heaving his relevance into the present, Armstrong’s book should become a standard reference for anyone interested in the period, the man or the topic. It’s a reminder , in these times when meritocracy is taken to be nature, just how far we have to go before individuals cease to be defined by class.
Finally, if capitalism is a contingency, as I believe, we can set aside our nervousness over not giving due recognition to its achievements; they could all have been realised without it. Similarly, socialism is not the next and final phase in some inevitable teleology but the make-and-mend response to the dreadful damage which must accompany an economy organised for the enrichment of a few at the expense of the rest. Perhaps if Common had held such a view he would have felt less required to elaborate suggestions as to how the transition could be made and more at liberty to exercise his excellent wit, irony, sarcasm and vitriol against stupidity just as he did with his generosity and love of life when he celebrated the spirit of the victims.