Doctor Keith Armstrong on Newcastle writer Jack Common (1903-68) and the poetry of community in the North East
I have known Jack Common since the sixth form of Heaton Grammar School in
Newcastle upon Tyne when I was introduced to his novel of working class life
on the streets of my own Heaton, 'Kiddar's Luck' and its sequel on growing
up in Newcastle, 'The Ampersand'.
He struck me as a man after my own heart. Someone who knew his roots, who
had come from the same streets as mine. His father was a railway worker,
mine from the shipyards.
We had a shared sense of the industrial heritage of Newcastle, and a sense
When I walked along the Fourth Avenue where he was born, and down its back
lane, the colour of his words and the characters that haunt him sprang to
life. A gritty realism tinged with the remembrance of things past, the
shouts of the street-hawkers and the cries of kids playing in the gutters of
the early twentieth century.
He stayed with me as I went to college and began work in the library world
in the 1960s, which I later left for community work and the life of the
political activist in the seventies, and he is still with me now as a
guardian soul looking over my slim shoulders as I try to make sense of his
life and work. Sometimes I wish he'd go away.
With a name like Jack Common he had to be on the side of the common folk -
and he was.
'A commitment to the virtues of the common man formed the basis
of Jack Common's political beliefs. For a better - socialist - society would
never be produced through political programmes designed by intellectuals,
planners and professional politicians - no matter how well intentioned. The
roots of a better society had to be established within the daily practices,
the hope and aspirations of the ordinary men and women who made up the
working class.' (Strong Words, 1977).
It was through this kind of inspiration that myself and others established
the Strong Words community publishing project in the North East of England
back in 1977.
Its aim was to publish booklets based on the lives and experiences of
working people in the area, expressed throught the words of the people
'It is this belief in the importance of strengthening cultural
traditions within the working class which forms the strongest link between
Jack Common and the Strong Words project.' (Strong Words, 1977).
Through its publications and events, the project attempted to express
working class people's living experience in the North East of England
through the words of the people themselves; their own stories told in prose,
in verse, in conversation. Working people were given the opportunity to
publish and communicate their own feelings and ideas - about the past and
future; about work and the lack of it; about family life, having children
and being a child; about problems and happiness, victories and defeats. And
in a booklet that was cheap enough for people to afford.
Strong Words was based upon the belief that it is important to retain and
strengthen cultural heritage in a way that allows working people to benefit
from each other's experiences.
'So much is written about working class people (in the press, on TV, in
academic books and journals) but very little is written by them. The purpose of
Strong Words was to 'alter this a little by encouraging people to write of their
own experiences or to document them through recorded conversations. In this respect,
we hope that these booklets will come as a breath of fresh air. Above all, we hope
that they will be read and discussed in pubs and clubs, workplaces and
communities throughout the area.' (Strong Words, 1977).
Strong Words and subsequent projects could be said to be influenced by the
likes of Tommy Armstrong and his fellow pitman-poet Joseph Skipsey, who
describes his own background vividly:
'I had no means of education to speak of. I was born on St Patrick's Day,
1832, in the village of Percy Main, near North Shields. That was the time of
the great colliery strike. My father was one of the leading men among the
miners of our village and whilst trying to keep between his workmates and
police was shot dead outside the "Pineapple Inn" near Chirton. My mother
Bella was left with eight children of whom I was the youngest, only four
When I was seven years of age I went to work down the pit but even the mere
pittance that I earned was of importance to a family such as ours, for those
were times of desperate poverty. I became a trapper boy. I worked from
twelve to sixteen hours a day in the bowels of the earth, seeing daylight
only on Sundays for this was a life of work and sleep. That was when I
taught myself to write. Mostly I sat in complete darkness, but occasionally
a kindly miner would give me the end of his tallow candle which I struck
against the wall with a bit of clay. At such happy seasons I amused myself
by drawing figures upon the trapdoor and trying to write words by copying
from hand-bills and notices I found from time to time ... I had begun to
write down some of the verses that I had made, and here I ought to explain
that I never wrote anything with a view to publication. I made verses
because it seemed a natural and delightful thing to do. Most of my smaller
pieces were composed as I was walking to and from the pit and some of these
have been praised as among the best I have written.'
Oh sleep my little baby,
Thou wilt wake thy father with thy cries
And he unto the pit must go before the sun begins to rise.
He'll toll for thee the whole day long
And, when the weary work is o'er,
He'll whistle thee a merry song
And drive the bogies from the door'.
(Skipsey, J., 1991)
Indeed, it was only when Skipsey attempted to ape the stylistic manner of
the 'literati' of the day that his writing ran hollow. In this he was like
the Scots border poet James Hogg who, as:
'the self-educated shepherd established his reputation as a writer and came
into contact with the sophisticated literary world of Edinburgh, the
predictable consequence was that he accepted too uncritically the validity
of Edinburgh's opinions and fashions. As a result, many of his works are
simply attempts to produce the kind of writing that he thought Edinburgh
would admire - and this is one of the main reasons for the existence of the
large body of unsuccessful verse which has done so much to harm his
reputation ... Most of Hogg's best poetry was written when his object was to
please himself rather than Edinburgh. Thus his many excellent songs make no
concessions to the taste of genteel society, but are rather written in the
spirit of the traditional folk songs he knew as a child in Ettrick Forest.'
(Mack, D.S., 1970).
Such tensions are as valid today as they were in the days of both Skipsey
and Hogg; indeed, I feel them in my own writing and in my concern to speak
with a regional non-metropolitan voice.
It is this concern which is at the heart of Strong Words, Durham
Voices and Northern Voices. Listen, for example, to retired miner Fred
Scott of Newburn (1983):
'There's a lot who have authority but it's only power that's got a hold of
them. It's not that the man is any different to me. The pollis is only a man
the same as me. I don't think the vicar will be any better than me as
regards living, to live a life. To help everybody - that's been my mainstay
in all my life, right from a kid. We were fetched up that way - to care for
people, and I've just continued on. We're all born the same and we all go
back the same, and I say they shouldn't be allowed to hold as much land,
none of them, because they're strangling the people with what they're doing.
It's still going on. The whole lot of them are living off your back. These
people are born into it, they've got it, and they're going to make sure you
don't get it - but you're the man who's working, you're the man that's using
the shovel. Freedom's a fascination. That's the main thing. Nobody to tell
you to do this or do that. Free as the dicky birds'.
And to farmer Joe Yeats of Gilsland in the booklet 'Missile Village'
(1978), reflecting on the impact of the Blue Streak rocker launcher development programme at nearby Spadeadam:
'Spadeadam was a good thing in a sense. We had no dole then in this part of
the country. It was a big miss when it finished. But to me it was a useless
asset. I suppose they would know what they were doing probably, but to me it
was still a waste of money. When I was up in them fields out there, I would
see this big puff of smoke over Spadeadam and I'd think "Hey up, there's a
few more thousand pound gone up in the sky there". That's all it was, a puff
of smoke, you know'.
A feature of many of the Strong Words/Northern Voices publications has
been the attempt to link past and present by including material from young
and old alike to reflect changing times in their communities. This from
youngsters Jonathan Scott and Pamela Staley (1991):
A miner's hands are cold and cracked;
A miner's hands are cold and damp;
A miner's hands are never young;
A miner's hands are worn and dirty;
A miner's hands are sore and aching;
A miner's hands are always painful;
A miner's hands are his life-long tools:
Hands for playing when he is young,
Hands for working when he is strong,
Hands for begging when his life is almost done.
These poems by young people were in the tradition of the Teesdale lead-miner
poet Richard Watson, described here by Claude Watson (Northern Voices, 1991):
'Dick Watson was a good poet. He worked at Wire Gill but it was well known
that he was fairly useless - and his wife was worse. At Wire Gill, there was
a man who worked the horses; he drew the level. This chap used to get up
early in the morning to get his horse ready for the start of work. He had a
young lad that helped him. One morning he said to the young lad, 'Now, lad,
thou just lie on this morning and watch the pantomime when 'Poetry Dick'
gets up, what with bits of string and newspaper, 'tis a bonny pantomime!'
Everything was fastened up with bits of string and newspaper to keep him
'Mary, what is there here
But toil and poverty?
As for the friends you're speaking of,
What have they done for me?
Here I may sweat and dig for lead,
'Mid smoke and dust to earn my bread,
And I go half clothed and half fed,
Till I can work no more.'
In the publication 'Where Explosions Are No More' (1988), miner John Egan of Trimdon
told his own story, the basis of a touring show which portrayed his life in narrative,
poetry and folk-song:
'The first pony I got was a grand little fella. They called him 'Spring'. I
always remember Spring. I can see him now, Spring, he was grey. All the
ponies had names before they came down the pit: Boxer, Whiskey, Mottram,
Martin, all sorts of names, but my pony was Spring.'
The booklet also featured poems and stories by local children like Dianne
Pit ponies are blinded in the sunlight but, down in the pit, the ponies can
see in the dark.
And the ponies pull the coal around like slaves, and for their night they
rest in peace.
Whilst the pits are obviously gone, the tradition is not entirely lost and
the culture is preserved by bands like 'The Whisky Priests' (1996), a young group
from Sherburn village, though they are admittedly an exception to the general rule:
'This village draws me,
I hear it calling me back through the years.
Its people are its life-blood,
I am its joy, I am its tears ...
This village haunts me,
Its whispering hurt tears at my soul.
Oh why did I forsake you?
Welcome me back, welcome me home.
A sacred bond exists here
Between the land and the people it owns.
It grants no escape from the realms of its fate,
It reaps the crops we have sown.
This village has made me all that I am
This village is calling me home.'
A sense of place, of Northumbrian roots, is also crucial to an understanding
of the life and work of Tyneside's famous son, wood-engraver Thomas Bewick
(1753-1828). It is particularly evident in Bewick's Memoir (1979):
'Well do I remember to this day, my father's well known Whistle which called
me home - he went to a little distance from the House, where nothing
obstructed the sound, and whistled so loud through his finger and thumb -
that in the still hours of the Evening, it might be heard echoing up the
vale of the Tyne to a very great distance...
From the little window at my bed-stead, I noticed all the varying seasons
of the year, and when the spring put in, I felt charmed with the music of
the birds, which strained their little throats to proclaim it'.
All of these impressions greatly influenced the art of Bewick. This is also
true of the people he grew up with, who gave him a sense of tradition and
'The Winter evenings were often spent in listening to the traditionary Tales
and Songs, relating to Men who had been eminent for their prowess and
bravery in the Border Wars, and of others who had been esteemed for better
and milder qualities, such as having been good Landlords, kind Neighbours,
and otherwise in every respect being bold, independent and honest Men. I
used to be particularly struck or affected with the Warlike music and the
Songs. These Songs and laments were commemorative of many worthies, but the
most particular ones that I now remember were those respecting the Earl of
Derwent-Water, who was beheaded in the year 1715...
These cottagers were of an honest and independent character ... most of
these poor Men, from their having little intercourse with the World, were in
all their actions and behaviour truly original - except reading the Bible,
local Histories and old Ballads, their knowledge was generally limited - and
yet one of these, "Will Bewick", from being much struck with my performance
which he called Pictures, became exceedingly kind to me, and was the first
person from whom I gathered a kind of general knowledge of Astronomy and of
the Magnitude of the universe. He had, the Year through, noticed the
appearance of the stars and the Planets and would discourse largely on the
subject. I think I see him yet, sitting on a mound or seat, by the Hedge of
his Garden, regardless of the cold, and intent upon the heavenly bodies,
pointing to them with his large hands and eagerly imparting his knowledge to
me, with a strong voice.'
Bewick is a key figure in the 'Geordie' heritage. Indeed, given that he died
in Gateshead, an image of him and his work might have been more appropriate
on the 'Gateway' site now occupied by 'The Angel of the North'. He worked in
Newcastle when it was the most important printing centre in England outside
London, Oxford and Cambridge, with twenty printers in the town, publishing
more books than any other provincial city, including 'songs and schoolbooks,
histories and sermons, works in all shapes and sizes, as well as Bewick's
'Quadrupeds' and 'Birds'. (Brewer, J., 1997).
This active publishing trade was backed up by a thriving cultural and social life
represented by 'nearly fifty clubs and societies, ranging from masonic
lodges to floral societies, from debating clubs to political associations,
[which] met in coffee houses, club rooms and taverns ... In 1778 Bewick was
elected to Swarley's Club, which met at the Black Boy Inn ... [and] he also
spent time with members of a literary club 'who kept a library of Books and
held their meetings in a Room at Sam Allcocks, at the Sign of the Cannon, at
the foot of the old Flesh Market'. The society, which included some woollen
drapers and the cashier of a local bank, may have served as the model for
the Philosophical Society that Bewick, together with a bookseller, land
surveyor, coach painter, engineers and dissenting minister, founded in the
1770s to debate literature, philosophy and politics ... The bookplate of
Richard Swarley proudly declaimed 'Libertas Auro Pretiosior' (Liberty is
more precious than gold); government spies broke up the club because of its
radical, oppositional views during the Napoleonic Wars. The first occasion
on which the radical bookseller and numismatist Thomas Spence set forth his
views on the collective right to rural property was at a meeting of the
Philosophical Society [from which he was later expelled - K.A.]. His
agrarian socialism was controversial and Bewick, who was a firm believer in
the virtues of private property, disliked it. On one occasion their
differences led to a fight with cudgels in which the strongly built engraver
gave the slender radical a terrible drubbing. But they remained friends
throughout their lives. Bewick visited Spence after he had left Newcastle,
and the Bewick-Beilby workshop gave Spence the tools and type he needed to
publish his new and simplified alphabet.' (Brewer, J., 1997).
Bewick and his associates were asserting a collectivist vision from a
regionalist perspective and were not interested in merely aping London
fashions. They 'directly challenged any presumption that only gentlemen
could be cultured and refined'. The Newcastle Literary and Philosophical
Society was established in the belief that, 'Knowledge, like fire, is
brought forth by collision; and in the free conversations of associated
friends many lights have been struck out, and served as tin for the most
important discoveries, which would not, probably, have occurred to their
authors, in the refinements of private meditation'. (Brewer, J., 1997).
Aware of the kind of tradition which inspired Bewick, Alan Plater has this
'On the whole, born as we are from generations of disenfranchised voices,
Geordie writers live easily enough with their ragbag of realities. The mere
fact that we are able to write and see our work performed without being in
hock to the Bloomsbury/Oxbridge axis, is awesome enough. On the whole, we
are not cursed with Art in the Head. We see ourselves as makers,
conscientious craftsmen who happen to be writers, just as our fathers
happened to be railwaymen, shipbuilders or pitmen ... What we share, to
borrow an idea from Sid Chaplin, is love of place and love of work. The
shipyards and the coalfield, hideous as the conditions were, nevertheless
created a lasting respect for the craft tradition, linked to the notion of
community interdepdendence. Both of these traditions have suffered
grievously during the 1980s, kicked almost to death by the bovver boots of
Thatcherism. What survives is the possibility of love, and that survival
depends in large measure on the writers ... Memory becomes history becomes
legend ... In the North East, we have long memories and a massive burden of
history ... an oral tradition, starting in childhood, hardended by inherited
rage and love ... our stories should be dream-driven, not market-driven and
they should be stories that in one form or another were first heard in a
back yard, once upon a time.' (Plater, A., 1992).
The American broadcaster and oral historian Studs Terkel, whose books based
on the recollections of 'so-called ordinary people' have chronicled American
history since the Depression, recently attacked what he referred to as a
'national Alzheimer's disease'. 'One of the things failing us today', he
said, 'is the elimination of the past, of history. Some of the kids don't
know about the sixties, let alone world war two, let alone the depression'.
In speech, 'he described lambasting a couple for failing to appreciate their
forebears' sacrifices, and insisted people could change once they were
educated'. (Terkel, S., 11/6/98).
It is the belief which underpins the Strong Words and Northern Voices
projects, the kind of belief which motivated North East writers like Jack
Common and Sid Chaplin; a belief which is not quite dead, for, in Chaplin's
'There are a few people in my life who represent more than father-figures.
They are rocks you can strike any time and get living water, trees under
whose mighty branches you can shelter - and the fruit and blossom are
constantly there, elemental beings whose voice you can hear at any time.
This is not an explanation but a statement - how it happens is a mystery -
but once met they become part of your psyche. There is no need to call up
their ghosts. They live on in you.' (Chaplin, S., 1989).
This attempt to keep some kind of cultural heritage alive, led Strong
Words to stage exhibitions and events in honour of Jack Common, and to
publish 'Revolt Against an Age of Plenty' (1980), a selection of his
essays, and, subsequently, to establish the enterprise 'The Common Trust'
with the aim of keeping Common's spirit alive and to ensure that his writing
was published and still available ('Freedom of the Streets', People's
Publications and The Common Trust, London, 1988). For the values he stood
for still carry some weight: the exploration of ideas of community in an
increasingly individualistic society, the regard for a sense of history and
place in our lives (in some ways, encapsulated in the city of Newcastle upon
Tyne), the love of fallible humanity, the bringing together of kindred
spirits to talk, celebrate and sing, the need to analyse and articulate our
thoughts and feelings, all of these things and more.
An exhibition in 1977 at Newcastle's Central Library as part of that year's
City Festival, set the ball rolling and stimulated a large degree of
interest, further developed by an evening at the Tyneside Cinema where
Common's wartime film 'Tyneside Story' was shown and supplemented by a talk
by renowned Durham novelist Sid Chaplin on his association with Common.
Common's old friend Tommy McCulloch attended as did his son, Peter Common.
The aim was to bring people together across generations to celebrate Common
and his links with his home city.
Times have, of course, moved on. The ideas of Common and of the Strong
Words Collective need to be viewed in this light. 'There is no
counter-culture now.' (Newcastle artist George French, 2001). Just what can
be retained of value in the present context and into the future it is, in
part, the role of this thesis to explore.
The use of the word 'community' now has a hollow ring. The traditional
organised industrial trade union movement has been splintered. The
international 'communist' movement has been dealt a body blow. The ''global
market' seems triumphant. And do the terms 'socialism' and 'working class'
have any meaning any more? Recently, Jonathan Rose asked at the end of his
'Intellectual Life of the Working Classes' (2001) why 200 years of cultural
self-improvement through libraries, lectures, schools and newspapers
organised by and for the working class died in the 1960s. He concluded that
the alleged egalitarian attack on the 'dead white men' of the classics
actually enhanced the privilege of the middle-classes. If there was common
agreement on what the canon was, be it Shakespeare or its ilk, it was easy
enough for the self-taught to make up the ground. But, since the 1960s,
cultural trends have had 'as brief a shelf-life as stock-exchange trends,
and they depreciate rapidly if one fails to catch the latest wave in
architecture of literary theory'. 'The new waves (be it 'new
wave', 'modernist' or 'postmodernist')', argues Rose, 'reflect the Anxiety of
Cool, the relentless struggle to get out in front and control the new
production of new cultural information'.
And as Nick Cohen (2005) concludes, 'each new wave carries
high culture further away from the working class. Once, the middle class
left saw the workers as the very vanguard of history; now they are dismissed
as sexist, racist and conservative'.
Rose searched a database of academic texts published betweem 1991 and 2000.
There were 13,820 references for 'women', 4,539 for 'gender', 1,826 for
'race', 710 for 'post-colonial' and only 136 for 'working class'. As Cohen
'It shouldn't be too great a surprise that the humble do not care
about education and that they regard intellectual life as alien when the
educated care so little for them.'
Jack Common might well be turning in his grave.
What once seemed a class that through its liberation and self-education
would rise up and change the world now seems locked into the
trap of the sink estate and the intellectually starved world of a bemused
underclass. So is there any hope? I say there has to be.
Researching the life of Edinburgh's Robert Louis Stevenson recently, I was
made aware of, if I wasn't before, the dualities of the man and of his
beloved home city. One of the greatest inspirations of 'RLS' was the
eighteenth century Edinburgh poet Robert Fergusson, a man 'who lived without
restraint and who wrote about the real life of the city, about ordinary
people, servant girls gossiping on the tenement stairs, dandies getting
splashed in the filthy streets, drunks staggering home at night' (Calder,
1980). Not so far removed from Common's own Kiddar's Luck, you might say,
and Fergusson lived from 1750 to 1774, parallelling the lives of Newcastle's
own radicals Thomas Bewick and Thomas Spence.
RLS himself as a young man mixed with those beyond the reach of the law and
the establishment as an alternative to the manners and morals of the middle
'Edinburgh certainly fed his imagination ... a city where still the
past is never allowed to lie down and die, where in his everyday comings and
goings he could not avoid the continual stimulus of the sombre outline on
the ridge, castle, cathedral, kirks and uneven lands, or the sound of bugles
and drums drifting down in the evening, and the mingling with lines from
those authors who had already captured something of the city.' (Calder, J., 1980).
This duality of dark and light in Edinburgh is reflected in all cities. In
Edinburgh's case it is visible in
the culture of the body-snatchers Burke and Hare, in Stevenson's own Jekyll
and Hyde, in the thief and magistrate Deacon Brodie and, above all, in the old
and new towns of the city, which did not get its name 'auld Reekie' for nothing.
That Fergusson and RLS, along with the likes of Robbie Burns and James
Hogg, give a city like Edinburgh historical depth cannot be denied. So much
so that the city is now a UNESCO World City of Literature and a novelist
like Ian Rankin carries on this tradition by setting his Inspector Rebus
stories in the city.
Without a sense of such heritage, a grasp of the light and shade which
reveals the truth, our cities would be breathing corpses. This is why it is
important to remember Jack Common and his evocative writing rooted in the
streets and lanes of Newcastle where, like Edinburgh, the past refuses to
'lie down and die' and which must reveal its dark side, alongside the glitz
of the cultural admen, to any writer worth his bottle of brown.
New Publication from University of Sunderland Press:
Common Words and the Wandering Star
by Keith Armstrong
Introductory Offer £5.95
In this unique book, Keith Armstrong assesses the life and work of
Newcastle born writer Jack Common, in the light of the massive social,
economic and cultural changes which have affected the North East of
England and wider society, through the period of Common’s life and
He seeks to point out the relevance of Common to the present day in
terms of his ideas about class, community and the individual and in the
light of Common’s sense of rebelliousness influenced by a process of
grassroots education and self improvement.
“Keith Armstrong's study of Jack Common is a major contribution to
contemporary studies in English literature.
This is a well-informed book with many innovative characteristics,
including the author's use of poetry as a way of exploring Common's creativity.”
Professor Bill Williamson
Posted by keith armstrong at 8:52 am