Scottish Affairs, no. 71, Spring 2010
EXTRACT FROM REVIEW: COMMON WORDS AND THE WANDERING STAR
Keith Armstrong, Common Words and the Wandering Star: A Biographical Study of Culture and Social Change in the Life and Work of Writer Jack Common (1903-1968), Sunderland: University of Sunderland Press, 2009, 296pp, pb, £.7.95, ISBN 978-1-9068320-25
Blessed with a name that has ensured his working-class credentials would shine like a gas-lamp on a cobbled street, the Tyneside novelist and essayist Jack Common (1903-1968) is now the subject of a ‘critical biography’, entitled Common Words and the Wandering Star. It is written by poet Keith Armstrong, a fellow Geordie, whose own surname also resonates with a Northern nobility that is reflected in his own substantial body of work. In fact, this worthy and significant book often reads like an intellectual tango between subject and biographer, as their respective lives and aspirations run a parallel course at opposite ends of the twentieth century.
Armstrong draws in an impressive supporting chorus of Northern socialist writers, such as Alex Glasgow, Sid Chaplin, Tommy McCulloch and even Manny Shinwell, to contextualise the life and political beliefs of his subject. There are also informative contributions from Common’s own children, who describe a loving father (‘like a father of today’), but within a life touched by tragedy and hardship, spent struggling in the far-off reaches of southern England, to where Jack had decamped to pursue his literary ambitions.
In this book, Armstrong uses his subject more as a tiller to steer us through a century of socialist thought, while never disguising his admiration for the man. While Orwell was, in his own words, merely a ‘Tory anarchist’, Armstrong pitches Common as the real thing, ‘a rebel, an intellectual, a deep thinker, yet a man of the people’. This results in a readable and concise commentary on an era of political and social upheaval that surely needs to be captured in such a poetic yet level-headed style, as its events and standards recede into history at an astonishing speed.
My own ode to this pale hero, a song entitled ‘Jack Common’s Anthem’, optimistically brings him back to a modern-day Tyneside of reclaimed industrial sites, quayside apartments, art galleries, concert halls and mammoth shopping centres, populated by the Ant and Dec generation of Geordies, in the hope that he can still find something resembling ‘The True North’. He would probably laugh in my face, but hopefully not give up the struggle to right a century of wrongs where figures like T. Dan Smith and Andrew Cunningham had wandered those same streets as he had, only to mount the steps of the official status within local government, apparently with somewhat selfish disregard for their fellow-citizens. Yet to a great extent, it is their names, not his, that live on.
Meanwhile, Keith Armstrong’s parting judgement on Jack Common can easily be levelled at the biographer himself: ‘We need people like him today. We need romantic realists, artists worth their own salt.'