From the Wilderness: some problems of a working-class writer
A working-class writer, of course, has no problems. On the one hand he writes a novel based on his experiences in factory or mine or a simple autobiography based on his experiences in factory or mine, he shows his book around proudly, makes a certain amount of money, and everything in the garden is lovely. On the other hand, a working-class writer has no problems because he doesn't write. I knew one man who, at nearly forty years of age, became interested in literature. Previously he had done little reading and, of course, no writing. His wife had a good job and there were no children. This man wrote a short piece and sent it to one of our more august journals. It was accepted. The man immediately chucked his job.
Pathetic? Well now. I had five books rejected before Five Fags a Day was accepted. When the first cheque came from the publishers I hawked it around the town but no one would cash it. I was hard up and anxious to get hold of some money immediately, but I was obviously not the sort of person to receive cheques from publishers. I was so poor and poorly dressed, you see. So I returned the cheque to the publishers and they were kind enough to send cash. That was two years ago and more. Since then I have had to books published. Both books were widely reviewed. In addition, the first book was mentioned on the radio and the second brought me a TV "Bookman" appearance. To date I have made about £230 from the two books, but there is, of course, the compensation of fame. The other day I walked into a pub two hundred yards or so from where I live. "Ain't that the chap who wrote them two novelties?" said one man to another. The second man lifted his head some one-and-a--half inches and drooped it again into his Sporting Buff.
But, of course, there were no financial or other problems for the factory worker who chucked his job on the strength of one accepted article. He wrote four more articles and began a book. He couldn't progress beyond chapter two of the book (eleven typewritten sheets in all) and the articles were rejected. But the factory worker was as clever as I am stupid. It has never been my luck to be brusquely rejected. Publishers have always written : I have never been guilty of not answering. One publisher held one of my rejected books. The Dark Night is Mine, for more than two years. Because of the passion and persistence with which I fought he had the book read again and again. We exchanged probably two hundred letters. My economic circumstances were grim, but for years to get published at all was for me spiritual fulfilment— money entered into it not at all.
On many a morning I received letters that inflamed my mind. For years I lived a life that is difficult to describe. I did not, for instance, between the summer of 1944 and the autumn of 1957 — thirteen years— visit a cinema or theatre or use any form of public transport. For many years I led an isolated, but curiously divided, life. I was not, to put it simply, psychologically normal. My life was divided between crude animal labour and literature. Every day I toiled in lonely places and for hours each night I wrote — Saturdays and Sundays, holidays and Christmases, too. Often days would pass without a word with a fellow human being. Because of my loneliness my mind was overburdened.
I was very calm, or attained calmness, during my long hours of writing, but at other times (before sleep, on awakening and throughout the day) my mind was frenziedly overactive. I sometimes thought of a film I had seen many years before. A man had committed suicide and, as he lifted the revolver to his forehead, the cameras dissolved to the wheels of a locomotive crashing along at express speed. It was something like that. I was by nature imaginative, and my imagination now was my salvation and damnation. Everything that should have happened externally (social contact, sexual outlet, etc.) raged internally.
I reeled in a miasma of imagery and imaginary conversation. Two hours after waking I had little consciousness of my own being. As the day went on, my disorder grew. And one the days when the letters came—the letters that barred the way to my goal—on those days the disorder was acute.
I wasn't able to get down to answering the letters until six or seven pm. During the day I had written thousands of words. Mentally, of course. All the words had poured through my mind. And throughout the day I had been oblivious of my body; by seven p.m. it made itself felt. I was tired, very tired, and my hands were often badly cut. It is something of a contrast, handling iron and slag, and then a pen. The first hour might produce thirty or forty words; the second hour sixty or seventy words. Then came the flood, from somewhere came strength and facility, and would write steadily for hours. There was no need to write at such length, but for years I was a man possessed.
The moment I had finished I would get out the old bike and rattle down to the G.P.O. It was compulsion neurosis at its worst: I was hours too late for the first London post, often too late for the second. It made no matter: I couldn't wait: the letter was there in the box, it might reach London the next day, it might receive immediate attention, it might turn the tide. There was no such nonsense with the ex-factory worker. They weren't going to make a monkey out of him. Reject his articles? Okay. He'd show 'em. Wouldn't write another word. For five years he sat back and enjoyed life, taking it very easy indeed. He had no financial worries — his wife was in a good job and he received £1000 or so for his one accepted article. One thousand pounds? Not directly, of course. But this man had a good physical presence, a smooth tongue, and the nerve of the devil. In addition, he was unscrupulous. On the strength of the published article he secured a grant for a year's residential study at a college for adult education. But it was too much like work — three weeks of it and he walked out. His action now was two-fold. He had (with much forethought) bought six copies of the journal in which his article had appeared. Five copies were kept moving. Elderly middle-class women sent him money. One of them invited him to stay with her. And this was not all. The sixth copy of the journal went with him everywhere. It was always in his pocket and when it wasn't it was lightening some other pocket. Startled middle-class people would — at discussion groups, church events, and the like — have it thrust under their eyes and hear an accusing: "What about that for an effort by the despised workin' class intellectual?" The despised w.c.i. would then describe his heartrending plight.
Now it may well be said that I am going to extremes. Indeed I am; but isn't literature the most extreme and least ethical of all the arts, crafts and sciences? One can scarcely imagine Isaac Wolfson taking counsel of a man who has made a success of a small shop, or Lord Nuffield being influenced by a back-street manufactory. Even the most brilliant medical student is unlikely to lecture his professors. But in literature Jack appears to be as good as his master; if he is a commercial success.
Some may claim that this theory (many may not accept it as a fact) of one man being as good as another is an admirable and progressive thing. Indeed it is; but the case seems to be neatly summed up by the question of whether a writer is a working- or non-working-class writer. Some critics of my novel A Flame in my Heart pointed out that incestuous passion was a tough assignment for any writer. They may have meant — I don't know — any writer or a writer who was not an orthodox, successful or middle-class writer. It could, I think, reasonably be claimed that John Osborne, Colin Wilson and John Braine are of working-class origin. But they are never referred to as working-class writers. Indeed, the success of Mr. Wilson inspired one influential organ to publish pretty and very un-working-class pictures of him reclining in a hammock. Mr. Braine's best-seller allowed him — with admirable equation — to write serious articles for the popular press and television notes for the more thoughtful periodicals. After The Entertainer had been produced, a leading critic said John Osborne should go down on his knees to Laurence Olivier for making a very bad play seem a very good play, but one of our more august London journals enthused hysterically and in a profile of Osborne said "the skin was still tightly drawn" across his cheek bones. The same sheet dealt mercilessly with my novel A Flame in my Heart. A week later the same critic was less than enthusiastic about a novel written by a man somewhat less obscure than myself. "But never mind," he concluded hastily "It's only his second novel" !
The important thing, it seems, is to be a success or to be. And theories or ideas—now matter how original—seem only to originate from non-working-class sources. The hero of A Flame in my Heart said the clever fellers were too mind-proud, intellectually punch-drunk, and the most pathetic (and intellectually snobbish) illusion of today is that everything that does or does not happen can be explained intellectually. At the same time there is a significant absence of intellectual honesty, and a total absence of intellectual courage. One of our more pompous critics recently explained just what Kingsley Amis meant when he wrote Lucky Jim. It is quite possible that Amis just wrote the book and hoped for the best. The truth is that the novels of Amis and Wain wouldn't have rated a second glance in the 'twenties or 'thirties. In the 'twenties and 'thirties Colin Wilson wouldn't have been hailed as a genius on the strength of an Outsider. It is doubtful if Rowena Farre would have made a fortune with a Seal Morning. It is doubtful if the Lama Rampa — real name Cyril Hoskins — would have scored with a Third Eye. "The Lama deserves high praise . . ." said the New Statesman; before, of course, the Lama, alias Hoskins, removed himself not to Tibet but to Dublin
Have it your own way. Byron and Shelley — oh, I know, things were different then— departed these shores rather hurriedly and now we have Dylan Thomas honky-tonked as a genius on the strength of an alcoholic death and a radio play, the "significance" of Eliot so properly crowned with a Homburg and the Order of Merit, and the raging rebels of the Labour Party moderating in everything from Encounter and the New Statesman to the Daily Mail and News of the World. And what does this indiscriminating discrimination mean — if anything? It means this: there is no one writing today with the courage of Upton Sinclair, with the heart of Dickens, with the competence of Maugham, or the genius of Lawrence, but it doesn't matter, it doesn't matter a damn. Be a pretty boy on television, be a drunkard, a bubble best-seller, a labour-for-me MP— be anything but obscure— and you'll have the backing of the popular and the "Intellectual" Press. Wasn't it that earthy old peasant Ernest Bevin who went to New York as Foreign Secretary and startled American reporters (who had expected a natural, a tough working-class character) with: "Charmed to meet you — so sweet of you to come"?
On the other hand—and this is the point—I once saw a Labour M.P. speak in the Commons. It was a year or so before Munich and the M.P. was of a type that is gone—an elderly working-class man who had probably been elected because of his services to his local party. The old man obviously had little experience of speaking in the Commons. He was acutely nervous and his lack of confidence increased as he went on. He spoke haltingly — his voice barely audible — for a few minutes, and then looked around and stammered, "I — I hope I'm not borin' the House . . ." An honourable lady opposite him shook her head. "Oh, no!" she boomed sarcastically. "Oh, no!" There was a little derisive laughter. Extinction of the old man.
There have been so many changes: so much remains. And at a time when literary criticism, with a few exceptions, is disgracefully bad, there is a complementary lack of courage. The loud voices are not brave, the refined murmurs are false, the slick Americanese is mechanical — at a time when no living writer matters a tuppenny damn and no critic speaks with the authority and humanity of Bennett, tthe lonely, humble, anguished or genuinely-original unbroad-voice goes unheard or unheeded in the land of Lady Lewisham.
- John Petty, From the Wilderness, National and English Review, Volumes 150-151, 1958, pp146-149.
There was follow-up drama to this inflammatory piece.
From the Wilderness
From Mr. HH Brindley
Sir, My attention has been drawn to an article in your periodical entitled "From The Wilderness" in which John Petty, a working-class writer, is insulting toward me. It is me to whom he refers and I challenge him to deny it. I await his reply and meanwhile request enough space to refute his fabricated accusations. In doing so I shall manifest, I hope, some compassion. I shall also ignore his puritanical moralizing and his intellectual Philistinism. In the first paragraph he states, untruly, that I became interested in literature "at nearly forty years of age!" This is malicious nonsense. The truth is that I have been an avid reader since early childhood and in the soft light of an oil lamp I remember, long ago as it is, scribbling little fantasies in an exercise book.
Next Mr. Petty speaks, truthfully I am happy to say, of a piece of writing of mine being accepted by "one of our most august journals". Then, quickly deserting the truth, again he says : "the man immediately chucked his job". This is a lie of the first magnitude and one which leaves me shocked. I can only murmur "man's inhumanity to man" and and pass on to connect this statement with the one which states: "for five years he sat back and enjoyed life, taking it very easy indeed". Mr. Petty very well knows that for almost that number of years I was receiving treatment for a psychological disorder and was alienated from any real social life.. It is of not much use mixing with people of intelligence when one cannot talk coherently. I notice in this context that he uses the word "unscrupulous" to describe me. he should himself feel its meaning, since it is inherent in his own living.
As for being accepted by a college for adult education on the strength of one article this is just untrue and mere denigrating spite. The truth is I wrote two other critical essays of three thousand words, one on Sartre's novel La Nausée, and the other on Lawrence's The Virgin and the Gipsy. I left the college not because it was "too much like work", but because I was again heading for a nervous breakdown. So much for scotching false accusations.
Of course, what I would love to do is teach him a lesson in a purely physical manner, such as each of us lacing on a pair of ten-ounce gloves and purging our differences thus. It would be a contest of unfit men, but it would be fair.
Yours faithfully, H.H. Brindley
16 Bickley Road, Rushall, Staffordshire.
- National and English Review, Volumes 150-151, 1958, p199.
I can't find any sign that Petty responded. A quick look at the National Archives (here) finds that HH Brindley was Harry Brindley, a friend with whom John Petty was in regular correspondence about writing until 1957. The archive contains a letter in which Petty encourages Brindley to write, but evidently it rankled that Brindley had work accepted by "an august journal". This is not to say the syndrome Petty describes doesn't exist (it seems endemic in writing, in particular, that there are people who have minor successes then start acting like authorities). But in this case, it sounds as if Petty was the prickly one. I'm reminded of the late Keith Roberts (see Pavane) who had a similar habit of falling out with friends. Brindley was, at least, large-hearted enough to deposit Petty's correspondence in local archives.