Sophie McKeand’s two-year-tenure as Young People’s Laureate for Wales comes to an end shortly. Here in the latest instalment of the Wales Arts Review series looking at working class voices in Wales, McKeand discusses what it means to consider herself working class, and why it’s important for these voices to be heard.
When I was first approached to write on the experience of being a working-class poet I dithered. Am I working class enough? was the first question to surface in the mind like a sunken body broken free of its weights. I’ve always called myself working class in conversation but I’m increasingly wary of making public statements about class, mainly because I don’t want to be accused of working class appropriation and because, as I’ve written about before for WAR, whenever you lift your head over the parapet you leave yourself open to being shot at. An email conversation with WAR editor Gary Raymond ensued in which I explained my reticence, but with a bit of encouragement, and after reading the first two pieces, I decided to give this a go.
The first thing I realised when examining my own working-class background is how much people like to pigeonhole us. Are you from The Valleys? No. Do/did your parents work in factories? No. Are any of your family degree educated? Yes. Well then you can’t be working class, can you? Can you?
My family are a diverse bunch. My mum is one of seven who have made their way from dirt poor Scottish roots to being everything from lorry drivers to social workers to high flying executives. Their mum (my granny) was a housewife and occasional lollipop lady; their dad (my grandad) worked at places such as Dounreay nuclear power plant in Scotland. Mum swings wildly from the most working class person you’ve ever met (she once ran a pub in Brymbo in true Bette Lynch-style), then switching to a sort of Hyacinth Bucket aspiring middle class type character in the next breath. This fluid approach to what class looks like, I would argue, is the result of struggling to find her place in the world during a time when strong-minded working-class women had no role models to follow to self-realisation and as such her focus has often reverted to the men in her life as opposed to dreaming a future of her own – although she’s always been a staunch socialist.
Dad (also socialist to his core) is the first person in my family to get a degree. He then went on to teach, eventually heading a high-school department for young people with additional support needs. His dad (my grandad), a lifelong Labour supporter, began by working as a labourer on the Liverpool docks before working his way up to a white-collar position for the Welsh water board. His mum (my nan) was head PA at Shotton Steel Works – she still to this day regrets having to give up that job to have a family. My ancestors are all economic migrants to Wales – coming from Scotland and the north of England to work over the generations, but all socialist in their beliefs. I was born and have lived most of my life in north east Wales, a traditionally working-class region. Which has led me to wonder whether the place you are from is as much an indicator of class as anything else?
My parents’ bitter and protracted divorce was the thing that dominated my younger life to the point where eventually, it was decided my sister would live in Wrexham with dad and I would live in Chester with mum, attending state school there. My sister and I hardly saw each other – there were no weekend visits or holidays together. I got vouchers for free school lunches worth £1.50 and would sell them for 75p so I could buy chips in the chip shop. I was endlessly caught smoking in the school toilets and put on report for being disruptive or skipping school altogether. I would shoplift Tippex thinner and aerosols and inhale them in Grosvenor Park, along the banks of the river Dee where I would also devour books by Ursula K. Le Guin, Robin Hobb and Guy Garvil Kay. I was gobby, unruly, awkward, loud and generally a pain in the arse. I wore long white socks wrinkled down, had an 80s hair sprayed fringe and idolised Madonna. I took my first acid at 14. Rave culture changed my life, I could get lost in dancing until the early hours and forget everything.
The second thing that defined my teenage years was my mum’s often volatile and sometimes violent relationship with my new stepfather. Their life revolved around the pub – The Golden Lion. He was a steel erector from Dudley. He drank himself to death a few years ago.
At 20 years old I was a single parent signing on the dole living in a flat in Wrexham. I fitted every stereotype and when watching I, Daniel Blake I was given a sharp reminder of the time my benefit book was stolen from my flat by the boyfriend of a friend so I had to sit in one of those miserable offices in Wrexham while the woman (who clearly thought I was lying) told me I had to fill in a report and await the outcome before they’d give me a new benefit book. I had no money and had to beg and borrow from friends – I never told dad this, he was mortified enough at the time as he’d worked so hard to get us all away from this stereotype.
Perhaps it is time to move beyond class. Although even if I believe that we can transcend class, the traditional structures and thinking exist in people who would never dream of considering themselves elitist. In the arts it can absolutely feel as if there’s a conversation happening that I’m not aware of. An undercurrent or dialogue spoken in the spaces between. It can feel as if you walk into a room and everybody switches to a language you don’t understand. And I know that languages can be learned, but it is harder as an adult, especially when there are no classes to attend that teach this kind of communication. You start to realise that opportunities arise through conversations as much as through an open and transparent application process, then you have to figure out how to have those conversations and who to have them with and then the snarky working class voice in your head gives you a sharp jab of a thought that you might be getting ideas above your station. But it is all about who you know and if your parents already know those people, those editors and publishers and commissioners, if they already taught you that language (and the right way to explain your work) as you grew up then you’re well on your way in the arts world. It can feel as if some artists are already half-way around a race while you’re still in the changing rooms trying to figure out how to fill in the registration form, in Mandarin, and there are some in the crowd tutting or booing because they don’t feel you even have a right to enter that race because you haven’t been seen in XYZ other races you didn’t even know existed.
I don’t have a degree from Oxbridge. I went to Glyndŵr Uni as a mature student (and still a single parent) when my daughter was eight. I don’t have an MA or PhD. I’m not an academic. I don’t think within those frameworks. I find them too rigid, stifling. Does that mean I can’t think critically or that my opinion is less valid? Much is made of working class people with PhDs and I’m delighted for their achievements, but is it also that the working classes have to be validated in a manner deemed acceptable by the elite in order to be accepted? In Tools for Conviviality, Ivan Illitch states that:
Like the modern school system, hospital-based health care fits the principle that those who have will receive even more and those who have not will be taken for the little that they have. In schooling this means that high consumers of education will get postdoctoral grants, while dropouts learn that they have failed.
Although the working classes are constantly being berated for taking up too much – too much money in pensions and benefits, too much time in hospitals and education, too much effort when it comes to giving us fair representation in parliament or in the arts or arenas such as journalism – we are clearly not the over consumers. The money is not funnelled in our direction, we don’t have funded PhDs or family that can pay for an MA to prop up an eduction system already overflowing with people from (mostly) identical, privileged backgrounds; we don’t stockpile money or fly about on private jets.
Perhaps the arts is one of the last bastions of classicism in Wales, although I have seen this change, especially in organisations such as Literature Wales whose open and inclusive approach to taking literature into communities is one I wholeheartedly support. I’ve come into the literary world through community, through writing and performing at hundreds of events across north Wales over the years, through supporting other artists by curating events, through volunteering and giving time so that I might learn new skills and then sharing what I’ve learned back out in the community in workshops. I picture this work like a Celtic knot, constantly flowing out into community and then feeding back in on itself, but after years of supporting socialism I’m not sure I can imagine a future for that either – Orwell already foresaw how that would pan out in 1984. I cannot, though, stand the selfish Tory approach – look after yourself and fuck everybody else. We have to be more than that, better than that, give more than that, don’t we?
Even my conversation with Gary Raymond centred around the idea that though I’m now a Guardian-reading, hummus & olive-eating poet, I’m still working class because of my socialist values. Is class about the values a person holds? Do I hold socialist values?
A few years ago I read Noam Chomsky saying he’s a libertarian anarchist. He’s since dropped the libertarian bit due to the word being hijacked by the far right and used as part of the method in unpicking our society and communities by supporting a linguistic framework for neoliberal economics, even though really in its essence it just means believing in the free will of the individual. The anarchist bit I wholeheartedly agree with. Am I then extreme left-wing? I believe in the radical redistribution of wealth; that the working week should be reduced to 20hrs and everybody guaranteed a living wage; I believe all eduction, at any level, should be free; and that all public services including utilities, rail, NHS and education should be under public control. Is this because of my background? Because I’ve had little I think I should be entitled to more?
Illitch also states that “at present people tend to relinquish the task of envisaging the future to a professional élite.” As I wrote earlier, this is the same for community and the arts: the people with PhDs who have subjected themselves to that level of education, and are therefore completely indoctrinated into the system, are the ones deciding what makes a solid community, or a good poem, but I’m wary of anything that encourages people to write about something instead of immersing in it – in the same way I have little interest in the opinions of a critic who is not also creating their own art and putting it out into the public arena.
Moving on from this, I’m increasingly worried about the environment and question how we encourage agency in people. If true socialism existed, with everything nationalised and people supported from cradle to grave, how would we foster independence instead of reliance? How to create a genuine autonomous connection with the land and a feeling of real investment in her (and therefore our) future, whilst also ensuring that everybody is looked after? For me this is about each individual taking responsibility and that can only happen when people have autonomy, which is the antithesis of socialism, of the nanny state.
I’ve often returned to the dualistic approach found in eastern philosophy because I can’t see how the answer can be either left or right – it has to be both. A Schrödinger’s political policy that exists both to support every individual, to ensuring all needs are met and that people have the opportunity to fulfil their true creative potential, whilst giving people the space to explore free will, by encouraging autonomy, agency and responsibility for the self and the environment. This isn’t new thinking, it’s not Liberal Democrat thinking (although they do have some of this ideology), it’s a pure state of anarchy, and I’ve reached the conclusion that only when every individual can freely cultivate this anarchic landscape in their hearts so that everything they do grows from this fertile, creative, caring, empathic, emotionally intelligent place, can we transcend the old ways of thinking about class, privilege, education and community.
My artistic work exists in that liminal space between political (traditionally working class) and experimental (usually reserved for the upper/middle classes) maybe I’m transcending boundaries but it’s more likely that people struggle to find a framework for my writing – not working class enough, definitely not experimental enough. Capitalism, like the arts, has the potential to be a great leveller: it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from if you can make money, or create, then you have the potential for success. But whereas the capitalist dream is rooted in the limitless devouring of finite resources (whether trees or slaves or water or the working classes), art has the potential to help us envisage a truly level playing field where each individual is prized for their creative ingenuity in how they choose to unfold their lives. Each one of us is a living piece of art, of anarchy, our lives are the canvass, the poem, and if we can start setting that as a benchmark for success instead of our ability to grow uniformly within the outdated framework of class or education then perhaps we can begin to truly imagine an equal and classless world.