My very favourite genre.
It feels like sacrilege but I’ve been clearing my dusty bookshelves, for the dust probably exacerbates my new-found adult asthma.
Having decided I would need to live to be at least 650 to read them all, even if I wanted to, the collection (still) needs serious trimming.
In removing old textbooks, coffee table books, books already read and books generally bought in many a moment of academic self-delusion, never to be read, I have uncovered some treasures.
One of these was Pat Barker’s Union Street.
Barker, author of The Regeneration Trilogy, is a gritty northern writer, originally from Thornaby-on-Tees in the North Riding. Allegedly the illegitimate child of her mother’s drunken night out, she was effectively raised by her grandmother. Achieving a place at grammar school (the escape route for many a working-class girl) she went on to study at the London School of Economics (LSE), and later married a man who left his own marriage to be with her. The upshot is, her novels are underpinned by the gritty realism of a ‘colourful’ life lived, and a very real understanding of poverty and (then) stigmatised illegitimacy.
I managed to re-read my way through Union Street during a surfing competition day at the beach, which was a discordant and incongruous setting. The opening story of Union Street, for example – the rape of eleven-year-old Kelly Brown – is galling, and it doesn’t get any more comfortable thereafter.
The book, published by Virago, was hailed working-class – and feminist – masterpiece, and I can see why. For starters, its focus is very much on women. It pulls no punches. The lives of these seven women in de-industrialising northern England are punctuated by poverty, violence and ‘carrying the can’ of motherhood. Barker called them “voices that had not been listened to”. Too darned right.
In the novel, the women remain gritty, unsentimental, and at times harsh, judging each other based on their first-hand knowledge of what is to come.
For their lives are based on the domestic drudgery of poverty further defined by their biology: sex, rape, prostitution, pregnancy, backstreet abortion, childbirth, death; and, while not sensationalised, none of it is pretty. These were women unaffected by second-wave feminism, stuck with men who could no longer provide even life’s basics, in unsatisfying economic and sexual relationships.
Yet, within marriage at least, power was negotiated and circulatory, the women devising strategies to deal with their male partners. Outside marriage, however, the power is virtually all in the hands of males: they are transient figures: users, abusers, and largely irrelevant, bar for the harsh consequences they leave in their wake. The old notion of marriage being the ‘protection of one man against many’ comes to mind.
Invariably and interestingly, the decent men (few and far between) in the novel have some physical affliction. The majority, however, appear to be underworked, over-reliant on drink and handy with their fists, assuming tea on the table and a sexual receptacle as their birthright. It is easy to see why feminism had no meaning in such circumstances. Nothing had changed for these women.
Such reading resonates at times with my working-class upbringing in Birmingham. Mine was somewhat more ‘respectable’ but the life of, say, my maternal grandmother was very similar to those women in the book. She died at 46, ill for many years and worn out by the ravages of bearing five children, a sexually demanding (there’s a euphemism) brutish out-of-work husband, who spent more time drunk than sober (sorry, Grandad) whose idea of parenting was a good thrashing with his belt, and whose idea of grand-parenting was not knowing the children’s names. At least there was no favouritism.
It is maybe this awareness of what life was (and still is) like for many women which has long made the social realism genre (or the more pejorative term, as Ken Loach may say, ‘kitchen sink drama’) so overwhelmingly attractive to me. The focus on examining, not celebrating or denigrating working-class lives, made them seem as if they mattered.
I have an ongoing dark fascination with watching films, now termed ‘British New Wave’, from the 1960s, my growing up years. These films were almost documentary in nature but generally represented the socially marginalised within their contemporary social context.
What seemed essential about the genre, as in Pat Barker’s Union Street, is the overriding feeling that these people (women, especially) were not heroines or even victims, but that their lives simply were. And they dealt with it with the little social capital they had. That is the awe of it. In Union Street, no one moves forward or even aspires to do so. Cue Willy Russell’s Educating Rita. The film pub scene where Rita realises she no longer belongs from where she came but has not yet reached where she’s going is poignant for anyone who, like Barker, used the education system to escape the harsh realities of (marginalised) working-class life.
The underlying theme – to me – in films like Poor Cow (Nell Dunn), Up the Junction (more Nell Dunn), and A Kind of Loving (Stan Barstow) is that most women had (have) no expectations other than to net a man, marry him, have children (preferably in that order, but often not) and then deal with the ensuing drudgery, from which there really is no escape; even the inept mothers are still the ones, when the chips are down, with the over-riding responsibility for their children.
There is an argument that the working class is now depicted as more consumerised and privatised, with different sets of expectations, but the reality remains at odds with what is achievable by many from the poorest backgrounds.
Union Street is still out there and remains the harsh reality for many 21st century women.