The Common Path: In Pursuit of Kiddar by Doctor Keith Armstrong

jack commonkacover

‘Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from Heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.
Higher still and higher
From the earth thou springest
Like a cloud of fire;
The blue deep thou wingest,
And singing still dost soar,
And soaring ever singest.’

(Percy Bysshe Shelley)

I have pursued Jack Common for over thirty five years, ever since working with Huw Beynon and others from the Strong Words collective on an exhibition and event for the Newcastle Festival in 1977. Like Jack, I hail from the Heaton area of Newcastle upon Tyne with a strong bond linking me to the history and culture of the city. I believe that this is something which stayed within Jack Common even though he left Tyneside in his mid-twenties.

commonexhib77

When his Kiddar’s Luck was first drawn to my attention by a schoolmate at Heaton Grammar School in Newcastle, I was struck by Jack’s feel for the streets of Heaton and the railway community which worked and played there. He managed to get under the skin of the locality and reading him enhanced my feel for my own local history.

It was also that Jack Common was a genuinely working class writer, the son of a railwayman, and from a similar background to myself. His formative educational experiences fitted with a tradition of working class learning also encountered, for example, in the lives of the North East pitmen-poets Tommy Armstrong and Joseph Skipsey, the latter of whom wrote:

‘I was in my fifteenth year when I found that an uncle of mine had a small library. I borrowed Paradise Lost. That book was a revelation to me, I was entranced by it. My enthusiasm encouraged my uncle to open his whole bookcase to me.’

This is the kind of ‘self-education’ that influenced Jack himself as he describes in The Ampersand:

‘As Bill’s gaze wandered along the titles on the bookshelves, he saw that they and their authors were largely unfamiliar to him. Jack London obviously was something terrific, but were all those other strange gods also true gods? If so, he had stumbled on a regular bonanza, a whole Klondyke, of literature. For Uncle Rod seemed exceedingly willing to lend his treasures.’

That Jack achieved success in a school essay competition muust have been through the individual spark of a particular teacher or through an Uncle Rod, an eccentric with a true disregard for convention, rather than school as an institution, on which subject he is particularly savage when he asserts that:

‘The one faculty with which school infallibly endows its pupils (is) that of being bored. It is very important, of course, that every child should, in the course of time, become fitted with this negative capability. If they didn’t have it, theyíd never put up with the jobs they’re going to get, most of them, on leaving school. Boredom, or the ability to endure it, is the hub on which the whole universe of work turns.’

Indeed, the young Jack Common somehow managed to rise above all this doom and gloom to be strongly commended for his writing ability and to also win one of his city’ s essay competitions during the First World War, this time on the subject of ‘Thrift’ and read out to the whole school by the Headmaster. Encouraged by this and with his mother’s active support, he escaped the usual factory fate of his fellow schoolmates and studied for a time at Skerry’s College, where he gleaned a basis of routine business training so as to be able to get a foot in the professional door.

Skerrys

Yet Jack, despite being so intimate with the streets of his Heaton community and distinctly aware of the history and heritage of his beloved city, was becoming aware of the difference between himself and those around him.

In my studies of the life and work of Jack Common, I have wanted to investigate the factors which made him a writer, the sources of the ‘differentness’ which took him away from the job of railwayman which awaited him had he followed in his father’s footsteps and the roots of his attitudes towards education which led him to perceive school as ‘boring’.

The sense of being an outsider is picked up by Common in his Freedom of the Streets:

‘The outcast intellectual of the street-corner has as a rule paid heavily for his freedom to think. He has endangered his job; his family think he is a prize fool for not making something of his abilities; his workmates distrust his dangerous and eccentric cleverness.’

In his writings, he ‘explores, in a humorous and uncompromising way, the forging of his own anomalous identity as a refugee between classes and cultures. Illuminating and infusing the whole narrative is Common’s instinctive sense that there can be another, a radically other, social order of imaginative, creative and popular existence. And, for this inspiration, Common draws upon the utopian experience of childhood’.

(Pickering and Robins).

The very area where Jack hailed from can hardly be said to be inspiring. The family lived in a railway house in a railway street, one of several unimaginatively called First, Second, Third (and so on) Avenue. Despite this, there is humour aplenty because without it people like the Commons could not have borne the day-to-day struggle and grind.

His mother sought solace in the bottle at the local Chillingham public house, partly to kill the pain of her crippled foot and the problems in her marriage, but also to seek company and conviviality in ‘the snug’ where she could loosen her tongue and give vent to those feelings confined in the cramped home up the street. This was something her son picked up on early in life and the pub was always a place for Jack to seek solidarity with his common humanity and to sound off on all things under the sun.

Alcohol itself was in many ways an imaginative release which allowed his dreams to escape and fly above the confines of his birth.

(Image courtesy of Peter-Ashley Jackson via Flickr)

(Image courtesy of Peter-Ashley Jackson via Flickr)

Jack was simultaneously proud of his roots and, in other ways, alienated from them. His friend Tommy McCulloch alludes to this: ‘Jack realised the limitations of Newcastle. He didn’t like the idea of moving at the outset but, despite the regional pride, he had to if he was ever to get recognised. One thing leads to another in a place like London’. Combined with his strong sense of community and identification with the city of Newcastle upon Tyne, was the knowledge that as a rebel and a writer he was different and needed to escape and reject the values of his father and the local parochialism which they reflected. In this sense, Tommy McCulloch saw Jack’s father’s ‘point of view as a man who’s been up in the morning – with ridiculous care! – done his best for his son and two girls, and thought his son an economic cripple, a complete failure, despite his undoubted ability’.

For Lyall Wilkes, ‘No writer’s growing awareness of the conflict between his background and his art has ever been better expressed. The tragedy is that, even as he takes up his pen to write the great novel, the divide between himself and his own people will widen. Yet in these two books (Kiddar’s Luck and The Ampersand), at a cost to himself which only he could know, passing judgement from a lonely distance on himself and his parents with a passionate impartiality, Jack Common catches the very sound and sight and smell of growing up on Tyneside’.

It was ‘the system’ that conditioned Jack Common’s luck and it was only the encouragement of key individuals that enabled the boy to glimpse the odd shaft of light to ignite the humdrum days on those Heaton streets. Even though his schooling often seemed to imprison young Jack, there were the odd teachers who offered understanding and encouragement, like Mr. Gillespie, ‘who would squat down to a game of marbles with us and lose nothing of his natural majesty.’

Alone yet also brought up in a tight-knit community with all the strengths and weaknesses that implies. The River Tyne, like the beer, was in his blood. Living in exile in southern England, far from his roots, Jack Common remained conditioned by them in that love-hate relationship we all perhaps feel for our home town or village.

This tension between the individual and the collective experience, which even today animates ‘Geordieland’, creates a bond between Novocastrians and their city but, often enough, makes it a necessity to depart the banks of the Tyne for material, intellectual and spiritual development. This was how it was for Jack.

(Image courtsey of Newcastle Libraries via Flickr)

(Image courtsey of Newcastle Libraries via Flickr)

WORKING CLASS HERO  (John Lennon)

As soon as you’re born, they make you feel small
By giving you no time, instead of it all,
Till the pain is so big you feel nothing at all.

A working class hero is something to be,
A working class hero is something to be.

They hurt you at home and they hit you at school,
They hate you if you’re clever and they despise you as a fool,
Till you’re so fucking crazy you can’t follow their rules.

A working class hero is something to be,
A working class hero is something to be.

There’s room at the top they are telling you still,
But first you must learn how to smile as you kill,
If you want to be like the folks on the hill.

A working class hero is something to be,
A working class hero is something to be.

If you want to be a hero, well just follow me,
If you want to be a hero, well just follow me.

MY FRIEND JACK COMMON (1903-1968)

Ever since the sixth form,
when I found you,
a kindred Novocastrian
in a library book,
I seem to have followed in your steps,
stumbled after you
in rain soaked lanes,
knocked on doors
in search of your stories.
For over forty years,
I have tracked
the movement of your pen
in streets you walked
and on cross country trains
from your own Newcastle
to Warrington
Malvern,
Newport Pagnell,
Letchworth,
Yetminster,
Wallington
and back again.
I have given talks about you,
supped in your pubs,
strode along your paragraphs
and river paths
to try to find
that urge in you
to write
out of your veins
what you thought of things,
what made you tick
and your loved ones
laugh and cry.
I tried to reach you in a thesis,
to see you as a lad in Heaton,
but I could never catch your breath
because I didn’t get to meet you
face to face,
could only guess
that you were like me:
a kind of kindly
socialist writer
in a world
too cruel for words.

KEITH ARMSTRONG

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