Melancholy and dislocation: the enduring appeal of Jack Common on Tyneside

Joe Sharkey is the author of Akenside Syndrome: Scratching the Surface of Geordie Identity, a thoughtful look at Geordie identity which examines the condition of feeling ambivalent towards Newcastle or Tyneside despite retaining a strong emotional bond with and/or sincere affection for the area. The book features Jack Common prominently, and anyone who has read Jack’s work will know that he held conflicting feelings towards his birthplace. In this guest post, Joe explores the enduring appeal of Common’s work and explains how a reader’s own circumstance and experience can affect how a book is interpeted.

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Books – Oh! No. – I am sure we never read the same, or not with the same feelings.
Elizabeth Bennet to Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice

Jack Common’s Kiddar’s Luck first came to my attention when I saw it on a reading list for a potential unit of study in my last year as an undergraduate at Northumbria University. Keen to make selections that would maximise my chances of securing the degree classification I was striving for, the North-East Literature module was rejected as being a bit of an unknown quantity; probably more suited to Marxist interpretation rather than the psychoanalytic approach I had come to favour. But there was something about Kiddar’s Luck that had drawn me in, and not long after graduating I sought it out, little suspecting it would become one of those books ‘that once changed your sense of being. That opened your eyes, your understanding of human emotions, the context of your consciousness in the world.’[i]

Alongside its inherent artistic merit, I feel there are a number of broad reasons behind the continued appeal of Kiddar’s Luck on Tyneside. Firstly, the intermingling of pride and pleasure felt when reading your city, culture and people rendered with the sensitivity and sensual lyricism for which Common is so often praised. In terms of cultural output on a national level the North-East has been historically under-represented and reading Kiddar’s Luck, and indeed The Ampersand, can feel empowering, have a legitimising effect. Activities such as going to the Hoppings, Bigg Market and coast are Geordie rites of passage, and there is something reassuring about the historic continuities evoked. The ‘lonely voice calling ‘Chronikill’’ in The Ampersand will instinctively duet with his contemporary counterpart in the mind of the modern day reader.[ii]

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Image: Paul Stephenson

Lyall Wilkes maintained that Common’s novels ‘will be enjoyed as long as there are people on the banks of the Tyne who retain an interest in their past and value what makes their region unique’, and the sense of shared history engages both historian and layman alike.[iii] For older readers this may lapse into nostalgia, and for others political yearning of the socialist utopia never quite achieved variety will be piqued. People sometimes recommend books for their imagined proselytising effects. A right-wing acquaintance is convinced that if I would only read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, I will be converted to her (and his) libertarian outlook on life. Those wishing to warn of the dangers of totalitarianism may prescribe a dystopian double of Orwell: 1984 and Animal Farm. And if you want to cure a friend infected by the neoliberal consensus, try treating them with an ideologically medicinal dose of Kiddar’s Luck, before moving them on to Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

An intimate appreciation of the historical, political and cultural aspects of Common’s first novel certainly enhanced my initial enjoyment of the book. When Kiddar’s Uncle Will makes a point ‘with all the reiterated dogmatism natural to a Sunderland man supporting a Sunderland thesis … in curiously uncouth speech’, I inwardly smile whilst recalling Newcastle versus Sunderland football derbies, at which the chant ‘Wheeze keys are theeze?’ (accompanied by a rattling of keys towards the Sunderland fans) is an accent-mocking modern day staple.[iv] The struggles of Kiddar and Bill Clarts as they try to find their niche in the world of work remind me of my own nomadic employment history, during which I have twice held positions informally known as a ‘floater’. I don’t know about you, but where I come from a floater is a flush-resistant turd, and a job title best embellished on your curriculum vitae.

How we receive a book, the impact it has on us, can depend on any number of factors including at what age we read it and where we are in our lives emotionally, economically and geographically. Similarly, the extent to which we identify with a protagonist can be greatly intensified if the author is describing feelings we ourselves have experienced. Thousands, probably millions, of people will have read, enjoyed and identified with the characters of Maurice Bendrix in Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, and Stephen Wraysford in Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. But surely identification with these protagonists will be on a more heightened level for anyone who has had an affair with a married woman that has been broken off without forewarning or explanation (the modern term for this phenomenon is ‘ghosting’).

Clearly it wasn’t uneasiness about my relationship with a lover that provoked such strong identification with Willie Kiddar, and consequently his creator Jack Common, but with my hometown of Newcastle upon Tyne. Conscious that Common was writing from the perspective of an exiled Geordie, a geographical status I by that time shared, it was the portrayal of restlessness and alienation that resonated so powerfully. Somebody understood how I felt and had fictionalised it for posterity, articulating the sense of discomfort and dislocation sometimes felt by those cut adrift from their native culture. I recognised someone dissecting Geordie identity with a certain critical detachment, compelled to an act of self-expression regardless of the emotional cost, in a way that I would come to understand more fully whilst researching and writing my own, albeit non-fiction book – Akenside Syndrome: Scratching the Surface of Geordie Identity.

as_cover_hiCommon believed: ‘Writing books isn’t normal, nor healthy. It means sitting still for many hours compelling your nervous energy to spray off through the narrow channel of a pen.’[v] His friend George Orwell went further, insisting, ‘All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.’[vi] And for all the wit, humour and compassion to be found in Kiddar’s Luck and The Ampersand, it is counterbalanced by a sense of oppression, loneliness, and the need to escape, as noted by Common’s biographer, Keith Armstrong.

Melancholy keeps mawkishness at bay as Common engages with but refuses to yield to the Tyneside ‘cult of canny’. The Heaton-born author humanises without romanticising, and does not shy away from the scatological side of Tyneside life (something Armstrong also does; in his recent poem Kelsey Grammer and me he refers to ‘this shit-stained broon ale toon’). If he sees a turd he doesn’t try to polish it, leading Lyall Wilkes to conclude that ‘his self-destructive and self-deprecating sense of humour although very funny masked a nightmare sense of despair and disgust.’[vii] In Kiddar’s Luck we witness the corner lads discussing masturbation, women pissing in the street beneath their long skirts, and damp horse manure thrown into Fong Lee’s laundry. A whistle marking the end of school break prompts ‘a general coalescence as of flies on a cow-pat’; the scholarship teacher has ‘a habit of irritably scratching at his arse’, at Edward’s firework display Kiddar wears ‘a wan look as of one who has filled his breeches’, and he removes ‘an ewer full of piss’ from his bedroom before welcoming in The Sons of the Battle-axe. Searching for shillings in the gutter whilst walking home from the coast results only in the discovery of ‘silver paper or a recently laid gobbet of spit’.[viii]

The reader is also introduced to Ma McGrewin’s toddler son, who alternates between his mother’s nipple and his fags in what some neighbours regard as a ‘shameful spectacle’, and this Swiftian focus on the corporeal does not abate in The Ampersand.[ix] A small boy outside of Uncle Rod’s flat sniffs ‘back a candle-grease string of snot’, while another pees on his step. An old man pointed out to Bill Clarts by Rod blows ‘some snot into [the gutter] with his finger and thumb’, Young Tom has to stand at his desk in the legal firm of Mealing and Dillop due to suffering from piles, and the drunkard Dillop pisses into a glass inkwell which he leaves fermenting round his office.[x] John Burke, a colleague of Common’s from his time working in the film industry, told Armstrong that ‘Jack never made a big thing of Tyneside, there was no sort of sentimental crap about it all,’ and his refusal to sugar-coat struck me as important.[xi]

Kiddar's Luck

Kiddar’s Luck. Turnstile Press, 1951

French renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne, who popularised the other literary genre for which Common is well-known – the essay – said, ‘Writing does not cause misery, it is born of misery’, and further declared: ‘I am myself the matter of my book’. And despite knowing little about the author of Kiddar’s Luck whilst first reading it, it seemed clear he was someone who found writing about his own life experiences therapeutic, as if heeding the advice of Swedish playwright August Strindberg to ‘Write the misery out of yourself, then it will seem that it has never existed.’ He was describing feelings and emotions that I had begun to recognise in myself and others, and identification with Common and his alter-ego Will Kiddar deepened to the point where, when I set out on my own book-writing journey, I knew Kiddar’s Luck would be a crucial, cornerstone text.

Leaving Newcastle in 2000 was disorientating and no doubt a sense of dislocation fed into my initial reading of Jack Common’s most famous work. We all read books in a unique way, bringing our different backgrounds, cultural conditioning, education, experiences, feelings, pride and prejudices to the process, and I understand that some will interpret what I view as an undercurrent of scatology as simply accurate reportage of the culture and era Common was brought up in. But in Kiddar’s Luck he relates how books were used by the family to wipe their arses in the outdoor netty, and recommends the reader use their volume of his own book for the same purpose, while in his essay The Sinister Side of Socialism he recounts listening to Wagner with a turner who adds to the orchestral manoeuvres by cracking off loud farts, and anyone who cannot see deep-rooted ambivalence lurking beneath these faecal flourishes has got the wrong end of the stick. The shitty end, to be exact.

Nonetheless, by the time I read Kiddar’s Luck for the second time my flirtation with Freud had faded, and I was more willing to accept that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. The conflicted relationship with your hometown depicted in the book had by now been encapsulated into a pseudo-scientific term – Akenside Syndrome. A condition of feeling ambivalent towards Tyneside despite often retaining a strong emotional bond with and/or sincere affection for the area, I would be calling Common to the page in support of my thesis, and unconsciously emulating his ‘passionate impartiality’ as I endeavoured to weave disparate strands of thought into my own Geordie introspective.[xii]

jack commonkacoverWhereas departure was a major identifying theme of my first encounter with Kiddar’s Luck, the second was characterised by the need to deconstruct. My understanding of the book’s subtext and of its creator was greatly enhanced when, in 2009, I attended the launch of Keith Armstrong’s biography of the man: Common Words and the Wandering Star. In these pages I found corroboration of my inferences regarding Common’s relationship with Newcastle, and discovered many more ways in which I personally identified with him. His loner streak, discomfort in institutions and organisations, love of words, reading and Dickens, wariness of overly dogmatic thinking, and fondness for pubs and Newcastle United were just some of the traits and interests that elevated him from being someone whose work I admired to a kind of kindred spirit, if not quite the guardian soul looking over Armstrong.

Extracts from Kiddar’s Luck are utilised throughout my own book to demonstrate socio-historic continuity or contrast, but it is Jack’s experience of Akenside Syndrome that comes to prominence in the final chapter – A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Geordie: Should I stay or should I go? In this section I seek to explore what Armstrong describes as Common’s ‘love-hate relationship with his own city and the proletarians whose cause he adopted’, and link it with similar experiences of Geordie artists from different eras.[xiii] I won’t regurgitate what I’ve already written elsewhere, but as an example, in The Ampersand when Bill Clarts says: ‘I’ve got to go a different way to the folks round here. I’m not meant for this kind of life’, it’s easy to hear the sentiment echoed by a young Bryan Ferry: ‘Oh no, I’m not of you lot’. Ferry once described himself as ‘an orchid born on a coal-tip’, and I wonder if the phrase was inspired by the alienated image of Bill Clarts lying alone ‘on the top of the slag-hill, holding down the fluttering pages of his book’.[xiv]

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Image: Paul Stephenson

This sense of loneliness and alienation permeates Common’s semi-autobiographical novels. Kiddar talks of his deepening introspection, favouring ‘a lonely meditative walk through the parks’ over being with his pals, later explaining, ‘It was better to be by oneself, to travel long empty streets into the crowds and out again, because so doing you got a more vivid sense of your own being’. Meanwhile his successor Clarts ‘cultivated his ego in lonely pleasures’ such as reading and writing poetry.[xv] In Levels of Life Julian Barnes insists: ‘Nothing can compare to the loneliness of the soul in adolescence’, and I suspect authors who have felt that way never quite lose it in adulthood.[xvi] Perhaps this underpinned the friendship between Jack Common and George Orwell. Orwell wrote of having ‘the lonely child’s habit of making up stories’, and believed a writer acquires in childhood ‘an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape.’[xvii]

But having recently read Kiddar’s Luck for a third time as a bereaved father and widower in my early forties, I cannot accept that Barnes’s observation is universally applicable. Jack Common referred to the death of a child as ‘a senseless calamity which brings one up against the awful grin behind the universe’, and wrote in The Ampersand of ‘the ultimate ‘real’ being a tragedy that only oblivion can resolve.’[xviii] Like me he lost his first wife to cancer at a young age, and no doubt understood just how harsh and unreal the real can feel. It was not a recent graduate in his twenties or an aspiring author in his thirties who read Kiddar’s Luck this time, but a profoundly altered version of that person, battered but not yet broken. One who understands the underlying sadness in Common’s work in a way that first-time reader could never begin to imagine.

Follow Joe on Twitter at @jajosabooks.

[i] Nadine Gordimer Telling Times: Writing and Living, 1954-2008 (W.W. Norton 2010), p627.

[ii] Jack Common Kiddar’s Luck & The Ampersand (Frank Graham 1975), p262.

[iii] Jack Common Kiddar’s Luck & The Ampersand, px.

[iv] Jack Common Kiddar’s Luck (Bloodaxe Books 1990), p49.

[v] Keith Armstrong Common Words and the Wandering Star (University of Sunderland Press 2009), p234-235.

[vi] George Orwell Why I Write (Penguin Books 2004), p10.

[vii] Jack Common Kiddar’s Luck & The Ampersand, pix.

[viii] Jack Common Kiddar’s Luck, pp85, 100, 90, 102, 113.

[ix] Jack Common Kiddar’s Luck, p121.

[x] Jack Common Kiddar’s Luck & The Ampersand, pp180, 237.

[xi] Keith Armstrong Common Words and the Wandering Star, p161.

[xii] Jack Common Kiddar’s Luck & The Ampersand, px.

[xiii] Keith Armstrong Common Words and the Wandering Star, p65.

[xiv] i) Jack Common Kiddar’s Luck & The Ampersand, p297.

  1. ii) David Buckley The Thrill of it All: The Story of Bryan Ferry & Roxy Music (André Deutsch 2004), pp22, 4.

iii) Jack Common Kiddar’s Luck & The Ampersand, p221.

[xv] i) Jack Common Kiddar’s Luck, pp73, 128.

  1. ii) Jack Common Kiddar’s Luck & The Ampersand, p298.

[xvi] Julian Barnes Levels of Life (Jonathan Cape 2013), p111.

[xvii] George Orwell Why I Write, pp1, 4.

[xviii] Jack Common Kiddar’s Luck & The Ampersand, ppix, 195.

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