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 … Continue reading
The latest in our series of Jack Common guest blogs sees Tom Draper reflecting on the timelessness of Common’s body of work, with particular reference to The Ampersand.
To say that the work of Jack Common has been ignored and forgotten by both the literary establishment and the city he once described has become routine within the few esoteric corners of academia and journalism which have brought attention to the man and his work over the last few years.
While his name may grace the wall of Byker Metro station and designate a collection of papers at Newcastle University, he nevertheless occupies an obscure role in the history of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Geordie culture, one subordinate to the likes of Richard Grainger, John Dobson and Lord Armstrong who through the display of pervasive architectural grandeur remind us day by day of their existence. Without the surface magnificence of Grey Street or Central Station, Common’s works, ranging from the essays found in The Adelphi and The Freedom of the Streets to his two autobiographical novels Kiddar’s Luck (1951) and The Ampersand (1954), not only explore the banality, exuberance and joy of industrial Newcastle in the early 20th century, but delve into the politics of working class culture, the love-hate relationship the ambitious Geordie has with his roots and the difficulty of obtaining class mobility, themes greatly relevant in our age of consumption, individualism and aspiration.
While many Geordies upon reading Common will ask why his name has remained a mystery until that moment of enlightenment – and of course why he has not been introduced in the curricula of English literature classes around Tyneside – his interest in both the local and universal should engage those outside the region, and as Keith Armstrong has argued rescue the man ‘from being a mere footnote in Orwell studies’. In his Preface to Seven Shifts, a book which assembles a group of seven working lads to ‘describe their jobs, their conditions, and some of the their reactions to the life they lead’, Common aptly illustrates his relationship to companion and rival George Orwell and the literary establishment: ‘My friends include members of the literary bourgeoisie and lads from the unprinted proletariat. Both parties talk well, and you’d probably enjoy a crack with them as much as I do. But here’s the pity. The bourgeois ones get published right and left – especially left; the others are mute as far as print goes, though exceedingly vocal in public-houses’. As the voice of the silent and oppressed majority, Common’s non-fiction and autobiographic works are of great value and worthy of much study and investigation. Here, however, I want to look at his second novel, The Ampersand, a tale of ambition, education and working-class estrangement.
The Ampersand opens with central protagonist, Will Clarts, formerly Willie Kiddar of Kiddar’s Luck, making a perilous journey to London, the perceived land of plenty and opportunity, for what we assume is to be a new start in the capital, an escape from both the past and the North. Along the way, Clarts is accosted by two men, who mistake his body for a rabbit they were in the process of hunting. In order to escape these two, Clarts fabricates a story about familial bereavement which appeals to sympathies of the inquisitive hunters, who after much deliberation wish him luck on his venture to the capital. In the space of three pages, Common has revealed to us two principal themes of his book: the need for flight from the North and the allure of fiction.
It is not only the ‘power of fiction, the strange spell mere story puts on people’ that we can see interests Will Clarts throughout the narrative of the book, but the love of knowledge, a love fostered through the easily attainable library of his Uncle Robin, a man estranged from his community, labelled an eccentric, a crank by the people of Heaton. Indeed it is this pursuit of knowledge that results in Clart’s own alienation, as his devotion to reading and learning is ignored by the school system and derided by his friends and romantic interests. Throughout The Ampersand we view the slow edification of a young intellectual who will eventually culminate in the Jack Common present and consumable today as the voice of the working class in his various article and essay collections. But we can see that there are many complications to Common’s situation. Although he may appear to be the voice of his community, the process of obtaining such a status divorced him from the community and people he loved so dearly.
Clarts/Common occupies a position inside and outside working class culture: with the upbringing of the proletariat but the mouth and habits of the bourgeoisie. Alienated, isolated and anxious about his fate (although not obvious at the start of the book, by its close we learn of the embezzlement charges he is about to face) he is forced to flee, to the brighter shores of the South. As Common’s status as forgotten writer attests, the dream of London and its accompanying opportunities for prosperity, wellbeing and fame, failed to be realised by the young Geordie. The back of the book jacket of Kiddar’s Luckdismally concludes: ‘After the commercial failure of his two novels, Jack Common lived in poverty for much of the rest of his life, and died in 1968’.
This narrative of escape from the North is common to much of working-class fiction and cinema, as if it is an inherently inhospitable region to the ambitious and the intellectual. While there are of course a few Billy Elliots that succeed in the capital, there are arguably many who aren’t so fortunate. But could we ask whether it is a naiveté that causes the young to depart for London, imagining a land of prosperity that does not correlate with reality? Or are Geordies and their Northern comrades truly drained by a lack of opportunities and vitality in the industrial heartlands and therefore forced to search for something better?
We can see from The Ampersand that the world of 20th century Newcastle has much in common with the current scene. In the book, set towards the end of the 1910s, Clarts finds himself without a substantial education, with few generous opportunities of employment for such a talented and eager lad, a situation ultimately forcing him to do meaningless copy work for a very low wage. Despite the high security of Clarts’ job as assistant to the solicitors Mealing and Dillop, it appears that there is little chance for monetary advancement within the workplace. Clarts dreams of moving up the ladder and takes on extra jobs in order to demonstrate his ability to his superiors, but this falls on deaf ears and results in bitterness and displeasure upon his part. As Dillop becomes increasingly ill and unable to conduct his duties, Clarts is offered greater responsibility within the business, which he exploits through the embezzlement of Dillop’s savings.
Today, we could say that there is an abundance of highly educated graduates vying for low paid, low security, meaningless service jobs in the city. Work is difficult to get a hold of (I myself was unemployed for four months, and on the dole for three and a half, and I am now on a six-hour contract at my place of work) for the graduate and the high-school leavers alike (I was instructed by the job centre to leave my degree off my CV in order to have a better chance of finding work) and the allure of centralised London is difficult to resist. But like Common, the inhabitants of Newcastle share a great love for the city, for its people, its customs, its vibrancy, its cultural spaces (those left unaffected by Tory cuts), its sports teams and architecture which we argue London can not offer us. Indeed one could suggest that it is the capital’s apparent culture of unpaid internships, nepotism and high housing costs that appear to be hindering the Geordie brain-drain. However, this being said, I think many of us, myself included, know this is where we will end up at some point of our lives, queuing up to enter the city of affluence, of capitalism on a scale larger than Clarts and his fascination with the ampersands of company names (& Co.) could imagine.
One of the interesting aspects of reading The Ampersand in the 21st century, at least in my experience, is that the description of places and monuments are reflected through a contemporary lens. I found myself imagining Clart’s actions not in a historic past but through the images of present-day Newcastle. I see Clarts wander around the post-T Dan Smith Eldon Square, the Byker Bridge teeming with modern cars, the Ouseburn full of cultural endeavours and students, as if his character is of no rigid era, fully employable to the demands of the present. Indeed, I would argue this is the way in which one should approach Common’s work: as a dialogue between the past and present, a conversation between an industrial and post-industrial city, with one identity rooted in hard manual labour, and the other in the maintenance of a service and leisure economy, with the clash of imagined images, black and white, like the Geordies themselves, and in full colour, reflecting the divide between two cities separated by the break of time.
A new exhibition, organised by the brilliant Heaton History Group as part of their Heritage Lottery Fund-supported ‘Heaton Avenues in Wartime’ project, will look at Jack Common’s lively, vivid descriptions of growing up in the working class avenues of Heaton, Newcastle upon Tyne. Here, group member Chris Jackson draws on Common’s writing to look at experiences of war, community and childhood relationships in Heaton during wartime:
Jack Common was born at 44 Third Avenue on 15 August 1903. In his autobiographical novels,‘Kiddar’s Luck’ and ‘The Ampersand’, he wrote about growing up in Heaton. Although ostensibly fiction, Jack’s writing is clearly based on his own experience and his vivid memories. It tells us about aspects of life in the avenues, before and during World War One, that often we’d have no other way of knowing. Jack describes his milieu, life as a ‘corner boy,’ and gives us a rare (pupil’s) insight into life at Chillingham Road School. He writes with feeling, humour and from the perspective of the socialist he became. While we have to remember the fictional element and the personal viewpoint, Jack Common’s work is an important source for our Heaton Avenues in Wartime research.
Some of the places Jack describes have changed, of course, but to anyone familiar with Heaton, the streets (or avenues) of terraced houses and Tyneside flats are instantly recognisable over a hundred years later:
…’ the south side started with a grocer’s shop on the corner, ran straight past some eighty front doors arranged in twos, one for the upstairs flat, one for the down, and each pair separated from the next by the downstairs garden.’
…’when you could crawl and totter, you always made for the street whenever the door was open. Over the rough cement path, down the step onto the wonderfully smooth pavement, perhaps on again to the cobblestones in the middle of the road.’
So far, we’ve traced only one photograph of the Avenues taken during this period. it shows Heaton History Group member, Arthur Andrews’ great aunt, Ruth Castle, outside her home at 47 Tenth Avenue and it chimes with Jack Common’s description of his ‘territory’.
The ‘Heaton Avenues in Wartime’ exhibition will be in the lounge bar of the Chillingham pub from 16 February to mid April 2015. It contains digital copies of documents from the Jack Common Archive at Newcastle University and Tyne & Wear Archives as well as illustrations by local artists.
The Stores, the former Wallington home of both George Orwell and, briefly, Jack Common, has gone on sale. For the not unconsiderable sum of £450,000 you can purchase the cottage in which Orwell resided whilst writing Animal Farm. Common ran the … Continue reading
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
in a world
too cruel for words.