Know Your Place: Essays on the working class, by the working class.

This book is a brilliant insight into the lived experiences of people who are working class in the 21st century. It is a fascinating reframing of the more traditional assumptions of what it means to identify as working class, as well as who gets to identify as such. If you want to learn about class structures in Britain and then this book is a must!

As you can see I’m an unapologetic library user.

As the editor Nathan Connolly informs us in the introduction, this book came as a response to a tweet calling for writing which reveals working class voices on the state of the UK at a time when tensions were high due to the EU referendum.

It is true, within popular discourse, there is most certainly a lack of representation of working class voices, that is not to say that people who are working class are absent from the media, but they are presented in ways that are not true to reality. Even more shocking is the lack of working class voices in academia, perhaps as a result of a perceived ‘elevation’ of those academics who have came from a working class background to a middle class lifestyle that is associated with those who have been through the higher education system.

Indeed, Connolly ends the book with a chapter aptly named ‘You’re Not Working Class’, which reflects on Connolly’s own class identity. In doing so, Connolly neatly summarises the intentions of the book, as well as providing a critique of the ways in which people who are working class have been viewed:

“Delegitimising the working class is a step towards removing working class voices. If we want working class writers, actors, politicians, and judges – and if we want those institutions to understand working class life- then we need to expect the working class to be educated and intelligent, perhaps even cultured, perhaps even partial to a high-street coffee chain latte. Otherwise, we’re just telling them to know their place” (Connolly, 2017).

The essays in this book include:

The First Galleries I Knew Were Black Homes, by Abondance Matanda- Matanda explores the intersections between her identity as a black working class women and her own experience of seeing the representation of this identity in British culture.

The Pleasure Button, by Laura Waddell- Waddell explores the relationship of class with food and its emotional ascriptions.

More Than Just a Dream Land, by Yvonne Singh- Singh reminisces over the importance of the seaside in Singh’s own life, and in doing so highlights the significance of this space for working class individuals. The gentrification of the seaside is critiqued as a destructive force, ridding the hope and freedom that the seaside has symbolised for so many.

The Death of a Pub, by Dominic Grace- Grace displays a great deal of nostalgia for the cliché ‘Great British Pub’, and how the loss of these spaces affects working class communities.

Britain’s Invisible Black Middle Class, by Sylvia Arthur- Arthur comments on the experiences of Black workers in Britain by tracing their own employment history, with the hope that future generations will claim their place in the world rather than this place being assigned to them.

An Open Invitation, by Kit de Waal- de Waal critiques the lack of working class voices in creative writing, commenting that often many of these writers peer in on working class experiences from a privileged position. Most striking is de Waal’s conclusion that “there are stories already written which deserve to be read and new stories that will remain lost or untold until something changes”.

Navigating Space, by Durre Shahwar Mughal- Mughal talks about her experiences as a working class, Welsh Muslim woman, and how this shaped her experiences of becoming an academic writer, viewing her own presence in different spaces as a ‘necessary disruption’.

The Benefit Cuts, by Sam Mills- Mills critiques the violence of austerity brought about by Conservative governance, and discusses working class experiences of austerity which Mills fears will make the gap between the rich and the poor become a gulf.

One of Us, by Andrew McMillan- McMillan writes about the intersectionality between his working class identity and identity as a young gay man, critiquing common narratives surrounding these identities, and the need for plurality.

Glass Windows and Glass Ceilings, by Wally Jiagoo– Jiagoo discusses their experience as someone who is working class as well as a Housing Benefit Officer, and the impact of this ‘double life’.

Heroes, by Catherine O’Flynn- O’Flynn reminisces over growing up and fitting in with a subculture.

Disguised Malicious Murder, by Rebecca Winson– Winson refers to Engel’s, (1844), essay on The Condition of the English Working Class in England, highlighting that ‘when society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and unnatural death…its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual; disguised, malicious murder’. It is through this lens that Winson critiques Austerity and its violence towards the working class, having a detrimental impact on mental health, and mental health services. Such violence is justified by narratives of self-affliction and a culture of blame that is placed onto the working class.

Where There’s Shit, There’s Gold, by Ben Gwalchmai- Gwalchmai details the experiences of the rural working-class and critiques the lack of representation in British media.

The Housework Issue, by Cath Bore- Bore talks about her experiences as a cleaner, and how working class women have been lied to, whereby the “fabrication that if we work hard, do the right thing- whatever that means- then we’ll be ok and get the good stuff”.

Living on an Estate Gave me a Community I Never Knew I Needed, by Gena-mour Barrett- Barrett compares the experiences of growing up on an estate and then moving elsewhere. “The truth is, I felt safer living on our rundown estate among people I trusted than in a house, isolated and alone, among people I didn’t”.

Hop Picking: Forging a Path on the Edgelands of Fiction, by Lee Rourke– Rourke explores the ways in which working class voices have been made passive.

Reclaiming the Vulgar, by Kath McKay- McKay talks about reclaiming the vulgarity that has been associated with the working class.

The Wrong Frequency, by Kate Fox– Fox explores issues surrounding stereotypes based on accents associated with class identity.

The Immigrant of Narborough Road, by Alexandros Plasatis- Plasatis talks about being “the fucked up immigrant with a PhD who worked in factories, exploring the new working class England”.

Education, Education, Education, by Peter Sutton- Sutton discusses the education system, and the idea that the working class can “grab an escape route via education”.

Growing Up Outside Class, by Sian Norris- Norris discusses the experience of growing up without really being able to belong to a class, emphasising the sense of belonging that is brought about from being part of a class, and yet the isolation from this as a result of other parts of one’s identity.

What Colour is a Chameleon?, by Rym Kechacha- Kechacha explores issues of social mobility, class, and colonisation, and how you can adapt your ‘tongue’ to be a ‘chameleon’.

And of course, the final chapter- You’re Not Working Class by Nathan Connolly.

Overall, this is an excellent book, and as the writers are speaking from their own experiences to comment on the class system in the UK, they do not claim authority over all working class experiences, and instead hope to inspire others to speak up about their experiences as well!

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