Tom Jennings is grateful for this comprehensive documentation of its author’s efforts to keep Jack Common’s legacy alive
Uncommon Sense. Book review – Tom Jennings
Despite a typically hard-knocks working-class childhood in early twentieth-century Newcastle, young Jack didn’t follow his dad into the railway yards when he left school at 14. Instead, partly thanks to family quirks, he did a stint learning secretarial skills in between running with mates and joining various local freethinking left-wing cultural activities before moving south to pursue a writing career when the worst of the 1920s depression bit. After a lively and convincing reconstruction of this early formation, its consequences, contradictions and ramifications for his subsequent life, dissident socialist beliefs, and literary output of essays and novels form the core of Keith Armstrong’s careful, detailed account  of Common’s significance – none of which has hitherto been properly bought together in the public realm. Moreover, while the experiences and perspectives described were highly specific and idiosyncratic, they could also be deemed representative of the problems and possibilities of lower-class intellectual and artistic enterprise as well as the texture of the Northern industrial human landscape of that time . Yet although the material conditions that spawned him might have largely disappeared, this writer’s autobiographical fiction and more wide-ranging sociopolitical ruminations still resonate strongly today – not least to those who recognise in themselves aspects of his roots and the resulting subaltern dilemmas.
Therefore it seems simultaneously scandalous and unsurprising that his worth has been neglected – during his lifetime and since, among the metropolitan literati and its supposedly progressive alternatives. Compared to considerably lesser contemporary lights – in terms of evocative talent or breadth of insight – whose fame and fortune followed entry into the high-cultural canon, our hero scarcely staved off destitution throughout his days and died in obscurity having yielded but a small fraction of his capability. So it’s no mean feat, and ample reason to treasure Common Words, that its author has so painstakingly gathered together and organised the material necessary to weigh his subject’s place in history and potential usefulness now. Plus, since the wherewithal for others to undertake that task is now available, it would be churlish to complain that this biography neither deploys the necessary critical tools nor has the space to accomplish it. As Jack Common himself found, not kowtowing to the weight, inertia and disdain of the establishment (including its ‘loyal oppositions’) – not only refusing to play by the rules, but precisely endeavouring to expose their deadening effects – means struggling to find a forum, let alone the chance to fully flower. And, invaluable though they are, grass-roots publishing initiatives seldom penetrate as far as the academic respectability conferred by PhD research and a university press . In any case neither, sadly, were possible soon enough to help Common.
Armstrong vividly illustrates Jack’s wanderings around London and the Home Counties after fortuitously falling in with eccentric well-to-do socialists John Middleton Murry and Max Plowman at the non-conformist Adelphi magazine. There he honed skills as columnist, critic, editor and essayist – hobnobbing with various of its milieu such as D.H. Lawrence, Dylan Thomas, and especially George Orwell with whom he formed a lifelong friendship. But having no ‘independent income’, precarious editorial work had to be juggled with sundry dead-end drudgeries to support a young family, involving frequent upheavals to successive short-term tenancies and leases. Subsequent script-doctoring for the film sector further squeezed time and energy available for his own writing but, in addition to journalism, he did manage to get four books published. Unique at the time, Seven Shifts (1938) was an edited set of accounts of working life by Northern friends and acquaintances, and Freedom of the Streets (1938) a comparably unusual collection of the best of his own political essays skewering the pretensions of genteel socialism . These were followed by imaginatively twisted tales of childhood and teenage in Kiddar’s Luck (1951) and The Ampersand (1954), which surely rank among the very best descriptions of growing up working-class ever committed to paper.
What Common apparently didn’t get round to attempting was to expressively integrate his radical political speculations into renderings of personal experience projected into other characters and contexts – which Lawrence and Orwell, for instance, among his peers, and many later, did (arguably) achieve. A turning-point here would be the ‘Angry Young Man’ phenomenon of the 1950s and 60s wherein grammar-school graduates like Stan Barstow, John Braine or Keith Waterhouse fulminated against the barriers their lowly origins imposed on status prospects – incidentally impeccably reflecting conservative “lace-curtain working-class” parental aspiration bursting with its suppressed soul-destroying resentment. Doubtless Common wasn’t young and fashionable enough to tickle this niche’s fancy, but anyway these new writers rarely extended their ambitions to consider tackling positively the refusal of logics of upward-mobility . More recently, however, quite a few highly skilled, honestly working-class writers have thrived without falsifying, betraying or abandoning their backgrounds – with James Kelman, for example, even winning the Booker Prize (amid much disquiet from most of the Great and Good).
But such vexed questions of ‘authentic’ working-class or regional voices, and which experiences and perspectives get attributed cultural merit, miss larger problematics which I suspect Armstrong glimpsed – though his conclusions merely second-guess if Common might have sympathised with a seemingly random selection of contemporary commentators. A better strategy would be to ask what happens to latterday Jacks. Or, if he had scraped a comfortable living from his craft, would that have affected the critical edge of his work? What about the many potential subversives since who, dipping toes above their station, were similarly unwilling or unable to assimilate to any version of middle-class individualism? Irrespective of artistic intentions or outcomes, how might it affect their political activity or influence? Contrariwise, in the more complex fragmentations of class and community we now inhabit, what parallels can be drawn from Common’s exhilarating excoriations of the baleful blind-spots of bourgeois socialist complacency with today’s relatively privileged rebels and anti-capitalists? Yet matters of the significance of fidelity to or estrangement from divergent cultural origins and roots, and how it affects politics and attracts or repels constituencies, seem as far away from both mainstream and radical common currency as ever. This, to me, is why Jack Common’s ideas stand stubbornly as a continuing challenge, and why this book (as well as Freedom of the Streets itself, if you can get hold of it) are essential starting-points for anyone taking it up.
1. Common Words and the Wandering Star: A Biographical Study of Culture and Social Change in the Life and Work of Writer Jack Common (1903-1968), published in October 2009 by the University of Sunderland Press (288pp, priced £7.95).
2. on this score, see ‘A Northern Giant’ (review by Dave Douglass), at www.minersadvice.co.uk.
3. The book draws on Armstrong’s Durham University doctoral dissertation. His longstanding involvement in North-East regional publishing includes his own and others’ poetry, the Strong Words and Northern Voices projects, the1988 People’s Publications and Common Trust edition of Jack Common’s Freedom of the Streets, and the Thomas Spence Trust pamphlet The Hive of Liberty: The Life and Work of Thomas Spence (reviewed in Freedom, 24th March 2007).
4. a couple of which are online in the http://libcom.org library along with a few of Common’s other essays.[Link; http://libcom.org/tags/jack-common ]
5. An exception would be Alan Sillitoe, unapologetically from Nottingham’s ‘underclass’ and whose William Posters trilogy (1965-74) had a huge impact on this reviewer but is ignored by literary critics. See, for example, Richard Bradford’s biography, The Life of A Long-Distance Writer (Peter Owen, 2008), and D.J. Taylor’s interesting review (subtitled ‘How Sillitoe stood apart from the tradition of Northern novelists going soft and successful in the South’) in the Times Literary Supplement, 1st October 2008).
Review first published in Freedom, Vol. 71, No. 3, February 2010.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see: