Know Your Place: An Interview With Lee Rourke and Sam Mills — Thom Cuell

Know Your Place is a crowdfunded anthology from Dead Ink books, which provides a platform for 24 working class authors to discuss the impact of social class on their lives and writing. Conceived as a response to media coverage of the EU Referendum, in which the working class was portrayed as insular, backward-looking and monocultural, Know Your Place is a diverse snapshot of modern Britain, viewed through a literary lens.

Here, contributors Sam Mills and Lee Rourke discuss the issues raised by their own essays, and the anthology as a whole.


Know Your Place looks at a diverse range of working class perspectives and experiences; can you briefly talk to us about the topics you discuss within your own contributions, and what drew you to focus on that issue in particular?

LR: My essay centres itself around a quote from Orwell’s The Road To Wigan Pier in which he mentions Miners and Hop-Pickers’ sense of ‘indignity’, at being ‘kept waiting about, of having to do everything at other people’s convenience’, of ultimately being pressed ‘down into a passive role’ and being slaves ‘of mysterious authority’. Orwell focusses on the Hop-Pickers’ peculiar sense of ‘they’, whoever ‘they’ are (the bourgeois, land-owning ‘mysterious authority’ one presumes), and the collective distrust of this unseen entity. I use this as a motif, a metaphor to illustrate the role/plight of the working-class writer.

It’s also about my praxis as a writer; inspired by something the novelist and artist Stewart Home once said to me: in order for novelists to be truly revolutionary, they must write bad novels. ‘Bad’ being what bourgeois expectations consider to be bad: anything that doesn’t fit in with the established default mode of literature (usually work that eschews lyrical humanism). In other words, we must write against ‘mysterious authority’, and escape our ‘passive role’ in order to destroy (or better still: fuck up) bourgeois expectations – the novel, of course, being a creation and play-thing of bourgeoisie taste. My essay is about that process. If you’re looking for a personal essay about my experiences of growing-up working-class, family, love and loss, my emotional and psychological state of being working-class, I’m afraid I’m not that sort of writer.

SM:  My essay is called The Benefits Cuts and it focuses on the cuts to the welfare state that have occurred over the past 7 years. I was drawn to this subject because it has a personal resonance. My parents were working class, but the era they grew up in was more aspirational and class mobility was more common. They moved to a middle class area; my Dad got an OK job; things fell apart when he was made redundant, had a nervous breakdown and then developed schizophrenia. So we grew up as a family on benefits. The situation was stressful enough as it was, especially for my Mum, who had to suddenly play multiple roles as breadwinner, wife, parent, carer – an exhausting and emotionally draining time for her. The safety net of the benefits we lived off was invaluable. I don’t know how she would have coped under the present system, where your benefits can be stopped quite randomly and unfairly.

I agree that it is a good idea to stamp out benefit fraud. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that unemployment benefit is only 1% of the welfare budget; the biggest slice of it is spent on pensions, and then housing benefit and tax credits. Owen Jones has pointed out that the hyperbole about benefit fraud in the papers has been an attack on the working classes, who have become scapegoats in order to deflect attention from austerity measures. The propaganda worked – the public think that benefit fraud is 27% of the welfare budget; in fact, it is only 0.7%. The working classes on benefits have been painted as workshy, yet many of them do actually work full-time and still need benefits in order to pay their rent or survive, because wages are low and rents are high. Hence the recent situation whereby nurses have ended up visiting food banks, or teachers have ended up becoming homeless in Hackney.

The way that the government attempted to cut the benefits bill has resulted in many people who are vulnerable ending up homeless, in debt, or dead. My essay lists a number of people who committed suicide after their benefits were unfairly stopped. One man who was found fit for work attended a meeting at the Job Centre, where he expressed his dismay at losing his benefit; on his way home he collapsed and died in the street. This is the problem with employing private companies to carry out the eligibility tests, in that they are financially rewarded for failing people. More than half of disabled people who appeal their ‘fit to work’ assessment eventually get their decision overturned (and in the meantime suffer severe poverty and stress). The most recent horror story was of a 59-year-old woman suffering from diabetes, osteoarthritis, sciatica and incontinence who had to sit in her urine for two hours for her PIP assessment, with her assessor completely indifferent to her state of indignity, her urine dribbling into her trousers. And these kind of horror stories have been coming out every week for years. I felt sickened when I read about what was going on, so I decided to write about it. I remember reading in Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens about evidence found that Neanderthals looked after those who were disabled/sick. The UN has said that the UK government’s treatment of disabled people is ‘a human catastrophe’ and that it had more concerns about Britain than any other country in its 10 year history. So we appear to have regressed somewhat…

How did you first become aware of your own identity as working class, in relation to others, and what effect did that have on you?

SM: I was very aware of it in primary school; barely noticed it at high school; became very conscious of it at university. However, at a young age, nobody told me I was working class. I never heard my parents talk about it. At that age, you’re just aware that you’re different from those who seem to have nicer cars, more money, some mysterious radio channel called Radio 4 playing in their kitchens – people whom I ended up seeing as ‘posh’.

I ended up going to Oxford, which is rare for someone from my background. However, because I worked insanely hard to get in, it didn’t occur to me that I might have a tough time. My whole family were euphoric; we’d had so much bad luck, we became superstitious that it represented some change in fortune, that the gods were finally smiling on us. So I was disappointed to get there and experience all sorts of ways in which I didn’t fit in, mainly because I lacked middle-class life experience. For example – I went on holiday with a friend. Her Dad was a millionaire and he paid for everything. I was like the clichéd gauche poor kid. I’d never been on a plane before and I was nervous of flying; I had never stayed in a hotel before and I kept trying to hide my nerves over what etiquette rules I might be breaking. My friend was endlessly amused by me. She wasn’t being spiteful; I was just an anomaly. I was politically naïve. I was aware that I was different, without knowing why; because of my Dad’s mental health problems, I think I explained away a lot of this to myself and others as ‘eccentricity’, suggesting I was the one to blame. Later on – too late in the day, really, thinking about class helped me to understand the problems I’d had there.

LR: It’s something I’ve always been aware of. Where I grew up: Failsworth, Moston, and Blackley in north Manchester, the notion of being working-class is part of our identity, we are acutely aware, and proud of this identity. The effect it had? It galvanised an awareness, for good or ill, of ‘them’: those people who went to ‘posh’ schools, who spoke differently, dressed differently, et cetera. I became aware at a very early age that some people, those who spoke, looked, dressed differently usually had more things than we did: clothes, gadgets, holidays, and that these things continually became part of their identity, but they were essentially faddish and throwaway. Whereas, most of us had nothing, and those of us that did have at least something, if we weren’t grateful we were at least aware that these things should be cherished, fetishized, idolised. For me it was my first pair of Adidas (Adidas ‘Kick’, for the record). These trainers became mythical among my peer group. It’s no coincidence that the majority of youth/fashion movements/cults of the 20th century – Teddy Boys, Mods and Rockers, Skins, Punks – were essentially working-class movements. In today’s accelerated, post-modern, bourgeois ‘creative/marketing’ industry-led present all we are left with is the well-spoken, well-groomed, know/have-it-all Hipster. The epitome of exclusivity. These are worrying times.

Class identity isn’t something that’s necessarily visible to others – do you find that, within publishing especially, there’s an assumption of middle class-ness unless proved otherwise? And have you found that people react differently to you if you talk about particular experiences?

LR: I joke with all my friends about how white and middle-class publishing is. But it’s not funny. It’s a serious matter, and one of the main reasons for two of the most important books published in recent years: Know Your Place and The Good Immigrant. When publishing, from CEOs to Interns down, is populated mostly by grammar or private-school, Oxbridge educated white, middle-class individuals we have a major problem: from how books are commissioned, edited, marketed and sold, to how the expectations and taste of reading/book buying culture is perpetuated. Above all, though, this inequality in publishing influences how books are ultimately written: we mostly write what is expected of us, we mostly write for ‘them’ and not ‘us’, we surrender to other people’s expectations because it’s our only chance of becoming a real ‘writer’ with our books in shops and libraries, The sickening thing is this: what is ‘expected’ of us is governed and created by a very small percentage of the populous who continue to use their considerable power and influence over us. The publishing industry doesn’t care about my class, the way I speak, my background, it cares whether my writing is marketable and saleable.

I write for me, always only me, because of this inequality. And I seriously couldn’t give a fuck if my books sell or not.

SM: People mostly judge your class by your accent and the way you speak. My accent is a weird medley of my upbringing, my education and my career. I’ve had people say I sound posh and I’ve had people say I sound like I’m from South London and point out that I never put ‘g’s on the end of my words i.e. I say ‘givin’, singin’. But yes, most people assume I’m middle class and look surprised if they find out my real background.

In your own work, have you felt pressure to reflect a certain type of working class experience (gritty realism), or is that something you’ve tried to steer clear of?

SM: Every book I’ve written, I’ve had published – except for one that explored a working-class character as the main protagonist. It seemed very hard for publishers to get him, or the book, so in the end I had to abandon it, and return to writing predominately about middle-class characters, at which point I got published again.

LR: I avoid ‘gritty realism’ like the plague. To quote Wallace Stevens: ‘Realism is a corruption of reality’. It isn’t real. As a writer who is working-class the cultural, bourgeois default mode doesn’t want me to write about far-flung corners of the globe, art, comfortable lives, holidays in France, the plight of once colonised civilisations, the cultural default mode expects me to write about the plight of my class: it’s petty dramas, violence, and  multitudinous sufferings. This is what is expected of the working-class writer. It is a passive role. My aim is to disrupt such condescending expectations, to disrupt bourgeois reading pleasure.

There is a tendency for the media to present the working class as a monoculture, particularly regarding issues like Brexit and immigration; do you think that independent publishers, crowd-funding and social media can help to challenge this narrative, and demonstrate the diversity of voices and experiences that exists within working class culture?

LR: Exactly, this is expected of us, we are frowned upon if we deviate because we don’t meet preordained criteria. It creates and perpetuates the one-dimensional view-point expected of us/about us: that we can only comment on the outcome of society’s supposed cruelty towards us, or our uneducated follies, and myriad blinkered political opinions. We are expected to look inwards, at ourselves, ad infinitum – and if we do dare look out we find we have been traumatised into myopia. It keeps us self-obsessed and in our place. A spiral of misunderstandings and misery. Brexit happens and the uneducated working-class are blamed: news reporters gather opinion from the working-class in the high street as they busy themselves to Wilko’s and Poundland, never the working-class in universities working on their Economics, Philosophy/Ethics, Political Science theses. There’s a reason for that. And it’s ostensibly sinister.

Independent publishers are doing fine work unearthing the voices that ordinarily are muffled from view by mainstream, bourgeois media outlets; crowdfunding gives voice to projects that ordinarily wouldn’t be given funding (it’s no coincidence that both The Good Immigrant and Know Your Place are both crowdfunded books). This can only be a good thing.

SM: To an extent, all classes are subject to caricaturisation in the media and society – whether it’s the working classes who vote Brexit, the middle classes with their Agas and Nannies, or the upper classes with their plummy accents and castles. I’m not sure if social media can dramatically change things, because it’s been demonstrated that people tend to exist in their own bubbles of like-minded people. The nature of news journalism is that it tends to seek out trends and therefore make generalisations. By contrast, good novels/films tend to do the reverse – to explore complex characters, to delve into all the paradoxes and messiness of human nature. So I think that the answer lies with film and books, allowing us the chance to sympathetically engage with characters who might be from very different backgrounds to ourselves, such as the film Fish Tank or Kerry Hudson’s Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma.

Under Austerity, the arts are increasingly being treated as a luxury by the government, and cuts disproportionately affect access for working class communities, through library closures and so on. What sort of impact do you see this having, and, as writers, is there anything you can do to challenge or counteract this narrative?

SM: This brings to mind a newspaper article that I came across a few years back, when Brexit was being discussed. It listed our main exports. Our creative industries were high up on the list. The fact is that whilst the government love to push science/technology, as a nation we have a history of great success with our music, our books, our TV shows, our games, our films. British artists are responsible for 1 in 4 albums sold in Europe. Our film industry is thriving. The government would do well to nourish the arts, to build more libraries, to give the arts more room in the curriculum. If we’re good at this, why not capitalise on it? And why not let everyone have a go?

LR: Writers have to keep on writing, even if there isn’t a suitable platform in place. We have to create our own platforms – at least that’s what I had to do. It’s pretty much all we can do. In the hope that opinion can build momentum and force change one day. It’s hard. It’s miserable. It’s real toil. Sometimes it feels pointless (it is pointless to some degree). As Kafka once said: ‘There is an infinite amount of hope in the universe . . . but not for us’. But seriously, do politicians really listen to art? They might admire art, yes, the right art, inoffensive art, but they are too busy securing power systems to truly listen to art. Those writers with connections – good publishing deals, and good sales, et cetera – will be listened to on ready-made platforms that can disseminate their voice to a certain degree. All we can hope for is that a small minority of the writers who are lucky enough to be listened to actually care about the issues you outline above. And that someone, somewhere, with the means to change things, is truly listening.

With the demise of student grants, and schemes such as the new deal, do you feel like it is becoming harder for working class people to build careers within creative industries?

LR: Yes. Forget the publishing industry, the art world and advertising, it’s pretty much always been the same, just look at how much the music industry has changed in recent years, for example – where there was once a tradition of avant-garde working-class creativity. It’s littered these days with very well-spoken, well-meaning, polite, articulate middle-class kids making very bland, identikit, highly-marketable music. Which is fine if it wasn’t so exclusive. The industry is now shaped by bourgeois, homogenised taste, based on such exclusivity, fostered by a distinct lack of working-class kids picking up a guitar and learning how to play without a care in the world. Without manners. Yes, there’s a thriving Grime scene that emerged from London’s estates, but it doesn’t cost that much money to write lyrics and pick up a mic, and luckily bourgeois taste has accepted this style of music, it’s edgy enough to feel authentic, but not too edgy that it isn’t marketable. But, seriously, where are the working-class bands? Speak to any music teacher in your average Comprehensive and they’ll tell you the reason why this change has happened: academies losing funding, cuts to grants, music departments unable to offer the full breadth of learning opportunities they used to. Working-class kids simply don’t have the means to swan off to some extra-curricular music school, where six-week summer courses are at a premium, and swathes of local youth clubs have been shut down, so there’s nowhere for those lucky enough to have learnt how to play to rehearse. Add all of this to the sad fact that the ‘voice’ of the average popular musician (what they have to say and how they say it) is largely incomprehensible and boring to working-class kids (what does Ed Sheeran truly have to say to them?) it’s no wonder cultural alienation and atrophy has set in.

SM: Definitely. Even if you’re born with some aptitude for writing/singing/dancing/whatever, you’re going to need time and space to develop that talent. It might take a few years. There are plenty of writers from decades past (Geoff Dyer) or bands (Oasis, Pulp, The Verve) who signed on for a bit whilst they crafted prose/lyrics. There’s a saying that Britpop started out as Dolepop. It might sound indulgent – but their creativity did subsequently bring in millions to the UK economy.

Labour’s New Deal was brilliant in that respect. You could sign on for six months and develop a business, or attempt to get a book published, under the support of a mentor. To some, it might sound indulgent, but without these sorts of schemes, it is very hard for working class people to pursue their dreams, and doing a creative job you like becomes a privilege of the middle and upper classes. In direct contrast to New Deal is the current scheme of Welfare to Work whereby jobseekers are sent to work in Tescos as ‘work experience’ in order to qualify for their benefits, and then effectively earn far less than the living wage. This kind of inequality means that having a career in the arts becomes virtually impossible if you’re working class.

How did each of you find the space you needed in order to begin writing seriously – what was the ‘room of one’s own’ for you? Was there pressure on you from family or your peer groups to pursue something more ‘worthwhile’ or attainable?

SM: I knew I wanted to be a writer from a young age. Initially, my Mum was very supportive. Her Dad had denied her an education because he’d said that ‘women didn’t need to bother going to university if they were just going to end up married a few years later.’ She ended up in a job she hated, so she wanted me to do a job I loved. Like many children, I was expected to correct the mistakes, rewrite the narrative of the generation who’d gone before. Once I left uni, I was very poor for some years, and I know she was worried about me. I think she felt I was wasting my good degree. It was a relief to her when I got published, and she was subsequently very proud/supportive. A ‘room of one’s own’ is important. I was on New Deal, and I lived a frugal life, renting an attic room in a house in the north, stuffing in earplugs all day to shut out the noise of the family who lived below me (which may explain my hearing problems now!).

LR: My family were always supportive and still are to this day. They just accepted it. I’ve always known that I’d need to have a career to sustain everyday life, that writing, my writing at least, could not wholly sustain me. All the writers I’ve admired were mostly skint throughout their lives, so I figured at an early age I’d have to do something alongside it. I’m lucky enough to teach. It keeps me close to books. It keeps me thinking about Literature. I’ve never needed the ‘space’ to write, I write as and when. I have a study and things now, and I sit at that and play at being a ‘writer’ these days (it never feels real), but I mostly used to write in pubs, longhand in cheap notebooks, drinking. I tend to avoid writing as much as possible, though. Because it’s hard work, and I truly hate it, there are so many other things I’d rather be doing than sitting down to write.

Lee’s essay talks about a sense of ‘unworthiness’ felt by working class writers, that people like him weren’t ‘permitted’ to write books; Sam, is this something you’ve experienced? And Lee, is this a feeling that you’ve managed to overcome, or does it stay with you?

LR: It’s a feeling I’ve never been able to overcome; it sticks in my throat like a fishbone.

SM: It depends on the genre. I’ve written YA fiction and literary fiction. When I wrote YA fiction, class seemed less of an issue; when it came to literary fiction, I noticed that numerous reviewers, editors, authors that I met generally seemed to be from a more middle/upper class background. And I know that when I was reviewed in the Sunday Times, and went on Radio 4, I felt a certain thrill of being ‘allowed’ to speak, have a voice, in a traditionally middle class arena. But I felt lucky to be there, as though I’d be given a middle class guest pass, rather than necessarily feeling as though it was a place I belonged.

If you’re working class, the literary world can look like an incestuous and privileged world, a place where a load of posh people are reviewing/giving prizes to another load of posh people.

Furthermore, it takes a particular kind of confidence to write a literary novel. It doesn’t necessarily play by a set of narrative rules, and therefore can end up being harder to judge, dividing critical opinion. Editors seek out a unique ‘voice’ and developing that voice requires craft and self-belief. I once dated someone who had been educated at one of the most famous public schools in the country. He was seeking to break in as a writer/reviewer and I was struck by his complete confidence in both his creativity and his career, networking, pushing himself forward, connecting with other people in the literary world from a similar background.

However, I’d add a caveat that the feeling of being an outsider is one that many writers experience regardless of their class. I’ve just been reading about the Bloomsbury set, noting that Virginia Woolf (though born into a publishing family) felt like an outsider, as did Leonard Woolf. I think it’s an inherent character trait in all writers.

Growing up, did you find it difficult to find representations of people you could relate to in art/wider culture? What did you draw strength/inspiration from?

SM: I remember being inspired by Roald Dahl’s novels. His protagonists often suffered poverty and difficulty. I always remember enjoying Matilda, because his heroine falls in love with reading at her local library and he describes how “The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives. She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad…She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.”  That was inspiring – a way of gaining life experience despite the barriers of class/poverty.

Mostly the books I read became aspirational e.g. I’d read the Trebizon books and wish I could go to a girls’ boarding school, just as children now read Harry Potter and wish they could study at Hogwarts. However, when you’re a child, I do think it’s natural to be drawn to stories about escapism rather than realism. There’s nothing worse than a worthy kid’s book; children switch off if they feel a book is banging a political drum; they want to be entertained. That said, there’s no reason why working class characters can’t play a natural role in a good story either.

LR: I didn’t find it difficult, it just didn’t occur to me that artists and writers could be my role models. For a start, I grew up in a house without books, my parents weren’t readers (they did the crossword) and they never took me to art galleries. My love of literature and art stemmed from my Auntie Anne, whose house was/is full of books, and she took me and my brother to art galleries, et cetera. She was a teacher for 37 years before she retired. Teachers are very important. I remember her art book collection and I used to gaze at the work of Pieter Bruegel in particular, especially The Triumph of Death, which was the first work of art that moved me. I was totally obsessed with it. I would stare at it for hours and try to draw it. I still shiver when I see that painting. Then in my teens I discovered Andy Warhol and my life changed forever.

But the true icons of my youth were Manchester United players, Robson, Coppell (my grandma’s dog was called ‘Coppell’), Macari, Whiteside, et cetera. Old Trafford was my theatre (still is). I didn’t hang around with kids who liked books and art because I didn’t know any. Most of my friends at that time became football hooligans. And then ‘Madchester’ happened . . . which is another story for another time.

Finally, what sort of impact do you think a book like Know Your Place can have, for individual readers and for the literary world in general?

LR: Above all this collection shows us, whoever reads it, that to be working-class isn’t – can never be – governed by one predetermined definition. We are many: many cultures, many opinions, many symbols, many arts, bound together by the awareness of those whose expectations are perpetually used to define us, can never truly define us.

SM: I do feel optimistic that it can make a difference, having seen the impact that The Good Immigrant made. Every time I got a Bookseller bulletin in my inbox, there’s a new deal for a BAME author, which is brilliant. This gives me hope that the same might happen for working class authors.

Sam Mills was born in 1980. She is the author of 3 crossover books for Faber & Faber, including the award-winning Blackout, and The Quiddity of Will Self. She is co-director of Dodo Ink.

Lee Rourke is the author of the short-story collection EVERYDAY, the novel THE CANAL (winner of the Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize 2010) and the poetry collection VARROA DESTRUCTOR. His latest novel, VULGAR THINGS (‘poignant and unsettling’ – Eimear McBride) is published in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and the US by 4th Estate, Harper Collins. He lives by the sea.

Thom Cuell is a Maoist intellectual in the publishing industry.