Alberto Prunetti was born in a Tuscan steel town in 1973. He is the author of five novels in Italian, including Amianto: Una Storia Operaia (Asbestos: a Labour History) first published in 2012; and 108 Metri: The New Working Class Hero (108 Metres: The New Working Class Hero), published in 2018. The two books are part of a trilogy on contemporary working class life in Italy and abroad, and the third will be published by Laterza in May 2020.
In this interview, we talk about his most recent work, 108 Metres: A Working Class Hero, the story of an Italian migrant worker on an epic journey through the UK low-paying service sector.
Where did it all start? Tell us a bit about the origins of your latest novel, which is also part autobiography, right?
Nearly everything in my book is autobiographical, although fictionalised – there are characters that are a mix of different people, and I also try to recreate some aspects of the Italian experience in an English context. 108 Metri is a continuation of a project I begun with my previous book, Amianto: Una Storia Operaia (Asbestos: a Labour History). There I tell the story of my father, a worker who, after a life in steel plants and oil refineries, died of cancer caused by asbestos. It’s a story of the old working class.
In 108 Metri, I wanted to tell my story, the story of a new generation of workers, who are the sons and daughters of the old working class, and have to migrate to England to get low-paid jobs. I was an agency worker on the minimum wage in England for two years: toilet cleaner in Bristol, and kitchen assistant and pizza chef in Dorset.
In a sense, the story of your previous book Amianto reappears in the background of your new book. The protagonist of 108 Metri is split between the old working class expectations of “factory and football field”, and the decision to go to university, to study for the mythical laurea (the Italian undergraduate degree). What’s happening there?
It has been a strong split, emotionally, in my life. Sometimes I wonder how my life would have been had I walked in my father’s footsteps, working in a factory or something like that. My mother and my teachers pushed me to continue with my studies but my father was more reluctant.
Apart from the emotional and cultural side of things, materially speaking my wage is not so different from that of a plumber. Nowadays, even if you have a degree, you don’t “move up” – there is no class mobility. You are working class and poor with a degree, sometimes taking up a job as a freelance editor for a publisher, sometimes working as a handy man. After my graduation, I spent many years working as gardener, handy man and pizza chef.
So, I consider myself still working class. Of course, it’s a different working class from my father’s days: he was a blue-collar worker. Today, people work in the service sector – from call centres to care jobs – or in logistics, and the new working class doesn’t often go home with greasy hands from factory work.
I am not a class traitor. I have a degree, but having no cultural capital in my family, I still have to earn a living in a working class job. That’s why I am proudly writing working class novels. I am also against betraying my class background: we should not be happy to escape our class position. We must work for labour rights, for improvements in our communities, and fight against the hoax of “meritocracy”.
I don’t know whether my story – working in an English toilet and then publishing a novel about it with a major Italian publisher – is a story of success or failure. Honestly, I don’t give a shit. I prefer to understand it through the words of Mark Fisher in Ghosts of My Life: “it is about succeeding so that your class origins can be forced back down the throat of those who said you couldn’t succeed”.
We must work for labour rights, for improvements in our communities, and fight against the hoax of “meritocracy”.
Your book is set between two countries, and talks about working class lives in both. Where do the two meet? Where do they part ways? And in these times of rampant nativism and national chauvinism, what is your take on those sections of leftist politics that call for “socialism in one country”?
Well, I grew up with the myth of the English working class. English football was a religion in my house. So when I moved to England, it was something of a homecoming. Of course, the ghost of Margaret Thatcher, her legacy, is to use nationality, ethnicity and gender to divide the working class. I believe the working class is just one: those below, the oppressed.
My English mates working with me were never racist to me. I cannot say the same about my bosses or the few middle class people I encountered. At the end of my novel, I use the Liverpool anthem as an internationalist struggle song, as an act of faith in workers’ solidarity: “you’ll never walk alone”, which means you will always be with your fellow workers, even when you work in a foreign country.
I don’t think the idea that migrants are the ones pushing down wages is “socialist”: the bosses are the ones who cut wages, and the only way to resist is to unionise migrant workers. Just read what Marx wrote about Irish workers.
Britain is the main setting where your working class hero experiences the exploitation of service capitalism. It is also the home of a vibrant tradition of working class literature and cinema. You cite old and new voices such as Alan Sillitoe, Irvine Welsh and Anthony Cartwright. Can you talk about some of these influences on your work?
My novel is stuffed with references to English working class literature. This Sporting Life by David Storey; The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe; Margaret Powell’s Below Stairs; several football writers like John King or Cass Pennant. And also essays like The Uses of Literacy by Richard Hoggart or Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class by Owen Jones. All these books are part of my imaginary.
But there is also lots of Shakespeare in my novel. In his journey to the UK, the protagonist is searching for Shakespeare’s language. He finds Shakespeare not in the corridors of academic departments, but when he encounters a worker in a school canteen who used to be one of the best radio actors of Shakespearean plays.
Anthony Burgess has been another reference point, especially his invention of a bizarre language in A Clockwork Orange. I had to invent a language in order to make the Italian protagonist speak in a context in which he was surrounded by native English-speakers. I tried to build a mix between English and Italian, and all the other idioms regularly spoken in the kitchens of English restaurants, where many workers don’t have English as their mother tongue.
There is also Stevenson’s The Treasure Island (I named one character Long John Silver…). And George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. I enjoy the work of Anthony Cartwright: we were both born in 1973 in an industrial town, and grew up in working class families playing football.
Your descriptions of life in the underbelly of Bristol’s service economy are often graphic. You focus on details that reveal the visceral dimension of sweat, food waste, human excrements, cigarette butts and more. Your powerful, tragicomic, but also provocatively repulsive description of cleaning toilets in a Bristol mall is perhaps the culmination of this thread in the book. You locate low-paid work, and the class position of workers, there: in the service of those who can pretend that all those things don’t exist, or anyway are delegated to others slaving away for them, picking up their trash, or, more literally, their shit.
As cleaners, we were supposed to be everywhere, but we were at the same time outcasts, invisible people. The customers did not talk to us. At the same time, there is dignity in being a cleaner. Everybody needs public toilets, someone has to clean them. The problem is not cleaning toilets. It is a job like any other. The point is workers’ dignity: we were paid the minimum wage, but we did an important and nasty job, so we should be paid more. And payment is not the only thing. We had no say on how to run things, how to do our work. Democracy in the workplace is perhaps even more important than wages.
I don’t know whether my story – working in an English toilet and then publishing a novel about it with a major Italian publisher – is a story of success or failure. Honestly, I don’t give a shit.
There is a recurring image in your novel, of a diabolic entity, half-nightmare half-reality, a sort of uncanny horrifying fetish that stands symbolically for the whole of the capitalist system, a dirty malevolent God, impersonated at some point by a supernatural version of Margaret Thatcher, worshipped by managers, and feared and abhorred by workers who are at the receiving end of the exploitation machine. Your imagery reminds me of the vivid anthropological accounts of the malevolence of capitalism around the world – I am thinking for instance of Michael Taussig’s The Devil and Commodity Fetishism among plantation workers and miners in Latin America. How did you come up with it? What were your influences there?
The main influence is Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft, but I had the idea after reading Un Viaggio Che Non Promettiamo Breve, an Italian nonfiction book by Wu Ming 1 on the #NoTav movement, opposing the high speed railway project connecting Turin with the French city of Lyon.
In my novel, the villains are Lovecraftian, while the heroes are Stevensonian. The weird entity is an allegory referring to workers’ exploitation, embodied in the historical character of Margaret Thatcher. I still remember, thanks to my father’s interest, the historic strike of the English miners in 1984 – I was 11 years old.
Towards the end of the book, our hero goes back to his Italian hometown only to find out that the steel plants are closing down, the core of working class employment gone, together with a whole world that is vanishing with the industry. Now what? What is the future of working class lives?
Yes, going back home at the end of the epic travel, haunted by Margaret Thatcher, the protagonist finds out that Maggie has already been there, in Italy, in his native steel town. The result is the end of the industrial civilisation, the closure of the steel plant in which his father used to work. The new generation of workers have to choose between badly paid short-term jobs in tourism and hospitality, or migrating abroad. Factory closures and the impoverishment of working class communities have taken place in Italy, just as in England. That’s why the last chapter of my book is reminiscent of Anthony Cartwright’s novels about the English Midlands.
What about the future of the working class? I don’t know, we live in an age where it´s difficult to imagine a future. About the present, I know that the more we are divided by the propaganda of the rich and wealthy, the more we are screwed. That’s why I closed my novel with a call for solidarity between English and European workers.
What about the future of the working class? I don’t know, we live in an age where it´s difficult to imagine a future. About the present, I know that the more we are divided by the propaganda of the rich and wealthy, the more we are screwed.
There is a moment in the book where the protagonist discusses his future with his dad when he is about to enrol for high school – it is charged with emotion and nostalgia, but also the hope of a future that will never be. As a parent, what would you tell your child today? What does it mean to get a degree, only to see your hopes and expectations betrayed by the grim reality of so called “free markets”?
Well, I would prefer not to give advice to my daughter – she would probably do the opposite anyway, but in any case, it’s just working class common sense. There is only one thing to do: stand up for your rights and make this world a better place for the working class. Without internal competition, so cultural and manual workers, locals and foreigners all fight together for the dignity of our jobs.
The strategy pushed by market forces is that you have to deal with the crisis yourself, alone and that means that you have to screw others. Well, we must do the opposite, or we will be fucked by the ghost of Maggie and her neoliberal policies. My advice is: try to understand the world and make it better. Study not for your own self-interest, but to fight against inequality.
And remember where you come from. Take care of your side. My father, as a working man, saw the world divided between “us” (the workers) and “them” (the posh people). My grandma believed that books could corrupt workers like us, because, to her, books where tools in the service of the rich. My mom told me that every book I read, it’s a kick in the ass less that we take from “them”. I believe that every book I write, it’s a kick in the ass we give to them. One more thing. There is something that I really liked in the third season of the English TV drama, Peaky Blinders. The main character, Thomas Shelby, is in trouble and goes to shovel horse shit – a job I did for three years, by the way – just to remember where he comes from.
About the interviewer:
Vito Laterza is an anthropologist and political analyst. @vitolaterza09
The Festival of Italian Literature 2019 takes place on 2-3 November at the Coronet Theatre, and features writers, artists and great thinkers discussing the big issues as varied as working class writing, climate change, and the rise of youth crime. See the full programme here.