Jottings from the RSL/First Story Panel on whether writers need silver spoons

A performance poetry set can proceed by associative leaps. Performing one poem leads to a feeling, leads to the choice of the next poem, leads to intuiting an audience reaction, leads to another poem and so on. A speakers panel doesn’t work like that. Well- maybe it does work like that but I don’t think it’s supposed to. I imagine speakers unfolding their reasoned arguments and entering into audience debate which is mediated through a chairperson who eventually synthesizes and summarises the reasoned arguments. At the end of the “Do Writers Need Silver Spoons?” discussion one audience member told me she “flipped and flopped” in her thoughts on the subject as each panellist spoke. Another said “Oh, I came in knowing exactly what I thought- I’m not the type of person who changes my mind”.

Trying to listen to the other panellists, gauge the audience and deal with my own associative thought leaps whilst literally sharing a microphone with former Home Secretary Alan Johnson, whose moving memoir I’d just finished on the train down to London, means this cannot be an account of the debate. Here are some subjective thoughts and snapshots from an eighty minute discussion which fulfilled one very definite excellent purpose in fundraising for the charity First Story, which puts writers into schools in disadvantaged areas. It also raised many more questions than it could ever answer.

The place- the Folio Room of the Radisson Hotel in Bloomsbury. A convenient central London conference room. Though Rudy who was covering the event for “Writers of Colour” pointed out that places where writers gather are not neutral, tweeting; “The irony of this event was its location and the demographic of the audience”.

The platform stage was just wide enough for us four writers and chair Jonathan Dimbleby to sit behind a table. Disconcertingly our chairs had wheels and there was only about a foot between the back wheels and the edge of the stage. I tried to banish visions of myself toppling over backwards, legs waving in the air in front of three hundred people. I kept grasping the tabletop with my hand at moments of high emotion to avoid going Chorlton and the Wheelies.

Jonathan introduced us by saying how much he’d enjoyed reading our books as research instead of another boring history book and getting us to read a short extract from them. Labour MP and former Home and Education Secretary Alan Johnson chose the prologue to his memoir “This Boy”, Stephen Kelman read the opening pages of his novel “Pigeon English” (“I’m not going to attempt the accent”), I read a poem about meeting my biological father and poet and performer Salena Godden treated us to a playground passage from her newly crowd funded memoir “Springfield Road”. Origins, blood, photographs, chases.

Jonathan asked us a few questions each about our “modest backgrounds”. Salena talked of selling poems for cigarettes in the schoolyard. Pitching up in London, getting herself a room and a job, determined to write. How she’d always have found a library, a pub, got poetry things going. Her job was working on Miss Saigon, in the flies, moving the massive Miss Saigon sign. This prompted an anecdote from Jonathan about how it was a tradition for some children from his “comfortable middle class background” to take their parents to the theatre. He took his Mother to see Miss Saigon. He explained the exclamation mark he’d added to his voice by adding that the musical is the story of a prostitute who falls in love with a soldier.

“Where did you go to school?” he asked me. I started to answer that I went to a school in Queensbury just outside Bradford but interrupted myself midway through. You asked like you might have heard of it I said. But I’m guessing you haven’t heard of Queensbury or its school? He agreed, to audience laughter. All the way through I was thinking -it’s the small signals contained in language that give us away, that propel us forward or hold us back. I wanted to jot notes but discovered the hotel pencil I’d nicked was broken.

Maybe we writers from “modest backgrounds” had more to write about than those who are comfortable suggested Dimbleby.  Maybe we were valuable voices opening a window onto unseen worlds, as Dickens did. Stephen Kelman said comfort breeds complacency. I didn’t recognise the world in which well off people are all happy and people on lower incomes are miserable. But this translated into me making an irrelevant, sarcastic comment about comfort not stopping people writing and asking whether he’d read the Mail on Sunday? An image of his first wife-  the journalist Bel Mooney- flashed into my head. He’d said in the green room how she came from a working class background in Liverpool and knew, when she went for an interview at Oxford encountered the other interviewees dressed up in their finery, while she was in a dress made by her Mum,that she wasn’t going to go there.

We had all mentioned the importance of libraries, said our Chair. I hadn’t, but they were important to me too. I went two or three times a week, worked my way through whole shelves, read bound copies of Hansard I had to tiptoe to reach from Queensbury Library’s top periodicals shelf. Later a woman in the audience would say she almost cried when she thought her local library was under threat. I garnered tuts when I replied that the social mobility which results in less diversity of writers was much more harmed by cuts to things like school transport and education allowances and that writerly sentimentality for libraries was in danger of overshadowing these things because our voices are bigger. That librarians mattered more than libraries and I’d have been alright when I was sixteen and living in my bedsit if I’d had a fully loaded Kindle. More tuts.

A student said she was encouraged to go to University but knew she lacked confidence compared to local private school kids. A man asked about barriers to entry for writing. Stephen Kelman said that publishing was democratic. Anyone could send things to agents and publishers, they don’t know anything about you. Salena talked about “Unbound” the website which has overseen the crowdfunding of her novel. E-publishing, self publishing. I thought back to Maggie, the Royal Society of Literature head, saying in the green room that criteria for entry was two novels of acknowledged literary merit. I said I wondered how long it would be before the RSL would accept self-published novels as part of the criteria for entry. Quite a long time I suspected. I saw her in the front row. The microphone was being passed to audience members with their hands up. We panellists had one desk microphone between each of us and I had to physically re-angle it away from Alan Johnson and towards me if I had something to say. He didn’t interrupt and he didn’t hog the floor as hundreds of politicians might- but it was a conscious, difficult act of entitlement to literally pull it towards me when I wanted to speak.

Jonathan reads a list of novelists and their parents (fathers) professions;

“E.M Forster-architect, DH Lawrence-miner, Thomas Hardy-stone mason…what does that tell us?” “Nothing” says an audience member. “Exactly, just what I thought” says Jonathan. Earlier in the green room, Stephen Kelman said he’d been looking through book shop shelves trying to find writers from modest backgrounds “I couldn’t really see that many at all” he said in mild surprise. We’d all nodded.

“Did the end of grammar schools damage literature?” asks an audience member.

There’s a pause. No panellists bring their microphone underneath their nose. A Tweet records that I said “I don’t know if they damaged literature but they certainly damaged social mobility”. I recall that I said something about their end being symptomatic of other changes in society which damaged social mobility (and ergo literature- though this link is certainly not taken as read by most). At some point after this I go on to say that there was greater social mobility for the baby boomers with grammar schools, free University education and enterprise allowance. I was thinking of the students I write poems with in Newcastle and Bradford and Middlesbrough, who I no longer encourage as fulsomely as I once did to think that a creative career will just work out if they work hard enough, if they want it enough, if they’re good enough. Not since the end of Creative Partnerships and all the other things that were swept away when the coalition came in and made me see that creative education was no longer valued for it’s own sake. (Or at least for vaguely defined social goals I’d been happy enough to think were about making people’s lives better). I’d thought the decrease in social mobility was so accepted, except by the cabinet, it had become a truism. So I jumped when Alan Johnson disagreed that it had. “I never wanted to make capital out of my background” he had said earlier “or it would have been like that Monty Python sketch…I lived in a paper bag in a septic tank…”. He spoke about studies which have found that some kids have heard thousands of words by the time they get to school and some many fewer. They need to be nurtured with language (“But whose language? asked former North East Arts Council Head Mark Robinson today on Twitter). Johnson also said, without apparent rancour, that he was glad to meet writers and be at literature festivals now he’d written a book. He’d always loved words and writing, but unlike some of his political colleagues he’d never previously been asked to review books or contribute to articles about his reading life. The man who many people wanted to be Prime Minister. The man who said he wasn’t driven enough.

So I am cheered up towards the end when, thinking again of the kids in the schools I work in writing and performing poems and claiming their words as their own, I say that one educational development has made me optimistic but “of course it won’t be for creative subjects”. Someone has spoken disparagingly of academies, to a murmur of audience assent, but I mention studio schools. Which will have project-based learning without as many shackles from the national curriculum. Vocational courses with lots of input from people doing work in the real world. A woman in the audience puts her hand up. There is going to be an arts studio school. She is the Headteacher. It opens in Manchester this year. I applaud and the audience join in, and continue when Alan Johnson gently mentions that studio schools are “Not a Gove initiative but a Johnson initiative”. I feel the surge of energy I need to get me excited about working with kids in schools. The spark that becomes an idea, that becomes crafted into a piece of work. Later, over dinner, there’s some talk about the meritocracy myth. How it’s a myth but how at least it motivates people to learn and to persist. I think of how I used to have the quote from Disneyland framed above my mantelpiece: “Here you leave today and enter the world of tomorrow, yesterday and fantasy”. Not for me exactly, but for my five year old self who visited there at a time when books were my main escape. Here was somewhere my whole body could escape to. You can choose to live “as if” you can go there anytime if you know who keeps the keys to the Magic Kingdom.

One last piece of advice to writers from each of us. Keep reading, work hard, keep trying, persist. Four writers who did just that. What else would we say? Though I attempted to summarise the contents of my head, out of context again and said something like “Know what barriers you face, know what they really are…and- though this maybe isn’t a moment for party politics, in honesty I’d say- vote Labour!”. I’ve never said that in a real life tips for writers situation.  (In fact one of the few tips that stick in my head as good advice to writers is “Live frugally”).What I think I might have meant is- in order for writers not to need silver spoons in future there will need to be more social mobility and a recognition of the fact that everyone should have opportunities to reach their full potential. Education and social policies including (but not most importantly) whether councils get enough money from central government to be able to run libraries. Labour’s policies are not the writerly Utopia I wish existed but they’re a heck of a lot better than what’s on offer from the inherently elitist Tories. Let’s hope enough writers are able to unveil things like the meritocracy myth eh? I didn’t say that though. Jonathan Dimbleby thanked us, photographs went on too long as the audience dispersed and Alan Johnson firmly refused the photographers insistence on more shots in front of the Royal Literature Society backdrop and said he was going to sign books. I resolved to firmly say no to an event photographer one day. The rest of us broke apart from our pose and scattered. So much that had been thought and triggered and not said. Some time free from earning a living to write about it.