Hywel Francis and Sian Williams’ history of the South Wales Miners’ Library, published in 2013, is entitled Do Miners Read Dickens? It was named after a question posed thirty years earlier by a perplexed academic browsing the building’s shelves. The book provides a patient answer — yes, they do — to the eternally daft debate on culture, class, and creativity.
Even before the socio-cultural complexity identified in 2013 by the Great British Class Survey, history contradicted the assumption that if you have the time and inclination to consume culture you cannot be working-class. Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes recorded how many turn-of-the-century working-class men and women listened to opera records and read not only Dickens but also Shaw, Wells, and Thackeray. They also formed their own operatic and dramatic groups, pit-specific brass bands and sports teams, as well as unions, libraries, and mutual aid societies. Local civic and cultural initiatives meshed to form the kind of ‘big society’ that David Cameron could only dream of.
At the other end of the century, under New Labour, the music, film, and fashion of Cool Britannia was often a tedious class pantomime in which things assumed to be ‘working-class’ — from pint-downing to petty nationalism — were adopted by a largely middle-class cultural industry as free-floating fetishes. Britpop’s narrow typecasting did little justice to more nuanced working-class traditions of earnest self-education, artistic expression, or escapist glamour.
As a teenage Manic Street Preachers fan, devouring music, books, and politics in the economically obliterated Welsh Valleys, I was something of a cliché myself. The Manics exemplified a working-class identity finely balanced between being in the library and out on the lash. Selina Todd’s The People recounts the inter-war rise in working-class consumption and leisure, from cinema-going to dining out. Working-class mods made a point of dressing and consuming above their expected station, cultivating defiantly continental tastes in coffee, suits, and scooters. In the nineties, dressing up remained fundamental to the escapist velocity of an evening out, using glamour to transcend your workday drudgery and drab surroundings for the duration of a disco or drinking session.
Culture is not alien to ordinary people as either consumers or producers. Before the nineties, the depth and variety of ordinary lives and aspirations, and the constraints and limits placed on them, were captured by writers like Shelagh Delaney and Alan Sillitoe and films like Letter to Brezhnev. Artists from The Jam to James Kelman chronicled the fantasies, flaws, and frustrations of working-class life from within, rather than with mockery, scolding, or condescension.
The public prominence of some of this work was of course a function of the educational and artistic opportunities briefly available to working-class people in the mid-twentieth century. Although Britpop lionised the decade, the nineties in many ways reversed the sixties growth in working-class visibility and representation, with Thatcherism’s economic onslaught reinforced by the insistence that we were ‘all middle-class now’. The subsequent solidifying of class networking and nepotism in music, publishing, and drama, and the difficulty of working in the culture industry without independent wealth, have made it extremely difficult for working-class individuals to build careers in mainstream arts and media.
Despite all this, locally-focused grassroots arts and culture endures, from the London and Birmingham grime scenes to Salford Community Theatre. In the former Welsh coalfield, the Merthyr Rising festival celebrates and continues the area’s radical political tradition, while the personal intricacies of post-industrial life are explored in the writing of Rachel Trezise, plays like Motherlode’s Exodus, and the music of bands like Stay Voiceless.
Creative work can also offer alternatives to negative stereotypes. When MTV’s The Valley indulged in crass prolesploitation of Wales’ former colliery towns, local playwrights fought back with Dirty Protest Theatre which reasserted the area’s rich history against caricature. Or it can allow the excavation of a community’s politics past and present: Switch, a recent collaboration between youth drama groups in Powys and Hackney, drew striking parallels between popular protest in nineteenth-century Wales and the 2011 London riots.
Today’s grim post-Brexit jeremiads, often coming from media outlets that have ignored or demonised the working class for decades, depict post-industrial communities as passive and infantilised, as though their worth is defined purely by their utility to capital. But the history of the British working class has also been a history of creating civic and artistic culture, leisure and dignity in the midst of harsh and demoralising circumstances. Economic and structural adversity may have pushed working-class creative activity below the radar of the mainstream, but this has never meant that it did not exist.