Casual prejudice vs perpetual privilege

Casual and/or stupid class-based prejudice should not come as a surprise when there is a Tory government tossing its hatreds around so freely, but still I was slightly surprised on Saturday morning as I listened to the radio while making the coffee. My trusty Roberts R900 was tuned to Radio 4 rather than its usual Resonance 104.4fm, and I couldn’t quite believe my ears when presenter Richard Coles — interviewing the journalist and author Caitlin Moran — said something about growing up in a council house in Wolverhampton being an unusual background for a writer, and that for Moran then, writing was more than just a pastime.

What? I wondered if I could possibly have heard him correctly. It reminded me of the bizarre and thoughtless assertion made by Granta’s outgoing editor John Freeman a couple of weeks ago that ‘Best of Young British’ author Sunjeev Sahota’s life in Leeds was ‘completely out of the literary world’, an apparent geographical deficiency that seemed in Freeman’s opinion to be compounded  by the fact that Sahota had ‘studied Maths’. Whatever next?

I had to go back to the BBC iPlayer to listen to the Caitlin Moran interview again and see if I had got the wrong end of the stick. Here is what (an admittedly rather tongue-tied) Richard Coles actually said:

The the writing thing, to get back to that, I mean, I think, one of the reasons I wondered if, that you are so productive, so fecund if I may say so, with writing, is that you write almost for your life, and I wonder if that came as, ’cause you grew up in, er, a background which is unusual for a writer. You grew up, grew up in a council house in Wolverhampton with lots of siblings, I think seven other siblings knocking around, and, er, and that would suggest for many people, that would suggest that your opportunities in later life are rather limited, but not for you. I mean, you kind of wrote your way into the life you have now. And I wonder if that means that writing for you is more than simply just a pastime, or a means of earning a living, but it is actually something fundamental to who you are.

What do you think? Moran more or less ignores Coles’s question, good for her, and he claws back some ground with the more agreeable proposition that writing is fundamental to her identity, but I’m still struggling to understand the bit about council houses and pastimes. Which writers is he comparing her to, and which background, I wonder, might he consider as being usual for a writer? A childhood spent somewhere other than Wolverhampton? Is that enough, or would growing up in private rented accommodation have been more conducive than in a council house. Or does a literary talent depend on having parents who are home owners? Perhaps writers can be thought unusual if their parents ‘bought their own furniture’?

Similarly, I wonder what kind of life John Freeman thinks would demonstrate that a first-time published author such as Sahota was part of the literary world — whatever that is? A life not lived in Leeds, or one that didn’t involve needing to earn a living? Does he really think you have to have studied literature to be a writer? Do you need to have already been a part of Freeman’s (imaginary) literary world before you are published, in order to satisfy some received idea of what a writer is?

Both statements seem to reinforce an idiotic assumption that writing takes place within some kind of metropolitan insiders’ club, and that the writer’s life is ‘always already’ — as the poets say — one of perpetual privilege.


More on this or related themes by Tony White:

Who has the right to write in the UK right now?

Knowledge commons #1