Jack Common: man of literature

In a recent article, Peter Sagar looked at how Jack Common described life in Edwardian Heaton in his famous semi-autobiographical novel ‘Kiddar’s Luck’, here he considers how Commons’ writing been viewed down the years and how we look upon it today:

Jack Common plaque
Jack Common plaque

It has been noted that Common was born in Heaton, in an upstairs flat at 44 Third Avenue. Of this background, the trade unionist and activist, Dave Douglass, ‘drew me to recall just such a Heaton street parallel to the railway (South View West) and a back bedroom in which I was to pass many a night in the formative political years. It was in the upstairs flat which Les Howard shared with his father. Les was a member of the first Tyneside Committee of 100 [an anti war group of the 1960s] and I became secretary of the second Committee. When I first met him Les had a magical aura which surrounded all the early crowd. The ILP Hall on Shields Road was the meeting place of anarchists, pacifists, the old ILP and the exponents of direct action…’  If you can excuse the pun, this kind of identification with Common’s work is not uncommon, among a number of commentators. 

Heaton

Douglass goes on to tell us how from beginning to end you can ‘almost smell Tyneside’ in ‘Kiddar’s Luck‘.  Douglass says how reading ‘Kiddar’s Luck‘ is the ‘next best thing to a visit home’ and capable of bringing on ‘nostalgic homesickness’ in him.  Interestingly, Douglass then goes on to talk of how he felt sympathy for Common in his role as worker-writer. Indeed this sympathy and empathy with Common was so strong in Dave Douglass, that he goes on to say that reading again of Common’s experience had cause him to, ‘man the pumps and set to, with renewed vigour to pull together my mountain of unfinished work which lies upstairs awaiting an injury or illness to provide me with the time to bring it all to life’.  As somebody who knows that feeling well, this would seem to be high praise indeed!

It has also been noted by local writer, Dan Jackson, that, ‘the novelist Jack Common, future friend and correspondent of George Orwell, was …………. smitten with belles-lettres growing up in a Tyneside flat near the railway sheds in Heaton.’ 

It is argued that Common was a well-read man and while his observations of Heaton truly came from the streets, his way of of expressing them were shaped by more exotic influences. It has been further argued that, ‘a love of great literature sharpened the pen of this “Geordie Proust” who was moved by “the birds at dawn, as well as the babble of the lounge bar”, yet as Common himself admitted later in life the life of a working-class writer was not an easy one: “There’s no talking to the lightning struck, the fatally illuminated are always alone.” ‘

If Common was undoubtedly one of those who was fatally illuminated, does that mean that his talent set him apart from his contemporaries in Heaton?  He did leave Tyneside for London. Is that always the curse of the so-called ‘working-class writer?’

Jack Common

We saw in a recent article about ‘Kiddar’s Luck’ and its descriptions of Heaton, that Common had a quite contemptuous view of his education at Chillingham Road School.  However, there is also evidence that the same school nurtured Common’s love of poetry.  It has also been claimed that it was at this school that Common developed a lifelong love of the poetry of Shelley.   

As for Common’s love for the classics, ‘The Chronicle’ in 2015 reported his son, Peter, as saying,  ‘My mother taught me to read and write at an early age because I was confined to bed in a darkened room suffering from mumps, I believe. This gave my dad an opportunity to introduce me to many of the classical authors. His admiration and appreciation of these short stories made a big impression on me and I know that he tried to emulate them in his own short stories’.

This is surely what made Common such a great writer: with one foot in the rough and tumble streets of Edwardian Heaton and the other in the world of some of the greatest writers of all time, Common was able to convey an authentic impression of life in Heaton and the wider Newcastle.

Orwell

This ability meant that Common was able to convey the richness of working-class life in Heaton in a way which still resonates with us today. And it has been argued that this was not only true when considering better known works such as ‘Kiddar’s Luck’. Jack Common’s story, ‘Nineteen’, which was first printed in the 1931 edition of the London-based literary journal ‘Adelphi’ is seen as a case in point. 

Philip Hensher, editor of ‘The Penguin Book of the British Short Story’ , in which ‘Nineteen’ was republished in 2015, said: ‘What I loved about “Nineteen” was its understanding of how broad and varied working class culture could be, and its warm and humane understanding of two young people. It is so beautifully written, and so very special.  Jack Common was a wonderful writer and I hope to give him some circulation again.’ These characteristics of Common’s writing could be said to be the hallmarks of his work and why he was so revered by people like George Orwell. 

George Orwell

Indeed Common developed a strong friendship with Orwell and it has been noted that, ’Common and Orwell became friends, corresponding and occasionally meeting when Common was running the village shop in Datchworth, Hertfordshire, about ten miles from Orwell’s Wallington cottage.’

This was around the time when Common, ‘inspired, prefaced and edited’ the compilation ‘Seven Shifts’ (1938), in which seven working men told of their experience.

Orwell was famously rather envious of Common, stating that Common was the writer he would like to have been.  This was because Common had genuine working-class roots in Heaton, the likes of which Orwell might have yearned for, but could never have claimed. This quality, being a great writer, but being from a genuine working-class background is what set Common apart. It has been said of Common that his writing was, ‘warm, ironic and quirky’. He soon won admirers throughout the 1930s as a writer with a genuine proletarian viewpoint, as distinct from the purveyors of middle-class Marxist fiction. 

Common was invited in 1930 by John Middleton Murry, founder and editor of ‘Adelphi’, who had noticed an essay he had written, to become circulation promoter and later assistant editor of the magazine. For a period in 1936, he was acting editor and a collection of his articles ‘The Freedom of the Streets’ appeared in 1938. 

The writer, V S Pritchett, considered the ‘The Freedom of the Streets’ to have been the most influential in his life, and George Orwell heard in the essays ‘the authentic voice of the ordinary working man, the man who might infuse a new decency into the control of affairs if only he could get there, but who in practice never seems to get much further than the trenches, the sweatshop and the jail.’  

It has also been said Orwell had written of Common: ‘he is of proletarian origin, and much more than most writers of this kind he preserves his proletarian viewpoint’. It is further argued that this, ‘viewpoint was developed by Common with a clear critical intelligence, in a variety of reviews, essays and satirical pieces’ and that he was, as another reviewer put it: ‘a knowing bird, [whose] life appears to be spent with his head on one side forever questioning the quaint ways of the bourgeois, whilst he chuckles down his throat at their dependence upon the proletarians’. In this “knowingness”, however, there is no hint of smugness or self-satisfaction. The perspective he offered was not one of class prejudice or “workerism” (he had little time for middle class socialists who were determined – in dress, manner and speech – to outdo the workers on their own terms!) His concern was with a humanistic analysis of capitalist society. One which saw the proletariat to lie at the heart of an immense economic and social crisis which affected all classes.’  Here again we see Common portrayed as having the ‘authentic voice of the working-man’, or at least the working man from Heaton.

Oppressive

It has also been argued that Common paid the price for being this authentic voice of the working-man. It is said that, ‘Common grew up as a writer when the proletarian novelist, whether from the north-east or south Wales or Clydesdale, was worth a casual aside over dinner in Bloomsbury but was unlikely to be offered a seat at the table or a square meal.’  Like his contemporaries, the Ashington ‘pitmen painters’, Common was to be admired and talked about…from a distance.

Much of Common’s writing can be said to express the nobility of working life in the north-east, but he could also demonstrate some of the less positive aspects of life in the region.  As Dan Jackson notes in ‘Northumbrians’,  ‘The working-class novelist Jack Common wrote of the stifling conformity of suburban Heaton, where the pursuit of respectability, through a clean front-step and spotless rent book, was pursued fanatically and all under the watchful eyes of one’s neighbours’.

 ‘And there by the slight fold of a lifted curtain, he encountered an Eye’, wrote Common in his autobiographical ‘Kiddar’s Luck’.It was Mrs Rowley’s and there was no doubt about it. The woman was a natural overlooker.’ 

The north-east has never really lost that slightly oppressive sense of community and a certain suspicion of individualism. I do wonder, however, if it has begin to lose its sense of community somewhat in recent decades as the forces which bound communities together, such as large employers and their accompanying trade unions have either disappeared or declined drastically in their importance. 

Common himself describes another downside of working-class life in Heaton, when describing how when coming home his mother would more often than not return to ‘an empty house, in a hateful suburb. She loved the town and was happiest in company, with the full household of her childhood. True she was very much in love with her husband.  She’d sit up far into the night waiting for his return, a pleasant enough parcel of pretty wifehood for any man to find at the end of the day’s work. But he didn’t like it.  He was shamed, shamed in his manhood that he was kept like a slave away from her and could only slink back in the late hours when work had done with him and left him too tired and irritable to toss the nice nothings of love towards his waiting fancy. He spoke sharp and hurt her, he didn’t want to hear about the people she had met in town that day..’. 

 Again we see Common describing working-class life in Heaton in all its gritty realism, almost as if he was foreshadowing the northern kitchen sink dramas that were to come on television ten years later. But Common wrote of it with compassion and understanding and an honesty that came from having lived in the same house, the kind of honesty that could never have come from a writer from a more affluent background, the kind of writer who might glorify working-class life, without having experienced it for even a minute.   

Regional v Universal  

The Jack Common who wrote ‘Kiddar’s Luck’ was undoubtedly a north-east writer.  As Jackson says, ‘consider the working-class novelist, Jack Common in “Kiddar’s Luck”, sallying forth eastwards – on foot – from industrial Heaton to the glories of the Riviera:

 “From North Shields on, the air was full of the sea glow, a salt radiance heightened all along the Tynemouth streets. At the end of them, the land fell off at the cliff-edge into a great shining nothingness immense all ways over the lazy crimping of seas on their level floor.”’

Common could write about the harshness of working-class life in Heaton, but as we see here was also more than capable of writing of the glorious setting so much of Tyneside enjoys to this day.  Common was seen in his day by many as a ‘regional writer’.

Was Common a universal writer, or what would be seen as merely a regional writer?  There are numerous arguments that what Common wrote about involved universal themes, about family relationships or the role of working people in society, which pertain to humanity as a whole, but sadly it seems that, like many artists and writers from our region, Common has often been firmly put away in the box marked ‘regional’.  Indeed it has been noted that,

’In 1951 Turnstile Press published Common’s best-known book, the autobiographical “Kiddar’s Luck”, in which he vividly describes his childhood on the streets of  Edwardian Tyneside, as seen through the lens of his adult socialism. There are four chapters on his life before five years old – a feat of detailed memory – while his mother’s alcoholism and the overbearing father whom Jack at length dramatically defies, form the dark background to the vigorous, at times bravura, narrative. The book found praise as a slice of Geordie naturalism, a convincing depiction of “the other England” which so beguiled the imagination of contemporary intellectuals. On the other hand, its irony and subtly bitter  universality went largely unrecognised.’ 

Perhaps the truth is simply that writers such as Common have had things to say which worry establishment elites and worry them to such an extent that it is safer to just put him away in a box which limits his relevance to only the north-east.  If so, that only shows the cowardice of the literary establishment and just how narrow their own thinking really is. Perhaps they simply can’t imagine that the ‘other England’ is as real as their own…

This ‘other England’ would indeed take decades after Common’s best work to even be fully discovered. Alan Plater, the north-east born playwright, has described how when writing for ‘Z Cars’ in the 1960s, he and his fellow writers had to make up the name for a town for the series to be set in and call it ‘Newtown’, near to the large city of ‘Seaport’. Everybody knew it was Kirkby near Liverpool, but those were the rules of the game at the time. Indeed Plater himself has stated that, ‘the setting was an ill-defined, generalised lump of the good earth called “The North” and the writers were categorised as “northern writers”’. 

Hull-born Tom Courtenay starred in ‘Billy Liar’, despite its West Riding setting and Salford-born Albert Finney found his way to Nottingham in ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’, all without comment in the posh newspapers, though there were comments aplenty in the areas listed.  We can also consider the way the north east finally found its voice on television. In the 1960s there was the first series of ‘The Likely Lads’, which is portrayed as being set ‘somewhere in the north-east’, which could, in practice, have been anywhere from Tyneside to Hartlepool. The 1970’s reprise, ‘Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads’ is clearly set more firmly on Tyneside, with the pictures of a changing Newcastle during the intro and outro music and its habitual Whitley Bay jokes, but still one of the two likely lads themselves is played by Bingley-born Rodney Bewes, while another Yorkshire-born actor, Brian Glover has a starring role in perhaps the most famous of all the episodes, when Bob and Terry try to avoid the score of an England match.  It took the 1980s and ‘Auf Wiedersehen, Pet’ for three Geordie actors to be playing the parts of three Geordie characters. 

As it took drama and literature so long for the ‘other England’ to be taken seriously on a national level in the 20th century, it is little wonder that Common’s writing has been put in this regional box. Yet, if the universal themes of the work of the Bronte sisters from Haworth can be acknowledged then perhaps so will Common’s one day.  But then again, the Bronte sisters’ father wasn’t a humble railwayman.

Today   

So how should we look upon the legacy of Common’s work today?  In the last two years, I have had the pleasure of going into seven north-east primary schools to teach them old north-east songs and teach them some north-east history.  Almost without exception the pupils loved it.  They have seen the songs as their songs and the history as their history.  They listen to music from many different cultures in primary schools and rightly so.  Music is there to be enjoyed from whatever background it comes and if pupils can enjoy music from many parts of the world, then that is great.  And it almost goes without saying that music is a great way to break down barriers between people and anything that can do that is surely to be applauded, especially at a time like this. But, I would also say that their musical learning should be based on starting with music form their own heritage.  How can pupils in our region have any real understanding of other musical traditions, if they have no knowledge of their own?  And why should our musical traditions in north-east England be seen as any less important or valid than any others from anywhere else in the world?     

If this is true, then the same can be said about writing like that of Jack Common. Here was an authentic Tyneside voice articulating what it was like to live on the same streets as us a century ago. I would be the last person to say that Heaton school pupils should be deprived the chance to read great literature from around the world during their school days.  After all, we have seen that Common did just that himself.  But it does seem a pity that you will look in vain to find mention of any books by Common in the National Curriculum or in most north-east schools. Common is still seen as not quite important enough. Perhaps it is time for the north in particular to re-find its voice and one of the best starting points would be the writings of Jack Common.

For an example of what could be achieved, one only has to look north of the border to see how Scotland has regained its sense of cultural self-confidence. However, it can easily be forgotten that it has been a century’s long journey to get there.   In the years after the first world war, Scottish culture was embodied in the person of Harry Lauder, who presented to Scotland and the world a kitsch, tartan-clad version of ‘Scottishness’, a million miles away from the offerings on BBC Alba today.  A similar renaissance of northern English literature and culture in general is long overdue and Common could and should be a major part of it. In the hands of writers like Common, the ‘other England’ had much to say which was valid and important.  It still does.

Acknowledgements

Researched and written by Peter Sagar.

Sources

Geordies / edited by B. Lancaster and R. Colls; Edinburgh University Press,1992

Kiddar’s Luck / by Jack Common, 1951 

The Northumbrians: North-East England and Its People — A New History / by Dan Jackson; Hurst, 2019

History Workshop Journal, Volume 2, Issue 1, AUTUMN 1976, Pages 206–210

https://doi.org/10.1093/hwj/2.1.206 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Common

https://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/george-orwell-hailed-heaton-author-10505289

Can you help?

If you know more about Jack Common or have photographs to share, we’d love to hear from you. You can contact us either through this website by clicking on the link immediately below the article title or by emailing chris.jackson@heatonhistorygroup.org

1 thought on “Jack Common: man of literature

  1. Keith Fisher

    Does what all good critique should do: makes me want to go back and read it again (it’s been a while).

    Reply

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