To say that the work of Jack Common has been ignored and forgotten by both the literary establishment and the city he once described has become routine within the few esoteric corners of academia and journalism which have brought attention to the man and his work over the last few years. While his name may grace the wall of Byker Metro station and designate a collection of papers at Newcastle University, he nevertheless occupies an obscure role in the history of Newcastle upon Tyne and Geordie culture, one subordinate to the likes of Richard Grainger, John Dobson and Lord Armstrong who through the display of pervasive architectural grandeur remind us day by day of their existence.
Without the surface magnificence of Grey Street or Central Station, Common’s works, ranging from the essays found in The Adelphi and The Freedom of the Streets to his two autobiographical novels Kiddar’s Luck (1951) and The Ampersand (1954), not only explore the banality, exuberance and joy of industrial Newcastle in the early 20th century, but delve into the politics of working class culture, the love-hate relationship the ambitious Geordie has with his roots and the difficulty of obtaining class mobility, themes greatly relevant in our age of consumption, individualism and aspiration.
While many Geordies upon reading Common will ask why his name has remained a mystery until that moment of enlightenment – and of course why he has not been introduced in the curricula of English literature classes around Tyneside – his interest in both the local and universal should engage those outside the region, and as Keith Armstrong has argued rescue the man ‘from being a mere footnote in Orwell studies’.
In his Preface to Seven Shifts, a book which assembles a group of seven working lads to ‘describe their jobs, their conditions, and some of the their reactions to the life they lead’, Common aptly illustrates his relationship to companion and rival George Orwell and the literary establishment: ‘My friends include members of the literary bourgeoisie and lads from the unprinted proletariat. Both parties talk well, and you’d probably enjoy a crack with them as much as I do. But here’s the pity. The bourgeois ones get published right and left – especially left; the others are mute as far as print goes, though exceedingly vocal in public-houses’. As the voice of the silent and oppressed majority, Common’s non-fiction and autobiographic works are of great value and worthy of much study and investigation. Here, however, I want to look at his second novel, The Ampersand, a tale of ambition, education and working-class estrangement.
The Ampersand opens with central protagonist, Will Clarts, formerly Willie Kiddar of Kiddar’s Luck, making a perilous journey to London, the perceived land of plenty and opportunity, for what we assume is to be a new start in the capital, an escape from both the past and the North. Along the way, Clarts is accosted by two men, who mistake his body for a rabbit they were in the process of hunting. In order to escape these two, Clarts fabricates a story about familial bereavement which appeals to sympathies of the inquisitive hunters, who after much deliberation wish him luck on his venture to the capital. In the space of three pages, Common has revealed to us two principal themes of his book: the need for flight from the North and the allure of fiction.
It is not only the ‘power of fiction, the strange spell mere story puts on people’ that we can see interests Will Clarts throughout the narrative of the book, but the love of knowledge, a love fostered through the easily attainable library of his Uncle Robin, a man estranged from his community, labelled an eccentric, a crank by the people of Heaton. Indeed it is this pursuit of knowledge that results in Clart’s own alienation, as his devotion to reading and learning is ignored by the school system and derided by his friends and romantic interests. Throughout The Ampersand we view the slow edification of a young intellectual who will eventually culminate in the Jack Common present and consumable today as the voice of the working class in his various article and essay collections.
But we can see that there are many complications to Common’s situation. Although he may appear to be the voice of his community, the process of obtaining such a status divorced him from the community and people he loved so dearly. Clarts/Common occupies a position inside and outside working class culture: with the upbringing of the proletariat but the mouth and habits of the bourgeoisie.
Alienated, isolated and anxious about his fate (although not obvious at the start of the book, by its close we learn of the embezzlement charges he is about to face) he is forced to flee, to the brighter shores of the South. As Common’s status as forgotten writer attests, the dream of London and its accompanying opportunities for prosperity, wellbeing and fame, failed to be realised by the young Geordie. The back of the book jacket of Kiddar’s Luck dismally concludes: ‘After the commercial failure of his two novels, Jack Common lived in poverty for much of the rest of his life, and died in 1968’.
This narrative of escape from the North is common to much of working-class fiction and cinema, as if it is an inherently inhospitable region to the ambitious and intellectual. While there are of course a few Billy Elliots that succeed in the capital, there are arguably many who aren’t so fortunate. But could we ask whether it is a naiveté that causes the young to depart for London, imagining a land of prosperity that does not correlate with reality? Or are Geordies and their Northern comrades truly drained by a lack of opportunities and vitality in the industrial heartlands and therefore forced to search for something better?
We can see from The Ampersand that the world of 20th century Newcastle has much in common with the current scene. In the book, set towards the end of the 1910s, Clarts finds himself without a substantial education, with few generous opportunities of employment for such a talented and eager lad, a situation ultimately forcing him to do meaningless copy work for a very low wage. Despite the high security of Clarts’ job as assistant to the solicitors Mealing and Dillop, it appears that there is little chance for monetary advancement within the workplace.
Clarts dreams of moving up the ladder and takes on extra jobs in order to demonstrate his ability to his superiors, but this falls on deaf ears and results in bitterness and displeasure upon his part. As Dillop becomes increasingly ill and unable to conduct his duties, Clarts is offered greater responsibility within the business, which he exploits through the embezzlement of Dillop’s savings. And so his journey to London begins.
Today, we could say that there is an abundance of highly-educated graduates vying for low-paid, low-security, meaningless service jobs in the city. Work is difficult to get a hold of (I myself was unemployed for four months and I am now on a six-hour contract at my place of work) for the graduate and the high-school leavers alike (I was instructed by the job centre to leave my degree off my CV in order to have a better chance of finding work) and the allure of centralised London is difficult to resist.
But like Common, the inhabitants of Newcastle share a great love for the city, for its people, its customs, its vibrancy, its cultural spaces (those left unaffected by government cuts), its sports teams and architecture which we argue London can not offer us. Indeed one could suggest that it is the capital’s apparent culture of unpaid internships, nepotism and high housing costs that appear to be hindering the Geordie brain-drain. However, this being said, I think many of us, myself included, know this is where we will end up at some point of our lives, queuing up to enter the city of affluence, of capitalism on a scale larger than Clarts and his fascination with the ampersands of company names (& Co.) could imagine.
One of the interesting aspects of reading The Ampersand in the 21st century, at least in my experience, is that the description of places and monuments are reflected through a contemporary lens. I found myself imagining Clart’s actions not in a historic past but through the images of present-day Newcastle. I see Clarts wander around the post-T. Dan Smith Eldon Square, the Byker Bridge teeming with modern cars, the Ouseburn full of cultural endeavours and students, as if his character is of no rigid era, fully employable to the demands of the present. Indeed, I would argue this is the way in which one should approach Common’s work: as a dialogue between the past and present, a conversation between an industrial and post-industrial city, with one identity rooted in hard manual labour, and the other in the maintenance of a service and leisure economy, with the clash of imagined images, black and white, like the Geordies themselves, and in full colour, reflecting the divide between two cities separated by the break of time.