Carl Neville, author of the newly published Eminent Domain, writes on his experiences growing up at the onset of the Thatcherite revolution and the persistent working-class creativity and imagination that existed in spite of it.
I was born in 1970 in Barrow-in-Furness and into the dissolution of the post-war consensus. Quite what that consensus was and how it came about is of course endlessly contested and numerous schools and thinkers wrangle over the best terms to use to describe it, the essential theoretical optic through which it should be viewed.
On the ground at that time, from the perspective of someone growing up in a working-class town, we all sailed forward into not just an uncertain future, but one in which we could feel the structures of the world around us dissolving at a more and more rapid pace as the years went by.
Two moments that flagged the future I was growing up into stand out, both connected to the television, central source of information and entertainment at the time.
The first was watching the news during the Miner’s Strike in the semi on the edge of the town that we had moved out to from our terraced house on Barrow Island and were in the long, slow process of doing up. My dad, a passionate, lifelong shouter at the telly was often agitated during the news, but on that particular evening, watching footage of what was later called the Battle of Orgreave there was an unmistakable edge of fear to his typically indignant tone. And while it could be one of those dramatic embellishments that memory, in its continuous shuffling and realigning of the narrative line likes to append to your life, in my recollection at least he said something along the lines of: Bastards, they’re coming for us.
He almost never swore and if he did it was mild, “bloody”, “bugger”. Effing and blinding was what uneducated and inarticulate people did and we were determined to be articulate, good with words, good at arguing. That was how we represented and dignified our class.
The next epiphany came, mundanely enough, watching The Money Program one boring mid-eighties’ Sunday afternoon and listening to a middle aged man in a suit explain that in the future there would be no jobs for life such as the one my own father was currently employed in., but Instead, one would be required to have a job portfolio. I only knew the word portfolio from my art classes and so imagined that you would, in the future, have to carry around this great, unwieldy hardboard file with you everywhere.
The policeman with their truncheons, smashing up the world, the man in the suit blithely disposing of my hopes.
My heart sank. Work was a four-letter word, we all knew that and life full of bastards who’d grind you down if you let them. Rather than a smooth and seamless drift into a menial position somewhere that I could pay minimal attention to and that would let me quietly get on with my daydreaming I would be required to constantly update my skills and seek out opportunities. Work and the pursuit of work, cultivating an employable self would become the central task of life, building a career the main meaning. But I had no work ethic, I didn’t want to work hard but play hard, keep up with Jones’s or make my way in the world.
What I wanted was to be left alone to sink into reverie, to live the life of a Billy Liar, a Walter Mitty or a Bernardo Soares (though this is not to imply that at that age I was reading Pessoa…) But the types of work that allowed them to luxuriate in all the bittersweet, dream-rich languor of a life of conscious underachievement wouldn’t be available to me though. I would be required to constantly lug some pleasing facsimile of my true face around with me everywhere I went, presenting it for inspection and approval. I no more wanted that than I wanted a job in the Shipyard, the destination for 90 per cent of my peers, and so I was stuck gazing out of the window, looking away from my own life but incapable of leaving it, running riot in my imagination only, mesmerised by the great swirls of colour and adventure, the other lives, worlds, glimpsed through the faint reflection of my own eyes in the glass.
I was, after all, fundamentally that; a day-dreamer, a distracted gazer out of windows who had no real desire to leave his seat, get out there and make something of himself any more than he wanted to return his attention to what was happening in the room. My parents were told by one of my teachers when I was just a boy that I had strong verbal skills but had difficulty getting it down on paper and they both repeated to me, numerous times, kindly but exasperated; it’s no good it all being up there in your head, son.
I sometimes think that if I’d been born twenty years later my dreaminess and inability to suppress the current of fantasy that constantly eroded my foothold in the there-and-then and pulled me out of the world would have been identified and medicalized. As it was, I was just a type, a fantasist, impractical, unboyish. Head in the clouds, always got his nose stuck in a book, swallowed a dictionary. Needs to get his feet on the ground. Buckle down. Shape up. Face up to it. Don’t be an escapist.
I also think now, at the age of fifty, that getting it down on paper, and getting it out there in the world, was the way I rescued myself; from the fog of introspection and fantasy that I would otherwise have wandered lost in, from the bad infinity of the big talker, from the exhaustion of the drunk with a gift for the gab, projecting his monologues and brilliant asides out to the imaginary audience beyond his nightly, tight-knit circle of pub intellectuals.
Writing became a way of integrating and levelling the scattered and lopsided elements of my own inner world; by forcing texts to cohere, by resisting the seductions and the suction of that slowly helixing, glittering centrifuge of shards and threads that passed in me for thought, by giving it a concrete form, an acknowledgeable existence of some kind I oriented, even perhaps assembled myself. Perhaps the loose-knit mosaic of fragments and filaments I saw cycling in my mind’s eye was really the rubble of a smashed-up self.
Of course, that small but necessary overcoming of things was all to come, but still, I had understood some fundamental things: that the world was made and unmade and selves were too, shaped and straight jacketed by forces beyond their control. The domain I was on the cusp of entering into as an adult didn’t correspond well to my desires, character, aptitudes, mindset, neuro-type, call it what you will. The thin dread that was continuously percolating back to me from the future thickened a little further as I lay there with one eye on the T.V., on the settee my father spent his retirement sprawled on watching Newsnight and This Week, as exercised about it all as ever, and which my mother got rid of a few years ago when she sold the house and moved down to live with my sister now he had died.
Life in all its dim enormity was unfolding around me. Coming to get me. Some people undoubtedly feel at that age that they are moving excitingly forward into new terrain, eager to explore, but I had few conceptual resources to map out and name the dimension that I was slowly but inexorably being engulfed by. It was expected that I would go to sixth-form and then university as my sister had but my mother and father, who had left school at sixteen and fourteen respectively and were self-educated to some degree, could not walk ahead of me, or guide me, the best they could do was stand at my back and push me out into the void, into higher education and inter-generational mobility, a set of norms and values, institutions and expectations that were alien to us all, in a world that was itself rapidly changing.
You’re just as good as they are…
And yet it was also true that within that territory I had to step into, out beyond the small, known circle of family, school, town, there was a seam of something bright and dazzling that I had encountered through TV too, heard in friends’ records, the lyrics and gate-fold sleeves I pored over, was beginning to get a glimpse of in the music my sister brought back to the house from uni or the cassettes that boys made to impress her and which I copied and listened to in bed at night, head down under the covers to focus better, curled up foetally around the bulky black radio-cassette player I had got one Christmas.
There was another world within the world or perhaps one that ran alongside it. A world of colour and excitement, a continuation of the ludic and fantastic, protean impulses that brought joy, laughter, delight, discovery, and that came streaming forward from somewhere in childhood, multi-coloured, braided, ribboning out into a grey, maze-like future.
And as I drifted off to sleep at nights, shifting down through bands of colour and clarity to a depth that bleached the words of meaning, restored them to their electric, a-signifying musicality the music I was listening to shifted and transformed too, took on a different complexion, colour, texture, spreading and unspooling, speaking of the plasticity and mutability of things, ushering in half-formed, abstracted dreams that comforted me in my own half-formedness and abstraction.
Dreams of pockets of reprieve, of counter-currents and secret domains, domains of the sacred that moved to a different rhythm to the workday world, observed different ceremonies and rituals, exalted those things the mundane world profaned, held open the promise of a life lived somehow between days. In place of the paralysed gazing away from your life there would be a life lived in ecstatic suspension, in the shadow world intercalated into the heavy, gridded hours, weeks, months, years, decades of work, routine, responsibility to come.
If I wasn’t well-equipped enough to shape the world or nimble enough to shape myself to it, I would have to avoid it. Adult life would be watchfulness, evasion, tiptoeing around all the snares and traps life had set for me. Yes. Escapism.
Hideaway, foxhole, haven, safe-space, bower, window, portal, gap, fold, wormhole, passageway.
Perhaps I wasn’t alone in this, perhaps there were many of us thronging those parallel worlds, scattered across the half-glimpsed domains who I might somehow call out to, unite with and whose own lives I felt pulsing softly out there across the threshold of sleep when things seemed somehow to make a larger sense, some greater unity was revealed. Perhaps we were determined and defiant and…
…and, well, perhaps, perhaps, that might all be true, that’s all very nice but it’s no good to anyone all up there in your head. You need to get it down on paper. That’s what matters. That’s how you dignify your class, son.
Well, Dad, I’ve done my best.