Ancoats - Manchester
Snooty critics, and I was one of them, complained in its early days that, as literature, Voices wasn’t much cop. Maybe it was sociology or even politics but literature? - no. Even its founder Ben Ainley, an academic teaching English was diffident in his introduction to the first issue
“I can make no great claims for these pieces, except that they are, it seems to me, varied, interesting, freshly written, and in most cases the work of men and women taking up a pen late in life; with some qualms, though with real curiosity as to how it will turn out.”
A London bookseller in 2007, asking £50 for 17 back issues remarks in an ad on abebooks:
“it is difficult to find a recognisable "literary name" among the contributors”.
Well he got that wrong but the tone was typical, and recurs in a quote from Barabra Shane’s letter to the Arts Council:
In a letter of December 1978 already quoted Mr Osborne wrote in somewhat patronising terms to say that the Literature Finance Committee was not convinced that the Federation's productions were of "solid literary value". This judgement was repeated in much the same terms after Federation representatives had met the Literature Finance Committee in March 1979. The committee, apparently unanimously, decided that the Federation was 'successful in a social, therapeutic sense, but not by literary standards"
Yes - Voices was different; no doubt about that. And the search for a named slot for this stuff was a pointless distraction. We should have been celebrating its range and variety. Where else would you read a first hand account of the General Strike, a description of Communist Party activity in a wartime engineering plant, an extended, funny satire on the plight of Irish builders in London? Middle class explorers had occasionally visited this heart of darkness but even the best of them didn’t get it quite right. George Orwell’s Wigan Pier could just as well have been called My Day at the Zoo. Then suddenly the natives were piping up and telling it like it really was.
This urge was always there. My analogy for prole lit is of an oil field – rich and vast but hidden - the middle class owns the rigs – they control the publishing houses, the magazines, the newspapers. If they decide not to drill we get nothing. Tap even gently, however, and you could get a gusher. Ben Ainley was one such prospector surprised at his luck.
Another was the editor of the radical Northern Star in the 1840s. Its invitation to readers to write released a flood. The editors quickly promoted this outpouring from the back pages to page 3 – soon they were trying to stem the deluge: "The Poets must really give us a little breathing time. We have heaps upon heaps accumulating which we cannot find room for." And it wasn’t all about radical politics, much dealt with family life as well as social upheaval. An early Voices? Sounds like it. The more recent incarnation did have desiccated rants on Vietnam and the Bomb but Voices, for me, was strongest on work, childhood and the domestic scene.
The best reason for writing is that no-one else is writing the stuff you want to read. Work is an oddly neglected area in English fiction (I guess we can leave out what goes on in Universities). Workers must have believed that what they did was somehow unworthy of notice. Philip Callow was an authentic voice but he obviously detested the factory and quickly emigrated to Bohemia. Alan Sillitoe was another who caught the true spirit of the proletarian outlaw in society but his short time at Raleigh’s didn’t equip him for a deeper investigation of work. Part of the problem was language. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning came out well before the Chatterley trial and no true evocation of factory life was possible without that revolution. Voices, like life, was full of work. Here’s a far from complete list.
The domestic scene was another rich vein – for most women just another form of work– and mostly written by women as a consequence. Not much in Iris Murdoch or AS Byatt on how to avoid the clubman or being banged up in Holloway.
Childhood was another strong area reflecting the sad fact that for many working class people it was the happiest time of their life. Jimmy McGovern was very good, and a master of colloquial scouse. Vivien Leslie too was a fine observer. Bruce Norris’s poem took you back. There was even a contribution by a 9 year old – Walmer Street – talk about experimental writing.
This a very incomplete survey of almost half a million words by over 300 contributors – just a few suggested points of entry. If you wanted to risk the cult of personality and do it by writers and I’d single out the poets Joe Smythe, John Cooper Clark, Bill Eburn, Jone O’Broonlea, and the prose writers Mike Weaver, Jimmy McGovern, John Small, Vivien Leslie, Mike Rowe, Jim Arnison, Roger Mills and Jean Sutton.
Something should be added about the artists who were probably even better than the writers – Bob Starrett and McGeogh were outstanding.
Try to forget Granta, The Critical Quarterly, The Times Literary Supplement, Poetry Review (if you ever remembered them that is). Forget too the modern rash of small magazines flourishing with the new technology. Voices is nothing like any of them As the snooty critics suspected it was a quite different entity – almost another country.
Ken Clay 2007