:: Article

Dig Where You Stand

By John P. Houghton.


Ken Worpole, Dockers and Detectives, Five Leaves Press, 1983/2008

“Dig Where You Stand”. Never has an intellectual manifesto been so powerfully condensed into a single compelling instruction. An instruction to working class readers and writers to cast off the shackles of canonical condescension in order to explore the richness and potential of their own world through literature.

The urge to dig where you stand inspired the popularity of local history, theatre and reading groups during much of the twentieth century. It was in this milieu that Dockers and Detectives took shape prior to its first publication in 1983, as the author Ken Worpole carried out research for a local project in Hackney.

The book explores some of the consistent themes and tensions from Worpole’s research into who, what and why working class people read and wrote fiction. Two chapters on reading explore the popularity of the American “masculine style” in popular fiction, and the popular literature of the Second World War. Two subsequent chapters on writing examine expressionism and working-class fiction, and the “literature of the London’s Jewish East End”.

The 2008 edition includes a new introduction by Worpole alongside the original. Both could be read and enjoyed as stand-alone essays on the importance of literature as a means for self-education and self-awareness which, for some, are essential precursors for more radical and revolutionary forms of politics.

The description of Dockers and Detectives as a “study of working class reading and writing” needs qualification. Throughout, Worpole shows that there was no single reading habit or dominant writing style. At different times, at different places, and in the minds and hands of different people, both notions were complicated and contested.

As Worpole points out, the more “one explores the many different forms of working-class writing in this century, the more problematic the concepts of “the working class novel” or “working class literature” become”. Writers and styles that were popular with working class readers could be at once deeply conservative and highly avant garde, sweetly sentimental and chillingly bleak.

Several of the “working class writers” featured were, almost by definition, unrepresentative of their class because they had the ability to write for a wider audience and usually wrote from a distance. As Worpole puts it, “At the same time as many people acquire their first typewriter, they acquire their first suitcase”.

It was this heterodoxy and tendency toward non-conformity which frustrated attempts to coral working class literature into an approved political style of “usually pedestrian verse and prose only distinguished from its “bourgeois” counterparts by the worthiness of its morality”.

Some of the authors included in Dockers and Detectives owe their continued literary recognition to this book. Worpole dug where he stood and unearthed writers like Dan Billany and Roland Camberton, who may otherwise have lain submerged beneath the deadweight of the classical canon.

Running through the essays is an anger at the failure, or refusal, of those more traditional literary forms to portray working class lifestyles with something other than “nostalgia or contempt”. This isn’t, however, an angry book. Worpole harnessed and directed his discontent into a spectacularly successful form of re-discovery which triggered a renaissance in the study of hitherto little-known writers.

Fittingly, given the subject, all of this is expressed in an unfussy but forcefully expressive prose style. The first line of the new introduction is a broadside against those who can only think of place and experience in the abstract:

Dockers and Detectives was first written before the psychogeographers were abroad, and when historical and literary endeavour took everyday life as meaningful imaginative territory.

This earthiness of style and urge to unearth submerged experiences makes Dockers and Detectives a catalogue of discovery.

John P. Houghton is a writer and adviser on neighbourhoods, cities and social exclusion and is the author with Prof. Anne Power of Jigsaw Cities.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, February 20th, 2011.