Review published on November 6, 2018.
According to Nathan Connolly’s introduction, Know Your Place began life on Twitter when, in the wake of the EU referendum, someone requested that a “State of the Nation”-style book of working class voices be produced. From the outset, it became apparent that “commentators felt justified placing their own opinions in the mouths of the working class”, particularly in terms of assigning the blame/praise (delete as appropriate) for Brexit to working class (non-)voters. It was equally clear though that working class people were not typically being allowed to speak for themselves, which was an issue that Know Your Place was intended to address.
The first thing to make clear is that, since there is no universally agreed upon definition of what is (and is not) working class, the key criterion for being eligible to submit an essay for inclusion in Know Your Place was self-identifying as working class or being from a working class background. Hence, all the contributors to the book consider themselves to currently be, or to have originally been, working class, regardless of how others may choose to classify them. Another important consideration is that the included essays are not political polemics, nor are they all concerned with the current political agenda. Although ideas of class often seem inextricably bound up with ideas of politics, actual working class life (as, of course, does all life) frequently has nothing whatsoever to do with politics and so the essays in Know Your Place were deliberately chosen to reflect all the facets, even the supposedly mundane ones, of being working class.
With that in mind, the essays collected in Know Your Place cover diverse topics such as diet, food poverty and the pull of the unhealthy; the concept of vulgar and who determines what is, and is not, in good taste; the drive for social mobility and the difficulties faced when moving between classes; what counts as art and the relative values assigned to different perspectives; educational differences and additional barriers to be overcome in the field of employment; the benefits trap and the culture of blame; and the many stereotypes associated with working class life, such as the sense of community, the drive for conformity, holidays to the seaside and institutions like the local pub that might seem off-putting to other groups. There really is something for everyone, and every essay serves to illuminate topics that are all too often overlooked or distorted in the mainstream media.
The breadth of the essays included in Know Your Place means that the book succeeds in demonstrating that there is no single notion or example of working class. While the challenges facing working class people may not have changed too much over the years, their actual lives have and the so-called “working class experience” is really one of great variety. Know Your Place thus doesn’t claim to be the authoritative text on all things working class, nor could it ever really hope to be so, but it does shine a light on the multifarious nature of working class life that should inspire further consideration. As Nathan Connolly notes, the included essays represent “just a sample of the lives and experiences out there”, although the hope is that they will inspire and create the space necessary for others to express their views and experiences of working class life in the 21st century.
Know Your Place works really well in the audiobook format, since the essays are read by a range of narrators with an eclectic mix of regional accents, who eschew Received Pronunciation and the demands of BBC English, which serves as a “celebration of working class voices”. Sometimes funny, sometimes sad, but always informative and entertaining, the essays can be listened to as individual pieces or one after the other without losing any of their impact.
Erin Britton 5/5
Know Your Place: Essays on the Working Class by the Working Class edited by Nathan Connolly
Audible Studios B07D7Z76HX audiobook Jun 2018
Around The World in 80 Words by Paul Anthony Jones
AUDIO: The Life and Times of a Very British Man by Kamal Ahmed
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