‘And do we blame superstition
For what came to pass?
Or could it be what we, the English,
Have come to know as class?’
From Blood Brothers by Willy Russell
One of my favourite musicals came to Nottingham this week so of course I had to go and see it! I went on Wednesday night and was laughing for an hour and a half and then was in tears for the final hour.
Blood Brothers is the story of twins, separated at birth, and the way that their lives intertwine and how they pan out when one twin is raised middle-class, the other working class.
I’ve always been a fan of these kinds of stories: very British, usually set in the 1980s with Northern characters, dealing with lack of money and the English class system. Films like The Full Monty, Brassed Off, Billy Elliot, Pride… that kind of thing.
I wanted to talk about some other stories that deal with these issues of class, money and unemployment – not in a dystopian future but in our own world where the class system is still very much alive.
‘At some point, I’d like to have an original idea. And I’d like to be fancied, or maybe loved even, but I’ll wait and see. And as for a job, I’m not sure exactly what I want yet, but something that I don’t despise, and that doesn’t make me ill, and that means I don’t have to worry about money all the time. And all of these are the things that a university education’s going to give me.’
Starter for Ten by David Nicholls
This is bout a working-class boy called Brian with a love of the TV quiz show, University Challenge, who goes off to uni himself and jumps at the chance to compete in his favourite show. Romance abounds, friendships are rocked and Brian faces choices between honesty, loyalty, desire and friendship.
Brian is somewhat naive and even a little stuck-up. His concern for his friends’ futures is well-meaning yet patronising. Our class comparison is most clear when his friend Spencer, who signs on the dole while also working cash-in-hand, visits Brian on campus and meets his middle-class, bohemian, student friends, or as Spender puts it, ‘twats’.
‘I don’t know much about harvest festival, but I do know a story about God. So God was creating that night, and his little assistant comes up to him and says, “Ay, we’re all outa brains, we’re all outa hearts and we’re all outa vocal chords!” And God said, “Fuck it! Sew ’em up anyway! Smack smiles on their faces and make ’em talk out their arses! And lo! God created the Tory party!’
From Brassed Off (1996)
This is a film rather than a book but I wanted to tell you about one of those great gritty films about mining strikes, because there have been some wonderful films about that era, a few of which I mentioned at the top of this post.
Brassed Off is one of those films that is littered with comic moments but you walk away from it feeling like you’ve been given something to think about, often while wiping away tears. It’s about a colliery band in Grimsby, who are led by their passionate conductor who cares about nothing but music. However, the rest of the band are facing pit closure, unemployment, depression and divorce.
‘Morrissey, I’m all right on my own. I don’t even mind being on my own. But I never wanted to be on my own. That was just how it turned out. And I tried to make the best out of it. You helped me with that, Morrissey. You made it seem all right, feeling lonely.’
The Wrong Boy by Willy Russell
I could have mentioned any one of Willy Russell’s stories in this post. He is the modern master of working-class writing, but I restrained myself to only talking about Blood Brothers and his wonderful novel, The Wrong Boy.
We follow Raymond, an unusual boy with a love for The Smiths who is travelling to Grimsby to work on a building site, much to his chagrin. The story is essentially about one moment in his childhood that changed everything, and how people putting labels on him caused his life to go downhill. The book is written in the form of letters to Morrissey.
When you read the plot of these books it doesn’t immediately sound like it’s about class struggle, but it’s there in the background. We definitely need to keep these stories alive – it’s an important part of British history and these stories seem to be dying out now, although we do get the odd film like Pride in 2014. I would highly recommend all of the stories I mentioned in this post and will definitely be rereading The Wrong Boy this year since it’s been far too long!