When social mobility meant something

Stan Barstow, author of A Kind of Loving, captured the inner world of working-class people who left the mines behind.

Neil Davenport

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Encouraging social mobility has become a watchword of the political class for the past 15 years or so. Whether it is bribing working-class teens to stay on at school or making internships ‘open to all’, everybody wants to help ‘the poor’ to help themselves. The death this week of English novelist Stan Barstow is perhaps a reminder of when and why social mobility had real meaning in British society.

Barstow, who died aged 83, belonged to a pioneering set of working-class writers who chronicled new opportunities available to working-class youth in the late 1950s. Alongside his peers Alan Sillitoe, John Braine and Keith Waterhouse, Barstow was successful enough to avoid factory sweat and toil in the process as well. It led arch conservative Evelyn Waugh to complain about ‘these grim young people coming off the assembly lines in their hundreds every year and finding employment as critics, even as poets and novelists’ (1). It seems social mobility wasn’t always encouraged by the well-to-do after all.

Barstow was born in Horbury, a railway town on the outskirts of Wakefield in West Yorkshire. His father was a coalminer and the household was barely literate – not exactly the most promising background for an aspiring writer. Nevertheless, Barstow had already managed a modicum of social mobility through attending grammar school and becoming a draughtsman in a nearby engineering firm. As a result, he quickly experienced a tension and resentment between his new-found middle-class occupation and his working-class background – a tension brilliantly explored in his most famous novel, A Kind of Loving.

Set in West Yorkshire in the late 1950s, A Kind of Loving follows the ‘shotgun wedding’ and marriage between draughtsman Vic Brown and company typist Ingrid Rothwell. At the time, its frank depiction of sex and marriage among the northern working class made it a literary breakthrough. It was also subtle and complex enough to stand out within the slightly over-crowded ‘kitchen sink’ genre. Whereas Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night, Sunday Morning crackled with an incoherent rage against the post-war consensus, and Joe Lampton in Room at the Top rails against white collar ‘zombies’, Vic Brown appears pragmatically happy with what postwar Britain has to offer.

Underneath it all, though, Brown wrestles with his conscience: between wanting to uphold traditional values (getting married) and new-found sexual freedom (extra-marital affairs); between loyalty to working-class communal mores and the desire to broaden his horizons. Brown’s contradictory feelings for Ingrid – one minute infatuated, the next minute infuriated – reflect the pull of these new and alien social influences. In an earlier period, marrying such a gorgeous girl as Ingrid and having kids would be as good as it gets in West Yorkshire.

Barstow’s skill as a writer was to shed light on the confused inner world of the ambitious working classes of the period and, in the process, highlight broader social changes. In particular, the tortuous contradictions of class identity that Brown experienced anticipate such preoccupations for the ‘affluent worker’ that became sociologically documented in the early 1970s. A Kind of Loving was also fortuitous in recognising how despised the aspirational working-classes would eventually become. Not only is Vic Brown an effete draftsman, but he is also passionate and knowledgeable about classical music and literature. For his dreadful mother-in-law, Mrs Rothwell, this is a transparent ‘affectation’ and ‘our Ingrid’ doesn’t need to put on such ‘airs and graces’. She scornfully says the ‘airs and graces’ phrase so often that Vic wearily ends up repeating it for her. Far from Vic ‘not being good enough’ for Ingrid, these pretensions and ambitions mark him out as being ‘unworthy’. Fifty years on from Mrs Rothwell’s ethos of ‘know-your-place’, disdain for working-class aspiration has a surprising degree of cultural and political resonance today.

Barstow eloquently explored these themes with equal conviction in Watchers on the Shore (1966) and, a decade later, The Right True End. All three novels were adapted for a Granada TV series in 1982 starring Clive Wood and 17-year-old debutant Joanne Whalley. A trilogy set in the 1940s, Just You Wait and See (1986), Give Us This Day (1989) and Next of Kin (1991), appeared without generating much literary interest, but Barstow’s name was still instantly recognisable.

Barstow came of age long before Sure Start, education maintenance allowance (EMA) or patronising sermons from the political class on facilitating social mobility. Going to university wasn’t presented then as a life-or-career-death ‘option’ in the way it is now. What you did have, though, was a broad acceptance of the value of learning and high culture, reflected in the autodidacticism that influenced Barstow and his novels. Today, no amount of official ‘aim higher’ initiatives can compensate for the demise of such social and individual aspiration. You only have to re-read A Kind of Loving to understand that.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics teacher based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

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