Thursday, September 30, 2010

Common Ground

Originally posted on 1st August 2009. Edited.

On my recent walk around the Lower Ouseburn Valley I came across what was to me a surprising, if welcome, endorsement of a major theme that lies behind this blog's 'reason to exist'. It comes from a good source – Jack Common. (See top right in photograph above.)

Jack Common (1903–1968) was born and spent his early life in Heaton, a district of Newcastle’s east end which neighbours the Lower Ouseburn. Common’s father worked at the large railway workshops at Chillingham Road. Common only slowly became a writer and found his subject in his own life and working class community, a more unusual creative approach at that time – 1930s – than perhaps would be thought today. He is nearly always described as ‘a working class writer’. There were few outlets for this kind of material then; but one magazine, The Adelphi run by John Middleton Murray (1889–1957) gave Common a start on the literary road. Through his work on The Adelphi, Common met and befriended a tall ex-colonial policeman and Old Etonian, Eric Blair, afterwards to become better known as ‘George Orwell’.

At first they did not hit it off. Common recalled their first meeting, having read Orwell’s essays about living as a tramp and so on and was evidently disappointed.

"Manners showed through. A sheep in wolf's clothing, I thought, taking in his height and stance, accent and cool built-in superiority, the public school presence".

Orwell, however, was genuinely taken with Common’s writing and said so. Jack Common was never a celebrated writer but is a 'name' to a certain generation and those familiar with Orwell. Perhaps his best remembered book is Kiddar's Luck. Kiddar is a Tyneside word for a young lad.

What caught my eye was a quote taken from a later book Common wrote about his own city, placed on one of the information panels put up around the Valley. This one stands right beside the Ouseburn as it emerges from the culvert on its way to the River Tyne. For me what Common wrote still resonates today –

"Deep in the fattest part of the united heads (of the City Fathers), they had a vision of a flat Newcastle, street after street and house after house in the continuous level adjacency which is the hallmark of the industrial metropolis.

They planned to start a rubbish-dump on the valley floor which in two or three centuries would grow to be a broad platform uniting East and Central Newcastle in one unbroken slum, Newcastle upon Dump".

Jack Common, from The Ampersand (1954).

Harsh words, but justified. I congratulate the brave soul who had them placed there. What would have Common made of the wave of ‘improvements’ about to be unleashed upon the city in the years closely following his death? Few British cities avoided the actions of ‘city fathers’ in those days and almost all have lived to regret them. Yet, as one thinks all too frequently, have any lessons been learned?

Jack Common

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