On the back of the book jacket, after a plot summary and short biography of Jack Common, the writing dismally concludes ‘Kiddar’s Luck was first published in 1951 (and its sequel, The Ampersand, in 1954). After the commercial failure of his two novels, Jack Common lived in poverty for much of the rest of his life, and died in 1968’. Although I was left unfazed following my initial perusal of the book’s cover, after I finished the novel and had become attached to Willie Kiddar, as both quasi-fictional character and voice of Common, the force of this footnote hit me. Here was a book which had impressed me more so than many discovered in the Penguin Modern Classics section, whose author had a gift not only for representing reality and giving the working class a legitimate voice but doing so with intelligence and a linguistic ability rivalled by few. However, as we can see, the achievements of Common were largely ignored in his lifetime and are only really being discovered now through the work of Geordie scholars Keith Armstrong, Bill Williamson and a few others (including Robert Colls and Bill Lancaster who I mentioned in an earlier article). Due to the lack of attention that Common has received from the public, I hope that this article works to point others in the direction of Common, even merely to read descriptions of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the early 1900s (one favourite description focuses its energies on Saturday night at the Bigg market in the mid 1910s, an evening which evidently hasn’t changed since).
John William Common (Jack) was born on the 15th August 1903 in an upstairs flat at 44 Third Avenue, Heaton to John and Isabella Common. His father was an engine driver on the ‘Flying Scotsman’ based at Heaton Junction, the locomotive sheds which their flat overlooked, while his mother had worked in a jewellery shop but subsequently spent much of her time as a housewife. Common writes that his father respected his mother ‘but could never come under her command. He stood over her like a northern barbarian [his father was six foot four], too huge for her reprimand’. It seems their relationship was doomed from the start: ‘True, my parents made a handsome couple but, though they did not know this then were totally unsuited to one another. They were brought into each other’s orbit purely by chance’. It was this chance, or luck, that delivered young Common into a working-class suburb in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Musing on his misfortune when describing his conception, Common writes ‘There were plenty of golden opportunities going that night’. Unfortunately he missed out on ‘lush Sussex, the Surrey soft spots, affluent Mayfair and gold-filled Golder’s Green, fat Norfolk rectories, the Dukeries, and many a solid Yorkshire village’ and had to settle for Heaton. While the novel functions as a ‘thinly veiled self-portrait’ of Common’s childhood ranging from the year of his conception to leaving school during the First World War, it may prove useful to note some of the interesting details of his life which fall past the book’s scope.
After attending Chillingham Road Council School, Common left for college and subsequently got a job in a solicitor’s office. With the intention of cultivating his political convictions and escaping unemployment in the North East, Common was forced to leave his beloved Newcastle and move to London in search of a better life. After impressing the editors of the socialist journal The Adelphi, Common began writing numerous essays for this organ of a political and social nature. It was at The Adelphi where he met George Orwell and a close friendship emerged from their working relationship. Orwell later praised Common’s essay collection ‘The Freedom of the Streets’ describing him as ‘the authentic voice of the ordinary working man, the man who might infuse a new decency into the control of affairs if only he could get there, but who never seems to get much further than the trenches, the sweatshop and the jail’. While it seems as though Orwell and Common were strongly connected, Armstrong argues that although ‘their intellectual relationship was based on shared left-wing affinities’ it was ‘marred slightly from the start by an almost instinctive class suspicion between Common, a railway man’s son, and Orwell, an Old Etonian’. After The Adelphi failed, Common sought work in the film industry, writing scripts and editing government documentary films before moving to finish his two autobiographical novels in the early 1950s. The impoverished Common died in 1968 in Newport Pagnell leaving his third autobiographical novel unfinished.
The Strong Words project (1979), which ‘attempted to express working class people’s living experience in the North East of England’, argued that ‘So much is written about working class people (in the press, on TV, in academic books and journals) but very little is written by them’. We can see that Common followed a long history of working class writers through his aim ‘give voice to the dumbness of the silent minority’, to write from inside rather than outside. Sources indicate that Common saw himself as the voice of the working man, the voice of a class which has no voice other than in the public house. He is noted to have been loud and prone to uproar in the pub like the best of us, but his writing additionally demonstrates his composure and judgement outside of it. Due to his desire to be a voice of the working man, we can see that Common arrived at the juncture in which many ambitious Geordies still come to. The bond between him and his beloved city had to be broken in order to arrive at the land of opportunity. It was imperative that he swapped the banks of the Tyne for those of the Thames in order for his dreams of intellectual development to come closer to reality. As the facts demonstrate, London failed to bestow Common with the material riches many dream of on migration to the capital. However, on the strength of Kiddar’s Luck, The Ampersand and the many essays and articles written for London intellectual journals, it is safe to assume that the move was a success for the young Geordie.
Throughout Kiddar’s Luck Willie Kiddar is our narrator, the bookish rebel whose descriptions of Tyneside in the early 1900s brim with life and humour despite the endless impoverishment and lack of opportunity available to such a boy. While readers may first question how a young lad is managing to describe his conception and early years with such droll humour and impressive vocabulary, it soon becomes apparent that this is the adult Willie (or Common) looking back at his youth from an educated and socialist perspective. Common not only describes his intellectual development and precocious talents in English composition and essay writing which are largely ignored by his school, but moves to show how working-class boys lived in the early 1900s. Although violence and poverty were never a distant prospect, it appears that Common and his friends enjoyed endless fun, games and freedom until this amusement was cut short at the early age of fourteen by the demands of work and the failures of the education system.
Throughout his formative years Willie and his friends engage in a great amount of shoplifting, conceive of schemes to get one up on the butcher, take part in war games involving large areas of Heaton and Chillingham Road and decide to endure an eighteen mile round trip to see Tynemouth and Whitley Bay amongst other riotous moments. The boys play at being Indians, Norseman and international crooks in parts and filmmakers who set up ‘a poorboys Hollywood of doorstop Disneys’ after acquiring a magic lantern in others, always returning to see their Ma’s and Da’s in the evenings as if nothing ever happened. One memorable moment involves Willie’s first brush with romance. As his teacher is too faint hearted to strike his students, a new plan is devised with the aim of humiliating the boys after wrongdoings. Due to his misdemeanours Willie finds himself moved next door to be taught with the girls. However, it turns out that this is not the punishment his teacher had orchestrated. Sitting next to the exotic Yvonne Daubigny, Willie finds himself a love interest. Things seem to be move swimmingly but there is a catch. Yvonne’s younger sister Vera follows the couple everywhere, constantly questioning and trying to work out what the pair are up to. Here’s a passage from the book: ‘Because Vera was around, for instance, I had to make my appointments, offer or ask for endearments, only by spelling everything out, thus bamboozling the young. I had to ask for a K.I.S.S. in the P.A.S.S.A.G.E. because it wasn’t safe to say just that. But then the smart little Vera learnt what these letters stood. We had to invent codes, so that for a while P.E.N. meant ‘kiss’ and D.O.O.R.M.A.T. stood for ‘passage’ and then we had to change again.’
Amongst all the fun that these boys are having, Common often inserts reflective moments commenting on the strangeness of the working-class culture he grew up in. From a modern perspective, sixty years after Common’s novel, these moments feel even more peculiar. At one point in the novel, the predominance of strikes in the lives of Tyneside workers is reflected in their children’s behaviour. After deciding that they had received too much homework, Willie declares, ‘We’d call a strike. Strikes, by the way, were not unknown at our kind of school, we being our fathers’ sons and having natural strike-sympathizers in them’. Here’s Willie on the boys becoming men at fourteen – a childhood cut short: ‘Our little world of the street was seething with inner turmoil because of the pull there was on so many of us to put away childish things and go and be little men together in the greater world of Work. Anyone who still had some toys left raffled them off. Certain celebrated collections of Magnets and Gems, of cigarette cards, marbles, were hurriedly disbanded.’
The city of Newcastle is ever present in the background. While Heaton and Chillingham Road form the backdrop to the majority of the book, Common moves to describe 19th Jesmond Dene, Paddy Freemans, Ouseburn Valley, Longbenton, Benton and Byker. On the city itself: ‘Its natural features are excellent, that’s why, since it is all hills, vales, bridges and one view succeeds another every hundred paces in a manner which fascinates anyone with an eye for composition in a landscape’. Before perusing the Flower Market, Green Market, Bird Market and Fish Market, Willie moves into the jostle of the Bigg Market on a Saturday night: ‘It was a working-class crowd in every street, largely cheerful because, being Saturday, they had a bob or two to chuck away; and easy with one another because they had all got that bob or two the same hard way, or similar, were none of them any better than they should be, because they all spoke the same dialect, and because this was “canny Newcassel”’.
If the Bigg Market on a Saturday night is left largely unchanged since the early 20th century, the Geordie dialect is also. A great deal of dialogue in the book is written in Geordie, although those lines which may prove incomprehensible to the non-Geordie are usually explained in some shape or form after or before its place in print by our trusty narrator. Here’s Willie’s Uncle Bill’s view of the First World War: ‘Thor’s ne help for it, we’ll hae t’last it oot’. And here’s Willie’s translation: ‘gentle Uncle Bill knew no rights or wrongs in it, he had the countryman’s view, that it was a super-thunderstorm or tremendously bad weather’.
There is much more to Kiddar’s Luck than I have had time to elucidate here. It is therefore to the merit of the extent of the book that its audience will find much to discover in it. Readers will undoubtedly enjoy reading about Common’s relationships with his family, to discover detail about his alcoholic mother and violent father (which I am yet to touch upon) or to read how a large percentage of Heaton women were addicted to pawning their belongings (Mrs. McGrewin had ‘reduced her household to a bareness which even Thoreau himself had never contemplated’) to name merely two examples. With interest in the forgotten Geordie writer slowly increasing, it is now time to grab a copy of the book and relish in what has been called the ‘seminal text of Geordie culture’.