“Good children don’t write about dog racing,” my primary school teacher told me sternly. She’d just read an account of life at Easington Greyhound Stadium, where my family and I went flapping (unlicensed greyhound racing) three nights a week in the hope of winning some much-needed money. It was written in my neatest handwriting, with lots of adjectives to describe the people and detailed drawings of the dogs, but she handed it back to me as though it were something filthy. “Next time, write something else.”
I’d love to say that I came back with a thrilling tale of a thousand-pound gamble on a certainty of a dog, but the stakes were too high for me to risk it. I was eight years old, receiving Free School Meals, and already plagued with nightmares about signing on the dole, like so many people I knew. With no family contacts and no cushion of money, education was my only route to a job. I couldn’t afford to upset my teacher, so I obeyed her: I wrote about trips abroad and rides in new cars, things which were comfortable facts of life for her, as fantastical as fairy tales to me.
But she wasn’t finished yet. One day she sent me to judge a race between two boys. When I told her that one had won by ‘a length’, she snapped, “Proper people don’t talk like they’re at the dogs”, and told the other boy that he’d come first. If writing about greyhounds meant I wasn’t decent, then talking about them made me untrustworthy, and I thought that a bad, untrustworthy person would never get a job.
So I kept my pen still and my mouth shut about the greyhounds. When my teachers marvelled at how quickly I picked up French or German, I didn’t dare tell them that was because I was already fluent in the language of flapping. My Classics teacher admired the way I spoke about heroes of old, but I never let slip that Easington had a mythology all of its own.
The reward for my silence was three degrees, four jobs, and one huge feeling that I’d lost part of my identity forever. So when I saw the competition call-out for contributions to Common People, an anthology of working-class writing, I didn’t just see it as a chance to grow as a writer, but as a person too. As I wrote my memoir ‘This Place is Going to the Dogs’, I found my voice and regained the pride that I had lost at eight years old.
Writing that memoir took a weight off my shoulders and opened the creative floodgates. Within months, I’d written Fit for Work, a play about the benefits system that debuted in the West End, and I’m currently working on a novel about flapping under the mentorship of the brilliant Carmen Marcus. I know now that there is nothing wrong with writing or talking about going to the dogs, but without the Common People anthology, I might well have thought that I had to keep quiet about the dog racing that gave me the keen eye for detail, the sharp ear for dialogue, and the interest in character that is so important to writing.
Louise Powell is one of 33 writers behind the Common People anthology and her play Fit for Work will be performed in Durham on Tuesday 18 June (tickets here).We’ll be celebrating the publication of Common People at Waterstones Newcastle on Friday 17 May – join us and buy your ticket here.