I was delivering post in a quiet estate in Houghton when I got the email. My piece had been accepted for the Common People anthology. I celebrated in the street—anyone watching must’ve thought my horse had won. When my van buddy got back I told her what had happened, that I needed to sit down for a fag and take it in. She opened the back of the van. ‘Well I’m gonna have a tidy up in here, ‘cause I can’t stand a mess.’ As I listened to the bags being chucked about, it felt like my life was changing, as if after eight years of knocking on doors, I’d finally been let in for a cup of tea.
I know some folk will read this and think, Eight years to get a piece accepted, you must be thick. But they’re wrong. It’s a dirty secret that I endured a brief spell at a private boarding school after winning a scholarship. I didn’t know much about class back then, just that I didn’t sound like all the posh folk there, and didn’t want to either.
Others might think, If you were any good, you’d have got somewhere by now. Maybe. Maybe if I’d had guidance earlier on, if my family knew a writer, or if I’d been to London for a writing course, then maybe I’d have got there sooner. But that’s the difference. The working class face extra hurdles. Every writer needs dedication, talent and a bit of luck to get anywhere—it’s competitive, and no one should complain that it’s hard. But the playing field needs levelled out, and I think this will only happen when those in the industry, in senior positions, reflect the diversity of our society.
Since being accepted into Common People my life has changed. In the past it felt like I couldn’t get anyone to read my work. No one wanted to know—but now folk are taking an interest. It wasn’t, as I suspected in times of self-doubt, that I was deluded all along.
The experience is priming me in ways that others might take for granted: I’ve been down to London and met industry professionals, and influential writers like Tony Walsh and Kit de Waal. I’ve been supported by New Writing North, and awarded a mentorship with Doug Johnstone to guide me through my debut book, a continuation of my Common People piece. Most importantly, I’ve met fellow writers, both established and emerging, who I can relate to. As a working class writer, I finally feel a sense of belonging, and that I have a voice that matters.
Shaun Wilson is one of 33 writers behind the Common People anthology. We’ll be celebrating the publication of Common People at Waterstones Newcastle on Friday 17 May – join us and buy your ticket here.