Q&A with Matt Travers author of Songs of the English Working Class/The Making of Experience
Songs of the English Working Class/The Making of Experience is a book of collages made by Matt Travers. Matt Travers uses excerpts from his late mother’s diaries and places them in and amongst William Blake’s illustrations from Songs of Innocence and Experience. You can find the collages here. Below is a Q&A with Matt Travers where he tells us more about the collection and to help the rest of you understand why we think it's lovely.
1) Can you tell us about yourself?
I work as a high-school teacher in Denmark, and after living here for eleven years I’ve just about got my head around the language and have started doing a bit of translation on the side. Together with my girlfriend, we’ve published translations of Yahya Hassan, Caspar Eric, Inger Christensen and Rudolf Broby Johansen: the first two being contemporary Danish radical poets, the last two being part of the Danish literary canon as well as card-carrying communists their whole lives. Like my mum, I have also made a point of writing every day, even if it is just my diary. My mother worked in a textile mill before becoming a home help, and my dad was on the tractor production line at David Brown’s, which later became CASE—before moving its main factories out of the UK for good. Neither of them went to school beyond fifteen. Both of them read fairly widely for pleasure and had rich inner lives. Basically, I come from the northern working class, even though I left Huddersfield at three, even though Tony Blair’s widening of university access meant I could borrow my way into a degree, which has since enabled me to enjoy this comparatively plush middle-class white-collar work in Denmark.
There's a point early on in Susan Sontag's diaries where she justifies reading her lover's diary by claiming, 'one of the main (social) functions of a journal or diary is precisely to be read furtively by other people, the people (like parents + lovers) about whom one has been cruelly honest only in the journal'. for me there’s always been elements of exhibitionism and betrayal and shame in my writing. All part of the fun. I wouldn’t want to write this off as some kind of working-class imposter syndrome. I think the power of writing comes from articulating what can’t be said otherwise, by anyone else.
2) Can you tell us about your mother and your relationship with her?
The story of how I obtained my mum’s diaries might answer this. When I was a baby, my mum had something like what we’d now medicalise as post-natal depression and she wasn’t a fan of my dad being at work in a factory for ten, twelve, hours a day. So one evening, holding me in her arms, in a moment of anger she cried out, ‘Well, you bloody take him then!’ which my dad promptly did, and kept me at his older sister’s for six weeks. My mum tried to get the police involved to get me back, but at that time they couldn’t do anything until the case had gone to court. My mum was truly distraught and went down to five stone in weight, and then one day managed to sneak into my aunt’s and steal me back while the baby-sitter wasn’t paying attention.
My dad gave me these diaries about six years back, when his health wasn’t at its best, and for that I am seriously grateful. He’d kept hold of them for over thirty years after having originally taken them to use as evidence in the custody case for me against my mum. Whether they were actually read in court I don’t know. I can only imagine they spoke in her favour. At any rate, she was granted full custody rights over me, but allowed my dad to have access in the school holidays anyway, which she didn’t have to do. I didn’t know these diaries existed until my dad gave them to me, so reading them so many years after she died was probably the closest I’ve ever come to a spiritual experience.
3) Can you tell us about why you put together this book of work, and where it came from?
The Songs of the English Working Class/The Making of Experience came from an experiment with collage. I’d been trying to set myself two hours a day on top of my full-time teaching to work on creative writing, and I was having a phase of working with blackout and cento poems, where basically you either eliminate text from an existing page to make your own point with someone else’s words (blackout), or you just cut up and rearrange found phrases to your own liking (cento). What’s good about this sort of poetry for me is that it seems to free you from the pressure of having to come up with your own perfect phrases, and the strange resulting layout on the page allows you to not take yourself too seriously. I had brought my mother’s diary to my school that day, it was the diary, where I first make an appearance, and I had also taken my copy of E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, the classic Pelican paperback edition which has this illustration of a marvellously elegant Yorkshire collier from the early 1800s with a walking stick and pipe, who holds a wicker basket on his forearm like a handbag. (1) Aside from writing this seminal historical work on English class, E. P. Thompson was also a massive William Blake fan, and his last work was a historical biography of Blake in the context of English Methodist’s radical tradition. At some subconscious level it must have struck me that both of these canonical English writers were trying to reveal something which my mother’s diaries could do unforced in the few minutes or so she set aside to write each day. Where Thompson wanted to synthesise and articulate the resistant working-class voices from the very beginning of industrial capitalism in Yorkshire, Blake, in Songs of Innocence and Experience, projects a sort of beatific innocence onto the lowliest, who were willing to put up with their lot. (2) More simply, where Thompson’s history focuses on the defiant nobility of the working classes, you could be forgiven for thinking Blake makes the poorest of the poor martyrs for good. Both of them were trying to counteract working-class stereotypes of their day—of being historically passive, or morally repugnant—but how well did either of them really know my working class mother? Someone who was neither innocent nor obviously rebellious to historical circumstance, but who managed to carve out a life with its fair share of joys and modest successes anyway? After deciding on which diary entries I wanted to use and which Blake plates (that is, these illustrated engravings on which his poems are first etched) might pair up with them, a couple of hours with glue, scissors and the photocopier did the rest.
4) What was the significance of collaging it with William Blake’s illustrations? Where are they from? What is the significance of these illustrations for you?
In a silly way, I wanted to out-Blake Blake. One interpretation of his Songs of Innocence and Experience collection is that he does a kind of punk move on the literary tradition, consciously taking on nursery rhymes and the fable form in order to show how popular culture might contain a profound affirmative revolutionary animus or sort of messianic power. Blake was also the first poet I learned by heart, mainly because there are some short ones, and my interest was no doubt influenced by my mother’s love of the film, Educating Rita, which has a memorable scene where Julia Walters, playing a working-class Open University student, unpleasantly surprises her professor by being able to recite Blake’s ‘The Sick Rose’ from memory. (3) Yet there’s also a kind of inevitable faint melancholic distance between Blake’s attempts to evoke the life of the poor and uneducated with the skills and talents of someone who is highly skilled, well-read, and fairly well-connected to the London artworld of his time. On the surface, at least, Blake seems to unapologetically romanticise them. Worse, they are burdened with the weight of being supernaturally virtuous. What would the chimney sweeper really say? Or the little Black boy? Or the nurse? How would they articulate their experience directly? It is curious to imagine what might have happened if Blake had access to a tape recorder. Perhaps my mum’s diary writing, which completely fills out the small format of the pages and relies on her own idea of what counts as standard punctuation and spelling, was the perfect style to capture her actual life. As if her short sentences beginning with a verb in past tense and ending on the object (‘Done washing.’ .‘Hoovered stairs.’ ‘Got paid.’ ‘Bought sandals.’) best conveyed the challenge of the continual housework and economising involved in raising three small children on little money and what must be a sense of pride in managing to keep afloat. Then, as with the euphoric edge in Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence’, there are these especially poignant moments which break through her constricted style where she takes the time to describe a moment of delight in her children or recount what had amused or disturbed her that day. So that’s the reason why I crudely plastered in her days—cut out into strange stanza forms—with their distinctive handwriting, across the copperplate verses of Blake, still leaving ‘a lip’ of his poem visible so that they can’t be ignored; but not so expertly done that I could be accused of ventriloquising her voice (at least not as much as has been said of Thompson’s fierce workers) (4) To cover the poetry of Blake with my mum’s diary is to suggest that her experience of working-class life is at least as valid as his, but it should also evoke a sense of loss. We miss the fiery vividness of Blake’s imagery, but it’s a poetry that can only be produced in circumstances unlike my mother’s. As the child of working-class parents, parents who were not moral paragons in any conventional sense, I wanted to be able to say something about their lives in a way which didn’t filter it through my years of university education or my knowledge of the English literary canon.
5) Why did you decide to send it to Lumpen?
I learned about Lumpen a year or so back after signing up for the addictive rat-trap that is Twitter, and then discovered The Class Work Project and read D Hunter’s penetrating investigations into the realities of class-consciousness. As well as being a fantastic storyteller, it was clear to me that he had really lived in these criminalised milieus, which I was on the periphery of in my late teens, the details of which I don’t have the same courage to expose. And I liked the way he was able to articulate the voice of those who might get spoken for by the ‘betters’ on the left or right and do so in a way that wasn’t sentimental. Instead, I felt he really got how those on the margins of society can be best equipped to see through the hypocrisy of some of the holier-than-thou ‘correct position‘ activist movements often run by middle-class people with PhDs, and good intentions. Because these working-class people on the outside of academia have no ‘return ticket’ when the politics get boring, they often have a better understanding of the need for more urgent, wider social change.
I think that everyone, whatever their class background, is creative, but I think it is naïve or disingenuous to imagine that there are no educational barriers to appreciating William Blake’s poetry or to reading E. P. Thompson’s The Making of The English Working Classes all the way through. These are barriers that can be overcome—through projects such as Lumpen, and platforms and organisations that give space to deconstructing blocks that people may have to writing and literature. But I think there is a risk that we are currently living in a political climate where working-class access to higher education is in decline. This should be shocking, but instead it seems to be accepted as inevitable, and in its place the radical left has a faint hope that the educational deficit can be made up for by worker’s initiatives or small-scale charitable projects. I am all for these consciousness-raising groups, especially Lumpen obviously, and I learned at least as much about political theory from being a long-term attendee of Debra Benita Shaw’s ‘Radical Theory Group’ in London (5) as I did in my master’s degree in critical theory, but the idea that you can replace the latter with the former for me gives up too much to those in power. Why give up the means of large-scale intellectual reproduction that is a modern university factory for the equivalent of a workshop?
6) Do you think you’ll do more of this type of work or was it specifically relevant to this particular moment?
In terms of collage work then yes, definitely; it is the art of people who can’t write or draw but keep going anyway. I probably won’t do anything so direct with my mum’s diaries because Songs of the English Working Classes/The Making of Experience is one of the few things I’ve put together which I feel pleased with, and I am sure that has something to do with it being a fluke. If I tried it again, it’d lose some of its ritual/ceremonial qualities. But there is a ton of material in these diaries which interests me and I would like to work with in some other way. Some kind of history project perhaps. What I like most about them is the sheer intensity of life: constant work, out late every weekend, love and grief arriving at all times.
E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1963) is a landmark work of social history which meticulously researched legal and government archives in order to capture both the incredible hardship (e.g., the fact that men would do a twelve-hour labour shift on little more than a crust of bread) and the many, many instances of active working-class resistance to the new factory regime of early industrial capitalism. Working-class agency in this period was rarely given much scope in historical accounts before E. P Thompson’s study, which aims to shift focus on to what ‘makes’ the English working class. For Thompson, this ‘making’ is largely through acts of resistance to harsh working conditions. My Songs … emphasises social reproduction, literally, through the family, and the everyday heroics of making ends meet, and the happiness which comes from doing so.
William Blake’s The Songs of Innocence and Experience (1789-1794) is a sequence of illustrated engraved poems or ‘plates’ produced in the context of the French Revolution, and can be said to express support for that cause by showing how the poor are systematically oppressed and how nobility of soul is universal. My Songs … uses online facsimiles of the original plates in the following order: the title cover, ‘Little Black Boy (second plate)’, ‘The Lamb’, ‘The Ecchoing Green’, ‘The Chimney Sweeper’, ‘A Little Boy Lost’, ‘The Shepherd’, the frontispiece for the ‘Songs of Experience’ division, ‘Infant Sorrow’, and ‘Little Black Boy (first plate)’.