My working-class dad became a writer by accident because he wanted to speak to his “own people”

He saw people like the ones he knew – market traders, small-town people – on the stage, and said to himself, “I’m going to do that.”

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My dad, the playwright Jim Nolan, tells a story that makes me laugh every time I hear it. It was 1992 and his play Moonshine was opening in Ireland’s national theatre, the Abbey in Dublin. The usual guests of an Abbey opening were there: other writers, dignitaries, arts professionals, critics. When I began attending his openings as an adult, there always seemed to be a beautiful, tall woman floating past me in a velvet cape and expensive jewellery.

But colliding with the usual crowd was a coach full of pissed-up friends and family from our home town, Waterford. As he tells it, they’d started on the cans at the beginning of the three-hour drive and hopped into a pub on the way to the theatre, so by the time the curtain came up they were well and truly steaming. Afterwards, the theatre critic of an Irish newspaper was identified to one of them and he wandered over and said something like, “Wasn’t that great now? You’ll have to give that a good review.” He was met by appalled silence.

It makes me happy, this story, because I love the idea of a rowdy bus of supporters descending on that grandeur as though it were a football match, and because I can so imagine the dour appraisal of their arrival by the Abbey’s usual attendees. There is a particular self-seriousness among the gatekeepers of the cultural classes. I know from my own work in the arts that ordinary people from Waterford would find such attitudes hilarious and irresistible to rub up against, because I’ve found it so too. I imagine the conflicting emotions of my poor old dad, surely sweating and writhing, but just as surely loving their exuberant intrusion, for in a way it was just such an intrusion he’d been working towards during his whole career in community theatre.

He had come to theatre accidentally, wandering around Dublin one night in 1976 looking for something to do and happening upon the Patrick Galvin play The Devil’s Own People in the Gaiety Theatre. He saw people like the ones he knew – market traders, small-town people – on the stage, and said to himself, “I’m going to do that.” Back home in Waterford, he put on plays in pubs, on the streets and in snooker halls. “We were going where they were already,” he says. His own father saw his first play in his life in Garvey’s Pub, up the road from John’s Park, the estate the family lived on.

The writer Alan Sillitoe once said of his failure to secure a scholarship to a public school, “I didn’t know it yet, but I wanted to go in by the ceiling, not enter by the cellar.” He did not wish to assimilate in order to enter the middle classes, he wanted to descend on them. He wanted to create work so good that it would be unignorable, work about ordinary working lives. I think that night my dad arrived to the Abbey by ceiling.

A new biography of Shelagh Delaney, the playwright who shot to fame at 19 with her groundbreaking 1958 play, A Taste of Honey, is just about to be published, written by Selina Todd and titled Tastes of Honey. It’s a clever, hopeful and cheering book, but shocking and sobering on how working people have forcibly become divorced from the arts. The tone of her critics was unashamedly spiteful, while the New Statesman’s TC Worsley suggested that a fad for working-class voices – not genuine talent – was the reason for Delaney’s success. The playwright Arnold Wesker said in response, “Delaney, [Brendan] Behan, myself and others have written out of our own experience. Here we are, having just started, most of us with only one play performed… and now some ‘fashion-conscious’ young smoothie comes along and declares with a bored yawn that ‘We’ve really had enough darling!’”

Poor people were often depicted in plays – by writers who did not know any poor people – as mawkish and sentimental, or stupid and funny, or all those things at once. When Delaney and others began reclaiming their territory, with nuanced, realistic characters, they were accused of failing to capture the working-class experience. Of course, nobody ever demanded that Terrence Rattigan capture the middle-class experience. The characters and their writers were denied the individuality extended to their middle-class peers. This is because working-class people aren’t considered fully human in our society, ridden as it is with violent class hatred. I will never forget coming across columnist Simon Jenkins’s comments in the Times about the Scottish writer James Kelman when he won the Booker Prize in 1994. This was an act of “literary vandalism”, Jenkins wrote, and Kelman was an “illiterate savage”.

Working-class people are considered too busy scrapping over the base necessities of life to have the time, imagination or desire to engage with art. They aren’t people so much as problems to be solved, which may explain why much of the art about them tends to be issue-driven: knives on an estate, drugs in the playground, teenage mums. They are merely a set of social mutations to be addressed, not the ordinary people who make up most of the population.

During the Blair government, the Arts Council began urging grant applicants to outline the “social outcomes” of their work, which can’t have helped this tendency, and is a horribly mechanical way to consider art in any case. Art is not medicine. My dad says, of his time putting on Pinter in the pool halls and pubs: “We weren’t doing it because it’s good for you, but because we wanted it to be as accessible as a game of snooker. I want to speak directly to my own people.”

What my dad did – and still does – by putting his own people on the stage is the simple act of directing attention and care towards a class who aren’t often thought worthy of it. He makes the person watching feel like a person and believe that they lead a life worth thinking about. And every time the curtain goes up, so does the chance that another young kid will see it and say, “Fuck it, I’m going to write my own.” 

Megan Nolan is a writer of essays, criticism and fiction born in Ireland and based in London. She writes a fortnightly column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 21 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The great university con