I grew up in a southern seaside town. No dad on the scene. No money, but the beach at the end of the road. When I was a kid I knew I wanted to be a writer, but writers didn’t come from where I came from. Then I read a book by SE Hinton called The Outsiders (1967).
Ponyboy Curtis, the narrator, is a sensitive kid who lives with his brothers Darry and Sodapop on the wrong side of the tracks. The boys’ parents died in a car crash. Darry is the leader of the Greasers, a gang of poor kids at war with the Socs, or rich kids. The Outsiders showed me I could write about my world, which seemed to be full of warring teenage tribes – punks, skinheads, teds, rockabillies, bikers. And sunsets too, as Ponyboy says.
In my early 20s, angry and lost, I was living in a squat in Bonnington Square, Vauxhall, south London. My nights were spent in the Royal Oak, a dark, narrow boozer run by a pie-faced man from Skibbereen. Around the corner, Vauxhall Park was full of the drinkers who couldn’t even get into the Oak. It was around then I read John Healy’s memoir The Grass Arena (1988). Healy came from the world of dossing and endless drinking and violence and prison. After he allegedly made threats against publishing staff, the book was withdrawn from sale and his work was suppressed for years. What’s forgotten in all this is how beautifully Healy writes and continues to write. Working-class artists are only ever allowed conditional access to the art world.
Joan Riley’s The Unbelonging (1985) was one of the first books about the experiences of black girls in the UK. The story of an 11-year-old girl from Jamaica, it makes the argument that all working-class or outsider art makes: find room on the shelves for all the unheard stories. Build new shelves.
The former taxi driver, airplane cleaner, carpenter and poet Mick Guffan may be a ghost or a pseudonym, or a fabrication. Either way, he is elusive. Inner London Buddha (2018) collects more than 100 poems about the construction industry, melancholia, unemployment, dodgy landlords, sex, love and drug use. You’ll laugh out loud and love the rough music the words make.
Like a lot of people, I’ve spent most of the past month watching football. If you can’t get your head around the violence and racism before and after the final, read or better still go and see a production of Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads by Roy Williams – a play about a group of south Londoners who meet in a pub to watch an England-Germany game.
Working-class literature is a house with many rooms. Some more brightly lit than others, depending on fashion. But the house itself never gets enough sun. It can be minimalist, expansive, realist, magical, angry, loving, straight, gay, trans, male, female, non-binary, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, mixed-race and on and on. It’s From the City, from the Plough (Alexander Baron) and These Bones Are Not My Child (Toni Cade Bambara), and Cloudstreet (Tim Winton). It’s whatever it wants to be, and it always knows what it is. As the US writer and critic Vivian Gornick wrote: “Before I knew that I was Jewish or a girl, I knew that I was a member of the working class.”
• Howard Cunnell’s The Painter’s Friend is published by Picador (£16.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.