Author Tony White introduces a series of new works by Brunel creative writing students inspired by the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies. We’ll be posting a story or poem per week for the next 8 weeks.
This spring I’ve once again been a visiting lecturer at Brunel University London, where I’ve been privileged to teach two groups of postgraduate students from Brunel’s Creative Writing masters courses on an MA module called ‘Writers at Work’ that explores creative writing projects in education and in the community, giving postgraduates the skills and tools needed to design, run and evaluate writing workshops and other activities, including residencies and live literature events. Part of the module has involved the students undertaking archival research in the Special Collections section of Brunel Library.
Brunel Library’s Special Collections is located on Level 3 of the library, and is home to a varied range of collections, used by students and visiting researchers, and to support teaching. The collections cover a wide range of subject areas, including transport history, the Channel Tunnel, poetry and dialect, equality and advocacy. You can read descriptions of them on the Collections page.
For ‘Writers at Work’, the creative writing postgraduates focused on the Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiographies, which contains more than 230 memoirs of working class life, some dating back to the late 18th century.
The Burnett Archive is a fascinating resource, and the texts are rich in day-to-day detail of family lives and relationships, politics and work, expressive language and dialects, and the realities of poverty and working class life in the UK during the 19th and 20th centuries. These memoirs make for fascinating reading. There are stories of orphanage and school life, migration, of running away to the circus or to sea, of town and country, and of forgotten customs and folklore. There are wounding encounters with two world wars and a merciless class system, as well as truly heartbreaking stories of extreme poverty, homelessness and domestic violence.
Dr Nick Hubble of Brunel’s English Department – and author of the recent The Proletarian Answer to the Modernist Question (Edinburgh University Press, 2017) – has been undertaking British Academy-funded research on the Burnett Archive, exploring the relationship between working-class autobiography, proletarian autobiografiction and social change. For Hubble the Burnett Archive is:
a window on to the relationship between self and the world as understood by ordinary people in often extraordinary times, which sheds light on how structures of feeling evolve and new socio-cultural values emerge.
For me, it has been really heartening to see a new generation of emerging writers responding to, and gaining confidence from these rare documents from the past: voices that but for the work in the early 1970s of John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall, might otherwise have been lost. Working with the Burnett Archive gives the creative writing students a working introduction to archival research, learning transferable skills and protocols that they may take up in their own professional lives as writers, but it is primarily an invaluable reminder that working class and other marginalised voices are often excluded from literature and mainstream culture; and an opportunity to address and counter such exclusions.
Brunel creative writing postgraduates have used the historical texts as the inspiration for new pieces of writing, which in turn may create new kinds of insights and focus into the worlds held within the Burnett Archive, as well as finding new ways to relate these historical accounts to contemporary life. For the next 8 weeks, as part of the ‘Writers at Work’ module, we’ll be sharing a selection of these new works here on the Special Collections blog: stories, autobiographical accounts, and poetry by Brunel postgraduates Caren Duhig, Kathryn Gynn, Marie-Teresa Hanna, Katie Higgins, Ella Jukwey, Josa Keyes, Iris Mauricio, Alisha Mor, and Anna Tan.
- Find out more about the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies
- Look out next week for the first story on the blog!
Tony White’s latest novel The Fountain in the Forest is published by Faber and Faber. He is the author of five previous novels including Foxy-T and Shackleton’s Man Goes South, several novellas and numerous short stories. White has been creative entrepreneur in residence in the French department at King’s College London, and writer in residence at London’s Science Museum and at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies. White has worked in the national office of Arts Council England, and in 1994 he founded the artists’ book series Piece of Paper Press. From 2010–2018 Tony White chaired the board of London’s award-winning arts radio station Resonance 104.4fm.