To live successfully is to have the art of controlling and selecting stimuli, and combining and translating them into the least wasteful thought and action. It is a knowledge only successful when it is mainly sub-conscious. The alert interference of the intellect is too clumsy and fatiguing to be very effective. That can be a brake on sub-conscious ignorance and a pointer to sub-conscious wisdom but hardly more. As such it should swing round to danger whenever we become too dependent on a particular sort of stimulation, or on one kind of expression. We become easily dependent on books. Our minds are inflamed to activity by someone else’s thought when it comes to us in a book, and yet remain comatose before the same material which moved the writer of it. When we feel mentally vigorous we read a book. After reading many books we are moved to write about them, and here begins another disastrous dependence.
It is good to think, and then to write; for the discipline of words dispels many vacuous thoughts and straightens the backs of others. But it is harmful to be able to think only with a pen in one’s hand, to find that one’s opinions do not crystallise until they are written down, and that the necessities of a final paragraph flog the thought into producing a conclusion. Between thought and written expression of it goes on a continual conflict. The need of language is to be flowing, progressive, and above all communicative, and to these ends it has habitual and invariable forms; the need of thought is only to get somewhere, to a solution or a conclusion, to enable a mind floundering in perplexity to arrive safely at some belief. Stages and order do not matter: it will plunge back forty years without apology to find a parallel instance, start off on quite a different track without transition, or leap a hurdle by an act of intuition and leave no record of the way it came. The two processes thus in conflict are mutually corrective the result is good. But if one thinks only as one is writing, thought while still in the malleable stage tends to take the shape of those forms and devices necessary to language. We get opinions paradoxical and antithetical, beliefs which are overflows of different sentimental reactions easily concreting in a colourful phrase, but in strict logic cancelling out. It is very good fun if the writer is highly-skilled, but far from being the real thing. Thought has become an ornament of expression.
When this fault is allied to another pernicious dependence, that of pose, we get the sort of thing Shaw, Mencken, and Chersterton turn out in their worst moments. Pose is an excellent device for making a man’s talents everywhere and consistently recognisable. It has the virtue of an advertising slogan, or of a Dickens character. But again it has the effect of leading a writer to forget his purpose as a seeker after truth in the more usual and amusing one of “being me.” Perhaps there would be no harm in being themselves on all these numerous occasions if they really were successful in the effort. Too often they merely live up to a first hasty sketch of themselves, a caricature which could not possibly re-ect with such automatic certainty to all the chances and changes of a full life were it not widely out of drawing, missing in its broad lines many of the true and most important lineaments of the real man who agilely continues to live within its confines.
The popularity of this sort of thing is due to our extraordinary appetite for knowledge which is personal and, therefore, predigested. We would rather a man even pretend to be himself, and give his knowledge some tincture of personality, than that he should become a tin mouthpiece for cold formulae. Axioms which do not instantly relate themselves to a living purpose had better not be made. When we write that “to live successfully is to have the art of controlling and selecting stimuli, and combining and translating them into the least wasteful thought and action,” we have served up the corpse of a truth to an anatomist’s dissecting-table. Who shall show us the living thought, the glowing thing men can live by? Life is impelled and irritated by dead material; it flows and communicates only in tissue which is alive.
The Adelphi, Vol 1. November, 1930.
Jack Common was born in 1903 in Heaton, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, close to the engine sheds where his railwayman father worked. Life as a boy of the streets was tough, with lots of fighting and petty crime, but there was also the influence of an eccentric uncle who stimulated his interest in literature and a benevolent teacher who encouraged his writing. His childhood is described in the two autobiographical novels he wrote in the Fifties – Kiddar’s Luck and The Ampersand. He writes of the freedom Kiddar experienced in the streets: ‘The street was my second home. Though for some time mainly passive among its activities I had the freedom of it by right and could come into its full heritage whenever I was able.’ … It was there that the boy acquired ‘The one faculty with which school infallibly endures its pupils, that of being bored. It is very important, of course, that every child should, in the course of time, become fitted with this negative capability. If they didn’t have it, they’d never put up with the jobs they are going to get, most of them, on leaving school. Boredom or the ability to endure it, is the hub on which the whole universe of work turns.’ And when it came to work, Kiddar wrote: ‘With reference to your advertisement in today’s North Mail, I beg to apply for the post. I am fourteen years of age, strong, healthy, bright, punctual, clean and willing. My parents are working-class, my environment is working-class, and with your kind assistance I feel qualified to become working-class myself.’ ”
He went to Skerry’s College in Newcastle where he learned some secretarial skills. Entering the labour market during the 1st World War, “because labour was scarce, I got into a law office and became confidential clerk to a drunken solicitor”. From there he was sacked (“as a scapegoat”), spent three years on the dole (“the idleness was invaluable”) which allowed him to develop his interests. The Royal Arcade, then the meeting place of Newcastle’s socialists, drew him, as did the People’s Theatre Group, which still retained some traces of the socialism which had inspired it.
Confronted with the Means Test, in 1928 Common left for London. Compared with the North East, unemployment was comparatively low, and Common quickly found a job as a mechanic in an automatic machine company. But factory discipline and authority was much the same as on Tyneside – as a result he was soon “thrown out for practicing an ingenious method of simplifying the job”.
By that time, though, he had developed his interest in writing, and: “an essay I’d written attracted the notice of Middleton Murray, editor of The Adelphi. He took me on as circulation man for them. In a year I became assistant-editor, and up to the end of 1936 was acting editor. At the same time I was on the editorial board of New Britain.” Common’s work also appeared in Tribune, New Statesman, Eleventh Hour, the Manchester Guardian and others.
During this period he began his friendship with Eric Blair, alias George Orwell. He recorded his intense disappointment on first meeting Orwell: he had expected a rebel, a tramp. Orwell looked the part alright: “But he rose to acknowledge the introduction and shake hands. Manners showed through. A sheep in wolf’s clothing, I thought, taking in his height and stance, accent and cool built-in superiority, the public school presence”.
One December Orwell decided to write an essay on “Christmas in Prison”. He planned to write an account from the inside, and this – of course – required an arrest. He talked with Common about a scheme to light a bonfire in Trafalgar Square. He didn’t get a sympathetic hearing. Common remembers how “I firmly held that if you were going to jail you might as well have something for it. My advice was ‘take to theft; a bonfire simply suggests something undergraduate-like'”.
For a man to whom beer and pub life were important, it is significant that Common wrote of Orwell “no pub ever knew my friend as ‘Eric’ let alone ‘George.'” The landlord automatically called Orwell ‘sir.'” But the two men remained friends until Orwell’s death in 1950.
Orwell had written of Common: “he is of proletarian origin, and much more than most writers of this kind he preserves his proletarian viewpoint”. This viewpoint was developed by Common with a clear critical intelligence, in a variety of reviews, essays and satirical pieces. “He was, as another reviewer put it: ‘a knowing bird, [whose] life appears to be spent with his head on one side forever questioning the quaint ways of the bourgeois, whilst he chuckles down his throat at their dependence upon the proletarians’. In this ‘knowingness’, however, there is no hint of smugness or self-satisfaction. The perspective he offered was not one of class prejudice or ‘workerism’. (he had little time for middle class socialists who were determined – in dress, manner and speech – to outdo the workers on their own terms!) His concern was with a humanistic analysis of capitalist society. One which saw the proletariat to lie at the heart of an immense economic and social crisis which affected all classes.
Appreciated in this way, Common’s writings in the 1930’s take on a uniqueness. They represent an attempt to articulate a political philosophy which is rooted in the day to day experience of working class people. It is no accident that their criticism became most severe when directed upon socialist organisations which, while claiming to organise and speak for working class people, hector them for their apathy and ignorance. Such people, thought Common, had ‘got the bird and don’t know it’. They didn’t know it because socialist theory in large part saw ‘the proletariat’ as a ‘negative force’: a bludgeon to smash capitalism and dig the grave of the capitalist class. For Common it needed to offer much more….
In his articles (‘practice sprints’ he called them) in the first few years of the 1930’s, Common pointed to aspects of working class experience which could be developed into a powerful force for the transformation of society. He also pointed to the dramatic changes that were taking place to the class structure of capitalism as it shifted (in the middle of slump) towards mass production and mass consumption.”
He died in Newport Pagnell in 1968.