Jack Common was born in 1903 in Heaton, Newcastle, and grew up in the terraced streets backing onto the railway yards where his father worked. The boy Willy Kiddar in Common’s account of Newcastle childhood is a thinly veiled self-portrait, and Kiddar’s Luck tells the story of his first 14 years, from conception on a Sunday afternoon to leaving school during the First World War.
At 25 he moved to London, and worked as assistant editor on The Adelphi during the thirties, when George Orwell was his friend and literary mentor, later praising his essay collection The Freedom of the Streets (1938) as ‘the authentic voice of the ordinary working man, the man who might infuse a new decency into the control of affairs if only he could get there, but who in practice never seems to get much further than the trenches, the sweatshop and the jail’. V.S. Pritchett called it the most influential book in his life. The sculptor Lawrence Bradshaw used Common's brow as a model for his bust of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery, saying that he found there a similar patience and understanding. Jack Common also inspired, prefaced and edited the compilation Seven Shifts (1938), in which seven working men told of their experience.
In 1951 Turnstile Press published Common's best-known book, the autobiographical Kiddar's Luck, in which he vividly describes his childhood on the streets of Edwardian Tyneside, as seen through the lens of his adult socialism. In The Ampersand (1954) Common took the story further, but his publishers went into liquidation two years later. Neither book had been a commercial success and Common had not completed the trilogy with his long-promised Riches and Rare, a novel set in Newcastle at the time of the General Strike. In his later years he did a variety of jobs, at one time working as a labourer by day and writing film scripts by night; he also worked as a caretaker at a stately home, but was often out of work and lived from hand to mouth. He died in Newport Pagnell in 1968.
John Mapplebeck's film tribute Common's Luck (1974) tried to address the neglect of Jack Common, and can now be viewed on Vimeo. Kiddar's Luck was reissued by Bloodaxe Books in 1990, and in 2009 Keith Armstrong's biography, Common Words and the Wandering Star, was published by University of Sunderland Press.
Books by Jack Common