Freedom of the Streets: the life and work of Jack Common

On Wednesday 23 October, Dr Keith Armstrong will give an account of the life and work of Jack Common. He will dwell on Common’s Heaton upbringing and how it influenced his life and writing. He will read extracts from Common’s autobiographical novels ‘Kiddar’s Luck’ and ‘The Ampersand’ and go on to discuss Jack’s unique friendship with George Orwell.

Keith will also talk about his own Heaton background and will read his poetry inspired by his roots, including a new piece on Heaton, specially written for this talk. He will be joined by local folk group ‘Kiddar’s Luck’ with whom he has regularly appeared over the years, especially at events to celebrate Jack Common. The group’s extensive repertoire is largely based on traditional Tyneside songs, past and present.

This event will take place at Chillingham Road School as it forms part of the school’s 120th anniversary celebrations. Jack Common was a pupil at the school and 2013 is also the 110th anniversary of his birth.

Keith Armstrong

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne, where he has worked as a community development worker, poet, librarian and publisher, Doctor Armstrong now lives in Whitley Bay. He has organised several community arts festivals in the region and many literary events. He is coordinator of the Northern Voices Community Projects creative writing and community publishing enterprise and was founder of Ostrich poetry magazine, Poetry North East, Tyneside Poets and the Strong Words and Durham Voices community publishing series.

He recently compiled and edited books on the Durham Miners’ Gala and on the former mining communities of County Durham, the market town of Hexham and the heritage of North Tyneside. He has been a self employed writer since 1986 and he was awarded a doctorate in 2007 for his work on Jack Common. His biography of Jack Common was published by the University of Sunderland Press in 2009.

Common Words and the Wandering Star, Dr Armstrong’s book about Jack Common will be available at the talk.


Booking will open on Wednesday 26 June, initially for Heaton History Group members only. Entry is free for members. Non-members will be able to book from Wednesday 10 July. The non-members’ price is £2. Contact Maria Graham – maria@heatonhistorygroup.org

/ 0191 215 0821 / 07763 985656).

Common Words and the Wandering Star

In this unique book, Keith Armstrong assesses the life and work of Newcastle born writer Jack Common, in the light of the massive social, economic and cultural changes which have affected the North East of England and wider society, through the period of Common's life and afterwards. He seeks to point out the relevance of Common to the present day in terms of his ideas about class, community and the individual and in the light of Common's sense of rebelliousness influenced by a process of grass roots education and self improvement.

'Keith Armstrong has used the available archives and published materials, including Common's own works as well as those of commentators, to write this biography. He has also conducted interviews with a variety of respondents, including some of Common's family and close friends, and draws on this original material throughout. He has thus assembled an important body of original material which will be of considerable interest to

Professor Mike Fleming

'Keith Armstrong's study of Jack Common is a major contribution to contemporary studies in English literature. Using sociological perspectives in his approach to biography, Armstrong not only reveals much about Jack Common the writer but shows, too, how Common's work helped him reshape both his and our understanding of the circumstances of his life and of his generation. Through biography, Armstrong has provided a vivid picture of social and cultural change in British society. This is a wellinformed book with many innovative characteristics, including the author's use of poetry
as a way of exploring Common's creativity.'

Professor Bill Williamson



Jack Common was born in Heaton, Newcastle upon Tyne in 1903. His father worked at the locomotive works close to the family house in Heaton. He attended Chillingham Road Council School, where he excelled at essay writing, but left at fourteen to attend commercial college and to work in a solicitor's office. Years of indifferent jobs and unemployment led him to move to London in 1928, partly to foster his political convictions and also to escape unemployment in the north. In 1930 he commenced work as a circulation promoter on The Adelphi, a socialist journal edited by John Middleton Murry, Richard Rees and Max Plowman. He was soon employed as assistant editor and took over editorship for a period in the 1930's. Common was a contributor to The Adelphi and other journals such as New BritainThe Aryan Path and The New Statesman and Nation, but it was The Adelphi which occupied most of his time during the thirties; writing political and social articles, book reviews, a column called "The Sweeper Up" and helping to shape policy and direction by working with the three editors. George Orwell was another contributor to the journal and it was through their working relationship on the journal that they formed a close friendship.

In 1939 The Adelphi was put out of print and Common sought work as a film script writer and editor for government documentary films and lived in Langham, Essex at the Adelphi Centre, a community set up in 1936. After the war he found more film work with Rank Studios as a script advisor and reporter on suitability of novels as film subjects. He also worked as a freelance for the Associated British Picture Corporation during the 1950s and 1960s, again writing and editing scripts.

In terms of his published work there are two phases to his work, the political and socially conscious essays of the 1930s and the fictional work of the 1950s, which reflect the work he was undertaking at these times.

In 1938 he published Seven Shifts, a collection of seven working men's tales of work which Common edited and introduced. In the same year he published a book of social and political essays The Freedom of the StreetsKiddar's Luck, the fictionalised autobiography of Jack Common's life up to the age of fourteen, published in 1951, was written under conditions of great hardship. Whilst writing the book he worked as a labourer during the day and wrote and edited film scripts in the evening, using the weekends to write his novel. He was under similar financial pressure when writing The Ampersand, a further autobiographical novel, in 1953-4; despite the favourable reviews given to Kiddar's Luck, the publishers became bankrupt, leaving him without a publisher to market the books and ensuring that the book was not the financial success it should have been.

He also produced many articles for contemporary journals and magazines.

He died in 1968 in Newport Pagnell before he could complete his third novel.

(Alan Myers)


Ever since the sixth form,

when I found you,

a kindred Novocastrian

in a library book,

I seem to have followed in your steps,

stumbled after you

in rain soaked lanes,

knocked on doors

in search of your stories.

For over forty years,

I have tracked

the movement of your pen

in streets you walked

and on cross country trains

from your own Newcastle

to Warrington


Newport Pagnell,




and back again.

I have given talks about you,

supped in your pubs,

strode along your paragraphs

and river paths

to try to find

that urge in you

to write

out of your veins

what you thought of things,

what made you tick

and your loved ones

laugh and cry.

I tried to reach you in a thesis,

to see you as a lad in Heaton,

but I could never catch your breath

because I didn’t get to meet you

face to face,

could only guess

that you were like me:

a kind of kindly

socialist writer

in a world

too cruel for words.