‘Tinned Beetroot: A Review of “If We All Spat At Once They’d Drown: Drawings About Class”’, by Jessica Ison

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Those with ‘something to fall back on’, they invariably fall back on it. They intended to all along. That is why they provided themselves with it. But those with no alternative see the world differently.

— M. P. Fikaris, ‘Fitzcarraldo’

When I first went to university I thought beetroot only came in a tin. I went to the food co-op on campus pretending I knew what a co-op was, oh, and also what organic food was. The first time beetroot came in my weekly organic vegie box I asked what it was. Everyone scoffed and said “a beetroot”. I laughed too, pretended to brush some dirt off and said something about my poor eyesight (I have 20/20 vision). I quickly learned that I had something to hide, though I couldn’t articulate what that might have been.

This is just one of the many examples of how I learnt to navigate class in the university setting. I didn’t know what class was. Hell, I didn’t know who Marx was. They don’t teach old-mate Karl to working-class kids. If I could go back to eighteen-year-old me and say anything it would be to read the comic anthology If We All Spat At Once They’d Drown: Drawings About Class edited by Sam Wallman. Well, maybe first I’d tell myself that Yes, you are a lesbian, and it’s awesome. Then I would say, Read this comic collection. It would have saved years of anguish about why my life didn’t seem to fit the narrative of those around me at university. That is the brilliance of this collection, you can read it without knowing much about class. I once saw a photograph of some graffiti that said something like “If it isn’t accessible to the working class, then it’s not revolutionary”. This collection makes sure that it is available to workers, and not in that horrible, patronising way that middle-class people love to do. That whole slow voice, dumbing down thing they do. It is accessible because it is real. And it has to be. Because the working class can sniff out bullshit quicker than anyone.

There are a few pieces that stand out to me and signify much of what I’ve taken from this collection. Velika Thomev’s piece is hands down my favourite. It is an incredibly terrible drawing of a person smiling and doing a thumbs up while shitting on someone else who is lying down. The shit is indicated by badly drawn circles. It is brilliant because it captures the reality of the class system: people who are substandard, but happen to have been born with certain traits that are constructed as superior, having the power to shit on the rest of us. The person who is being shit on also has a thumbs up and a smile because, as workers, we are told to lie down and take all the shit thrown at us and to smile for the customers, bosses, and the world while it hits us in the face. This work captures so much of the commentary the book seems to be making. Class struggle cannot be depicted only in beautiful images, although there are some beautiful images in here too, particularly Mary Leunig’s and Abigail Jensen’s comics. The reality of being working class is also messy, dirty, and unsanitised. It offends high culture as much as it informs it. Thomev’s piece captures so much of our class system; the slippery reality of class, which is the teacher who told us we would only ever be “Bi-Lo checkout chicks” (that’s verbatim) and the society that creates the conditions where that is a lesser job than running a corporation that exploits workers and the planet.

This is nowhere more perfectly captured than in a quote from Paden H.’s piece: “they’ve told our stories before they’ve even begun”. The harshness of this statement, and Paden H.’s entire piece outlining the worries of a single mother, is starkly real. Being working class means your life is set out before you and being trained to be quiet about it. Don’t whinge, just suck it up. Workers are aware of this, but have been shamed and subdued, as hilariously explained through political sketch in Keith McDougall’s contribution ‘How 2 Get Filthy Fuckin’ Rich in 10 Simple Steps’.

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Queenie Bon Bon with Ben Hughes.

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Sam Wallman.

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Mary Leunig.

The reality is that while we have this life set out for us, the end of one’s working life, retirement, does not actually offer a reprieve. David Kerr’s two pieces capture this well. One is of a forklift attached to a walking frame and the other a wheelchair-cum-wheelbarrow. The dream of retirement—that thing that capitalism hangs over us—is a farce for the working class. There is no working hard to save for retirement. There is just working hard at minimum wage jobs in the hope that life will end before you have to have your ass wiped at a mass-produced nursing home. You don’t have illusions when you are working class. You will have dreams, and those dreams will be big, but the reality is what Kerr shows.

The collection also looks at the complexities that arise when race, sexuality, and gender intersect with class. “Not everyone’s bottom is the same”, says a character in Rudy Loewe’s piece, in response to a middle-class white person who states “I started at the bottom too”. Loewe shows how racism is used to create hierarchies in order to perpetuate the system. These are cycles of oppression, where power is enacted between people, not just from the top down. This is what Foucault calls the “dispersal of power” (hey, eighteen-year-old me, one day you will be able to casually reference Foucault). Later in the comic, after ending the conversation with the middle-class white person, the protagonist says, “She got to go home thinking about an angry black person shouting, probably fitting into the expectation she would have had of me, without even thinking about what she had done.” Loewe’s piece shows how the language of class and race is only heard when spoken through the voice of the rich and white (cough, Foucault). In other words, it is not heard.

The commentary on animals throughout the collection is also something I enjoy. One piece, by Stefano Grassi, shows a dog having to continually fetch a stick, ending with “this job sucks”. This speaks to me because the lives we give to (and take from) animals are terrible under capitalism. They are pets imprisoned in small yards, or animals slaughtered after miserable lives in factory farms. But it also reflects our lives as workers under capitalism; jobs with no meaning and bosses who make us run around after useless sticks.

One of the final pieces, by Sam Wallman, presents a quote from the Indignados movement: “If you don’t let us dream, we won’t let you sleep.” This seems to sum up the intent of this collection. The very title is a call to action, to organise. Throughout, it shows that it is OK to be that girl who only ever had tinned beetroot; but more importantly, it shows that it is time that we, as workers, stopped letting the rich sleep so comfortably. It is time that we all spat at once.


Jessica Ison is doing a PhD at La Trobe University, Melbourne. She is the representative for the Institute for Critical Animal Studies, Oceania, a rescuer for the Coalition Against Duck Shooting and a tutor in Animal Studies and Gender Studies. Jess can generally be found ranting about prison abolition, fermentation, and anarchism when procrastinating from writing her thesis.