The spite dripping from dreaming spires

April 7, 2008 at 9:24 pm | Posted in British Politics, Working Class Britain | 2 Comments
Tags: , , , ,

Great Gate, Trinity College, CambridgeIn the summer before I went to university, I took a job in a newsagents in Meadowhall. The owner at the time was a gruff, blunt Barnsley bloke with a boxer’s physique; he’d left school without so much as a GCSE and slowly worked his way from selling posters at rock concerts to having his own market stall, then a shop, then a string of shops, and finally a lucrative line in property development. At the end of my first shift he gave me a lift home and the conversation turned to where I was studying. Barnsley College, he thought, or Sheffield Hallam if I was dead smart. No, I replied, I was studying at the University of Cambridge. The car fell silent for a while. By my next shift he had me shifting heavy crates to prove I wasn’t scared of hard work.

I’ve got tonnes of anecdotes like this one: my elderly piano teacher pleading that ‘you don’t forget about where you came from’; the schoolmates who saw it as a black mark of arch swottery; the great aunt who thought it meant I’d be Prime Minister before I was thirty. At every turn in my conversations about Cambridge, I encountered comments that portrayed it as a playground for privilege, snobbery & elitism. The sad thing is they weren’t far wrong.

Fast forward 9 months. It’s early in the morning and I’m drinking cut price booze in a dingy party room run by the students’ union. The guy pouring my drink conforms to all the right clichés: impeccably dressed, speaking in Received Pronunciation with the odd cockney flourish when he’s ‘out with the boys’, and a worldview that’s never known anything other than wealth and comfort. As he challenges me to a drinking contest he asks:

“Just what are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be at the University of Bradford or something?”

In his own mind, too muddied by drink to mask his prejudice, this comment made perfect sense: state school + local accent = less intelligent + less deserving to be here. I swiftly finished my drink and told him where to shove it.

A 'Chavette', apparentlyThis epic reminiscence all began after a friend forwarded an email exchange he’d had with a member of the Trinity College Students’ Union. The friend was objecting to an upcoming ‘Chavs & Toffs Night” where students get to dress up as their favourite object of derision, don Burberry and bling and mutter ‘know worra mean?’ and ‘yeah but no but’ in between belching about an essay they’ve got coming up. It is, quite simply, a celebration and affirmation of the middle class monoculture that now dictates our country’s discourse.

So now you know just how far up the social food chain you’ll find this insidious and mean-spirited mockery of the poor: it’s rife in the representations of our media, it bleats from the mouths of our workmates and it’s gleefully practiced in Britain’s best university by the future leaders of the land. Makes you proud, right?

This is all so dispiriting because, as someone who considers my time at Cambridge to be the best three years of my life and a time when I learned how to think, argue and write far better than I ever could’ve imagined, I know how positive it can be for smart, focused kids from non-traditional backgrounds to come here and develop the tools for successful careers. It really can be a place for social mobility, but that’s never going to happen at a college where the state school intake was recently a pathetic 42%, and it’s never ever going to happen when the student population’s hearts and minds are closed to the idea that poor people are people too.

In the end, this thing runs in a vicious cyle.

University admissions chiefs prefer public schoolers because they display a cockiness and verbal dexterity that’s not quite there in the smart but less well-prepared state school bunch.

State schoolers are smart enough to know this and figure they’d rather go to a bigger, more diverse and vibrant city than have to endure the cap-in-hand rigmarole of the admissions process and the university’s arcane, monochromatic traditions.

The privileged, public school intake interact with so few people from different backgrounds that they feel able to make prejudgements about them.

And the rest of the country continues to see the spite dripping from those dreaming spires and decides to spit some of that spite back at them.

The world rolls over and yawns.

The motto in the Trinity College dining hall is Semper Eadem, which is Latin for ‘always the same’. Such a shame that so many of its members embrace it as a slogan for living.


Photos: #1 by Flickr user Tylluan, #2 by Malias (both Creative Commons)

External reading:

  • There’s an interesting post on Labour Home about whether an affirmative action approach to university admissions based on the Texas model may see more state school kids in Oxbridge
  • As always, Johann Hari has some interesting views on the subject of our mockery for the working class. Examples here and here


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

  1. Beautifully put. As someone who’s been at Cambridge for 6 years now, and taught on and off for the last two, my feelings about my college – Trinity – couldn’t be any more mixed. (I am, for the sake of full disclosure, the friend mentioned in the piece.) Neil perfectly captures the frustration that arises from knowing the potential of the place, and seeing the ways in which it is selectively squandered on college and university level. No doubt the Toffs and Chavs night will go ahead, but thank god it at least met a minimal opposition.

  2. […] said before that this thing runs in a vicious cycle; when the number of state school students admitted is low […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at
Entries and comments feeds.

%d bloggers like this: