Escaping From ClassDecember 29, 2009 at 8:24 pm | Posted in What's left?, Working Class Britain | 9 Comments
I’ve never been able to get worked up about class and its distinctions, but then I’ve never felt the conventional three-tier account of social divisions has much to do with the case. […] My mother’s scheme of things admitted to much finer distinctions than were allowed by the sociologists. She’d talk about people being ‘better-class’, ‘well-off’, ‘nicely-spoken’, refined’, ‘educated’, ‘genuine’, ‘ordinary’ and – the ultimate condemnation – ‘common’.
In a happy coincidence, a few days after the Prime Minister uttered the jibe which started a class war, the BBC ran a repeat of Alan Bennett’s glorious Dinner at Noon. Part documentary, part voyeurism and part personal reminiscence, Bennett guides you around the stately surrounds of Harrogate’s Crown Hotel, eavesdrops on other people’s conversations, shares stories about his parents and muses about what place class has in contemporary society.
Made at the end of a decade marked by union-busting, industrial decline and emerging consumerism, Bennett uses the people-watching habits of his parents to demonstrate how our rigid definitions of class tell us little about the people wearing the labels. What he prefers to observe are manners, behaviours, embarrassments: “Not class, which I don’t like, but classes, types“.
His preference for thinking of people as ‘types’ rather than ‘classes’ reminded me of a family gathering I attended a few years ago. It was the funeral of a patriarch who was much loved, as evidenced by the fact that his passing had managed to draw a greater number of our extended, estranged family members than other functions of this sort.
The church was like a sweetshop of different ‘types’. You had the emotionally distraught, the jolly reminiscers, the tanned couple who’d just got back from Tenerife and ‘you know, we wouldn’t have come back if we’d had the choice’. There were the self-conscious mums who checked every 10 minutes that their husbands or children were dressed correctly, behaving appropriately & grieving at acceptable levels. You had the step-family who weren’t welcome but felt like they had to turn up, so fidgeted quietly at the back of the church, speaking only to themselves. You had the proud veteran who refused his war medals because ‘you shouldn’t be rewarded for doing your duty’, and the boisterous old busybody who flashed her own accomplishments (holiday in Corfu; new fitted kitchen) as tactlessly as youngsters flashing their bling. It was a church filled with hundreds of years of collective experience, dozens of unique, eccentric, exciting types, and if you could find one thing which united them all, it was that their social class had little importance. Because class really can have little importance. Well, sometimes.
The real solvent of class distinction is a proper measure of self-esteem, a kind of unselfconsciousness. Some people are at ease with themselves so the world is at ease with them. My parents thought this kind of ease was produced by education: ‘your Dad and me can’t mix; we’re not educated.’ They didn’t see that what disqualified them was temperament, just as, though educated to the hilt, it disqualifies me. What keeps us in our place is embarrassment.
A few months after that funeral took place, I moved down to Cambridge for my first term as an undergraduate. For someone who’d never lived away from home before and was completely unused to its customs & traditions, the first few months were an exhausting experience and a period for intense self-criticism. I always assumed I was at ease with my self; that I knew who I was, where I’d come from, how events and places and people had helped to shape me. I soon found out that not only was that just a flimsy edifice, but, like Alan Bennett, I was embarrassed by everything: my birthplace, my accent, the fact that most of my clothes were from Matalan, my schooling, parents & former school friends. I was embarrassed that people whose parents had spent tens of thousands of pounds on their education (and, unwillingly, on mine) were now sat next to a podgy northern dilettante who hadn’t a clue what to do with all these bloody knives & forks. I thought, this can’t have been what they paid their money for.
I felt like an imposter, and because I desperately wanted to belong there, I tried to fashion myself into what I thought was expected of a Cambridge student. I decided to dress like I was in The Strokes; tried flattening my accent; I ate out regularly and expensively; I over-compensated for my low cultural vocabulary by bingeing on records and books; I started getting drunk. I must’ve spent a whole year trying to escape my class.
Of course, when I realised that no amount of styling would fashion me into one of those well-spoken, confident Home Counties kids I used to envy from my smoke-filled corner of the college bar, I reacted violently against it. I started inventing reasons to dislike people: a love of rowing or rugby, a posh accent, a fondness for Cambridge’s antiquated little traditions, membership of the Conservative Party. I started acting like my background made me one of the few ‘authentic’ kids in a university teeming with pretence, entitlement, self-importance & sycophancy. First my embarrassment made me want to change myself; next it made me want to change everyone else.
Thankfully, each passing year brings with it just a little more experience and wisdom. Thanks to my many embarrassments (and the counsel of some quite wonderful friends), I did eventually reconcile the class-based insecurities of my background with the immense privilege that I had the fortune to enjoy. I realised that most of the public school kids weren’t quietly sneering at the commoner in their midst, and that people from very wealthy backgrounds could be just as prone to embarrassment & self-doubt as I was. I no longer had anything to be embarrassed about, either before the people back home who warned me not to ‘forget my roots’ or those whose roots were already sunk deep in privilege.
I suppose one of the purposes of coming to this hotel in Harrogate was an evangelical one: I wanted to find people who were as awkward as I used to be in these surroundings and show them it didn’t matter. Only I didn’t find them, and besides, quite sensibly, everybody seems to know that it doesn’t matter. I wanted to revive or relocate some of the embarrassments or awkwardness I felt when I was younger. I didn’t. I’m older, the world has changed, and maybe it’s the businessmen who’ve changed it. Class isn’t what it was; or nowadays perhaps people’s embarrassments are differently located.
Some will clumsily paint the wealthy as airheaded, workshy toffs or bankers as cash-gobbling spivs; some will generalise the working class as uncomplicated & honest or as crass, boorish chavs who rock in the hammock of the welfare state.
Those who prefer their data will seek empirical markers which indicate dividing lines between rich and poor. They’ll study education, inherited wealth and earned income and use those findings to determine where an individual lies in the social hierarchy.
Whilst there’s some populist utility in the stereotype and an analytic function to quantitative research, what these very different approaches have in common is that there’s no room for the vast breadth of difference. They can’t factor in all our strange little sayings, habits, accents, slang, likes, antipathies, old wives tales & folk legends which people from similar backgrounds often share.
That’s a shame, because it’s in these details & this difference where a most personal part of our identities resides. They can influence the way we look at the world or deal with problems, the way we relate to and interact with others, the types of work we choose, the types of hobbies we pursue and the different ways we seek to enjoy ourselves. These differences are also, in many cases, fixed. Many of our traits are inherited; bequeathed to us by the process of socialisation and impossible (no matter how hard I tried) to reject, disown or erase.
My advice to those who wish to exploit the seemingly self-serving aspects of Tory policy to promote a more progressive agenda is this: by all means, go ahead, but please take the language of class out of it. Our politicians will not possess the authenticity, subtlety, sensitivity, respect for difference or understand the deeply personal attachment that people have to their backgrounds. I don’t want to see a succession of well-heeled Labour cabinet ministers clumsily trying to ingratiate themselves with the ‘common man’ anymore than I want society slandered as ‘broken’ and working class communities rendered as stark, dystopic hinterlands populated by perverts & slobs.
But whilst I don’t particularly want to see politicians talking about class as a means of getting elected, I still think we should be prepared to talk about it. If Alan Bennett is right and ‘class isn’t what it was‘, then it seems that we’d all benefit from speaking candidly about what it is – only free from the firing squad of front-line politics. If our backgrounds have helped form our characters, beliefs and positions, then – providing it’s done in good faith – we should be open to making that a part of the conversation. It’s perhaps a sign of my own faith in politicians (or lack thereof) that I’d rather they stuck to arguing about policy.
“Not class, which I don’t like, but classes, types“.
There were two eulogies given at this funeral I referred to earlier. The first, delivered in an unmistakable Barnsley accent, described the deceased as ‘a smashing chap’; a loving father and husband who would ‘do anything for anyone’. The second was a theatrically-performed reading from Shakespeare’s Tempest.
Mingling around the wake afterwards, I overheard two elderly ladies discussing the passage.
“Well love, I must admit that a lot of it went right over my head”
“Yes, yes, there was a lot of old words in it, weren’t there?”
There was a brief silence, as if both ladies worried that they weren’t showing enough sympathy in a time of mourning.
“Ooh, but didn’t she read it beautifully though! And just look at this grand spread!”
Older & somewhat wiser, I know now that we can’t ever really escape our backgrounds. Better still, I don’t see any reason why we should try.