July 30, 2007

"You taught me language ..

.......and my profit on 't / Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you / For learning me your language!" (Caliban in The Tempest).


Collage of anonymised class correspondence:


    I grew up in a Daily Mail nightmare (council flat, single parent, mixed-race, erratic employment for relatives etc.), but as the 'bright' one managed to end up with a degree after absorbing a whole dollop of high theory and intellectual excitement that seems to have little use in the 'real world' (and is slowly being erased from the academic one, by the look of it).

    Ironically enough, the only 'proper' full-time job I've had since then has been in the same godforsaken street I grew up on - helping 'disengaged' youth (I went to university as far away as possible). After years of having it pumped into my head (by family) that I could 'escape' my surroundings, I could only find a decent salary by 'regenerating' them...

    I too find it difficult to relate to people I grew up around (nothing to talk about, unless I want to be seen as a crank). My more middle-class peers/colleagues seem unwilling to accept their prejudices when it comes to this community. 'Gentrification' has left me hovering around the uncomfortable sides of the fence. I know why 'locals' hate the 'carpetbaggers', but I still end up hanging out (with increasing discomfort) in their gated enclaves; talking about 'the scallies' who (to them) seem to be waiting to attack at any minute... often time to make my excuses and leave the dinner party, exhibition opening... whatever exclusive space they've put a moat around for the evening.

    Since graduating, I've also been struck by the absolute lack of critical thinking among the supposedly 'cultured' elite - they're more gullible to any fad or fashion than your average 'chav' teenager... and god help you if you're 'negative' (about anything - from gadgets to rip-off restaurants). It's a given than liberal lip-service is given to race, sexuality etc. but class? That's a paradigm that New Labour have shifted... you can be 'concerned' for the 'socially excluded', but can also demonstrate contempt for anything they actually do or say.

    I find as I get older, my closest friendships/relationships are in that 'interzone' of other working-class autodidacts, disillusioned educational aspirers, 'scally mystics' (a term given by a colleague in a similar situation); or well - educated 'downshifters' whose middle-class parents are terribly disappointed by their failure to be in the home-owning professional class (the last group bring their own set of complex tensions to the table - it's hard to resist seeing their slide down the ladder as more psychological than circumstantial). I also find that the 'youth' I easily relate to tend to be self-taught 'nerds' (although their nerdish persuits seem more technologial than cultural these days). It's like I'm stuck between two languages that I can't quite get the hang of.

    The Blair era to me is a period of being 'put back in my place'. The summer of 1997 (where the deaths of Diana and free higher education seemed connected, as I graduated into minimum wage service) was a restoration of sorts. Personally, I think we could do with another Major-style recession - nothing like mass unemployment and repossessions to bring down barriers (and piss on the current levels of middle-class smugness). People (well at least young people) seemed just a little more adventurous and socially fluid fifteen years ago...


    When your parents are themselves educators, the discursive continuity between school and home reaches comic proportions - we frequently had to remind my mother that she was using her "teacher" voice on us again...


    What your post proved is how talking about class provokes the middle class so much. They drag out the usual 'chip on your shoulder' accusations.


    Your recent articles on class consciousness (or the lack thereof) and the confidence differences between those educated at private schools and those in state-funded rang true to me and echoed something I had noticed. I recently graduated from a high school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a city almost infamous for being working class and "down-to-earth." For all four years of my high school education, I was part of the forensics/speech and debate club. My main category was Student Congress which aimed to replicate either of the houses of the United States Congress. It was about as terrible as it sounds. The sheer amount of hollow politicking involved was amusing at first, but quickly became tiresome. Beyond that, the arrogance of some of the members was astounding, especially as most of it was unwarranted.

    However, there was a group of students who were arrogant, but not offensively so. Their arrogance was backed up by confident, intelligent speeches. They seemed to carry themselves with a special sort of dignity. These were students from a particular private school in the area. Perhaps it is worth noting that many of them had a strange, New England accent which reeked of affluence and sounded very out of place in Pittsburgh, though the private school was not a great distance from the city itself. Not every student from this school had the accent, and not every one was a great speaker, but the best speakers almost always came from this particular school (and the two best had the accent); furthermore, this school seemed to produce an above-average amount of superior speakers.

    For a long time, I considered myself middle-class "since I hadn't experienced any material hardship, and I was interested in books and writing," ("Epistemic Privilege of the Proletariat") but meeting these students showed me that I certainly was nowhere near the top. Nor could I ever be; I simply lacked the confidence that these students possessed. Perhaps it is also worth noting that the students from this particular school were not mean, as so many others were; on the contrary, some of them were very amiable. They did not need to be mean and claw their way to the top. They were the best, and they knew it.

    I cut my long hair, I typed up my speeches ahead of time, I researched them more. And I fell further behind. I switched my event to Prose, where I could perform a reading of a particularly gruesome passage of Nausea as a sort of indirect revenge. I didn't do so well, there, either, but such is life.

    I am, admittedly, a bit resentful. These students were accepted into the schools (the Ivy League but it may as well be Oxbridge, no?) that I was encourage to apply to (by parents, peers, guidance counselors and the schools themselves) and from which I was rejected. I am excited to attend the college in which I did eventually enroll and do not at all regret those rejections or my eventual choice. However, the rejections themselves, and the entire process (why bother interviewing me if you're all going to reject me, you bastards?) left an indelible and sour taste in my mouth. Nor, am I sure, is class the only thing that separated us; they were better speakers and probably had better grades, and more extra-curricular activities, etc. But your articles, and the articles of your colleagues in the "blogosphere," (Infinite Thought, especially) helped me to organize my thoughts on these issues and decide that, ultimately, if there is anything separating the Low from the High, it is not money (which can be gained or lost) but a sense (innate? developed? both?) of confidence that, frankly, I lack and they have.

    I hope that this did not sound like (too much of) a whine, and I hope that it contributes somewhat to the testimonials you have on this issue.


    It's only now, at the age of 33, that I realise quite how much the transition from the working class to my present 'privileged' status (in terms of education, certainly not material worth!), has really cost me, and countless thousands like me. Certainly working in the media, a supposed meritocracy, one still feels pitifully alone - and I got a first class degree from Cambridge for Christ's sake.

    I went to see Hoggart speak once, and the question of feminism came up. 'You're onto a dead duck there love', was his dismissive, and no doubt deliberately provocative, answer. Stupid of course, speaking as a male fascinated and transformed by feminism. But identity politics have really done fuck all for the working class, nada, zilch, zero. So interesting that the writer Hari Kunzru, in an interview on BBC World, really laid into his interviewer when they began to warble on about the 'post-colonial' experience, bemoaning the absense of 'class' in all debates. Hence, of course, the horrors of laying into 'chavs', the only acceptable form of racism.

    But the big worry, of course, is what's the alternative? So fascinating, your post about the sense of discontinuity between home life and school life for the working class. But while one can feel like Caliban (and I am certainly getting angrier as I get older!), would I switch back? I had a quote from Burroughs scrawled on my wall at home (I must've been a fun child to raise) - 'Bomb Your Bus Stops'. Resentment is a worthwhile point of entry, but... what then?

Posted by mark at July 30, 2007 10:13 AM | TrackBack