August 07, 2007


The excellent Emmy Hennings with another moving contribution to the class discussion:

    I've been following with great interest your recent posts on class. So often, I wish for debates and commentary of an equal calibre here where I live, but in Australia class - or, to be specific, class envy, hatred and resentment - is one of the great unmentionables. Only witness the fate of Mark Latham, former Leader of the Opposition (Australian Labor Party), whose reign was swift and whose downfall was spectacular. Though he was in many ways an odious right-wing headkicker, his council house upbringing and general air of grim determination ( I'm gonna get my revenge on these fuckers) was enough to terrify the Government, established media, etc. Especially when he started talking about taking money away from private schools and giving it back to public schools. (Eleven years of financial perfidy by the Liberal Party has resulted in the majority of Federal funding for education going to already wealthy private schools; they often get millions of dollars per year while public schools are still waiting for toilet blocks).

    But before I get completely sidetracked...

    What I have wished for - and maybe this applies more to an Australian context than to a British one, because I do get the sense that class mobility in Australia is more common an experience than in Britain - is some nuance in discussing matters of class, particularly as they relate to personal experience. And you have done this so well, and people have responded to it. For ages I've thought that my own talk of feeling between classes was just self-indulgent waffle, but it's true, as an experience - true for myself and many others.

    My family is a mixture of teachers and tradespeople - builders, electricians, etc. I suppose the label would be lower-middle class (though I often wonder if this nebulous category of the lower-middle has much worth, whether it would not be better to speak of a broader working class and, at the bottom of the social hierarchy, an underclass created by capital's need for structural unemployment?) Both my parents (of the same generation as Mark Latham, interestingly enough: born in the late 50s/early 60s, the fag end of the baby boomers) were brought up in council housing; my dad went to university on the long-abandoned Commonwealth Scholarship system and my mum, a few years later, to Teachers' College, in the brief window during the 1970s when higher education was made free in this country. They were married at nineteen and divorced by twenty-eight, when I was five years old. I remember my childhood as a jumble of cheap rental houses, living with my grandparents, mismatching school uniforms worn from one school to another, etc etc. There was real poverty. My brother was only a baby and my mum, bringing us up, unable to afford childcare, stopped teaching and had a number of part-time jobs - bar person, hotel cleaner - before eventually she put herself through university (a Graduate Dip.Ed) on the single parent pension, and went back to teaching. I remember falling asleep as a child to the sound of her typewriter banging away into the night, writing her uni assignments after she had put us to bed.

    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...

    I can certainly relate to this experience; I can also appreciate the flipside: when your parent or parents are themselves teachers you see teaching for what it is - a job - and not a position of strange mystery (how many of my friends at primary school were convinced that teachers slept in the school overnight, that they simply appeared each day!). There's a continuity but also a discontinuity between an experience of school and home as, a child of teachers, you witness the 'hidden' labour of teaching: the hours and hours of unpaid overtime, assignment marking, report writing, etc.

    So, where do I fit, with parents who are teachers but who were often poor? (And my father was barely in the picture here; I was raised by a single parent). Who never forgot their own class resentment or origins? (One of the compulsory aspects of class mobility, so it seems, is forgetting or suppressing where you came from, "moving on", and maybe the anxiety of feeling between classes is partly an inability or unwillingness to do this?). Where do I fit, when those who've been through higher education are still an absolute minority in my extended family, where 'security' - financial, employment - is by no means a guarantee? (It occurs to me that the class confidence you write so observantly of is absolutely tied to this sense of security, that "everything will be alright"). And especially, where do I fit in a society where radical politics is so often seen as some self-indulgent pastime of the bourgeoisie when my own family are proud and articulate about their radical, working class history? My great-grandparents were railway workers and Communists. My grandfather, a crane driver, was a staunch trade unionist. My parents marched against the Vietnam war in their mid-teens. My mother reads Brecht and my father reads Chomsky. My family have passed on this sense of historical awareness to me - it has been one of their greatest gifts.

Meanwhile, in connection with Eltham Palace, Ben Noys sends this quotation from Geoffrey Hill's Collected Poems (Penguin 1985)

    Funeral Music: An Essay

    In this sequence [referring to the poem 'Funeral Music'] I was attempting a florid grim music broken by grunts and shrieks. Ian Nairn's description of Eltham Palace as 'a perfect example of the ornate heartlessness of much mid-fifteenth-century architecture, especially court architecture' [Ian Nairn, Nairn's London (1966), p.208] is pertinent, though I did not read Nairn until after the sequence had been completed.

Posted by mark at August 7, 2007 08:05 AM | TrackBack