Monday, 28 March 2011

Build me a path from cradle to grave: class and culture part 3

Sit down kiddies, your friendly neighbourhood llama is going to tell you a story. An uplifting, heart-tugging story of triumph over adversity, of beauty and determination and the resilience of the human spirit.

It's cool though, it ends with a lonely death in a failing hospital, so the tweeness will not be overwhelming.

When my maternal gramma was little, she had to visit the local wool factory every day to bring her dad his lunch. The place terrified her: it was noisy, and dangerous; dirty, and ugly. The idea of working there when she grew up - like her mum did, like her cousins did, like everyone did, because there weren't a huge array of options in a collapsing little town somewhere east of Manchester - horrified her. So she decided one day, at 8 or 9, that she never would. She'd find a way to do something else. Anything else.

She wanted to be a teacher. But she was poor and she was a girl and even secondary school, let alone university, was a ridiculously impossible dream. But she never did go to the factory - she became a clerk in the town hall. A respectable job, a cushy job, a job that is extremely unlikely to cost you any of your fingers. A job that - to her mind, at least - put her a cut above the hoi polloi. (Bless her, she was a great old lady, but an incorrigible snob.)

My mum wanted to be a teacher too. So she went to grammar school, then to uni, then did her PGCE and a TEFL course, and the woman can rule a classroom like nothing you've ever seen. (OFSTED inspector: "Never before in my life have I been moved to tears by the sheer quality of a lesson. You are amazing.")

Ladies and gents, I give you the finest invention ever conceived by western civilisation: The Welfare State! Can we pause for a round of applause for Clem Attlee?

I like my heroes with pipes.
I have a thing for making possibly spurious links between personal and historical events - like how the IRA and BNP conspired to break my parents up, or how Thatcher played a prominent role in my teenage mental breakdown - but this dude, more than any other, is who made my mum's glorious career possible. He catapulted both my parents, along with millions of others, into the middle classes, and changed the face of the nation beyond recognition.

Plus: pipe.

And it's this that makes the British class system such a complicated beast to wrestle with. Post-war baby boomers came of age in a magical moment, in a time that almost certainly offered more opportunity for social mobility than any other in the nation's history. But that social advancement didn't occur on a simple straight line, from poor to rich. Because although some kids from working class families rode the welfare state gravy train all the way to Parliament or the City or the boardroom, lots of others gained something less tangible from it, less easily measured.

My parents, for example, became effectively culturally middle class: they have values and aspirations and reading habits and culinary tastes which are virtually unrecognisable to their own parents. They live deeply middle class lives, with their fresh coffee and their Radio 4 and their French literature, but these cultural signifiers disguise the fact that they're both still pretty broke.

And yeah, whether you listen to Radio 4 or Radio 1, whether you like your cheese on toast with brown sauce or oregano, doesn't make a massive difference to your Relationship With The Means Of Production - but the values, attitudes and aspirations of the middle class mindset (which I've drawn a brief sketch of in parts one and two) give you so many more options in life.

When you know your family will fund you safely out of your fuck-ups, you have options other people don't have. When unemployment benefit forms the safety net between you and destitution, you take chances you wouldn't otherwise risk. In a way, the welfare state performed the same function for the many as inherited wealth always had for the favoured few, allowing poor kids to dream big. And despite the never-ending attacks on the welfare settlement - sometimes tentative, sometimes an onslaught - they've bequeathed that attitude to me. I've been able to act as if the safety net's there, even as Thatcher, Blair and Cameron have inched it out from under me.

But yeah, not sure what I'll be able to say to my children, other than "good luck".

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