Friday, 11 March 2011

I was made in middle England: class and culture, part 1

Social class in Britain is such a peculiar beast. We're renowned as one of the most class-obsessed countries in Europe - and hey, here I am, obsessing over it. When we talk about class privilege - and by 'we', I guess I mean The Progressive Blogosphere - so much of the conversation is focused on money, and while this is (fairly obviously) a massively important part of it, I think this lets some of us off the hook to an extent. For a long time, I've been able to avoid thinking too hard about my own class privilege because my family was never that rich: not dangerously poor, even by western standards, but there was nothing to spare, no option for my parents to pay my rent at uni, or support me through a fancy internship, or any of the other obvious, concrete ways in which money gives you options in life.

But culturally, we were solidly middle class, with middle class values and middle class accents and middle class cooking habits, and it's only recently that I've started thinking about all the ways that's smoothed the way for me. This post has been brewing for weeks now, because it keeps getting bigger every time I talk about it: from my reading habits to the post-war establishment of the welfare state to how my great-grandfather's lunches started a minor revolution, so I shall attack in stages to ensure that I cover every single aspect of The Relationship Between Class, Culture and Privilege in England Since World War II.

Oh yeah.

So today: Reading is FUN!damental.We will be approaching this via case studies: Middle Class Clever Clogs, Working Class Hero and First Generation Immigrant With Library Card. (A comic series featuring these illiteracy-fightin' masterminds is the next logical step - submissions welcome.)

Middle Class Clever Clogs
Is me. Reading is one of those things that marks you out as officially intelligent, regardless of whether or not it's actually true: I've had someone say, "Wow, you're reading, you must be well bright," when I had my thumb in the middle of a Phillippa Gregory, for heaven's sake. I read a lot, and I read fast, and that's cultural shorthand for Brainy. And not to take away from my own cleverness - my amazing barrels of cleverness, of which I have several - but I didn't get here solely through my own brilliance.

Growing up, the house was full of books: between them, my parents had a century of reading behind them and they had the filled shelves to prove it. If my precocious nine year old self decided she was going to read the collected works of Dostoyevsky in old-school Soviet editions bought in Prague before the Wall fell, she could go ahead and try. (And fail, obviously. I was nine.) My dear old mum taught me to read long before I started school, and she was always there to recommend books, to talk about them, to make me feel clever and valued for reading.

Working Class Hero
My gentleman admirer likes the books too. He's damn near as obsessive as I am, and much more dogged when it comes to chomping his way through footstool-sized classics: I mean, this is a guy who's actually read Moby Dick. And yeah, people think that makes him bright too, but he didn't get shiny gold stars of social validation every time he cracked a book back in the day.

There is no bookshelf in his parents' home. His dad is not just indifferent, but actively opposed to reading: sample quotes include "What did you do today? Read? Oh right, so nothing then"; if he sees someone with an open book he seemingly can't stop himself from talking incessantly, with ever increasing volume, until they've no choice but to give up. He's not a monster; he encourages his kids in lots of other ways, when it's things he can participate in. But he left school at 14. And reading as a leisure activity was never something he understood. So it threatens him; he's scared, with the vertigo of watching your children disappear into a world where you can't follow.

First Generation Immigrant With A Library Card
So I was encouraged to read, and my fella was sometimes mocked for reading; my BFF, when he started school, could not read, because he couldn't speak English. So while academia was prized by his parents and he was supported in learning for fun and profit, he was starting several steps behind. There were no books in English in the house - and because he never became fully literate in Chinese, those in his native tongue were no good to him either. Nowadays, he's quite the reading fiend, and one of the cleverest people I know, and he's had to do a hell of a lot more work than I have to get there.

It's not that being middle class makes you bookish, or being working class prevents you from it; it's never that simple, or inescapable. But growing up middle class can make it easier for you to be bookish. And being bookish has loads of social, academic, and career-wise potential advantages, as well as being super fun.

In short, as should be branded on every social science student on their first day, It's A Bit More Complicated Than That, and far more interesting.


  1. I have SO MUCH cultural capital it's ridic. Do wish it could be *slightly* more easily converted into actual capital, but obviously it does help. E.g. this morning's convo with a colleague about Sartre & de Beauvoir.
    Have recently been having vague discussion with Young Labour colleagues about working class shortlists or something or that ilk, like all-women shortlists, to increase working class representation. But obviously after that initial suggestion it just gets impossible. My union has Low Paid Worker reserved seats on committees and things though, which seem to work, but that wouldn't work in YL because plenty of low paid and unpaid people are such because they can afford to be, because their parents supplement them and they don't have dependents, etc.
    /off topic
    Minefield innit. But an interesting one.

  2. That's well interesting, but yeah, almost impossible to actually implement. "Sorry, you just said 'looking glass' instead of 'mirror', you are officially as posh as Nancy Mitford and so must surrender your Working Class Membership Card."