Friday, 11 March 2011

Take me back to beautiful England: class and culture, part 2

Remember that list that went round Facebook a few weeks back? One hundred books, and the BBC claimed (or people on Facebook claimed) that most people have only read six of them. So it was a wonderfully smug way of making oneself feel happy and secure in one's intellectual wallop, and sneering at anyone who clocked in below 30.

Of course it's a rubbish test of aforementioned Intellectual Wallop (almost exclusively European authors, lots of dead white dudes, what about people with learning disabilities or whose first language isn't English or just don't have the damn time to wade through 500 page Russian doorstops, and on and on and on).

But that, if you were wondering, was what got me thinking about a particular kind of English middle classness, and the subtler privileges that don't have that much to do with money.

Until three weeks ago, I was mired in a deeply boring, soul-destroying Canary Wharf news agency for three years. When I'd complain about it to my mum, she'd say, with infinite love and understanding, "Well, yeah. You're capable of so much more. Of course you're bored." There was always the assumption, the expectation - never suffocating, always encouraging - that I'd do something wonderful with my life, something that justified my excellent education and infinite abilities. (Her estimation, not always mine.)

When I made the same complaint to my granny, the "well, yeah" was less understanding. To her, work is something you have to do, you have to suffer through, because you have to eat. Work is not a medium for self-fulfilment. To her mind, the idea that I would be unsatisfied in my job because it wasn't stretching my abilities or keeping my interest was preposterous. Self-indulgent. Incomprehensible.

Earlier still, when I was languishing on the dole, I made some crack about becoming a lorry driver like my grandad. She nearly took my head off. Searching for meaning in employment was beyond her worldview, but the idea that I would slide back down the social ladder - after all the work she'd done to give her boys a better chance than she'd had, after all my opportunities that she'd never even dreamed of - was, to her, a real insult. She loves us, my sister and my cousin and me, and she's so happy that we're able to travel the world, or train to be radiographers, or work for an organisation we can really believe in, but there's a part of her that despises us for our easy lives.

A lot of the difference is historical: she has the attitudes not simply of a working class woman, but specifically of a working class woman who was born in the 1920s, whose major decisions in life were made before the NHS or National Insurance or free university education were even thought of. You can't afford to take chances when failure isn't cushioned by housing benefit and JSA. My parents' generation - born into a blissful Welfare State security that I can only dream of, catapulted into the middle classes by the free education that's been chipped away at every since - had that freedom, to take those chances; to bum around Europe for a decade, picking up odd jobs here and there, stretch their wings and see what they were capable of before deciding on a career at closer to 40 than 30. We've lost that security, but the attitude - that you should take chances, that there is virtue in dreaming big - lives on. A privilege far greater than an internship could ever confer.

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