I was born on a suburban small town council estate, but I didn’t have any class consciousness as a young child because I barely know anyone that wasn’t working class. My parents were not actively political but they were politically conscious. Their views were shaped by growing up in a big city in the 1930s and 40s and were firm Labour supporters. They couldn’t understand how any working people could be anything else. After while in my teens it began to dawn on me that working class people from where we now lived were not anywhere near as politically conscious or Labour supporting as my parents.
My older sister was not only the first in our family to go to University but probably the first to even get any school qualifications. My Mum and Dad left school at 14 as did their brothers and sisters. How clever they were didn’t come into it. They had to start earning for the family.
Their generation was fill of bright capable people who would never realise their potential because they were working class. They were very happy that we now lived in an era when that was no longer the case. Their ambition for me was not to be trapped in a manual job and to have decent standard of living.
My ambition for myself was to expand my horizons and not be limited by circumstances. I devoured the music press and what it displayed to me about art and philosophy. I liked French films because my parents didn’t. I loved the things that my sister used to bring him from habitat, that new fancy place. These things were a world of possibilities beyond the humdrum. All of this while still at school, still living in my council house, Dad still on nights at the factory.
The difference between my new expanded world of possibilities was a generational divide not a class one. In experiencing and embracing new things beyond my horizon to me I assumed this was something that my peers and my generation would all do. I didn’t want to be different, I wished my expanded horizons on everyone. But I began to notice that a lot of the people around me did not have this sense or the desire to expand out of the tastes and habits they had been brought up with. I became disappointed with my generation. One night when I was about 18 I bumped into a couple of my old school friends in the pub and was shocked at how limited and desperate their lives seemed to have become even then. It was almost like they had ’become’ working class. They’d settled.
On a more disturbing note I began to notice that people used the term ‘middle class’ not just when talking about politics and economics but in terms of culture. It never occurred to me that the things I liked might be regarded as ‘middle class’. How ridiculous. To me, class was about economics and income. The idea that class could define, predict or restrict tastes in food, clothes, music etc. never occurred to me for one second. In a simple sense, I knew this was tosh. It angered me. I did Government and Politics A Level and started getting the Guardian to read at age 16. If someone had taunted me at the time that that somehow made me ‘middle class’ that would have been — and in fact remains -preposterous. Labelling things as middle class said one thing to me; “You’re not supposed to like these things, they are not for you, know your place”. “Fuck that” I said back, in my head.
To some extent I would agree that class is a predictor of cultural tastes, if you are looking at whole populations. It seems churlish not to. If you define class by some economic indicator like profession, you may then observe at a single point in time that cultural preferences differ by class. But to define or try to predict the tastes of an individual by their class or economic circumstances is quite poisonous.
And it is in fact worse than that. Many people act as if it is primarily cultural tastes that define class i.e. if you eat such and such a food, read such a newspaper, go to such and such an event then you are middle class. Whether they consciously believe that I don’t know but they act and talk as if it is true.
I think there are ulterior political motives to this kind of ‘cultural classism’ and that comes from three main angles.
1.From the ‘economic right’, who have no problem with working people bettering themselves economically to the extent that they are less likely to oppose the prevailing economic orthodoxy; but are nervous about any expanded consciousness among the masses. They will taunt left-leaning middle class people with a narrative that goes “There’s nothing wrong with popular culture, give people what they want, not what you (other middle class people) think they want”. So, this is really an anti-working class attitude masquerading as pro. The dumbing down of TV including reality TV is an expression of this phenomenon.
2. Left-leaning people that are not from working class backgrounds, and who actually ‘buy’ the above and, through some sense of guilt, actually believe that, to be pro-worker, they need to embrace something they think is working class culture. I’m sure that this point of view grew largely after the dawn of ‘reality TV’. After not having much exposure to working class people in their personal lives, they started seeing more and more of them on TV (an extreme and distorted sample of them probably selected by the above group).
3. Working Class people who also buy into the above. My parents had no time for people who said “I’m working class and bloody proud of it”. I think they thought that was just a way for people to excuse their own bad behaviour or lack of manners. Why should anyone be ‘proud’ of being born into the losing side of an unfair economic system? I was acutely aware of this when other working class people start taunting one of their own for engaging in tastes not deemed to be working class enough. I think this shocked me when I first encountered it. My view was ‘ but we can all like this stuff, why restrict yourself?’ but then I began to see it was borne of fear; “you’re one of us, don’t go joining the enemy”. This often arises in parents unwittingly restricting their children. Children learn that “people like us don’t do things like that”. This has a deeply pernicious effect where working class people to pretend they are more ill-educated than they are. If they admit to liking a certain food or using a certain word they will get the piss ripped out of them. There is a brilliant latter day Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse sketch that nails this on the head — the three men fishing sketch.
In fact, I despised snobbishness. My own first hand introduction was my first girlfriend and her mother. Her parents’ background was no more middle class than my own. But the difference was they didn’t want to be culturally ‘classless’ — which was how I would describe my own parents, and myself. No, instead they embraced middle class habits, they wanted to become middle class and differentiate themselves from the proles. I remember the first time my girlfriend and I went out for the evening from my house I assumed we would get the bus into town as I always did. She was aghast. She wasn’t going into town on a bus (like the likes of me). So I was aghast that she was aghast. My working class compatriots would have shamed me for being into ‘posh’ things and now my ‘middle class’ girlfriend was shaming me for being a bus traveller. Both were imposing upon me class stereotypes that were about stopping me doing what I wanted, restricting my options.