Class, privilege and luck — becoming a librarian
I guess it’s a natural reaction to reaching middle age (although I maintain 40 isn’t middle aged), but I increasingly find myself reflecting back on the past, how I got here, all that kind of stuff (I’ve been particularly thinking about my hometown a lot recently and the criticisms its people receive…my thoughts here are mainly sparked by recent criticisms borne of a televised debate involving inhabitants of my hometown). One of the things I find myself reflecting on is how lucky I am to have found myself here, and that I ensure I always keep my fortune in mind.
I grew up in a working class port town (don’t know why I am being so coy, it’s Dover), to working class parents (prison officer and a stay-at-home mum who later went to work in a shop part-time). We never struggled and lived fairly comfortably (I look back now and appreciate the fact I was the only one of my friends who lived in a semi-detached house). We never went without, but equally we were never spoilt. We did ok in the grand scheme of things.
Growing up in Kent I went through the grammar system, which is hellish to say the least, putting huge amounts of pressure on children still at primary school (I certainly felt the pressure). I “missed out” on the grammar school experience and ended up at the secondary modern (“interestingly” sited next door to the grammar). I have pretty strong views about the system as a result, not least because I was a borderline case and the decision on what school I should go to came down to some meeting with my parents. Pretty sure that’s not how a school system should ever be run.
I did ok at school. Nothing special. Didn’t set the world alight. I got 4 A-C GCSEs and went on to do three A-levels (BDD). I was pretty average throughout but did enough to get into a very average university. I guess it was at university I first really became conscious of class and where I was situated within class structures. It being an average university there were plenty of us from a similar background, but there were also those of that came from more affluent, middle class families. I guess this working class to middle class proportion changed as you went higher up the university scale. I was, quite probably, at a university my background merited. Not one of the top ones, just a very average place for a very average student.
Naturally, my end degree was very average too and then I went out into the world of work and…well, got nowhere. All these ideas of what going to university would do for my future disappeared and I was faced with the grim reality that it wasn’t enough to have a degree, I needed to have so much more than that, but I couldn’t place what…
Stuck in a rut, working in a low-paid job with no sign of a way out, I eventually was confronted with the notion that I would be stuck working in a retail job for the rest of my life (nothing wrong with working in retail, but it’s not what I wanted with my life). And then the “so much more than that” came along…
In 2002 I met the woman I was going to settle down with. I was still working in retail, but desperate for a way out. Eventually one emerged: working in a public library in a job not dissimilar to the kind of role I was in in retail. And that’s when things started to shift. Thanks to the support of my partner, I was able to embark on a professional qualification in librarianship. And make no mistake about it, if it wasn’t for the financial support she provided me, I would not be a qualified librarian today. I was lucky, because I met someone financially secure who wanted to support me and help me to achieve the things I hoped to achieve when I went to university all those years ago.
And I guess this is what I think on when I reflect: I am very fortunate. I am lucky. It was not about pulling myself up and getting on with it and magically everything fell into place. It was purely and simply down to luck. The barriers I faced as a result of my working class background were not overcome by grit and determination. These were structural barriers in terms of education, geography and class that were overcome only through luck, nothing else. If it wasn’t for a chance encounter in 2002, I would never have met my partner and I would never be in the position I am in right now. Of that I am certain.
And it’s because of this experience that I can’t pretend that those barriers don’t exist and that they can be overcome if we just work hard/be determined/all that shit. There are different barriers facing different people, of course. My barriers were the barriers put before a white working class male. Far greater barriers are placed before white working class women, or black working class men/women, or transgender, or people with disabilities. I would in no way suggest that my barriers were as significant as the barriers others have faced. I would argue, however, that these barriers exist and that it is the job of those of us who have encountered these barriers, who have overcome them through sheer good fortune, to play our part in breaking them down (if we are in a position to do so). It’s very easy and very dangerous to assume that just because I, as a white working class male, have broken into a profession that therefore all white working class males can do so. I know this isn’t true. I know, therefore, that I have to do my bit to ensure that these barriers (and the barriers facing others) are broken down so that no-one else relies on luck and good fortune. Because either I help break them down or I am simply reinforcing their existence.