Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Rough Diamonds, or just Plain Rough?: the Mystery of Class

A recent article in the Daily Telegraph ("It's time we stopped worshipping the working class" by Alex Proud, 31.03.14) bemoaned the love affair of the intelligentsia with the "working class", with everyone playing down their privilege, and being prolier-than-thou. It reminded me of Owen Jones's 2011 book "Chavs - The Demonization of the Working Class". And I thought, well, this is a rum business, they seem to be saying quite different things about the same thing, how can this be?

I knew what Mr Proud was talking about. Curiously, in his own piece, in which he admits to a privileged upbringing, he also mentions his parents having endured hard times, and growing up, at first, when they were poor. So he's actually playing the same game, laying claim to a heritage which is no longer his, and from which he has, materially, moved on. It's a game I've played myself. I know my parents were very hard up when I was born, but I don't remember that, nor a moment's discomfort or hunger. Despite being sent to an expensive and very good academic school, which most of the other parents could afford, and mine struggled to, I didn't notice that either. In fact I didn't even know my education was being paid for until I was in my teens. You will perhaps conclude, with some of my handsomely-recompensed teachers, "not a bright boy". It just didn't interest me. But I do remember committing a grave sin long ago when my maternal grandmother was spinning yarns about her own family in Ireland and their 500 acre farm, and saying how pleased I was to hear about it because "it's so much more respectable than scrap metal" (which was my father's business). As a statement of fact, this was introvertible. As a lobbed grenade of intra-family warfare, it was incendiary. This was exactly what my immensely snobbish grandmother wanted to hear, and what my not-remotely-snobbish mother didn't. Fact was, though, we owned our house, and my grandmother rented from the council, so who was posher? Eventually I visited this farm in Ireland, a few months after she died. It had fallen into the hands of one of her elder brothers. It wasn't 500 acres. It was 77. And over 50 of them were swamp. No shame in being an Irish peasant, but nothing grand, either.

It's certainly true that I've traded, socially, on having been a curate in Romford ("ever so rough" as a university friend told me in an answerphone message - and he'd grown up just up the road in Hornchurch), and having a father in the scrap metal trade, and a grandfather born in a workhouse (and then a barrowboy, and fed by gypsies!), and Italian immigrant great-grandparents (one of whom lived long enough for me to know) who couldn't read and write. It's really true that you get slivers of street cred for this sort of thing. But Mr Proud seemed to be arguing that when you have money in your pocket, the people who made you are no longer part of you, that you've moved on. I don't think that's true. I am proud of those ancestors that I knew personally, and many others I have discovered through genealogical research. None of them got a Nobel Prize or the OM, but they did some things extraordinarily well - in the case of my great grandmother Polly Patterson, who died at 37 having had twelve children, just surviving so long.

It's also true that I've gone downmarket. I went through a phase of saying "when I was at college". I wanted to say, because it was the proudest achievement of my life, "when I went to OXFORD!" but I thought people would hear the wrong things in those words, and judge, and assume, and condemn. So I played down the biggest thing I ever achieved. Which was a wrong thing to do. I had a friend at vicar school who struggled with my academic success. He couldn't admit that it might be something to do with having a razor sharp (and rather pedantic) mind. "Your parents paid for a very good school, no wonder you succeeded". So did many other parents, and their boys didn't get into Christ Church Oxford. So, latterly, I have stopped pretending. That was my achievement. Not money's.

What Mr Proud has identified, I think, is a desire to have made it on your own. Or at least, to come from parents or even grandparents, who made it on their own. It's all about merit. We must deserve what we have, even though, if we do the sums, the little some of us have and the vastness others of us do, doesn't really make any kind of sense. Maybe that is why Mr Cameron's pedigree has disappeared from Wikipaedia, with its baronets, and earls, and kings.

Mr Jones is looking at something quite different, and I think he is much more mistaken, but partly because he has set himself a much more substantial and interesting task. The title of his book speaks of "the working class", but its content addresses quite another class, the one that Karl Marx would have called the "Lumpenproletariat". The working class of his fond memory was the sort of people I was burying as a curate in Romford - people in their 80s (so, born in the teens and 1920s) many of whom had been married to the same person, done the same job, and lived in the same place, for at least half a century. It was a degree of emotional and financial stability and security that is unthinkable today for anyone, in any social class, except those who are immensely rich (and they seem to get divorced a lot). The working classes were white, lived near where they born, married young and stayed married, did one job for their whole career, rented and didn't gripe about it. That isn't what the "working class" is now. The term itself is iffy. I remember my headmaster loftily saying "we ALL work now", and having watched him oiling the windowsills of his Tudor rectory in Sussex, I feel his pain. The "working" class was named that not because the others didn't work, but because they didn't need to, and certainly not for other people. Well, times have changed
and most of the middle classes need to work, and even some of the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. What has changed is that the kind of work that Mr Owen's working class relied on, and the social and family stability it brought, has perished.

So, the people being demonised are not the new middle class, who are the old working class, but the lumpenproletariat, as that layabout Mr Marx would call them. They are the single mothers, the out-of-works, the improvidents and ne'er-do-wells, created, we are told, by the benefits system. Single mothers are selected for special condemnation, and have been for at least thirty years, because they are obviously using the system to justify their insatiable hunger for sex - and their children are PROOF. There's an amusing defintion of the lumpenproletariat on the internet: "lumpen, the shortened form of lumpenproletariat, is used to refer to lower classes of society. The meaning of the term is roughly analogous to bogan, hoi polloi, riffraff, scrounger, white trash, or yobbo. In the Slovene language, the word "lump" means "rascal" or "scamp"."

The interesting question is why there are so many people who have fallen through society's supposed nets and find themselves in this place. Maybe it's inherent. My grandmother's family (other side) who grew up in poverty as children of Italian immigrants in Battersea in the 1920s and 1930s would speak of members of other families as "rough". It wasn't about poverty, the food they couldn't afford, or the clothes they were wearing, it was a state of mind and manners. Some inherit it, some break out.

My grandfather broke out. In this seventh richest country in the world, I don't think we're doing much to help others do so now, over a century after he was born in a workhouse.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
April 2014

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for mentioning the article. I'll look for it and read it online. (I can't afford to buy the Daily Telegraph in paper form any more. ) This subject is something that fascinates me. My definition of 'the working class' seems to change according to which era of industrial history I am thinking about. It doesn't tally necessarily with income, or who 'the poor' are. When I was at school and for some years afterwards, there were unskilled manufacturing workers in heavy industry, labourers and so on. Robots and computers doing those jobs were still in the future. We were warned sternly to 'stay on' to qualify for a career and not to be tempted by money to leave education at fifteen and go into a 'dead-end' job that would still be paying the same in twenty years.
    In 1969,the era of powerful trade unions and strikes, when I was on teaching practice at a C of E primary school in a suburb of dear old OXFORD, many of the pupils were from families whose parents were employed in nearby factories. The income of these adults, who would have called themselves 'working class' by nature of their manual occupations, was far higher than that of professional persons of the same age, who would have been at early stages of their careers.
    The school fund, thanks to generous parents, was well-off and there was no lack of equipment, no make -do-and-mend by the teachers. What there was a shortage of was support for the actual educational process. I had never seen this before.
    Something that I'd not come across in North Wales and Stoke-on-Trent where I'd grown up, worked, and spent time with children's organisations, nor in Lancashire and the North-East where I visited, was working-class Oxford's parental fear that children would pass the state version of the eleven-plus. Grammar-school education meant their children would stay at school at least until they were sixteen - a year later bringing in a wage than they otherwise would - and might even, horror of horrors, want to stay on even longer and go into a profession where they'd earn nothing until they were in their twenties, if then.Financially supporting teenagers and young adults rather than accepting 'board' from them was scarcely imaginable.
    Looking back, I suspect the difference between the attitudes of working-class parents in the different regions of the country was what they thought represented poverty. The people among whom I was brought up aspired to 'better themselves' by going into a profession because there they'd find the greatest chances of job security, plus improved income as they went up the tree, not to mention more intelligent spouses and comfortable homes.
    Social class, as a thing in itself, however, wasn't much spoken of where I came from. People who were 'common' or 'rough' were the ones who were looked down on. Nobody talked disparagingly of 'the rich', perhaps because there weren't any in our sphere. We thought 'the poor' no longer existed in Britain so they weren't mentioned except in history lessons. There were no single parents among my acquaintances, but then there was no income for them.
    Single parents are probably the most resented nowadays because sexual morality aside, contraceptives are free so that more or less everybody can choose not to have an illegitimate child, whereas few choose to fall sick, become widowed, or lose a job.