I used to belong to a Facebook group called “I Grew Up In Fulham” through which I reconnected with some old school friends, heard news about others, and even learned a few things about the history of my old manor. Most of the group were old-school, white working-class people, and sadly — with some decent exceptions — the majority of them were rabidly right-wing, nationalistic, immigrant-haters. I tried to argue with them and their bullshit for a while but eventually gave up and left the group because I got sick of seeing their nasty xenophobia in my Facebook feed. On top of that none of them could spell and I was almost as offended by their illiteracy as I was the racism.
There are stupid bigots in every walk of life but these were people who had grown up in the same neighborhoods and gone to the same schools as me, and I felt like an alien amongst them. I’m under no illusions about the British working classes being a bunch of bleeding heart liberals — I know they’d vote to bring back hanging tomorrow if they could — but it was a profoundly depressing experience that made me feel even further disconnected from my roots. I hated thinking “Thank God I got away from you people” because I’m proud that I grew up working class.
I was thinking about that experience when I read the article How I Became Middle Class by Lynsey Hanley in The Guardian the other week which is about the anxiety and identity crisis that can come with upward mobility. Like me, Hanley grew up on a council estate and went to a shitty comprehensive school, but managed to go to college and now has a thoroughly middle-class life with a job in a creative, middle-class profession — a writer in her case — so I related to a lot of it.
Hanley writes about feeling isolated growing up because she was interested in learning and not into doing the same things her friends were and, while I wouldn’t say I ever felt lonely, I know what she means. I was hardly a swot as a kid, but at my school anyone who was the slightest bit academic or read books for pleasure was seen as a teacher’s pet, bully-fodder, and probably a bit gay. Few boys stayed on for the Sixth Form and only two of us took A-Level English. They weren’t any help with my career either, I got into art school under my own steam two years after I left school. During that two-year gap I worked at a t-shirt printing factory where all the workers read The Sun at lunchtime while I had The Guardian which got me a few funny looks and comments. Over the years I’ve had temp jobs as a dishwasher, cleaner, and hotel porter and it was always the same: I was the smartypants who didn’t fit in there, even though my upbringing was the same as the other workers.
I never had any Billy Liar dreams of escaping my background but that’s what art school amounted to. Four years in that environment — and meeting a lot of other kids like myself — can make it very hard to really go “home” again. You still love your family and the friends you had before, but you’ve been shown this other world where you can be more truly yourself (I wonder if my Dad felt the same when he went from being a cab driver to stage manager at the National Theatre). Plus you now have a profession which pays enough money to buy yourself the life your new pretensions require.
But I don’t entirely belong here either because you can take the boy out of the council estate but never really take the council estate out of the boy. We’re not well-off by any means but make just about enough to send our kids to a private school for a few years (but not enough to keep them there longer) which I was often conflicted about. Hanging around with some of the richer parents would make me feel like a class traitor and I’d have to fight the urge to go all Class War on their BMWs. The smug assumptions of the liberal middle classes — and often total lack of experience with people who think differently — can be really annoying too, and make me want say something reactionary just to pop their cozy little bubble. And I love good food but there’s often this common voice in my head sneering that most middle-class lifestyle trappings like fancy coffee, craft beer, and artisnal tomatoes are all just overpriced, poncey bollocks. I may have gone from Carling Black Label to Côtes du Rhône, and tins of Heinz Ravioli to organic pasta from Whole Foods, but my favourite food is still sausages with HP Sauce.
Download: Ambition – Subway Sect (mp3)