Sunday, 20 August 2017

How Classy Are You?

Last week I went to a showing of a film called Strike A Rock, a documentary which follows the ongoing struggle of women in the community of Marikana following the Marikana Massacre in 2012. It’s taken me a good week to recover and not for the reasons you might think.

Harrowing as the film was it was the ensuing Q&A session with the director and two of the Marikana women that made my blood run cold. Q&As are the bane of my existence, I’ve never been to a single one that hasn’t left me squirming in discomfort. I knew the minute I saw the white, middle class audience, a sea of Palestinian scarves and ethnic fezzes that this one was going to be a corker.

Anyway the film was fab but predictably everything went downhill after that. One ridiculous question followed another and the only thing that kept me from crawling under my seat was the fact that English was not the first language of any of the guests of honour and so hopefully they had no idea what the would-be warriors were wittering on  about. Events finally hit rock bottom when the Marikana women spontaneously burst into song unleashing something bordering on maniacal in the audience as they clapped, swayed and God help me ululated in response.

Before you ask, yes I am well aware of how shallow this makes me – faced with people fighting for the most basic of living conditions I’m fretting about mortification by proxy. In my defence though it’s a class thing. You see Philip Pirrip style I’m a working class girl thrust into a middle class world and have spent my entire adult life staggering from one debacle to another, a leg straggling each camp and let me tell you it’s not easy.

Back in the early 80s being working class was like finding Willy Wonka’s golden ticket. As education became more accessible, university lecturers bent over backwards to accommodate anyone with a northern accent, no doubt imagining we were down the pit or up chimneys when we weren’t in their classes. How my posh friends would seethe when I got let off for not handing essays in on time or not being bothered to attend tutorials whilst they got penalised and threatened with getting kicked off the course. All that changed, however, when more and more working class people went the Educating Rita route and my golden ticket became two a penny.

Becoming a teacher in the 80s meant taking on new sensibilities as the profession was still at that time a bastion of middle-classness. Dinner became lunch, tea became supper and frankly I didn’t know if I was up or down. The thing about life though is that we all adapt to our environments and so I embraced bread sticks, humus and candles (even though I had more than enough for the electricity meter). The only time my mask would slip was under the influence and what can I say, you can take the girl out the council estate but you can’t take the council estate out of the girl.

Fast forward thirty seven years and I suppose I’ve grown accustomed to the middle-classness of my chosen path and in fact now find myself snobbily appalled by our modern lack of standards. You see, we’re never satisfied. I may no longer shudder at the mention of a pashmina or chaise-longue but there are two things still guaranteed to give me the heebie-jeebies. One is the aforementioned Q&A sessions and the other is the humble dinner party.

How so? I hear you cry but believe me dinner parties rather than being occasions of innocuous get-togethers are fraught with more hidden dangers than a mine field. The obvious hazard is alcohol which can do you in more effectively than any IED. First off I don’t know anything about wine and am just as likely to guzzle the ‘ironic’ Blue Nun as savour a Sauvignon Blanc. Dinner parties to the uneducated palate can drift into University Challenge territory. And don’t even get me started on cheese. When faced with Yarg and Roquefort how I long for a bit of cheddar.

Then comes the dinner party chit-chat where if you’ve over-imbibed you can come off like Arthur Scargill as your working classness takes umbrage at its middle class surroundings and gets all shouty and belligerent. The look of fear in the other guests’ eyes warn you to rein it in but that pesky Blue Nun is colluding with your inner working class hero to ensure you’re going to spend the next three weeks avoiding everybody you know.

I know we’re supposed to live in an inclusive society and I spend my days trying to convince young people that their origins don’t define their future. None the less it only it takes a Q&A session or a dinner party to remind me that no matter how much we think we can none of us truly disentangle ourselves from our roots. 


  1. Very good E - I feel there is, thank goodness, a blurring of the lines in this classless society we are now meant to live in, which will help the next generation but causes much confusion to ours. However it wasn't that long ago that this was really how life was and that was when our parents were growing up so it's no surprise our roots will always come through in certain situations. :-D

    1. Ha ha - thanks for reading G and I think you're right young people are far more accepting and adaptable. Thank goodness :D

  2. The class system will always be with us, and it's impossible to hide your basic background. Whatever you call the meal you have in the middle of the day, whether you eat hummus or haslet, it's in the clothes you choose, the words you use, your attitudes, and, most of all, of course, how you hold your knife and fork :) For many years, I've enjoyed seeing people who give themselves airs and graces and consider themselves to have moved several rungs up the class ladder (that they care about it at all makes them lower middle class-just-scraped-out-of-working class, of course!!), giving it all away by holding their knives like pencils.

    And none of it matters really. You get angels and arseholes in every sphere of society :D

    1. I agree T, class is irrelevant but it's funny how it rears it's head in the strangest of ways. I know we've had the Mrs Bouquet converstation before and they are the worst because it matters so much to them. I hope you realise I've just got a knife out of the drawer to check and yep I'm definitely uncouth :D In fact 9 times out of 10 I don't use my knife so I'm probably feral :D :D

    2. Oh, I don't think it's irrelevant at all. I think it makes lots of difference in all spheres of life, whether it actually should or not. What I meant by the angels and arseholes comment was that one is no 'better' than the other, just different. And holding your knife like a pencil doesn't make you uncouth, it makes you working class. You can be upper class and uncouth, or working class and a person of charm and decorum.

      Feral, I do like ;)

      Re what Sally says, below, it's about where you come from, not what you become. A working class man who goes to Cambridge is still of working class stock, though within a few generations his family may . The Beckhams are still working class oiks, no matter how much money they have. I live in a council flat at the moment (for the first time in my life - isn't it fab, you get all the repairs done for nothing!!!), but still consider myself to be middle class, because that's where I come from.

      Americans don't understand it, because they think it's about money. It so isn't!! And Sally's right, you get some of the worst snobbery amongst the working classes, who are desperate to rise up a level.

    3. My mother is hilarious as she had a posh phone voice that she uses. My sister has lived in London since she was 18 and has lost a lot of her accent until she gets fired up and then it comes out full force like a northern banshee. I agree with you that class has nothing to do with money and does seem to be uniquely British.

  3. I don't feel I fit in anywhere - some people would describe me as 'posh' (yes, I know!!! Haha) while others find me rather rude and crude. I feel my education has set me into one sphere, while my accent and background has set me into another. I don't know if this has anything to do with class or whether it's just my (rather neurotic) personality. All I know is that I find snobbery tedious (and even working class people can suffer terribly from snobbish attitudes) and that I tend to gravitate to warm, down-to-earth types. Like you, I tend to cringe in certain situations - one that comes to mind is going to an operatic evening in a tiny room in Prague once (yes, I like opera - does that hoist me out of the working class pit for a little while at least?), but at the end, a few from the audience gave a standing ovation and were shouting 'Bravo, bravo, bravo!' I can't explain why, but it really made me cringe, and I know it wasn't just me that felt this way. Quite a few people were giving each other the eye, obviously thinking, 'What the...?' I think in future I'll stay at home and listen to Radio 4!!

    1. Ha ha - it's funny how random things prick our discomfort button Sal. I've never been to the opera but I imagine I'd quite enjoy shouting 'Bravo' :D I agree with you that accent is the thing that people often judge you on. I remember years ago when the school I worked at was about to have an inspection the posh head of department came to me on the Friday and asked if I could maybe do something about my accent by Monday. I don't think even an elecution crash course with Rex Harrison could have worked that quick! :D :D

  4. First thing to come to mind is a line from John Lennons song (a working class hero): "you think you're so classless and free",
    But it catches you up in the end.
    Borne&raised "middle class " I hated as a youngster the idea of a class-based society, equal opportunities for all, starting with proper education!
    I know "upper" exists, and I do not mean the nouveau riches, but the old-branches ��
    Long, long time ago, as a kid, I dated a girl from aristocratic circles. Needless to say the relationship was "discouraged"? But still an experience of a lifetime. I've tried, learned much, and still can smile about it.
    Later a married a girl from a true working class environment. It made me realize how privileged I was, and still am.
    But.... decades later, I am starting to see, that it still catches-up. More and more I recognize "Dudley" behavior or the mother of "Mathilda" streaks. She can not help it, but she constantly reminds me that I was raised 'differently'
    C'est la vie

  5. You have just got to watch this E... As a Northerner taken away from my roots I have never lost the accent and don't intend to, never call tea supper and give guests plonk when we have a 'meal' together... relying on my cooking to wow them... or not. Eh up, woman, yer as good as any bugger else!!

  6. It is funny how like you say it doesn't matter how many years pass we still have our class quirks. Mind you if we didn't have class to get us all aerated we'd soon find something else :D