Tags: class


A sense of class

Several years ago, a Chinese colleague asked me how he could tell what social class someone British belonged to. I opened my mouth, hesitated, and said, 'Ummm' a lot. Because in that moment, I realised that I simply did not have a straightforward answer to that question. I could, reliably, assess the social class of pretty much every Briton I met. I'd learnt to do that from my earliest days. But I didn't know a shortcut. I think in the end I suggested he look at food choices, knowing at the time that that was probably of little help, as being able to make that assessment itself depended on knowing nuances that he might not recognise. I can define class, assign class, recognise class within my culture, but except in the broadest way, I cannot easily explain how I do it. It's made up of numerous little things, expressed in dress and speech and posture, food and expectations, politics and cars and television programmes. I am first generation lower middle class. The marquis is solid upper middle class, and rooted in it for at least 4 generations. My friend A is middle middle class, as is friend B, but there are substantive differences between them based on region. My friend C, on the other hand, is a classic class traitor (ahem), born into the working class but deliberately assimilated into the upper middle class. My current next door neighbours are way posher than me and I'm a bit scared of them, but beyond them is an upper working class family who I really like and find easy to chat to. To the best of my knowledge I don't know any members of the British Upper class, let alone the aristocracy, though I do know several people who are definitely much, much higher up the social ladder than me (and who as a result are sometimes almost incomprehensible to me in certain ways). From time to time, friend D (who comes from a very similar background to mine) and I get together and shake our heads over the class-based weirdness of some of those we know. I like all these people, but how I react to them, my comfort level in talking to them, and the degree to which I and they experience moments of dissonance varies considerably according to class.

Or, at least, it does for me. It's a peculiarity of people like me -- first generation left-wing lower middle class -- that we tend to be class-conscious. Some of that is about training. The UK, like it or not, is a hierarchical culture and people react to you according to where you sit in that. The lower middle are a bit too posh for the working class, but rather suspect to the middle and upper middle (don't ask me about the upper class. They're outside my experience). It's a curse of the lower middle that we are hyper-aware of this, and always rather anxious about it, partly from embarrassment, partly from fear, and as a result we are also rather annoying. Tell me I have a class-based chip on my shoulder, and I have to hold up my hands in acknowledgement. I have known, as long as I can remember, that there are places where I don't belong and wherein I have to be extra good. I've been taught from birth to notice where I don't fit and to feel obliged to try not to make others uncomfortable about that. (Well, except about politics. My socialist beliefs go as deep as my class consciousness, and are central to who I am and to my definition of correct, ethical behaviour.)

A number of my upper middle class friends find this awareness of mine very irritating (and I don't blame them). They don't have this sense and they don't see the need for it. I find this interesting, too. They're higher up the tree than me: they don't need to notice as much as I do. As in any hierarchy, the better your position, the more relaxed you can be. None of them are bad people, not in the least. They're just different to me. But class shapes everything in this country, and we cannot, however we try, get away from it. There's a healthy dollop of class snobbery in the broadsheet dismissal of reality television, for instance and the perpetual gas-lighting of certain food choices as simply 'bad' without allowing for factors about price and access and cooking facilities. Sometimes this is easy to see: tabloid sneering at those receiving state benefits, the very different treatment meted out by gossip columnists to pop stars from working class and middle class backgrounds; stereotypes of public schoolboys and chinless wonders. Sometimes it's all but invisible: the ins and outs of how public funding ends up being used and assigned, the places that are written off without any apparent notice, the people who are deemed to be, in the words of George Bernard Shaw, "the undeserving poor". The current Tory project to clear the deficit entirely through cuts is rooted in one understanding of class rights and privileges. The call, in the late 1970s, by Labour Chancellor Dennis Healey to 'tax the rich until they squeak' is rooted in another. (Anyone who's known me for more than about 20 minutes can guess, I suspect, which of those positions I'm more comfortable with.)

And it stacks. Like everything else in our uneven, unfair, hierarchical culture, class intersects with gender and race and sexuality and ableism in ways that can be deeply, deeply damaging and toxic and cruel (and that's one reason why denials of the effect of class are themselves so suspect, as they discount things which can really harm).

When my 12 year-old self went into the lobby of a 5 star hotel just to look, along with my mother, she said to me beforehand that she hoped they wouldn't mind, and both of us looked around with the same reverence we would have accorded a church or museum. I didn't know why, I just knew she felt that we didn't belong there, and therefore had to be extra polite. When my 18 year-old self was made to feel she didn't really belong in her university, it took me a while to realise that that wasn't because these new people could read my mind and knew I wasn't good enough, it was that they heard my short vowels and regional phrases, assessed where I got my clothes, considered what I chose to ate and pegged me, precisely, as a lower middle class girl from the midlands, who wasn't *quite* one of them. I loved the place anyway, because it let me sit in the library all day and read and my favourite lecturer, though he teased me unmercifully about my vowels, encouraged me as a student, made me feel bright, and supported me every step of the way. But my social circle as an undergraduate, by and large, was made up of people who, like me, came from what might now be called non-traditional backgrounds and I knew better than to try and be part of the famous shiny things which were marked out as the territory of the established upper middle and upper classes. I knew they weren't for me, like that 5 star hotel. I've always known, and I reproduce that everyday. It trips my tongue about, for instance, self-promotion (not done by women of my class); it inhibits me about trying for things ('that's not for people like me'). It gets everywhere and effects everything in British daily life.

But I couldn't explain it to my Chinese friend, not without talking for hours and trying to explain what is, in some ways, inexplicable (seriously, some of my upper middle class friends swear that this is not so and are utterly baffled by me, and that's fair enough). I could, of course, have pointed him to the classic The Frost Report class sketch:

but it is itself embedded in knowledge of how the system works and what the signals are -- and it's dated, rather, and it's all about men. I could only in the end umm and ahh and talk about table manners, because that's how it works, that's how it replicates, by being everywhere and in everything and being so very, very hard to explain.

Skirt of the day: blue flags (not the flower, but the cut -- it has vertical layers and a jagged hem, as if banners have been sewn to it).