On being ‘working class’.....
by Sarah Gregory
Blood only meant something when it meant nothing at all.
When I was born it was thicker than water.
When I grew up it was connected to the earth.
Blood, soil, family
I was it, it was me.
I would fight for it, I would die for, it. I was proud of it, it was me.
It was a label that kept me in prison and I could not see the wood for the trees.
I didn't know anything else, I did not need to. This kept me safe, it kept me protected. It meant I was me.
She lit a candle for those that she never met, that died for her cause. He spent his life in a small square, with white walls and matchsticks.
You judged from your point of privilege but they showed me their inner soul and their peace.
That was where I found me.
I always straddled two shifting narratives. My working class roots meant I was raised on a diet of blood and soil because that was all we had. My devotion and passion for social justice wasn’t nurtured in a vacuum. I was a part of the stolen milk generation, I had my free school meals, I saw the miners and my memories and class have always powered my politics. On the inside I was the same, just like everyone else, I knew all the idiosyncrasies without the uttering of any words.
It was on the outside that I was different and that could not be buried, hidden or reduced to nothingness. The difference was too much to ask or bear in a community that's tied together by what was the same.
The othering of otherness was always apparent. I could see my reflection in their eyes and I was never to be accepted. From there my double consciousness grew. “I felt my twoness; two souls, two thoughts, two unrecognised strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body.” (Du Bois)
For many years I’ve had to adjust to living in a comfortable paradox, understanding how life is just one big contradiction. I understand how an intense love can encase a measurable revulsion. An internal dialogue, judgment and debate has always concluded that my status sits comfortably in a working class paradigm, even though others perceptions and my reality has not always fully reflected it.
"Will they think we are common?" is an echo that I still hear, because it was something that my nan always used to say, upon meeting new people. I believe what she really meant was “will they think we were good enough?”
Common is one of those words that has multiple meanings and can beautifully be attached to both highlighting our similarities as ordinary people and to the perceived lack of refinement and vulgarity associated with the lower echelons of society.
My Nan’s ideas of what it was to be common were rooted in her awareness of class and where she stood in the pecking order. Although she wasn't invested in raising her social status, she was attuned and affected by the external judgements, therefore we all were.
No holes, no creases, no marks on our faces were permitted (cue the spit on the tissue and a wipe of the face).
“Looking like you had walked through a hedge backwards was never an option, even if you had enjoyed doing so.”
The class system in the UK is an institution. Old money, new money, education, inheritance and marriage can all affect your social strata. But whether you are ever accepted upon movement or want to be in another category is debatable.
What is working class? Is it an adjective? A noun? A way of life? A social grouping? Potential definitions seem endless: those that work, those that don't, those who are educated, with those that never went to school, social standing, living in council accommodation, participating in the unskilled workforce, no inheritance to speak of.
I wonder if there is still room for these broad-based definitions as we become more connected and aware of the complex realities of each other’s lives. Can we justify and maintain the use of these labels that not only constrict us but continue to create an environment that fosters a culture, of us or them rather than us and them?
Is a feeling enough to determine your class? Are you either in or out?
Is there a club you can join? Who decides? Can you just be what you say you are? How fluid is it? Could socioeconomic status really be the key defining factor to your class? And do we really have to buy into this to get on?
Does allowing the lowest earners in your society to occupy the status of working class permit individuals to feel less restricted and comfortable within their own skin and identities?
Does your class status really denote your level of intelligence, your ability to think, feel and grow?
I wish I’d recognised this when I went to University, I was forever trying to bend, mould and shape myself. In a red brick cosmopolitan environment I was still held back by my accent. Intelligent enough to be there, not enough to speak.
It took me a long time to realise that my background only enriched and enhanced my understanding, rather than holding it back.
“I’m working class, but I have a masters.”
What does that even mean?
My father-in-law has always identified himself as working class, for years this confused me because he was nothing like the working class I knew. He had a clear line of aristocracy in his family, there was money, members of his family went to Cambridge, there was strong left wing politics, doctorates galore, six figure cheques signed in the 1800s and a talk of inheritance. He was working class because as the definition states, he had been employed for wages and undertaken manual labour.
A comedian said, “If you get the chance to join the middle classes do it, the conversation is more shit, but the food is more interesting”
Is the concept of class becoming more fluid? Is there still a race to the bottom with gentrification?
Is the attraction the proximity to the raw source? Without romanticising and fetishizing a life of poverty, I saw many families with limited finances spare for additional art classes, music lessons and houses filled with toys. Life at times could be harsh and childhoods were interrupted by social realities and pressures. The nature of living drove passion and determination from a raw source in the same equal measures that it raised a battered and defeated generation. People lived in and for the moment.
A double edged sword sticks out from the hearts of these vibrant, supportive, close-knit communities. Amongst the hardship there is pain, loss and abandonment. Apathy and disappointment breeds contempt and not everyone moves on.
This feeds into a wider conversation about the system of governance we have and the ordering of our society.
These days I simply won’t allow anyone to determine my working class identity. It’s my bildungsroman and I’ve earned my badges and my scars. My journey has taught me my accent does not make my opinion invalid, that I don’t need to justify my working class roots, because you can be ‘of something’ whilst not ‘in something’.