New Internationalist Issue 281
Who would have thought what the consequences of uttering the word 'ambiance' might be? Alan Hughes describes the anguish that comes with the class system in Britain.
'Come on you lot, I wanna gettoff 'ome tonight.'
My Uncle Ken, his sons Stephen and Andy and myself were lingering in the huge upper tier of the Holte End at Aston Villa Football Club, Birmingham. I'd travelled up that day from Oxford for the last home game of the season. It was strange going back to my working-class roots, to the world where I once worked in a Dudley factory as a sheetmetal worker.
In Oxford, where I've lived and worked for the past 11 years, things are very different. There I'm a graphic designer and purportedly middle class. Still, sitting here with my relatives in the warm late-May sunshine felt good. Like going home.
We were reluctant to leave the ground, choosing instead to soak up the end-of-season atmosphere. In mock despair a steward was imploring us to vacate the now-almost-empty stadium, which only moments before had been awash in a sea of claret and blue, the club colours.
'It's okay,' I replied to the impatient, grey-haired man dressed in a violently luminous orange waistcoat, 'we're just taking in the ambiance'.
I couldn't believe it. I just said it. The word came out of my mouth, italicized for emphasis, as though I had no control over it. I groaned inwardly. He looked at me as if I was from another planet.
'Am you takin' the piss, mate?' he queried, now more menacingly.
'No honest, I...' my voice trailed off as I looked round to see my relatives staring at me in disbelief.
'Listen to 'im, 'e talks posh, don't 'e?' Stephen said in his broad Black Country accent. Ken and Andy nodded in agreement, with expressions on their faces that suggested they'd lost me to some strange religious sect.
We left the stadium in a shroud of awkward silence that was only broken when news came through that one of Villa's rivals had lost. The mood lightened but the damage had been done. Somehow, that single word had condemned me as a class traitor. But what did that mean? Who, or what, was I betraying?
I feel I'm stuck somewhere between the two classes and in some ways I hate it, you know, not feeling I belong anywhere.
We joined a jubilant throng of Villa supporters in a pub close to the ground. The talk was of football. Shouting above the din I changed the subject.
'So you think I'm posh, do you Ste'?' I asked, somewhat nervously.
As I spoke I noticed his huge hands were splattered with dried paint of differing hues. Ken had been a painter and decorator all his working life and his sons had joined him when they left school.
'Well, you've lost your accent for a start, ain't yer?' returned Stephen.
We managed to grab an empty table while Ken and Andy headed for the bar and were soon swallowed up by the raucous crowd. I wondered if I'd ever see them again.
'Yes, I suppose I have,' I answered defensively, 'but I live in a different world now'.
'Ya mean, with the middle class.'
'Yes, and I have to be able to communicate with them. Having an almost unintelligible accent would make that impossible.'
'So they wouldn't understand me?'
'I'm as good as them.'
'I know, I'm just saying...'
Somebody bumped into us and a portion of his beer ended up on my trouser leg. By now the pub resembled the inside of a claret-and-blue sardine can. The walls vibrated as a hundred voices smote the air with repeated choruses of inane chanting. I began again.
'I suppose, what I'm saying is, well, the two worlds are very different.'
'Per'aps they am, but they think they'm betta than us, don't they?'
'I suppose some of them do, yes.'
'An' what about you, what do you think?'
'I'm in the middle...'
'Ya mean, middle class?'
'No, er, yes. I mean, it's complicated. Oh, fuck knows.'
Ken and Andy returned from their expedition to the bar. Beer spilled everywhere as they plonked down a quartet of pints and several packets of crisps. I rubbed at the wet patch on my trouser leg. It felt uncomfortable.
'What yer talkin' about?' asked Ken as he sat down.
'Fuckin' clever types who think they'm betta than us,' answered Stephen as he picked up his pint. Leaning forward he took several huge gulps, emptying almost half the glass in an instant. I opened a packet of crisps, grabbed a handful and handed the packet round.
'They're not all like that...'
'Am you like them?'
'They say I am. I mean, I have a degree. I work in a profession. I go to dinner parties and drink Beaujolais. And I talk "posh". I suppose that makes me like them.'
'An' what am we like, then?'
'Well, you're supposed to be thick, inarticulate and pig-out on a diet of junk food and tabloid TV.'
'Ya see, they think they'm superior to us.'
'Of course they're not, but they do have advantages.'
'Education for a start. They'll go to any lengths to make sure their kids get a good one. And most of them are left money or property by parents or relatives so they're always one step ahead of the rest. To be honest, I reckon whatever happens to them, they always come up smelling of roses.'
'So what happens to us. Do we always get the worst of it?'
'Well, who's gonna leave us pots of money? And besides, the education system is geared to cream off the smartest. There's never any time to let the others catch up and develop their talents. When I left school in 1963, at the age of 15, most of us were herded into factories, diploma-less and almost fucking brainless.'
'It's like that today, ain't it?'
'Yeh, except nowadays working-class kids queue up on the dole. So nothing has really changed. The status quo remains intact.'
'That's a pop group,' observed Andy with a mischievous glint in his eye.
'But you managed to move out, eh? You left the factory and left us behind,' continued Stephen, ignoring his brother's attempt at humour.
'I was lucky I suppose. But does that make me a class traitor?'
'What do you think?'
'I don't know. That's the honest answer. I feel I'm stuck somewhere between the two classes and in some ways I hate it, you know, not feeling I belong anywhere. But it's what I wanted. And I wanted it so badly I burned bridges. In my rush to get away I wanted to deny my past, even the way I spoke. I still feel bad about that. Guilty, I suppose. And yet...'
Just then a muscular, lanky youth, sporting a haircut from a Nuremberg rally and a cavernous mouth that lacked several front teeth, slapped Stephen on his back with such force that my relative and his chair were projected several centimetres forward. A bout of male banter ensued. I leaned back, supped at my beer and contemplated our conversation. Those words kept coming back to me. Traitor. Betrayal. Guilt. What did it all mean? What was so bad about my previous life? Why did I want my new one so badly?
I was certainly contemptuous of many of the people I worked with in the factory. I was appalled by their apathy and apparent willingness to settle for the cheap dreams offered by consumerism. I hated the way anything regarded as intellectual was derided. And the renowned philistinism prevalent amongst the uglier sections of the working class is still being proclaimed a virtue. It isn't clever to boast about not being clever.
I wanted, and still want, them to see that knowledge is power. That failure does not have to be their fate, and waiting to win the lottery will never get them, or the rest of us, anywhere. As John Lennon said, they are living someone else's dream, it's not even their own.
Well, I certainly had no allegiance to all that. So when I say I'm proud to be working class, what am I proud of?
I'm proud to be descended from the millions of women, men and children who sweated blood in the world's factories, shipyards and mines, and from the workers who fought and died for a better world. I'm proud of the old working-class sense of community and decency that seems to have long since vanished.
But whatever the reason, I wanted out. I craved the world of the intellectual and progressive. I read books, got myself politicized and eventually, through the auspices of what was left of the welfare state, went to college. I gained a degree and eventually moved to the city of dreaming spires. But when I got there I didn't fit in. There were new rules to learn, new games to play.
The midday meal changed from working-class dinner to middle-class lunch. Fish fingers metamorphosed into smoked salmon and people threw snippets of French into their conversation. Dis donc!
'Well, I'll tell yer...' said Stephen, his friend now creating havoc at the next table. Stephen motioned Andy for another pint. It was Andy's round. He gathered the now-empty glasses, turned, took a deep breath then headed in the general direction of the bar and vanished once more into the noisy mass of bodies. '...all I know is that we are still here and still being shat on from a great height. But no fuckin' smart arse is gonna tell me what to do.' He banged the table with his fist.
I looked at Ken. He winked. He adored his sons. They adored him.
Perhaps that's it. Perhaps I'm riddled with guilt at creating a sort of success and leaving behind family and friends to sink or swim in the free-market nightmare of Nineties Britain. And, for all my confusion, do I feel guilty because I actually enjoy quite a lot of my new life?
'My God, I've got middle-class angst!'
'What?' said Stephen looking surprised at my outburst.
'Oh, nothing. Just thinking out loud.'
Suddenly the conversation dried up. I chomped on a handful of crisps and listened to the communal singing that had continued unabated. I surveyed the scene. It was depressingly male-dominated; all tattooed arms, farting, belching and gross, lager-bloated stomachs. Somebody close to our table was re-acquainting himself with his breakfast. This didn't feel like home. I wasn't proud of this. But did Oxford really feel any better?
My position in the scheme of things - in the middle, as it were - might cause me some unease but it does allow me to straddle the two worlds, taking metaphorical temperature readings. I feel like a kind of cultural anthropologist; observing, taking notes. And as I flit from one to the other what I see is disturbing.
I see the gap widening between each group, both becoming more wary and distrustful of the other. The stereotypes remain stubbornly intact. I see scared people scrambling to compete for a slice of an ever-decreasing economic pie.
I see the working class; low-achieving, lacking confidence, willingly accepting their fate, destructively turning in on themselves; drug abuse, crime and violence. Or turning outwards, looking for scapegoats; black people, women, Jews, lesbians and gay men. Easy targets for the panic-stricken. And then, with money they don't have, they embark on an orgy of spending, being conned into buying anything they see.
I see an increasingly nervous middle class with their traditional values of hard work and thrift under threat. The spectre of unemployment and insecurity now hangs over them and they are more than willing to pull up the ladder on the masses below. Still insisting there's no such thing as class, their acclaimed bonhomie has become an intolerant scowl.
As for me? I continue to live in my cultural limbo land - feeling guilt at betraying what remains of the struggle for working-class emancipation, then thanking God I'm not there any more; still reacting to middle-class cerebral intimidation and thanking God I'm here, reading my books, visiting the opera and drinking good wine.
'Perhaps you're truly classless?' said Stephen, as though he'd been reading my thoughts.
'My God, perhaps I am...'
He then winked at his dad, looked back at me and smiled warmly.
'But don't worry Al, whatever you are, we still love ya.'
Alan Hughes has been a graphic designer at the New Internationalist for 11 years.
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