Friday, 19 January 2018

Fear and Self-Loathing in the Suburbs

There has been a lot of talk lately about working class writers.

What do you say when some one asks you what class you are? Do you know what class you are? I am not not sure that I know how to answer that question anymore. I definitely grew up working class - five of us lived in a two bedroomed council house. My dad worked in industry - although he was not a labourer but had a skilled job as an engineering draughtsman. I left school at 16. I was on the dole. I did a series of unskilled and labour intensive jobs - farm work, cleaning, warehouse work, catering. It was only in my late twenties that I began to study and therefore improve my lot. I trained as a nursery nurse and became a pre-school supervisor. I trained and became (albeit briefly) a reflexologist. Then at 40 I had an epiphany quit my job and went back to study full time - first doing a creative writing degree and then a poetry MA. Therein is the heart of the problem - I feel both working class and middle class at the same time. Basically I feel like I don't quite fit in either camp.

This is why I have a problem with the question 'where are all the working class writers?' To me it seems that if you are a writer the act of writing itself means that perhaps you are no longer working class. I feel like on some levels getting educated made me middle class. I feel working class and I can certainly write about my own working class experiences, however, looked out from the outside my life might seem very middle class. I work in the arts - teaching, writing, mentoring etc. I live in a middle class area (although I am poor and rent my house). I have a degree and an MA (and the corresponding massive student debt). My son went to university and did an MA. Our house is full of books and art stuff. I go to live literature events. When I can afford it I go to the theatre. I moved house because my son was unhappy and I wanted him to go to a better school. So as you can see on a lot of levels I am middle class now - however I have never felt like I quite fit in. I rent my house rather than owning it (some one once described my end of the street as 'the common end' - meaning lots of rentals). I was a single parent. My career started late, so consequently I don't have the advantages of years in a decent job.

The book I am working on is not really about class - although class does come into it. It is more about identity (and threat to identity). It is about what shapes and defines us - and in this collection at least it examines the things that threaten both us and our identity - things people say and do, ways we cause pain and discomfort to one another, conflict (familial, local, global), the stories we tell our families and those our families tell us, the stories we tell ourselves.


Unknown said...

I have been thinking about this a lot recently too... My upbringing was possibly lower than working class (let's pretend that's a thing :) ! )... we were extremely poor, we were homeless, we had to move due to defaulting payment on accommodation or just bad luck / circumstances. We rarely had enough to eat (My parents had 5 children including me), and household items I now take for granted were scarce. But I was very fortunate to have a good head on my shoulders, and fluked some good exam results! So I got into a lot of debt, I took (a lot) of help where I could and I worked my way through university, with basically no money... But I did it. I now have a very good job (Marketing Director) and am living an almost unimaginably different life. Does that make me no longer working class? I don't feel working class. But many of experiences are of being working class. I find it strange that people identify as working class writers, or maybe I would just feel slightly fraudulent to do that... I don't know... Not sure what my point is, except that I there are lots of working class people out there who probably just don't want to talk about there lives in that way - or would feel disingenuous to do so.

Tim Love said...

When I was born my parents were lodgers in a 2-up 2-down terrace house. I grew up as one of 4 kids in a 3 bedroomed council house. My father always worked in the dockyard. My mother never worked. So I can claim a working class upbringing. I went to UEA at 18. But now I must be middle class. Given that I work at Cambridge Univ, I might even be considered elitist. To add to my confusion my wife's Italian - we watch Italian TV most nights. Where do I belong? Dunno, but I don't feel that it's something I want to explore or get out of my system, or be threatened by. I just get on with things. Tutto fa brodo.

Julia said...

I think we have just proved between us that class is complex issue. Maybe it is a redundant term.

Peter said...

Great post Juila, and interesting comments from Tim and Stephen. I think in today's world where people are self-identifying, we can choose to say who or what we are (within reason of course - I'm thinking here of how ridiculous Piers Morgan was/is when talking with trans people). I identify as working class - I spent thirty years in Coventry, like you doing odd jobs and being on the dole - but I now have three degrees and live the type of life style others would consider as being middle class. But I ask myself why can't a working class person have a degree, go to the theatre, read books, or whatever else wider society deems as being a certain class activity? It is fine for academics and to a certain extent policy makers to stratify society, but the media and producers of art tend to have negative perceptions of what working class is when portraying them, which I think is a big problem. Thanks again Julia for an interesting post and i look forward to the poems you mention. Peter x

Julia said...

Thanks Peter. I think you are right the media does have a lot to answer for in terms of negative perceptions of what working class is. Some of this may stem from Thatcher's time when everyone was encouraged to be aspirational and better themselves (although these attitudes may go back as far as the industrial revolution - Dickens writes a lot about old money versus new money).