You’ll never live like common people,
you’ll never do what common people do,
you’ll never fail like common people,
you’ll never watch your life slide out of view,
and dance and drink and screw,
because there’s nothing else to do.
Pulp, ‘Common People’, 1995
This week I have had a number of interesting conversations about how we identify ourselves with social class. If you’re from England, it’s likely that this is determined by the way you pronounce the word ‘class’; if when you say it, it rhymes with ‘arse’, then a) you most probably are one and b) you are middle class.
Now, right there, that’s a total can of worms just been opened and spewing out everyewhere. Inverse class snobbery, from a middle class person who still identifies as working class. Anything I say on this topic, given my horribly prejudiced point of view, is bound to be offensive, which will be ironic given that I will mostly be insulting the class I technically belong to.
But why this total chip on my shoulder about class anyway? Surely we live in an age of equality, and people are just people? Given that I don’t usually like to define myself or others using social constructs in general, why does this bother me so much? I have been trying to analyse this question for a while. Perhaps because having grown up thinking of myself in a certain way, I am now involuntarily assigned a different social grouping, to which I feel no affinity whatsoever, and it feels uncomfortable. Just because I went to University, it doesn’t mean I will ever shop in Waitrose or take my family on a canoeing holiday in the Dordogne. I was never ‘aspirational’ in terms of dreaming about what amount of money I would like to earn or what kind of property I would like to buy. As a gifted child from a working class family, I felt that I had a duty to fulfil the potential I was told I had. I am not sure I know what that means even now, but I do know it has nothing to do with driving a Prius.
Is this attitude born out of resentment because other families may have been slightly more well off than ours when I was growing up? I don’t know, but I don’t think so. It’s not as though we went without; we had foreign holidays, but ten days in a hotel complex with a swimming pool and a children’s club is very much the same whether you’re in Spain or Malta or Paignton (we had some v hot summers on the ‘English Riviera’ in the 1980s!). What is so upsetting about the fact that I wasn’t made to use the nascent language skills I’d gained from being hothoused since birth to make the campsite reservation at the age of 8 (which is what I assume middle class families do)? Perhaps it’s because I don’t find Peter Kay’s routine about northern families on holiday very funny; to me he’s simply describing what we did when we went abroad: take your own tea bags, get burnt to a crisp, Dad sources a café that does chips and egg etc. Maybe it’s the fact that I sit there imagining middle class people laughing their snooty socks off that this, and I can’t see what’s funny about it at all.
Since I am a professional person, own a house, am well spoken and have a reasonable grasp of different varieties of wine, society views me as one of them. It’s a reasonable assumption I suppose. After all, I do read the Guardian and am overly concerned about the provenance of the meat I buy. And I use words like ‘provenance’. I can certainly fake it, if and when the situation requires, and sometimes when it doesn’t. If I happen to meet an American, for example, I will instantly morph into ms overly-polite cartoon stereotype of middle class Englishness, and say words like ‘brolly’ and ‘super’.
And admittedly, as Jarvis Cocker points out, I suppose I will never watch my life slide out of view, and dance and drink and screw, because there’s nothing else to do (but neither will he, as a one-time professional northerner who now lives in Paris I believe; un peu bourgeois, non?).
However much I may think that I blend seamlessly though, there are always some subtle giveaways. I wave my cutlery around like I’m conducting an orchestra if I’m talking at the table. I speak my mind even when in ‘polite company’. I have no freaking idea who or what Cath Kidson is. And, when I say the word ‘Class’, it rhymes with ‘ass’.