All my life I’ve been told that ‘class is a redundant term in British society’ -that there is no such thing.
I come from a working class background, and in the arts, activist and feminist communities I ‘belong’ to this frequently marks me as an outsider, but one whose difference is frequently invisible and unacknowledged. Despite this I feel different.
I was born in Rotherham South Yorkshire, my father left school with no formal academic qualifications and worked in the steel industry until he got made redundant and brought me up instead. My mother was the first person in her family to go to University and supported us by working as an academic librarian, but she was an oddity in our family, the smart and educated one. As a child I lived on estates with high instances of poverty and low instances of aspiration. Most of the girls I hung out with then have families of their own now. We didn’t stay in touch.
I don’t tell you this to earn brownie points because of my background, I tell you because it is true, and it is an important part of who I am.
Most of the people I know who come from a background similar to mine and belong to the same communities I do have issues with belonging, assimilation and survival. For me these began when I started infant school, when i moved and started mixing with new people. I’ve always been interested in music, art and am academically able, so the people I tended to make friends with were the kids in the drama clubs, the kids who played in the school orchestra, the kids who listened at school and got stars for their achievement. when I started hanging out at their houses it became apparent to me that we came from different places. for the first time I became embarrassed to take my friends round to my house, because I knew compared to theirs it was so much smaller and shabbier. Feeling shame at who you are and where you come from, from such an early age is strange and has a profound effect on you, whether you like it or not. I was teased by the people on the estate for being posh and teased by my new friends for being common. I couldn’t win. The accusation began that I was a snob, that ‘thought i was better than them’. Around this time I vividly remember my dad sitting me down and playing me ‘working class hero’ by John Lennon and describing his identification with the bitter lyrics ‘They hate you if you’re clever and they despise a fool, Till you’re so fucking crazy you can’t follow their rules’. As depressing as it was, it was still nice to know someone else kinda got it.
As time went on I gradually became more and more aware that I wanted to different things from the people I grew up with. I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted, but I knew that i didn’t want to be a mum early in my life and that I was not going to stay in that village forever. After a brief period of wavering when I told my mum that I would never go to university because it was full of posh people and I wasn’t bright enough (a statement which was met with quiet horror) i eventually cottoned onto the fact that me being a straight A student was the best ticket I had out. So I threw myself into my studies big time, so much so that things started to go wrong. I became so obsessed with needing to get good GCSE results so I could go to college and prove myself that I started revising six – eight hours a day. I also stopped eating. which is a different but entwined story.
By the time I went to uni I had grown up a bit, got perspective and let go a little of my mantra of ‘academic achievement at all costs’. I had accepted that my difference was part of me, it wasn’t something I could deny or change, it was just there. Despite this i still had terse arguments with the nice middle class boys I dated about being working class, they were often embarrassed by the privilege of their own backgrounds (which wasn’t punk rock or socialist or whatever bullshit) and responded to this by sneering at mine. I remember vividly a row in sainsburys with someone I still adore to pieces who told me that i couldn’t be either working class or from a working class background and buy a certain type of orange juice. when he finally met my family he hushed up a bit.
‘When i went to University I got told I wasn’t working class anymore. Some know it all boy had read a sociology book and wanted us all to know how working class is defined by ignorance. We know that going to University makes us strangers on our estates but our backgrounds make us strangers at University. We don’t aspire to be fucking middle class, that’s disgusting, be we want and need to be educated and we’re not going to ignore our backgrounds to do it’ Huggy Bear
This sense of difference and alienation persists for me, every so often it raises its head and makes me uneasy. Whether its in my accent which changes frequently (and annoyingly) to reflect the company i’m in, or the weird sense of dislocation and discomfort I sometimes get when I go home, or the feeling of being an outsider in my occupation (there are so few working class people in museums and galleries the Museum Association have started grant schemes to address this but again that’s another story). A lot of the same ‘contradictions’ remain, I abhor casual racism and sexual violence which is, unfortunately still prevalent in SOME parts of working class communities. I’m vegetarian. I’m a socialist. I’m worse than queer. I’ve a postgraduate qualification. I think art has the power to change the world in astoundingly positive ways. I flit between attending prestigious gallery launches with work and drinking cheap gin in working men’s clubs with my family; and I feel comfortable and uncomfortable in both these places. This is just part of the weird confusing world. But what I do know is this; where I come from is part of who I am; its not just in the past and it does matter.
The American writer Michelle Tea calls her exploration of growing up working class and female ‘Without a Net’ and that’s pretty spot on summing up my experiences. There is a sense that whatever you do you are on your own, because financially you will always have to support yourself, if you fuck up, or get it wrong, no one can bail you out. The upside to this, that although you might have to work twice as hard (working two jobs, doing an MA part time and volunteering at weekends is what it took for me to even get a foot in the door in working in the arts, when other people were gaining amazing experience supporting themselves through their unpaid interships with their trust funds). It might take twice as long, but when you get there (if you get there) you know you did it on your merits and your abilities alone. It makes you brave, resourceful and determined. Because this is the only option you have.