Once you use the word ‘class’ after anything, you’re inviting the whole collective cultural-imagination to have a picnic in your head.
It happens every time – angst about being disingenuous one way or another, followed by second-guessing the reaction of an anonymous person behind the screen.
Every time I encounter the class question on a theatre/literature’ monitoring form, I huff. I huff because either the self-identify boxes are labelled ‘working/middle class’ or a line containing the suggestion ‘such as working class/middle class’ is used as a lead-in to filling in a larger cell. I’m huffing on a personal level because I know that the cultural assumptions and baggage associated with either label won’t paint an approximate picture of my inner/outer landscape growing up or in the present.
I’m with Melvyn Bragg who described himself as a ‘class mongrel.’ In Bragg’s case, he elucidates this by contrasting the privileged education he received with the modest financial and social collateral he was born into. I’m with him on that too – I made a hobby out of collecting grants and scholarships that reincarnated as my relationship to Arts Council funding today. But in my case, I know my parents’ immersion in arts, culture and an anti-materialist (Hippy) perspective, despite not being from middle-income families, played a part in not being able to pigeon-hole myself for others. It is a problem. It is easy to forget how much we rely on being able to read a person on the first meeting. Being unreadable could certainly be a super-power in a world of power dynamics, but being misread? That always leads to one party or other feeling blindsided.
Added to this are the quirks of geography lived by a person. In a bid to lead a healthier, more aesthetic and peaceful life, my two caretakers moved out of inner-city Leicester to an old doer-upper in, possibly, the most upper-middle-class county in England – Rutland. Further to that, the town is owned and moulded around England’s oldest public school. In the absence of cash, foreign holidays, a car (until age ten) or the kinds of clothes the children of school masters and RAF officers wore, I knew the same schools, same mores, same beautiful farms and fields and played on friends’ ponies. My beloved market-town is a cottage-pie of church-goers, stay-at-home wives living vicariously through daughters and the sweetest, rarest of old-school tweed-wearers speaking fluent Queen’s English. There are breeds in Uppingham as endangered as the Giant Panda. I wouldn’t have it any other way. They are living in their habitat.
Is it possible I was a middle-class girl without money? I had the accent, the education and expectation of being what the girls’ school informed us we should be – one of ‘the future leaders of society.’ The differences felt invisible, except on mufti day when the borders, especially, were dripping in labelled clothes, carefully co-curated with their mums/step-mums in-put. There was a lot of second-hand shopping on my end, which at times felt problematic and definitely looked problematic as teachers sometimes pointed the odder items out – there was a pair of flat men’s brogues in the late nineties… In retrospect, my Mum’s commitment to charity shopping and economising has given me a real sense of the illusory value of stuff. Things are a bit different at this exact moment in time: June 2021. I’m not worrying about money and am full of gratitude for this in light of the global pandemic. Does this make me middle-class…because the cultures I call home are currently underpinned with solid pension contributions?
The intersecting, rogue element between the propositions above – familial situation/education and geography is the fact that I decided to be an artist – first an actor and then an ‘ACE supported’ Writer/Director. Once you set sail on a freelance creative career without the financial safety-net of a family/partner or residual income, you have to rely on self-identified definitions of self/your place in the world…perhaps drawn from childhood. You are operating outside of the economic matrix and its representatives will not appreciate this. You will feel like a failure at times, because you don’t fit and basic things seem elusive – like being in the black.
Every time I approach the class question of a theatre/literature development monitoring form I huff…and then spiral somewhat. I spiral into thinking that the cynical arts manager on the other end (grey T-Shirt, recently divorced, hasn’t washed for 24hrs, wants to be Mark Kermode) will think that I’m A: from a family of football loving, council-estate dwellers who don’t own books or B: from a family of range-rover owning Boden women and businessmen who drink £50 notes for hotel breakfasts. Fear of cultural assumptions abound.
Once you use the word ‘class’ after anything, you’re inviting the whole collective cultural-imagination to have a picnic in your head. This is both good and bad, depending on how it’s applied. Depictions of urban, working class life from sixties and eighties’ England fill the DVD collections of many with much love – they talk about who we are and of transcending a system where social mobility is still a significant effort. We root for the characters who manage it and project heroic versions of ourselves onto them. But as the years wear on, the intersections between a person’s social-economic status, education, race, income, physical/mental ability, sexuality and gender become more various for more of us…because UK society is indeed making some progress. Progress in identifying these variables and opening doors of opportunity means that: it’s possible to be a black woman with an empire of intellectual property and mass social-media following, or an artist identifying as working class with a family who own a lucrative trade franchise. In these examples there are dominant factors which have determined a person’s agency and lack of it. Add to this the gene lottery of physical appearance and its influence on decision-making and the variable-soup becomes even murkier – the boxes become less articulate.
Before asking a writer/artist/maker which ‘class’ group they identify with, surely it’s more important to interrogate what we actually want to know. I believe we are interested in assessing disadvantage and privilege – two words so much more exact than ‘class,’ which is a semantic free-for-all or…a theorist’s picnic. I would personally advocate for approaching class, similarly to gender and sexuality, as a loose spectrum of privilege or disadvantage on which some of the nebulous intersections are recognised. I appreciate the monitoring forms are efforts towards this…we’re not quite there are we?
Nothing can be definitive when we understand people as unique knots of intersecting variables. No computer can undo us. However, we can move away from the boxes which belong to Rita Tushingham characters and Margo and Jerry in The Good Life, not to mention, you know, – Dickens. This is our cultural inheritance, but bringing that baggage to diversity monitoring with the term ‘class’ doesn’t necessarily help the cause of progress.
As I write, there is a lot of important hoopla occurring about teaching ‘White Privilege’ in schools. White privilege, like class, is a theory, and in the hands of trained teachers, will be taught as such – not used as a tool for liberal indoctrination or a dominant topic that will overshadow the plight of underprivileged white children. We should no more take race theory out of the curriculum than we should political theories that oppose Capitalism…
Not giving young people the opportunity to make educated choices? That is one certain way to reduce social mobility and confidence in the structures that keep us in our place…