Middle-class writers will never understand working-class people

Watching the middle class talk about us is a source of huge frustration

30th June 2020

Shakespeare, The Beatles, The Arctic Monkeys, Grime, Ken Loach, L.S. Lowry, Adele, Idris Elba, Michael Sheen… the list of working-class artists who have defined Britain’s culture is huge.

And yet, their work doesn’t only belong to the working class even if it’s about it. In fact, the more successful and highly regarded it becomes, the more it is considered as above or beyond the working-class — as though the community that produced it can no longer fathom it.

The idea certain parts of culture belong to certain classes seems stupid and it’s clear you can be poor and well-read, artistic, creative, smart and expressive. And, that being working-class doesn’t mean you have to like Mrs Brown’s Boys and think books are only good for being doorstops.

This is because of one important factor that is never discussed. The conflict of being economically working class but “culturally middle class”.

We’re quite angry we’ve been robbed and it’s a generational problem

A part of our changing culture involves a dirty secret most working-class people don’t want to admit. While our elders will swear blind we should be proud of our backgrounds (after all, if we’re successful we’ve genuinely had to overcome a lot of limitations), the truth is, deep down, we don’t want to be working-class. We’re sick of it and have been for years.

Irish working-class poet Seamus Heaney, who turned down the job of poet laureate, wrote about that conflict in his poem, Digging. He admires the physicality of his forefathers’ jobs but recognises he won’t be like them.

But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.

The rub is that the mechanism for ceasing to be working-class while still drawing breath is social mobility; which was misunderstood by our parents who didn’t have access to it and has been bludgeoned to death by people who don’t need it.

We were robbed of the idea working hard would be rewarded

The millennial working-class were told as children that if we made it to university, we would be set. Our parents, god bless them, genuinely believed that to be the case. For a while, it was. They can’t be blamed for not knowing better. So a bunch of kids worked hard and got to uni, free at first, then a grand a year, then three, then nine. During that time, there was a goddamn recession and austerity. Which meant an awful lot of working-class kids, running from crap mining towns and poverty they couldn’t conceptualise until they made it to higher education, were suddenly trapped. We’d effectively paid for the privilege of knowing which old books we should read and that’s it. The tool of social mobility was taxed, then broken and we were robbed of the idea working hard would be rewarded.

“Remember, being working-class isn’t defined by your cultural reserve. It’s defined by your economics”

But what that means is, the working class is longer comprised of those only capable of menial, yet paradoxically, backbreaking labour but lots of bookish people thoroughly fucked off that the system failed them.

Maybe that seems obvious to you. What is less obvious is the difficulty of returning to those towns and parents, apparently having done better for getting to university but a failure for not turning that experience into a better life, like your parents fully believed you would. Not to mention the social and discord between the classmates who did and didn’t go to uni and the confusion and guilt of realising you aren’t like the people around you. It’s not that you think you’re better, is that you feel like you squandered an opportunity you were very lucky to have and now you’re trapped between two classes. One of which won’t have you because you’re not successful enough to pay the entry fee and another that secretly resents your opportunity, soften accent and smart-arsery.

Remember, being working-class isn’t defined by your cultural reserve. It’s defined by your economics. The kids that went to university and the kids that stay are home are all working class but their exposure to culture is very different.

A note about politics and denial

Despite what national newspapers would have you believe, the working class don’t get together as one and decide who or what we’re going to vote for. Think about it. The Tories are in power and Brexit is coming. You’d have to believe a large, culturally and socially diverse group spanning people aged 18 to below the average age of death (because we work ourselves into the grave, statistically speaking, of course) formally and with annoying regularity votes against its interests. And while poor people are found to more generous than the rich in countless studies, we’re not so generous we want the toffs who will benefit from all that to be even richer at our expense.

Don’t get me wrong, I wish we were more organised and uniform. As the black sheep of the Marx brothers wrote: “Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another.”

And we’d love the chance to do some class oppression, just for once, as a treat. We’d like to be able to control the economics of another class and see how you like it but, that said, even if we did have political power, it would never be uniform.

I have joked with friends that the worst conceivable being would be a working-class, Tory-voting Scouser — the depth of that class-betrayal is unfathomable. And, because it would be much worse for that being to exist than not, they must exist. That person is out there. (Bet you didn’t think I’d tie Marx’s theory of political influence to Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God did you? Well, that’s because you are classist, sorry).

The point of this is, if you are writing about the politics of being working class please consider the scope of it and try to avoid blaming all of us for the shitty things only a small proportion of us do. And it is a small proportion — among the poorest social groups, made up of shop workers, labourers, casual workers, benefit claimants and state pensioners, less than 22% of people actually voted Tory. This drops to 9% among people aged 18-34. It’s hardly the Tory landslide.

As a group, we are defined by our worse elements, elements, by virtue of proximity, we hate more than you do

This aside, we know much more clearly than you the sins of our class. We witness them first hand — the kind of crime written about by middle-class people about working-class people happens on our doorsteps and we — working-class people — are usually the victims. Believe it or not, we also don’t like crime!

Perhaps the difference is if we fall into those traps and that pattern of behaviour, which we would be more harshly punished for than members of the middle and upper-class, we tend not to get a second chance. We’ve no safety net to fall back on and we are very, very aware of that. One of the primary motivators for working-class children to go to university (hah!) or grab any opportunity foolish enough to find itself on a council estate is our parent despise that behaviour. We despise that behaviour.

As a group, we are defined by our worse elements, elements, by proximity, we hate more than you do. We don’t need your help in spotting when something has gone wrong. If we need help, it’s in dealing with why things are going wrong so consistently.

We know it’s boring (I’m nearly done) and we’re bored too but hear us out

Recently, on Twitter, I stumbled across two editors at a major, national newspaper mocking the idea of the inevitable classism pitches they were going to receive about the shaming of people visiting beaches in their thousands as lockdown eased in the UK.

Now, I’m not going to say who they were because A) I don’t think they’re really classist having published past articles on class, B) editors can more clearly see the exhausting trends of political discussion than most people and C) I know which side my bread is buttered on.

They may have been reacting to Jess Evans’ piece in a similar vein, commenting on the classism of mocking queues outside of Primark. I have to admit, even I had mocked that idea at the time. To me it wasn’t about class, it was about rampant consumerism. But of course, I hadn’t read the piece and as Evans points out in the article, her concern was less about the queues in general and more about which queues were offered up for public shaming. The Primark (and therefore, working-class) queues were condemned while the Lush, M&S, Urban Outfitters and Pret (middle-class) queues, though equally long, were ignored.

It seems somehow fair among middle-class editors — and the middle class at large — to mock working-class people in a way they never would about other persecuted groups. Even among the progressive middle-class left, people who think they’re on our side, they’ll talk about us as if we’re not in the room, even when we are.

Look, as much as it’s boring to you to hear us bang on about how hard we’ve got it, trust us, we’re bored of saying it. We don’t even believe everything is about class but if editors, who control a large part of the public discourse, can’t be arsed to hear us out and mock us for even discussing class, we’re going to have to continue mithering you.

We know it’s hard work considering all this. It’s hard thinking about others and how different their experience is to our own, and about the stereotypes we believe in and contribute to.

If you must talk or write about the working-class and you are not working-class, just be careful you don’t paint an entire diverse and complex (and confused, I’ll admit it) group with one brush. Don’t write lazy headlines and don’t make assumptions. Maybe ask some working-class people what they think once in a while, even about stuff not related to class.

And if all that fails please remember that being working-class doesn’t make us different on a fundamental, human level. It just makes us poorer.

This is an extract from an essay that appears in full here.

30th June 2020