Notes on Class
Last September I handed over the keys to my council flat. London (my birthplace and hometown) has become an expensive, exploitive monster that I can’t keep up with. My husband decided to leave the security of social housing because we also wanted to move towards extending our family. Apparently, you can't adopt if you live in a council bedsit on the top floor of a block of flats. After 30 long years of living on a north London estate our families have helped us scrape together the minimum deposit for a interest only mortgage, in a place the Daily Mail called a “shanty town”
My parents have given us this help by remortgaging their homes and extending their working years and their own mortgage payments. They’ve decided to work longer so we can for fill that dream.
My Mum and Dad are going above and beyond to help us out as much as possible - they come over to take out the bins when we're away working, Dad helps my husband turn our cold, forgotten terrace house into something warm and comfortable. We cook them dinner or take the dog out in return.
I'm the fourth generation in my family to have to move because of opportunity and money. My Great Grandparents left post-famine Ireland for Philadelphia to work as domestic servants, my Grandparents moved to Scotland to find work, again escaping impoverished Eire.
In my experience there are only three ways working class families around me have got out of social housing - six numbers on the lottery, grafting in the construction game or death. My parents moved to Essex because my cockney Nan died. They moved into her bungalow to escape the vermin, damp and trauma associated with the poor social housing I grew up in. I stayed in London, not willing to leave council-capital life, that was until last Autumn.
It’s tricky correlating these stories - us moving to Essex is hardly the same poverty stricken migration my Great Grandparents were forced into or even the hard labour my Dad experiences on a daily basis. I have lived and continue to live a privileged life in comparison to those who came before me, but perhaps the impetus is the same - each of us have abandoned the safety of familiarity in exchange of opportunity or what my Irish family would call ‘to get on in life’.
This ‘getting on’ hints to a complexity of working classness. Encouraging you to do everything you can to progress, to change, to move forward - but not to forget where you’ve come from, not getting ideas above your station, and whatever you do don't turn into them.
This week, after coming back from a work trip in Finland my Mum went to Waitrose to buy me some nice bits. Waitrose in our family is the place you go to treat yourself - it's like a spa, it’s self care, it feels foreign. After 13 days of intense working I was shattered and grateful for the posher bread, the fancy crisps and so of course told Instagram. One direct message read "and you call yourself working class?" another askes me “you still pretending to be poor?”
This follows a series of classed aggressions and annoyances - some from complete strangers, others from friends. Some are directed to me, others I watch play out. The following notes are just sitting in my notes app on my phone, when they unfold I scrawl them, perhaps this is about ridding them from my memory or committing them so they are not forgotten.
Notes on Class
During my work in Finland I was questioned on my authenticity of making work about class - the questioner asked how much I earned. I told them my salary from my company was paid for only 2 days a week as an artist.
Saturday morning on social media; arty tweeters aghast because Liam Gallagher has said some eloquent stuff about Brexit, one says "who knew he had it in him?". Digital friends are convinced he has a ghost writer because he used the word 'elevator' and that's not authentic word for someone like him to use.
Our prime minister takes centre stage at the Tory party conference, with a husky voice she attempts to sell me the Great British dream - a story of her Great Grandparent who was a domestic servant (a story I know well), a story of accessible class escalators that all of us could hop on, when we buy into the Tory manifesto. I’m angry. I’m actually livid.
I attempt to make efforts to spend my time solely supporting working class and/or queer young artists. When I refuse to support a double-barrelled-white-artist from the posh part of town the theatre company supporting her attempt to disrupt my agenda by asking who or what defines class. In doing so they refuse to understand why if they are not supporting working class artists I must.
I’m recording a column for the radio, I’m asked repeatedly to change the way I say certain words (in fact I changed ‘say’ here to ‘pronounce’ and realised i was doing that to sound posh so have changed it back again) because listeners won’t understand me.
I give my parents money for their food shop whilst my Dad is off work with cancer. I'm reminded how close to the line even my super hero parents are - when it's bad, it's bad. When it's good, it's alright.
I hold a public conversation between myself and two council kid artists - the first time we expel our experiences, like a classed group therapy. A posh bloke can’t help but intersect and says his upper class background was just as hard.
I create exclusive content for a group of good souls who each give what they can for me to survive so I can carry on disrupting. I feel guilty I’m reliant on the generosity of decent people - perhaps I’d feel better if these people were upper class.
Friends say because I listen to Radio 4 that maybe I'm posh now, listening to Woman's Hour makes me a middle class feminist, apparently.
I have a table I can eat at now, some of my friends think this means my working classness is no longer valid.
When I'm working in the north of England with participants I have to disclose my upbringing at the earliest opportunity or else they consider me posh, cause I'm southern.
I overhear a programmer tell their friends that my work is successful because "I'm just as common as them" (referring to the participants). The same programmer then discusses how difficult it is to engage working class communities.
I disclose my upbringing someone responds with something about me being eloquent - the classed equivalent of being a fat person with a lovely face - the two apparently don't go together.
Increasingly I feel class is becoming more and more confronting and I experience classed aggressions more frequently. Perhaps I'm just looking closer and so as a result I’m seeing more.
My class authenticity is only ever questioned by those from middle class backgrounds - all wanting to out my suspected leap into their world. I think some of this is because I now live in a house, others assume that being an artist is middle class job, I also think there’s an assumption that I’m wealthy because I made lots of work. Our consciousness of the arts economy is simple; good artists are poor, credible and unknown. Artists we know of are rich capitalist sell outs ...and there's nothing in between.
Perhaps to be seen as busy or happy misaligns the Channel 4 working class experience; slothful and miserable is authentic, marketable. The truth is they/we are unwilling or unable to accept the idea that working classness doesn't have to be about poverty, oppression and failure. Working classness can be about achieving, progressing and success, right?
However, class isn't cut and dry, clean and packaged - its complex. From a young age, when first hanging around arty folk I tried to hide my background. Those I socialised with lived in town houses in posh postcodes, they drank red wine with their parents who they called by their first names. I felt embarrassed I lived on an estate and drank Smirnoff ice with my Mum and Dad so I pretended I lived a different life. This was one of my first conscious memories of class shame. I pretended to be posh to survive.
My Mum encouraged class fakery when I was as young as 7 - she got me to answer the home phone and to develop an accompanying telephone voice. She also trained me to jump out of view of the windows and letterbox every time the door was knocked.
Mum has three voices - the voice for work, the voice for home and the voice for speaking with Irish family so they understand her. This work voice I learnt from Mum is, in the words of my mate Bryony "like a common person who says the ends of their words"
This intonation was encouraged by Mum only because she knew people would treat me differently for being common. A lesson she had obviously learnt herself whilst cleaning posh houses in Hampstead I suspect. I've been actively trying to stop this code switching, attempting to unlearn how to talk so-called properly. However, surrounded by the dominate middle classes in the art world my identity is lost in situ.
Being working class in arts and broadcasting is like being English on the Costa del Sol - you spent most of your time just repeating words, each time a bit louder until people understand you. Occasionally you'll get a producer or promoter who'll be a bit sweary around you and call you mate, they think they are making you feel more comfortable.
I’m not sure why I’m writing this or why I think I need to. There’s no resolution, no summary. So, why do I think this is contributing to a conversation that many think has happened? Why am I spending this train journey offloading my classed beef?
Perhaps because I want to talk about the injustice that sits in your stomach weeks after yet another posh knob head tells you class isn't a thing anymore. Or the injustice that poor lives are easily ignored. Perhaps it’s the confused anger I want to reveal, felt when others try to deny an experience you'd rather not be reminded of, whilst at the same time you refuse to disguise your class. Perhaps I want to tell you of the pride thats is wrapped up so tightly with shame - feeling proud of your upbringing, background and cultures but able to feel ashamed of the very same factors.
Is it the guilt of not doing a job you don’t consider to be a proper job because you don’t finish the working day with a broken body like the other members of your family?
Is it the sadness you experience knowing the well trodden stories of the multiple traumas your family have experienced because of their position? Or how the bed you were born in dictates the narrative of years, decades and generations to come?
Or perhaps it’s just because I want to you to know about inadequacy that sits next to you wherever you go, whenever you’re asked to read aloud, whenever you’re questioned, looked at, say what you think or put your head above the parapet.