Given this inherent structural problem, progressives must surely seek to persuade lower class people to entertain their ideas—patiently, inventively and persistently—instead of imposing them. – From Shannon Burns – In Defence of the Bad, White Working Class
OK. Drop the mike. Go home. We’re done here. Progressives need to shut the hell up. And then maybe ask a few questions. Listen to the answers. Without interrupting. Or correcting. Telling people how wrong they are.
For a moment.
I’m not being sarcastic – I am not writing this on Twitter.
First, a detour.
(Failed) Experiment In Autobiography
I am not working class. I qualify for the rank of lower middle class*. In England, the categories are clear. I went to a state comprehensive. My parents did not go to university but had jobs like “primary school teacher” and “probation officer”. I did go to university, where I had no idea what was going on – apart from the fact that I didn’t really belong there.
But I grew up in relative comfort. There was never any worries about where the next meal would come from – just that it would be terrible. Which is a massively unfair statement written just to get a cheap laugh. My mum did her best with her culinary knowledge, the produce from the local supermarkets and the time a working mum had. So I take that back. But I do get frustrated when my own son, who lives in one of the world’s great cities with access to many and varied high quality cuisines and wants to eat none of it. See how he trolls me with demands for cucumber and rice crackers. I find the words “You don’t know you’re born” start to coalesce on my tongue. Bequeathed.
I’m not working class but my dad is. He was born in a slum in Birmingham during World War II. He failed the 11 Plus. When he took it, he was as adrift as I was at uni – “What’s that bit o’ paper, our Stephen?” said his mum when he brought details of the test home. He went into the Navy (as a stoker). After watching one sailor knife another, he left. He passed some A-levels before getting a social work qualification. He shed most of his Brum accent. Although not his awkwardness in social settings with those who have more education than him, who know the right way of doing things.
He’s not part of the macho, punch-you-in-face-for-looking-at-me-funny world of the male working class. I suspect he may always have been a delicate bloom – with his love of the solitary pursuits of bicycling and beer making. If you grow up surround by people wall-to-wall then any personal space is precious. Time to yourself. Not the boss. Not your folks. Not your peers. Yours. Time to think and to dream. He’s also a storyteller. Not a garrulous, snug bar fixture guffawing with his mates but a weaver of absurdist, tall tales – especially for children. The one about the boiled beef and carrots that made a break from the kitchen to wider world still sticks in my mind although I have forgotten nearly all of it. We recorded some on a massive 70s reel-to-reel tape recorder. The tapes are probably unplayable now. He still tells stories.
Time to think and dream.
The house I grew up had had no books. There were my dad’s A-level history text books. The occasional rogue Len Deighton. And a large number of Bibles (New International Version). But not much else. However my father’s distaste for being a sports spectator (probably too… collective) meant I had to do something with my time. I bought books in ever greater quantities – I recall my mother once plaintively asking: “Matthew, don’t you think you have enough books now?”. Haha – NO. My addiction was unquenchable. MOAR BOOKS!!! Science fiction and literature and philosophy and history. I recall a pretentious urge to read Oedipus Rex and not really following the plot. Today, as a staff member at a university, I can get any book I want. Apart from the original Dead Sea Scrolls. The Inter Library Loan team could not swing that request for me. Damn them to hell.
Screw your Lexus, I can read any book I want. Who is the real winner here? Yeah? Whatever.
My childhood was not filled with fear of violence (apart from the regular nerd beatings that my mix of academic achievement and social inadequacy seemed to demand). Instead, the perennial terror was dropping from our precarious perch into the precipice below. Keeping up appearances with the constant threat of appearances falling apart. And the failure of knowing how to do so. You are only here under sufferance. We can send you back down any time we like.
My own parents could not have ideologically sounds debates about gender or race with me. My mother had insisted that they leave the Plymouth Brethren because she was not allowed to talk. My father told stories about the contempt that black prisoners had for the legal system – but it wasn’t like he hung out with the (non-Plymouth) Brothers in downtown Littlehampton. His frame of reference was as bare as the beach of pebbles of my home town. We know what’s around us. It doesn’t pay to know much more.
Working Not Working
I only know a little of working class culture before the 80s. Black and white photos. Accounts told by biased witnesses. There is a sense of something tied to place – where you lived, where you worked, where you drank, where you ate, where you prayed. A world of things. But not just of things. A world of stories. Life was not secure or safe. A public world dominated by men. A world without much in the way of privacy. A world with many threats outside.
Those places are slipping. Factories get moved overseas or staffed with robots. Building sites still require men. Get yourself a trade. Get up at 5 am and have a laugh with the boys. But there are ever more call centres and old people’s homes and child care spots. These don’t require brawny arms but nimble fingers and sharp ears. These are the world of women not men. The union hall is empty. You’ll take that temping contract and like it.
The message from conservatives is that there are two kinds of working class people. The “good” type – hard-working, moral, maybe a bit of a larrikin but fundamentally right-thinking. Not interested in any hi-faultin’ ideas but a good, salt of the earth sort. That’s you right? Of course it is. We’ll take care of you. Promise.
Then there are the “bad” ones – lazy good-for-nothings who sit on sofa taking drugs, playing Xbox and hitting their spouses and their kids while claiming the dole. Terrible people. That’s those people over there. We’ll sort them out. Promise.
There is obviously zero overlap between these two groups. And there is no way that some one could slide from group to the other. Impossible. And if they did, it would always be their fault. Always.
Talk Radio is always full of people talking. So many, many words expelled with such force. It’s not called Listening Radio for a reason.
Sometimes we drive out to my wife’s great aunt not far from Bass Hill. Her immaculately-kept three bedroom house sits with other immaculately kept houses. Her Italian neighbours keep an eye on her. We share Portuguese chicken and chips with a cold ginger beer. We talk about those living and those dead. We talk about our hopes and fears. Not all of these conversations are ideologically sound.
Just listen for a moment. There are many stories. Many hopes and dreams. Noble. Perverse. Profane. Wrong. All worth a listen.
Time to think and dream.
*Altho according to this totally scientific & atomically precise online test, I am “Traditional Working Class”: Bollocks.
This is part of the Into The Maelstrom series.