For me, one of the great moments at Saturday’s conference was having the opportunity to talk to Catherine O’Flynn, a very wonderful author whose work I admire enormously for its clear, understated, voice, brilliant dialogue and extraordinarily affecting ideas. She is modest in person, too, and therefore very easy for socially challenged people like me to talk to.
So I presumptuously sat myself down next to her in the chilly hall, and asked her what she was working on at the moment. She told me about her next book, which of course sounds terrific, and we started talking about class. There are, Cath said, a whole generation of people who were raised slightly above the working class line and now don’t know where they stand; people who feel a continually thudding guilt about their social status and lifestyles.
My friend Helen was at the same event. Helen is an expert on the history of space and when we first met she was naturally excited to hear that my dad describes himself as a rocket scientist. In turn, I’m very interested in the history of the UK postal system, so was overjoyed to discover her dad was a postman. It was a special moment between us. As we were chatting on Saturday, someone asked how we knew each other and I explained the rocket science/post office thing. Helen said, “We bonded across the class divide,” which was funny, of course, partly because it isn’t very true.
I had a rather eventful childhood and there are lots of memories, but my over-riding impression is the feeling of not having enough money. Don’t be fooled by the rocket science thing. My dad was an engineer and was made redundant a couple of times. My mum was always ill, and we moved from rented flat to rented flat through most of the 80s and 90s. My brother and I enjoy swapping stories of the halloweens we were dressed up in bin-bags, the terrible meals we were fed, and – a particular favourite – the year my dad bought my mum a 99p bottle of hand cream for her birthday. I remember my mum carefully painting my white summer sandals blue with dye so they’d last me through the winter, and the agonising two terms I traveled to school from the caravan we were living in at the time, in those funny, splodgy, old-fashioned shoes.
Oh and also, we had to lick the road clean every morning, and we lived in a rolled-up newspaper in the septic tank.
You know, it really could have been worse. Mum was a part-time teacher and dad was an engineer and they drove a series 2 land rover which could be coaxed into action with a screw driver. We didn’t go on foreign holidays… but that just meant long summers with my best friends on the estate, exploring and getting into trouble. And that’s what I loved about Cath’s books. There’s something lunar landscape about the West Midlands, where we were both kids. With no beaches, but transport infrastructures hemming urban fields, the summers really were long and boring. Negative and accidental spaces were quickly populated by children and wherever you were playing, it’s fair to assume that you weren’t supposed to be there.
So what about the guilt of the classless? You can’t ask for sympathy for it. But there is a feeling we’re all alone among thousands of others in a similar situation. And actually, I wonder if we’ve had it all our lives. I grew up with books but without money, and at the schools I went to, that was sufficiently unusual to attract negative attention. We’re all ordinary, and we’re facing ordinariness together, was the message of school friends and their families. Don’t imagine you’re different. The older I get, the more I think they were absolutely right. Education is important up to a point, but it’s so horribly pleased with itself. There are far more important things that won’t trip up on their own self-importance, like facing up to what you actually are and the people you’re in this mess with. I’ve never really valued reading for its own sake, but books have followed me around like an ash cloud all my life, trying to make their points and forgetting their menial job as a delivery mechanism of information. It still riles me when I see people announcing their love of books while wearing their ‘I like books’ t shirts and sporting bookshop bags. I think: do you have any idea how hurtful you’re being? Or perhaps… that’s the point?
I’ve grown up to a world where an academic education is worth considerably less than training and experience, and despite wasting years in higher education I suspect I now earn more than either of my parents ever did. My mortal fear of poverty means I value self-sufficiency extremely highly, but that’s a working-class trait, right? Where does that put me? Does class matter? If not, then why do I feel like I’ve achieved something? And why does my brother, who has become quite a lot posher than me, enjoy being mistaken for a White Van Man on his excellent house renovation blog? If class is real, then where can we possibly look for social affinity, once we’ve broken all its rules? What kind of paradox have we been set up for in our youth?
Maybe there never has quite been a family who fits neatly into a class. Before the Pistols, John Lydon grew up with rats in the kitchen, but his mother just wanted him to study hard. He spoke out for the working class, but he lived in London, he wore cool clothes and he was an arts student – all artefacts from another world to me. Meanwhile, my dad now has a new family, drives a sports car, and goes on extraordinary international holidays a couple of times a year. Every family, I suppose, mixes their cocktail of pride and privation different ways.