Wordpretzels, I have something to tell you that’s not only daring, but requires a fair amount of justification.
For the majority of my adult life, I have been middle class, but my childhood, formative years and upbringing were all traditionally working class.
There. I’ve said it. Now it’s just a case of defining class in the UK, which, you may think, is a difficult task. Politicians have often made bold statements about it. Tony Blair expressed an ambition to create a ‘classless society’, which is pretty much equivalent to wishing for a humble Simon Cowell. Margaret Thatcher confidently stated that ‘there is no such thing as society’. But it turned out that she was as mad as a box of frogs and twice as dangerous.
Despite all of this I am, as many eminent sociologists throughout history have said, going to have a bash at it.
The word class originates from the Latin word ‘classis’, a term used by census collators to measure the wealth of an individual and hence determine whether military service was obligatory or not. Call me an old cynic, but I rather fancy that those individuals who ‘had a few bob’ didn’t need to pitch up at the army encampment to become spear fodder.
However, using my highly sophisticated method of deciding what identifies a social class involves my own life experience and how this highlights the differences between working class and middle class. I also realise I am talking about a bygone age, which means how I became middle class would probably never be repeated in this day and age.
Before I start, let me make it clear I had a very happy childhood. It wasn’t tough or difficult or scary as far as the 1960s and 1970s were concerned. There was a lot of aggression, a fair amount of punch ups, but nothing overly violent for the time.
Location and Property.
I was brought up in a place called Borehamwood, home to film and TV studios. I know Borehamwood sounds a bit like Hollywood, but I’m afraid this is where all similarities end. Borehamwood must have been a leafy village at one time, but after World War II, two council estates were built to accommodate many families from London. We lived on what in modern parlance is known as the ‘south side’, though I can never remember anybody calling it that when I lived there. Our council house was a two bedroomed affair on the end of a terrace, which housed my mum, dad, my sister Janet and me. Janet was 12 years older than me, but until she got married we had to share a bed and a room.
I was aware that as you left the estate, you would pass lots of large residences on wider roads with driveways, referred to by my mum as ‘the private houses.’ This was where all professional people lived. Once I reached secondary school, I started to mix with kids from the private estate, actively encouraged by my mum to do so. By 1974, mum and dad had bought their council house, an opportunity given to them by the government at the time. They were the first in the street to do so and were considered as being insane, but within 10 years everybody had done it. Once purchased, the working class thing to do was to build a porch on the front of the property. This stated that this was ‘an ex-council house, I no longer rent, I am a home owner’.
You see, what you have to realise is that the true definition of a traditional working class person is somebody who wants to be middle class; anybody who tells you they’re proud to be working class probably means that they’re proud to be working class but are doing alright in a middle class way, thank you.
Attitudes and Behaviour.
Let’s start with language. Traditional working class men used rather fruity language a lot, but never in front of a woman. My dad would let forth with a stream of invectives that would be enough to peel the paint from the walls, but never in front of my mum.
Women, on the other hand, were another matter, especially old ladies from the east end. For example, my mum’s aunt came to visit one day in the obligatory ankle length woollen coat and a hat that resembled a good imitation of a yellow turban with a big hat pin in it. My mum made a big fuss with tea and cakes. Aunt Nell didn’t crack her face. I was summoned from my bedroom. I was 18 and about to start University. My mum proudly told Aunt Nell this wonderful news.
Aunt Nell stared at me for a couple of seconds.
“What a fucking waste of time,” she finally said. Mum’s eyes widened.
“Aunt Nell!” she gasped.
“Well. Just saying,” said Aunt Nell, as a way of justifying her statement.
Disputes on the estate were quickly and swiftly resolved. Middle class disputes and debates rely on the use of clever language, well researched points of information and a well presented argument. Working class disputes were slightly different. Any provocative or personal statement would not be met with a counter argument but with what is known in working class circles as a ‘clump’ or ‘right hander.’ Many a time people would either hang out of windows or gather in the street to witness the latest debate about parking, boundary disputes or slanderous accusations conclude with a flash of fists and a sound like a large flounder slapping a wall, leaving one of the protagonists prone and sleeping peacefully on the pavement. That would be the end of it, no legal letters, police involvement or recriminations. Happy days.
Working class people have posh telephone voices.
When I was eight years old, we had a telephone fitted. But it was for the man across the road who repaired vacuum cleaners and needed somebody to take calls. That somebody was my mum. When the phone rang, she would answer it and say, “Air hair low, Elstree three faive oah, mai ai hailp yoo?”
When I eventually made friends with kids from the ‘private houses,’ I started to get my first taste of middle class behaviour. Many of them had never seen ‘Batman’, or ‘Magpie’, or ‘How?’ with Fred, Bunty, Jack and the other one. Why? ITV was banned in their houses. It appeared that being middle class meant not being able to see half of the children’s TV programmes on offer. This seemed to be a terrible price to pay for being posh.
This was always a big indicator of class. My mum and dad almost always went out on Saturday nights to the pub and would dress up for the occasion, my dad in a suit and tie and mum in a frock, lippy and, if required, a fox stole, which looked to me like a bit of road kill casually thrown around the shoulders. Middle class people, on the other hand, took off their suits and put on pullovers and (gasp) jeans to go to the pub, where they sat in the lounge bar. My dad was always amazed, when doing plumbing jobs in middle class houses, how middle class people dressed at home. “Scruffy bastards,” he used to say, but not in front of mum, of course.
Holidays also showed the cultural differences. Middle class people went abroad or on trips where they looked at old buildings. We went to holiday camps near the seaside with the extended family, where granddad would sit in his deckchair dressed in a three piece suit. Dad and his peers were more daring, removing their shirts but never their vests. Only middle class men could be seen wandering around bare chested.
There was never a need to buy any fancy sun hats when a knotted handkerchief did the same job quite sufficiently. In fact, even when my dad came on holiday with us to Majorca in the late 1990s, when he was in his 70s, he still kept his vest on and made a hat out of his handkerchief, although by this time even my dad was aware of the ironic gesture.
When I was working class, we didn’t sit on a sofa, we sat on a settee and put our feet on a pouffe, which was pronounced poof. We did this not in the drawing room or living room but the front room. We had dinner at tea time and supper was not an option.
As far as artwork, there was a portrait of a big blue eyed Spanish girl in traditional hat, a big blue eyed urchin with a tear running down his face and a group of white horses frolicking in the sea surf.
By the mid 70s, middle class ways were starting to be introduced with the introduction of duvets, or ‘continental quilts’. These were still treated like eiderdowns with a sheet between it and the sleeper. Sleepwear was mandatory, since at that time it was only the sexually depraved middle classes slept in the nude. This was confirmed when ‘Bouquet of Barbed Wire’ appeared on the television, which of course would be the focal point of the front room.
These were places where middle class people went, except on very special occasions. What special occasion, I cannot recall, but the swanky restaurant of choice would have been The Leather Bottle, a Berni Inn, where you could eat three courses. Janet once confessed that on a rare outing to a restaurant, she was amazed to find the waiter delivering her a second meal. She’d assumed that the soup she had just eaten was her dinner (evening meals were called dinner) and not something called a starter.
Then there was wine – Blue Nun or Mateus Rose, which dad would swill around his mouth like a connoisseur, before announcing it was ‘ a nice drop of jollop.’ Additionally, a bottle of Blue Nun would arrive in a basket; if it was Mateus, that meant taking the bottle home and making a lamp out of it.
All of which leads me very nicely into an area where your social standing can almost certainly be defined…
As I started to mix with more and more middle class people, I discovered some wonderful, surprising, shocking and sometimes almost disgusting things about what the middle classes eat. Let’s start with rice.
Until I was 16 years old, rice was a pudding. It never occurred to me that anybody who lived in the UK would even consider it to be a savoury dish. The shock of being taken to an Indian restaurant for the first time to eat such a thing almost blew me away. Actually, having my ‘friends’ order me a vindaloo, knowing I’d never eaten curry before, was probably more likely for me being blown away.
When I started university on my 19th birthday, I wasn’t prepared for the strange alien landscape of food my middle class flatmates were about to reveal.
There were salads, for example. A salad contained lettuce, beetroot, carrot, sliced hard boiled eggs, sliced radish and tomatoes, with some celery sticks. This would be accompanied by salad cream.
Middle class salads were entirely different. These salads contained many strange fruits and vegetables that appeared to come from another planet. When somebody suggested putting a pear in the salad, I thought they’d gone mad. When I actually saw this pear, I was astounded. It was green and textured, not only on the outside, but the inside, with a massive stone in the middle. This was called an avocado pear, which for a while I called an advocado pear. Middle class salads were also ‘dressed’ with olive oil. I can remember my absolute horror when I saw this middle class ritual. For my entire life, olive oil was a medical application, not a food. Olive oil was bought in the chemists. A matchstick with piece of cotton wool wrapped around the end would be dipped in the small bottle of olive oil and inserted into the ear canal to clean it out. The only other time the olive oil bottle appeared was on holiday, when you slathered it on your body to aid sunburn.
Now, before this, pepper was something that came out of a pot. It was white. My dad smothered his Sunday roast in it. I liberally applied it to cockles, with lashings of malt vinegar, on a Sunday, the only day we had tea at dinner time.
But this was something else. A large, red, weird looking vegetable, hollow with white seeds. My first taste was tentative: would this be another vindaloo moment? Fortunately not. My first taste of this strange pepper didn’t convince me, but neither did it absolutely repulse me.
Of course, this wasn’t to be confused with black pepper, the stuff that waiters in the Berni Inn would offer in giant pepper grinders when you were about to start a spaghetti dish. In fact, I thought that black pepper could only be served in this manner. In a way, I wish it was.
Other foodstuffs followed: garlic bulbs (ha!), broccoli, asparagus, ginger, fennel… over the years I have become a middle class foodie. As something of a cultural exchange, I have introduced the middle classes to cockles, mussels, jellied eels and cheesy balls (the soft cheesy filled variety).
I hope all of the above has shown you the fundamental differences in my life as a middle class person. My friends and colleagues are generally liberal, middle class people. For example, when discussing this subject on Faceache, my friend Vanessa sent a reply, including the word melange. I didn’t give it a second thought. See? I am middle class.