It was, in the nineties, suggested that Britain was moving towards a classless society. A few years ago I read an article in which the journalist set out to find someone who self-indentified as upper-class (even the landed aristocracy, it turns out, are ‘middle-class’, at least in their eyes). In 2013, the BBC announced that there were now seven social classes, and made a little Internet quiz thing that, asked you five questions and then judged you based on whether you knew any bank managers or electricians, used Facebook or went to the theatre, handing out ridiculous-sounding titles like ‘Emergent service workers’ to state the obvious.
They were, of course, all hopelessly wrong, and desperately attempting to find a way to describe something that is hopelessly entangled in our heritage, and yet doesn’t quite fit into our current society. The traditional markers of income, social status, political affiliation and pastimes have, if indeed they ever existed, become so murky as to be almost incomprehensible, leaving the matter of class to be more of an instinct, a sort of self-definition that, nevertheless, still manages to provoke us.
I remember being at school, aged around 14 or 15, and a teacher remarking that the results of a social experiment carried out by our group proved that we were inescapably middle class. It seemed odd at the time, perhaps because it quite simply wasn’t something any of us had considered. The school was a comprehensive, its facilities not astounding (and a little dated), with its fair share of orange foundation, rolled-up skirts, nearly-shaved heads (number 1 cuts were technically banned) and other such indicators of not belonging to the leafy suburbs of middle England. We were, now I think of it, in the middle, somewhere between the privilege of our counterparts on one side and the deprivation of those on the other. And yet we lived in a Labour stronghold, our local history was of mills, factories and the Industrial Revolution, and at least some of our top-set double science, would, I suspect, if asked, been more likely to identify as working class than middle. And yet, this arbitrary judgement based purely on the level of our education was perhaps a hint at the odd situation we would find ourselves in a few years down the line.
Class is not about wealth. For if it were, surely East End gangsters would be in the same bracket as the Camerons, and bankrupt former millionaires grouped in with factory workers and the terminally unemployed. Nor is it political: a member of my former running club, a builder by trade, used to use our warm-up jogs to regale us on the greatness of Margaret Thatcher, whilst the allotment-going, Guardian-reading, nice-bit-of-London-dwelling (in their own home) parents of a friend were some of the first people I ever met who agreed with Ed Miliband. (Incidentally, before anyone explodes with rage at these generalisations, I know, and I’m getting to that.)
Is it education or employment? This is something I have debated for a long time, because it is where this really gets personal. Is it possible to be a working-class Oxford student? And, to fast forward (to where I will most likely end up in) five years, a working-class Oxford graduate with a London-based desk job? Where does it end? Are we born into a class, or do we decide for ourselves? Is there a system of promotion and relegation? Maybe it should be based on points – my degree is in the arts, but I’m entitled to ‘opportunity’ funding, so do those two cancel one another out? If I row but have flat vowels, what does that do? Where does that put me?
These are, of course, questions without answers, and slightly ridiculous ones at that, but perhaps the sentiments that lie beneath them deserve consideration. Oxford and Cambridge in particular are engaged in a drive to recruit students from ‘non-typical’ backgrounds, and yet what no-one has really stopped to ask is what we will do with them next.
There are often fears, fed by the media, of course, that the new working-class (sorry, non-typical background) arrivals at these great institutions will feel so out of place amongst the chandeliers, gowns and rowing regattas that we’ll take off immediately, our flat caps flying in the wind, leaving our whippets to shit on the previously-immaculate lawn. Or possibly that we’ll huddle in our damp-riddled windowless rooms for three years, living off Value baked beans on toast, then emerge with a Third and retreat back to our rightful place and begin a lifetime on the dole, or working at McDonalds. That we might actually enjoy the pomp and ridiculosity of dressing up and being waffled at in Latin, that we’ll happily absorb the odd terminology (and not be rusticated for failing to pay our Battels), that, heaven forbid, we’ll make friends and spend our summers on internships and sports training camps and at the houses of a whole string of people whose lives are utterly different to ours, never really seems to be considered. Nor, indeed, worst of all, that we might accidentally end up doing quite well.
And yet there is something we tend to ignore. On focusing on whether those of us with state school backgrounds and regional accents will make it through those three or four years, we forget that university is the easy part. It is then, suddenly, at the end of it all, after all of the essays and the studying and the revision and the exams, when we emerge from an odd Latin ceremony, dressed, for (possibly) the last time, utterly preposterously, and clutching a piece of paper that seems too flimsy to truly reflect its significance, that we are thrust out into the real world. And then our class is suddenly, once again, brought to the fore.
I am just under a year away from the heady joys of graduation. And it is now, as I tentatively begin to realise that the question ‘what are you going to do afterwards’ cannot remain unanswered forever, that I start to understand this whole class thing, this whole question of an (un)privileged background. There is no obvious path amongst my family, close or extended, that I will follow. Nor do their friends offer any kind of clue. No contacts, no leg up, not even really a hint of where to start. The kind of jobs I ‘ought’ to be looking for, the ones I am apparently qualified and suited for, are utterly outside my personal experience. Even their location is strange: I had never considered living in London, until I realised that it just so happen that I end up there. Social mobility is an ugly, awkward term, but even odder and clumsier and more uncomfortable is finding yourself in the midst of the process.
A friend once jokingly accused me of being ‘chippy’ when I described our school project on the mills. Another spent an inordinate amount of time getting his head around ‘t’ and ‘ta’. My grammatically incorrect use of ‘was sat’ has been queried, and my pronunciation of the letter ‘u’ in various words has baffled the unwitting South Americans, and the French, who attempted to learn vocabulary from me. I still don’t understand rugby, I first rode a horse aged 21 (and a half), I instinctively shudder slightly when David Cameron appears on TV or, infinitely worse, my Facebook feed. And yet I am Oxford educated, I adore literature and the theatre and Impressionism and drink wine and shop Fairtrade and travel. So where is that dividing line, the one that instinctively makes me tick one box, rather than another. Is it in the security of my past, a sense of belonging to a tradition, even if said tradition (of socialism and trade unions and solidarity) is a ghost, a faded, fleeting fragment of something that no longer exists? Or is it the uncertainty that I face as I stare into a future of uncharted waters, a fear that, like something out of an Oscar Wilde play, I will one day find myself at a dinner party unable to make polite conversation about golf and hold my knife and fork correctly? And what about the next generation? Does it all just begin again?