I say mash potato, you say smashed avocado; let's call the class thing off
What is class? I’ve put off writing this blog for some time – possibly because my own social mobility is a source of almost shame for me. I have class dysphoria to go along with my gender dysphoria.
The first thing we need to get straight, right off the bat is: it’s not about money. Full disclosure – I am going to talk numbers here, so if you’re squeamish when it comes to salaries and bank balances, this might not be your blog. I earn around £35K a year – I’ve been teaching for 15 years and I’ve worked my way up the pay scale; I have responsibility for my subject, which earns me a modest bonus on top. I reckon this is about double what I made as a factory worker. So I should be pretty comfortable, right? You’d think so. But I also pay out more in tax, national insurance, pension contributions and student loan repayments than I ever have – totaling around £1.5K a month. What I actually bring home is around £2.5K a month. And I have no kids, no car, no debt (other than that student loan and my mortgage). I have no right to complain, I know. But I’m gonna anyway.
So half my monthly earnings is gone on the mortgage, bills, insurances: the essentials. My dog, who is probably regarded as a canine snowflake by the ‘hard’ mutts on the block, has a sensitive tum, sensitive skin, is prone to ear infections, and seasonal Alopecia – and I could go on – has been prescribed a veterinary diet that costs me over £200 a month. That’s before all the supplements and the constant trips to the vets. It has crossed my mind that I cause her anxieties – that my neuroses bring out these sensitivities. If I took a more pragmatic, tough love approach, would she ‘snap out of it’? Am I pandering to her, like a Mumsnet mum to their spoilt darling daughter? I recall Frank Skinner once reminiscing about his childhood dog, which was never fed actual dog food; it made do with what ‘fell from the table’. I also remember visiting my Aunt as a kid, just so I could spend time with her dogs – who came and went as they pleased through an open living room window. Remember street dogs? I’m not saying dog ownership hasn’t benefited from increased responsibility and I do believe that getting a dog is not a decision that should ever be taken lightly. But as a society, have we become too … fussy? And is this a middle class thing? If I were still earning £20K a year, I simply could not afford to feed her this diet.
See – money is a factor – but it’s more complicated than that.
Next there’s my food bill: I’m a vegan. This has nothing to do with sensitivities (unless you count my sensitivity to animal suffering). I was a vegetarian first and then, when I returned to education in my thirties, learned about the cruelty of dairy farming, about the unsustainability of breeding livestock for human consumption. I felt like a hypocrite. So it’s my principles that dictate what I eat. Now, back then, in my thirties, I was a lot more restricted in where I could source vegan friendly goods. I spent a lot more time reading the fine print of ingredient lists and a lot more time in expensive health food stores. Today, the plant based alternatives are easily obtainable from all the supermarkets. I could get all the nutrients I need from Aldi and my small local Morrisons. And some months, if money is really tight, I have done this. But most of the time, I am enchanted by the variety on offer in the different Free From sections, including Tesco and Sainsbury's (yes, Sainsbury's – that’s just one step away from Waitrose, isn’t it?) I have also been known to use The Vegan Supermarket – an online shop with a minimum spend of £70 for free delivery. When I started to develop a penchant for Pate Ardennes crisps and instant matcha latte, I knew it was time to give this monthly indulgence a miss. They say, don’t they, that principles are a luxury: I’ve never been able to afford vegan shoes and clothes, for instance. So this is something I just try not to think about. Imagine visiting a food bank and asking for vegan options. How would that go down?
So again – money is a factor – but it’s more complicated than that.
Then there’s all the work I’ve had to do to the house since I moved in. When I viewed my property, it seemed too good to be true. And that should have been warning enough. But I wanted the newly fitted kitchen, the newly fitted bathroom, the new carpets throughout, the pristine white walls – just waiting for me to put my stamp on them. I liked that I didn’t need to do anything to it – it was like a show home with a bit of character thrown in.
My first mistake was having AstroTurf fitted. The dog would belt around the garden, tearing up the lawn and borders and then trail mud through the house every time she went out for a wee. The worst possible scenario put with those new carpets – that were light grey. Add to this my mud-phobia; after one winter of constantly wiping down the dog, mopping and scrubbing floors – I’d had enough. I forked out 3 grand for a carpeted lawn. Which would have been fine, had this been the limit of home improvements. But no sooner had my bank balance recovered from this, a tree (one border is lined with giant 40 foot Leylandiis) was brought down in a storm and sent crashing through the fence. Cue a small bill for repairing the fence, but quite a large one for having the trees trimmed (because once something has happened once, I will convince myself it will happen again. And again. And again). Neurosis – you see. Then I had to have more fencing put up because the dog (there she is again) kept scratching herself squeezing behind the trees and clambering up a raised area, chasing next door’s cats. Next I had to have the house side re pointed – another 3 grand job and after that I forked out about the same amount again on a damp course. And this is how it goes: I save up for the work to be done, I shell out, I start saving again for the next job.
And all because I chose a house with ‘character’. I chose the end terrace of a row of old pit houses because I just couldn’t see myself in a two bed semi on some uniform housing estate. All the same, I’m a ‘home owner’, and that’s a sort of security some might associate with the middle classes. One day I’ll be free from the burden of paying rent (even if I do have to work until I’m seventy for the privilege because I didn’t take this step until I was nearly fifty).
Again, money is a factor – but it’s more complicated than that.
And just to put this argument to bed, once and for all – if you place a teacher salary on a scale between top earners (billionaires) and lowest earners (a single person living on £324.85 a month universal credit) we would not fall in the middle: we’d be at the ‘lower’ class end.
So, if it’s not all about money, what other determining factors are at play? Lifestyle has to be one surely. I don’t do brunch, I haven’t had a holiday since 2017, I don’t host or attend dinner parties, I don’t eat quinoa, I don’t drink from a travel mug or a designer water bottle, I cannot recall the last time I visited a museum or gallery, I do my own decorating, I’ve never glamped, never drunk wine in the bath, been to a spa or had Botox, never inherited a penny, I wash the pots not the dishes and I do them in the sink, I don’t have a direct line to a chiropractor and I’ve never owned a car. On the other hand, I am degree educated, follow the news, listen to Radio 6, read The Guardian, would rather watch Dispatches than Love Island, prefer literary fiction to genre novels and my TV is less than 30 inches wide.
So if lifestyle is a factor – that’s complicated too.
Ultimately, I think it’s about attitude: our attitude to work and our attitude to money. What we prioritise and what we value. I’ve made the transition from manual, low paid work – what they call ‘unskilled’ work, to a professional career. But my attitude has never changed. I still need to go home feeling I have worked hard – I get up at 5 am, walk the dog, then cycle (mostly the long, hilly, scenic route) to work, have a stand up wash down and then start prepping for the day at around 6.30 am. When we were told, under new Covid measures, that we had to vacate the building by 4.00 pm, I felt that sense of panic which losing your house keys, or bank card, or phone brings on. When I worked in the city I used to drive in for 6.00 am and pull 12 hour shifts in order to escape the worst of the traffic. I would tell myself the trade off was to never work weekends, but often I still did. And don’t even get me started on ‘working from home’ – this totally destroyed my sense of purpose. Stuart Hall said that stereotypes are most damaging when they are all we know of a group; anyone I’ve ever met who knows a teacher knows that we don’t sit around the staff room drinking coffee waiting for the bell to ring at 3.00 pm so we can rush off home to our cosy little lives, waving smugly in the rear view mirror at all the ‘losers’ who don’t clock off till 5.00 pm. And as for all that holiday entitlement – that’s when we catch up: on marking, planning, housework and most importantly, sleep. I’ve worked 12 hour shifts in factories plus overtime Saturday mornings, and honestly, an eight week half term is every bit as exhausting. And don’t forget, we have those Ofsted inspectors looming over us, just in case the job wasn’t pressured enough. On top of this I’ve written 7 novels in the 15 years I’ve been teaching. Because I have to have a project during the 6 week (now four and a half) holiday. I need to feel that all my hours are filled being productive. My body simply cannot relax and my brain cannot switch off between the hours of 9.00 and 5.00 Monday to Friday. When tradespeople call (because let’s face it, every holiday I’m going to need some work doing) I have to elaborately set the scene (laptop out, note book open, pen in hand) so there is absolutely no doubt that I was not sat idly watching TV or reading a book while I waited for them to arrive. I also derive huge satisfaction from physical exertion – this year I went Xmas Free and decorated instead of indulging in the traditional yuletide glut-fest; typically, the season is one long depressive back hole for me, but working through it was a refreshing change. Give me a 730 litre sack of bark chip to distribute to the 4 corners of my garden and I’m happier than a wellness junkie in a flotation tank. I enjoy my food more, get a more restful sleep, and generally feel more positive about myself if I have completed something physically demanding. I would say that part of being truly middle class is wishing to avoid such tasks, seeing them as beneath your skill set. But perhaps that’s my own class prejudice creeping in? For me, the middle classes will always be associated with the Industrial Revolution; with the concept of ‘new money’; with ‘Great’ British Snobbery; with Thatcher’s individualism. Politically speaking I’m with Gadhi, and so the notion of wishing to distance myself from the ‘common workers’ is abhorrent to me. The word ‘middle’ also smacks of sitting on the fence, somewhere you will never find me, unless I’ve climbed it to get a better view of both gardens.
Maybe I have a problem accepting my own place within the social order. Or maybe it’s more subtle than this. In the same way we now have the spectrum of gender identities and sexual orientations, we need to move beyond the notion of ‘lower’, working, middle and upper class. When we talk about Ed Sheeran progressing from sofa surfing to global success in the music industry, we do not label him ‘upper class’. There’s a clear distinction between elite celebs and the aristocracy. And there are now so many more routes to ‘elite’ status. Society has changed dramatically since the term ‘middle class’ was first coined in the mid-18th century. The Great British Class Survey of 2013 identified seven social class groups, so why are these outdated terms still being used to narrowly define who we are? Why is it that the discourse around gender and race politics has made so much ground, the language become so much more nuanced; and yet has failed to move into the 21st century when it comes to social class and class mobility?
That’s a question for another blog (and not sure I’m qualified to take it on.) Speaking of mobility – on paper, I have obviously improved my economic situation. But when you’ve hauled yourself out of the gutter and you’re just on the edge of the curb, looking back down - all that hard work can feel pretty pointless.
So, I’m sitting in my front room, there are no roaches on the walls, the rent collector is not at my door, ain’t got bills no honest man can pay. But: I’m £700 into my overdraft, my trainers have holes, the zip is bust on my favourite jacket, and this morning I noticed a damp patch on the bathroom ceiling. A new roof is 7 grand. Winter’s coming; I best get saving.