...as inspired by Pippi of Villa Villekulla.
I will blog against classism. I want to write about my experiences and thoughts on poverty, class and classism. Please join me by also writing a post on the day.
I grew up in relative poverty as I’ve described here. My father was a poorly paid psychiatric nurse with a penchant for whisky and women. He wouldn’t allow my mother to work so, with four children and their mother to support plus his ‘hobbies’ to pursue, there really wasn’t enough money to go round.
There are commonalities between both sets of my grandparents. Both my grandfathers were educated, professional men – middle class, I suppose - who married working class, uneducated women.
My maternal grandfather was a doctor in General Practice. He was held in very high regard by the community who had genuine respect and love for him. My mother’s family were well off. The family’s social standing in the community remained long after my grandfather’s death just before world war 2. Their means of support, however, became extremely tenuous under the nazi occupation of France.
My paternal grandfather was a professor of linguistics at an educational establishment in Liverpool. He was also an alcoholic who, come payday, would head straight to the pub and blow a whole month’s salary on drinking himself into a stupor. Sometimes, my paternal grandmother would send my father and his three brothers out to scour the Liverpool pubs when they were only little in an attempt to prevent him from spending all the money. This wasn’t always successful.
So both my parents grew up as middle class poor.
This was translated into working class poor when they met, married and had children. While psychiatric nursing isn’t considered a typical working class occupation, the fact that it was – and still is – so poorly paid determined that my parents didn’t own property. We lived in a council house in a street full of council houses. We didn’t have a car or a TV and I can remember the excitement of getting our first fridge on hire purchase when I was about ten years old. We were obviously ‘poor’ – not the poorest in the street but more poor than the families of the lorry drivers and foundry workers; the obviously ‘working class’ who made up the other residents in the street.
We may have lived in relative poverty but my mother, with the approval of my father, attempted to maintain the values and behaviours she had grown up with and my parents shared the belief that education is key. Ours was the only house in the street that was full of books. From art to poetry, science to architecture, the classics to contemporary fiction, books were everywhere and, as children, we were encouraged to read. We didn’t have TV but we had radio – usually tuned to the Third Programme while my mum listened to classical music and opera during the day and the Home Service when we came back from school. We listened to plays both ancient and modern, concerts and comedies and, of course, Children’s Hour with ‘Uncle Mac’.
Both my parents were Socialists and neither could be described as snobbish. I think my father thought of himself as a working class hero in that he used the experience of poverty of many of his patients in his analysis of their illness when in discussion with their psychiatrists and when interviewed by the media. (My father was jointly responsible for the day to day running of a unit that was revolutionising the treatment of schizophrenia. He was interviewed about it several times by various TV networks around the world and features were written about both him and the unit in the UK broadsheets.) My mother, having experienced nazi oppression during the war, was vehemently against any and all oppression of the human spirit. She saw “the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer” as the vilest oppression – a reduction in opportunities for the many for the comfort and benefit of the few.
I have the feeling that they might have come across as fairly aloof to our neighbours but this would’ve been purely due to a lack of shared interests rather than any delusions of grandeur. My mum didn’t play bingo and detested ‘gossip’, my dad didn’t keep pigeons or go shooting rabbits. As a family, we were liked well enough but considered a bit ‘odd’. Not having a TV meant we couldn’t relate to the conversations and catch phrases that became part of popular culture. We went to France for our holidays (paid for by my maternal grandmother and always without my father) and this was considered strange in a street where most children went to Butlins - if they had a holiday at all – with both their parents.
As children our parents taught us not to use the colloquialisms that were popular in our street and we were always called on bad grammar or pronunciation. My dad always said “If you can’t speak English properly you’ll never be able to read or write it properly either.” I don’t know how right he was with that but all of us learned to read very quickly and we all read – everything we could get our hands on – and so our horizons were broadened and we learned more. We were clever kids and that showed in our performance at school. I’ve since been told by a contemporary at that time that, because of the marked differences between our family and the rest of the street, we were thought of as “posh”.
But we were as poor as church mice. We had nothing. I’ve said before in the post about my mother that she made all our clothes apart from our underwear – I was about nine or ten years old before I had anything new made specially for me; prior to that I wore the much repaired things my sister had grown out of. We were well fed because my mother could make a meal out of just about anything – her priorities were a) make sure the rent’s paid and b) make sure the children eat properly. We had no toys to speak of. I always had some paints or crayons because I had a talent for painting and drawing but I used to use the least bloody sheets of paper that the butcher wrapped the meat in to draw on. When I’d exhausted those I was allowed to draw, in pencil, on the tiling around the fireplace till the next week when the butcher’s van came round again. I quickly understood that my artwork around the fireplace wasn’t meant for keeping! Generally, my siblings and I invented games to play with one another.
Our house was shambolic by comparison to those of most of our friends in the street. My mum kept it spotless but there were no carpets anywhere – lino downstairs, bare boards upstairs – a fireplace in every room but a fire was only ever lit in the living room during the winter; second hand furniture as old as the hills and already worn out before it became ours; no little niceties anywhere at all. Everything was threadbare.
We were poor amongst the poor. Not the poorest in the street but we definitely lived in poverty: and yet we were thought of as “posh” because of the differences in values and behaviour that my mother brought with her from bourgeois France and my father’s unshakeable faith in education and learning that had been passed on to him by his own father in his more sober moments. We were as much of an enigma to friends who lived in the bona fide “posh” part of the village for the same reasons – a father who worked as a medical professional, a mother who preferred opera to bingo, clever, well spoken children – all the signs of middle class but we obviously had no money because we lived in a council house. I guess we didn’t really ‘fit in’ anywhere.
This background of a childhood where stereotypical thinking around perceived ‘Class’ and its relationship to observed (or hidden) codifiers meant that the concept of ‘Class’ confused me for a long time. I didn’t understand how it could be applied to lives led by individuals when the signifiers can be so blurred. It wasn’t until I read Marx in my early twenties that the political realities of Class clicked in my brain.
Is it human nature to make judgements about people and put them into boxes according to pre-conceived, stereotypical notions? Because that’s how I grew up – being moved from one box to another depending on what the person doing the judging saw. The poverty or the culture. The hand-me-downs or my knowledge of the Impressionists. The poor or the "posh". All notions of social class that, once I’d read Marx's analysis, had their meaninglessness confirmed. It seemed as though the concept of social class was a red herring designed to distract the oppressed from their own oppression and keep them striving to do “better” for themselves and, in so doing, make more money for the bosses. Emphasis on social class meant distraction from political class and the imbalance of power relations.
I tend not to make judgements about people on how they live. People’s lives are complicated and it can never be said that because someone’s on benefits they’re lazy or that because they’re wealthy they work hard. It’s people’s actions in conjunction with what they say that informs me. Marxist analysis of Class is the one that most resonates with me but, in any discussion of Class, I always maintain that I belong in Class Woman.