I was having an exchange with Donald Clark on Facebook today that got my brain whirring on the subject of class.
Anyone who knows Donald will know that he detests what he calls 'middle class snobbery'. I guess I don't understand the class thing too well, because I can't for the life of me figure out what a 'middle class' person would have to be snobbish about.
I am told time and again that the whole class thing is dead, over, forgotten, past history, yadda yadda. But it comes up so often in conversation that this is quite obviously not the case. And I remain convinced that part of the reason we have not readily been absorbed into English culture is that we don't fit neatly into any of the class categories.
If I were pressed, I would probably say that:
- Working class people are people who work with their hands. Largely 'blue collar' jobs. But is - for example - a nurse or a policeman a blue collar worker? I have no idea.
- A middle class person tends to be educated beyond high school and works in a 'white collar' job. But very few people wear 'white collar' type attire to the office any more - it's all jeans and polo shirts, these days.
- Do we still even have a ruling class? Would that be the titled people, even though they definitely don't rule us any more? The mink-and-manure set, even though so many of them are all title and no money?
Who knows? And where does that leave people with no job at all? The idle rich and the idle poor. Trust fund beneficiaries and lifelong benefit (dole) recipients. The hackneyed cliche is that the working class doesn't work, middle class isn't in the middle and the ruling class doesn't rule.
I suspect each person formulates their own boundaries to fit themselves in where they feel they belong.
My husband and I both have a university education. Mine is to postgraduate level. We own a large-ish house. Our children will both almost certainly go to university. Are we middle class?
But what about our heritage? How much does that count?
My husband's parents were both indisputably 'working class' and of 'working class' stock. Blue collar workers who took pride in an honest day's work. His maternal grandfather earned his keep with a little fishing boat, as did many people on the island. My husband's university graduation was a red letter event in the history of the family. To this day, my husband treasures his friendships with men who work diligently with their hands. I think they remind him of his late Dad. So is he working class?
My own parents were office workers. My grandparents consisted of a shop-assistant-turned-librarian, two teachers and a civil servant. Does that constitute middle class? Lower middle class? How many strata of middle class are there? Does it matter?
How far back do we go? Do we go back to my titled ancestor (Earl or Lord Grenville or Granville or something) who disowned his daughter for her dalliance with a hired hand, and packed them both off to South Africa with a financial settlement, on the understanding that they never darkened his door again? How very Thorn Birds
! Or how about the branch of my family that glories in the surname Bastard, being the descendants of some or other illegitimate off-spring of some or other king or noble or something. Or how about my loony ancestor, the self-styled Emperor of San Francisco
(note: this account differs quite significantly from the hard copy accounts I have seen - it is far more flattering of Norton I!). Does this make me ruling class?
When we first moved to the UK a decade or so ago, we deliberately chose a 'working class' village school for our children, believing they would be among salt of the earth people. Ha! On every hand we were accused of thinking ourselves better than other families. And yet we never consciously did anything to give that impression. We found ourselves looked down upon by what I assume were middle class people, because we weren't posh enough or rich enough or something enough. And the only time I met a titled person, I caused outrage among my colleagues at the college by treating him as I would anyone else, inviting him to join me in the kitchen as I made him a mug (a mug, mind you!) of tea. To give him his due, Lord Mayhew
(for lo, 'twas he!) was completely unfazed and chatted away to me as if he had known me all his life.
So no. I haven't quite got this class thing sorted. And in a way, I hope I never do. I'd rather you took me on merit, and I hope you won't mind if I do the same. Whoever you or your ancestors may be.