Where you are going is overwhelmingly dependant on where you are from. Just before the last election OWC columnist Lee Marsden wrote a perspicacious analysis of public school education and the class system. If the Labour government had hidden their Etonian and Oxbridge advantages, it was clear the next millionaire cabinet were going to flaunt them. We were entering a very different political period. A moment of turbulence in which we were all about to be thrown out of our comfortable seats.
During the last 30 years as the global finanical credit bubble swelled, many people in Britain improved their material lives. Everyone it appeared was able to buy houses and go on holiday. Shopping became a national pastime. In 1998, in a shocking report on poverty and prostitution, Dark Heart, the Guardian journalist Nick Davies looked at the hidden cost of that improvement, the demolition of the working class and the creation of an invisible underclass, a quarter of the population who served as scapegoats for the rest, and most particularly the governing elite.
We imagine that class has disappeared from modern consumer society, but of course it hasn’t. It operates insidiously as a signalling sysem, through language and behaviours, to establish who we are and where we figure in the pecking order: the people who take charge or who obey, those who bask in the limelight, or act out the collective shadow. In spite of what we do in our adult lives we are strictly labelled according to our childhood circumstances and education.
“Daddy, what class are we?” “We’re professional class,” replied my father, once a lawyer. “If anyone asks you tell them you are a professional.” I’m standing outside his old chambers on the Victoria Embankment and a group of socialist lawyers are gathering under a banner in wigs and gowns to protest against the cutting of the court services. It’s March 26 and thousands of workers, students, unemployed and sympathetic protesters are massing beside the Thames. I’m talking with Gurkas, London fireman, librarians from Manchester, engineers from Birmingham, student nurses, actors and coastguards. There’s a strong feeling of solidarity in the crowd I haven’t experienced for a very long time.
My father was born (illegally) in the Inns of Court and spent his whole life behind these gates, defending the innocent and the guilty, pornographers, murderers and fraudsters. During the day he battled against censorship, at night he told me stories about the woods and birds from his rural childhood on the Sussex Downs and about the protagonists of the French revolution. The liberation of Paris obsessed him. Allons citroyens!
We are made of the stories we are told. Sometimes we are told them in order to live them out. And sometimes we are born to end them - not just our personal narratives but the ones we tell ourselves as a culture, as a people. The most enduring story we are taught is that some people are better than others. Better fit to rule, better fit to live in splendour, more intelligent, more evolved. I was raised to believe that “lower” class people were poor because they were stupid and when workers went on strike they were holding the country to ransom. But this wasn’t the story my life followed.
At the age of 19 I found myself living in the slumlands of Birmingham with working class students from the North, who unlike me, had struggled hard to get here. It was the mid-1970s and all our world-views were being challenged. In the red-light district of Balsall Heath amongst the immigrant sweat-shops, I learned about Diggers and Levellers, studied Chomsky and socio-linguistics, stood by ASLEF workers and against the National Front, and when I faced a police charge realised I was in a country that bore no relation to the one I had been brought up in.
Those years changed everything. At the age of 35 I sold everything I owned and went on the road, compelled, like many of my contempories in the 90s, to reconnect with the earth and with people in a way that broke with our conventional upbringings. Today I’m about to march past the offices where I once had a successful career as magazine journalist. Fortnum and Masons, where I used to meet my grandfather for tea, is about to be filled with the tax-dodger protesters from UKUncut. It’s another England. I’m no longer inside those gates.
Like many people I'm struggling to co-create a new narrative, one of equality and fairness - not just for myself among the crowd in Hyde Park and the millions dependant on the welfare state, but also for the invisible people of the global South, on whose natural resources and slave labour the global North depend. In order to write a new story I need to deconstruct a very old one.
The coalition government are made up of the kind of people I was brought up amongst: proud, ritualistic, acquisitive, obssessed by form, terrified of losing face, with a horror of the masses, all fellow feeling having been ruthlessly bullied out of them. In order to hold its superior position, the ancien regime needs to continually push others down. The more equality and fairness exerts its pressure within the collective, the harder they push. They are, as George Orwell points out in his peerless study of class, Road to Wigan Pier, terrified of losing control and falling. In this they are as much at the mercy of this heartless system as anyone else.
In order to deconstruct a story you have to know what it’s made of. The institution of class is ancient, stemming from the Aryan caste system, established in India thousands of years ago and upheld by the powerful few within all Empires from Assyrian overlords to corporate CEOs. It works its restrictions through all our lives, born high or low. The barriers between us are kept in place by hatreds, by humiliation, by blame, by revenge, terror, hostility and mostly by ignorance. In 1975 in Birmingham Mel Foster railed at me. An ex-miner, he had gone through Trades Union college to study for a degree and was cracking under the strain. Like many of his working class peers he was loathe to betray his origins by becoming educated and thus middle class. "You have destroyed the Hull fishing fleet and all our livlihoods!" he yelled.
He knew nothing about London. I knew nothing about Hull, but I did know I had a legacy, A crooked inheritance I had to put straight. We all have that legacy. And in this the working class is no more exempt than any other section of society, for it too has its whipping boys - the unemployed, the migrant, the homeless Orwell once walked amongst. Everything in our consumer society is a product of the exploitation of our fellow human beings, from the child slaves of the African cocoa plantations to the Chinese IT factory worker. None of us has impunity.
To break out our historical mould we can’t identify with the class we were brought up in, hold on to our positions as victims or conquerors, as righteous Conservatives, as ideologially pure Socialists, we have to let go of them and come together in a new and fluid way. We have to see the world from a common perspective. Because, if we don’t, the corporate elite will push us all down as far as we can go. We will lose everything our ancestors fought for so hard - all our freedoms, all our public services, If we separate and attack each other, we play into their hands. United, we can exert a force that could change how we live on this planet as a people forever.
Part of that unifying future story, that radical shift, is that we have to listen to each other’s stories. We have to know what it’s like to be in other people shoes whoever they are, and when we understand begin to act from within a deep frame of change. And this is why I am telling you mine. I fell and failed. I quit my position, my house, my job. Contrary to the cautionary tales was told I did not die in destitution as my great-grandmother did in a workhouse on the Isle of Wight. I found that people are kind and fair and intelligent everywhere you go, so long as you don’t give way to your hatred or rage or self-pity, or close down from fear. What matters is that you give that natural empathy and desire for liberation a chance. History does not need to repeat itself. The French revolution, like all revolutions that followed in its wake, ended in the Terror and the brutal reinstatment of another kind of hierachy. We don’t need another revolution. We don’t need class war. We need to evolve.
Photos: March for the Alternative, Victoria Embankment, March 2011; looking outside the door, Kent, 1958; Dark Heart: The Shocking Truth behind Hidden Britain by Nick Davies; coming together to discuss civil liberties and economic system, Transition Norwich, Aladdin's Cafe, Magdalen Street, Norwich, April, 2011.