Recently, I’ve been a bit nervous about mentioning the filthy C-word. By that, I mean class. I can’t imagine what you were thinking of.
Of course, since I’m writing a book called Lowborn: Growing Up, Getting Away And Returning To Britain’s Poorest Towns, I have to. Not only am I near-contractually obliged to write about class, but I really want to. I published my first novel over six years ago and I’ve been talking about class ever since. I’ve spoken about it on the radio in Italy, on TV in France, in magazines in South Korea and the US.
Most of all, I’ve spoken about it here in the UK, where it means the most to me – in libraries, bookshops, community centres, schools and festival stages large and small. Basically, anywhere they’d let me erect my invisible soapbox. It’s true it’s always been a little contentious and perhaps my life could have gone a bit smoother if I’d focused my PR efforts on questions like, “where I get my ideas from”, but, since the answer to that is also, “where I came from”, I’ve really had very little option.
Still, never in my years of speaking at length on the subject, either as a writer or during my previous decade working in the charity sector, have I known it to be such a white-hot trigger word as it is now. One so likely to bring about, from every part of the political spectrum, fury and tantrums and general “whataboutery”.
Here are some of the questions I’ve been asked recently: my parents were comfortable and *insert a “middle class” profession* but brought me up with working-class principles, so am I working class? What does working class even mean? Who gets to decide if I’m working class or not (spoiler: not me)? If you make your living doing something as “luxurious” or “self-indulgent” (please note my own added sarcasm here) as writing, can you be working class? Is it insulting to be called working class? Is it tokenism? Is it virtue signalling? Why the fuss, anyway? Why can’t we just talk about “people”, not class?
I got so exhausted with these questions, with the slew of problems and conundrums that the term brought forth that, for a while, I stopped even using the term working class. Instead, I used the word “poor”. “My family were poor. I grew up in poor communities. My background is one of poverty.” Except, after a while, I started to feel a raw sense of loss.
My whole life I have identified as working class. I have felt a part of the rich culture of people who kept society turning and kept living tenaciously, even though the lives of better-off folk were stacked on their shoulders. When I met someone who also grew up on a council estate – even knowing that all council estates are not created equal – I felt a sense of kinship. Do you know what it’s like to wait hungrily for the benefits book to be cashed or for payday to come around? Was it not simply assumed that you’d learn to drive or go to university or ever have a mortgage? Then, yes, you’re part of my tribe – large and diverse though it is. If you are like me, you’ve also experienced meeting someone and feeling that shared understanding of background, culture and challenges faced daily. How it’s both comforting and empowering at the same time to connect with someone who simply recognises you, although you’ve never met before.
If you’re like me, I know you’ll know why, suddenly, in abandoning my working-class identity, I felt at sea. Who could I call on for solidarity then? For support? For empathy?
I won’t apologise for the fact that I fail to meet a stereotype checklist – that I can both struggle to pay the rent and still write for national newspapers
According to the Great British Class Survey, devised by the London School of Economics and the BBC in 2013, there are seven classes. Under their classifications (you get to take a quiz) I am an emergent service worker, which means, among other things, that I’m economically poor but have high “cultural capital”. Except, what the fuck does that really mean?
For a start, it fails to take into account the far-reaching psychological consequences of how it feels to grow up in a country that tells you that your status means you are less, that you must expect less, that what you contribute is and will always be less.
And so, I stopped referring to my background as only “poor”, which, after all, focuses only on economy. I need a term that truly references the inequality of our society, where we find ourselves in a hierarchy on everything from life expectancy to educational attainment to likelihood of mental illness.
Some people might not like the term working class but, frankly, I didn’t like growing up in shit housing, with substandard schooling, wearing threadbare clothes, with not enough to eat and little hope of any better future. No one gets to define me, even if they think they’re entitled to and, by the way, why would they think that in the first place?
No more than I would dictate someone’s sexual or gender identity would I ever wade in and dictate what their class status is. But, I have been wondering why others would think they have the right to. In whose interest is it to dismantle the working-class community by declaring it doesn’t exist any more? Who benefits from the erasure and silencing of the many of us who would publicly call ourselves working-class teachers, artists, bin-men, bankers, social workers, cashiers, writers, nurses and solicitors?
It’s definitely not those who seek to give more voice to those who are besieged in a country where each government policy seems designed to manage the decline of poorer communities. Nor is it those who understand that to be working class doesn’t just mean to be poor or on the dole or struggling in a zero-hours contract, but that it is a psychology and a legacy – both good and hard – all on its own.
I won’t apologise for the fact that I fail to meet a stereotype checklist – that I can both struggle to pay the rent and still write for national newspapers. And, no, I won’t shut up just because they’d like me to.
I am Kerry Hudson and I’m working class and proud.