I’ve been turning something over in my mind since the weekend and this week has only made it clearer to me. Last weekend, I read Christopher Eccleston’s amazing book I Love The Bones of You, a beautiful, brutally honest and uplifting account of his relationship with his Dad and his life as a working class actor. So much of what he said about being a working class resonated with me, ideas that I had often felt and never seen articulated. All of it needs to be said, and heard, much more than it currently is.
This week, after the Supreme Court ruled against the government, its President Lady Hale was described in the gutter press as an ex-barmaid. Setting aside the fact that she has a stellar academic and professional record, I’m not entirely sure why being an ex-barmaid is thought to be a smear, or suggest she is any less qualified to do what she does. I am an ex-barmaid. Without all those pints I pulled over successive holidays, I never would have been able to afford to go to university.
I’m not ashamed that I worked behind a bar. I’m slightly wary of qualifying my time working in a pub as something I did to pay for university because it’s as valid a part of my CV as anything else – I learned teamwork, resilience, a strong work ethic and how to deal with people from all walks of life, sometimes under pressure and when they are making unreasonable demands. These are all skills I’ve used throughout my career. Being an ex-barmaid isn’t a smear, it’s not a sign of weakness, it’s a strength bordering on a superpower. Only someone who looks down on those in the service industry, and who has never had to do a real day’s graft in their life would think otherwise.
Boris Johnson’s rambling speech about Prometheus is what put me in mind of the title for this blog, a line that Jude the Obscure graffitis on the walls of the hallowed Christminster campus after being denied an education. It’s a frustration I’ve felt often and one I felt when I heard the PM deliberately misinterpret the Greek myth of Prometheus for his own ends. Or perhaps it’s not deliberate, perhaps the privileged and privately educated are spoon fed their education in a way that means they never really need to process it. Either way, I feel it’s something of a smoke screen – throw in a Latin phrase here, a Greek myth there and bamboozle the masses into thinking that he’s their better and the lower classes should be impressed and know their place.
Thanks to libraries and access to university before tuition fees were brought in, this working class lass knows Boris Johnson isn’t that smart. He’s certainly not my better and I don’t see any reason to respect him. I don’t see a reason to respect any politicians advocating cuts to education, libraries, the arts, health and social care or any other facet of life which sees the working class paying the price for their thwarted, misguided and poisonous ambition.
I don’t know what the solution is. I think cuts to the arts are worrying because it is just one of the mechanisms for pushing down the ambition of the working class. Fewer prominent voices means that the real issues are never heard, and the class divide and the deprivation that goes along with that gets worse.
One of the things that I love about Eccleston’s book is that he doesn’t just highlight the obstacles that working class artists face, he demonstrates the many strengths they can bring. I get frustrated sometimes when people expect that I have tales of deprivation and suffering in my background because I’m working class. I didn’t become a writer in spite of my background, I did so because my Dad gave me a life-long love of words. He always had a book on the go and if anything, I’d say he was the real storyteller of the family, he just never had the chance to realise that in a career as a writer. My love of Jude the Obscure and knowledge of that quote is thanks to my Mum, who came with me to the cinema years ago to see the film in which Christopher Eccleston gives one of his finest performances and then we both read the book. That’s my background, and I am very proud of my family and where I came from.
If we’re going to start to effect change, let’s start with not implying that working as a barmaid is something to be ashamed of and not thinking that people like Boris Johnson mean anything other than a clumsy attempt at intimidation when they quote Greek myths. Christopher Eccleston talks about how his class makes him a member of ‘the awkward squad’ which makes him incapable of keeping quiet when he sees unfairness. I think I am a member of that same squad, and I’m not scared of public-school bullies - I threw out enough of them when I worked in a pub to know they’re no one to be scared of. I am going to keep writing despite the obstacles and the unfairness because Johnson and his ilk should know, I have understanding as well as you.