I will admit, in retrospect, I am really quite pleased that I was raised on a housing estate in the north-east of England with a nicotine-fingered cliché of a father who would ‘nip up the road’ for a loaf of white bread at noon of a Tuesday, only to return at midnight of a Thursday, key scrabbling at the escutcheon, reeking of bitter, accompanied by two braying simpletons who would leave pools of urine on the canvas of the toilet floor, which I would discover with my bare feet some time later when, awoken by their braying, I would creep to the loo in a frown-crumpled daze, leaving sheets fresh torn from my own sharp little toes, in paisley pyjamas from which I’d bitten the buttons, because even then, aged five or six, my home life was already making me mentally ill. And father, as always, sans loaf.
I will admit that there is a certain grim satisfaction in remembering, albeit vaguely, being pushchaired around the streets of Pennywell in the dead of night by my long-suffering mother, 17 years a hospital cleaner, desperate to get out of the house where she’d borne four children to a sick, violent, ceaselessly feeble man whom she loathed at least enough to take a bottle of gin into a hot bath in a failed attempt to head the fourth child – poor little Karl – off at the pass.
I will, if pushed, remember it all with a melancholy relish: the fish-supper treats from a rare bingo win, the Sun delivered to the front door, ITV with meals from tins or flaky pastry, mother’s bedtime cigarette tracing letters in the dark, father’s barking madness and nights in the cells, the post-violence silence that would last for days and days and days.
Relish because I came through it; because I had no choice and it made me what I am; but mostly because it made me appreciate the alternatives.
It’s like being poor in general. Only by being poor can you truly appreciate having money. There are few clichés fatter with truth than that one. This is why rich kids invariably suck – at least until they’ve met enough poor kids to help them snap out of it.
This is why the lower classes and the upper classes need one another. The lower classes need something to aspire to: Radio 4, kitchens in which people spend time, meals at table, people paid to clean their mess, pesto, holidays abroad, a bidet, a wine rack, books.
And the middle and upper classes need to realise how incredibly fucking lucky they are.
From the moment I got out of Sunderland – only as far as Liverpool but it was a start – I began to realise that there was more to life than dark laughter and getting plastered to forget. There were families who told one another how they felt, for example, who were not embarrassed by knowledge or emotion and who got plastered just for the fun of it. I immediately liked these people. And I aspired to be just like them.
(I know there is overlap by the way. I know there are working class families that read and communicate with alacrity and that there are middle class families who are violent and emotionally frigid, but I think, sadly, the generalisations hold water.) (Oh, and I also know that it’s poverty that creates these differences, and that it’s obscenely unfair. If I were blaming anyone, I would take this into account. I’m not blaming. I’m lamenting. And reflecting upon my interminable escape.)
Over the years – decades even – this process of embourgeoisement has gone quite well. I’m pretty middle class now, on the whole, even when people aren’t watching. I listen to Radio 4. I drink wine. I’ve lived abroad and speak a foreign language. I disdain Vernon Kay. I even betrayed my roots by ditching my regional accent. However, there is one area in which I fall down horribly, and that is that I still have no money.
But I’m optimistic. Fortunes change.
In the meantime, something I wrote about the Crazy Guides Communism Tour in Krakow was published in The Arbuturian this week. Look…
Indeed it was reading about The Arbuturian late last night that had me reflecting on my plebbishness in the first place. The Arbuturian describes itself as follows: ‘a magazine for the globetrotting connoisseur with an appetite for adventure and a taste for the highlife. We publish intelligent content for a cultured readership who seek a playful yet highbrow approach to a diverse range of subject matter.’ And if that doesn’t sound quite posh enough for you, take a look at the contributors. They’re all so cultured!
Bearing this in mind – a little coarse around the edges though I most assuredly still am – I am going to attempt to seduce them. En masse. I can only hope I’m not too much of an oik.
But then again, what could be more middle class than summering in the country pile in France?
I’ll keep you posted.