For years I used to hang on to the notion that I was working class. It mattered to me. I argued that you don’t switch class in one generation. That it wasn’t what you owned or whether you went to university but a state of mind. You are your upbringing, and your class identity is decided then and never changes. I was insecure because I’m not working class. I’m not middle class. I’m not nothing. And I never was.
Compared to my older sisters’, I had a blissful childhood. My parents had me later in life, and they had mellowed. My eldest sister was born in 1968. My dad was already 30 years old, late to start parenting in those days. He’d had an austere childhood but a relatively free one compared to his sisters in rural Ireland. He ran wild and then ran away, underage, into the Irish army.
His wild years continued when he moved to London. He was meant to meet a friend when he arrived, but his friend didn’t show up. He moved from one digs to another in North London. He was called for National Service and for a while the Tower of London was what he called ‘home’.
At some stage, he met my mother, seven years his junior and a friend of his sister. She’d met his sister on the boat over here. My mum is from Dublin, one of ten siblings. She saw an advert to work for Walls factory and applied. When she arrived, the salary was less than advertised and less then she made back home.
I don’t know too many details of my parent’s courtship other than they married in 1968 and in the early 1970’s, they moved south of the river with two of my sisters in tow. They lived in flats owned by the Guinness Trust in what was once Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, aka Spring Gardens, or more recently, ‘Vauxhall Village.’ From there they moved to a council flat overlooking a street market which no longer exists. They had another daughter in 1974.
Five of them lived in a two bedroom flat. My dad, working night shifts at the Post Office, my mum working as a cleaner. From hearing my sister’s talk, these were incredibly hard years but they improved over time, and some form of financial equilibrium was established until 1982 when my mum became pregnant with me.
The last child. The surprise. The answer to prayers. The mistake. The one who should have been a boy. It all depends on your perspective.
My dad went back to bed when the hospital called. I don’t say that to feel sorry for myself; it amuses me. He was resigned to his fate; another girl, of course.
My sisters not only had the freedom to ‘play out’, but they were also actively encouraged to do so, for like, the entire day. Be gone with you, and gone they were. I wasn’t that child. My sisters raised me, and I mostly stayed indoors.
The children who played outside terrified me.
The children at school terrified me too. I was bullied at school for years. A lot of it was down to my appearance. My scruffiness. I felt blessed when a girl joined our school who was even scruffier than me. She ate ‘No Frills’ crisps from Kwik Save. I felt blessed.
The street market I mentioned earlier, the one where I grew up, had declined rapidly during my childhood. It was non-existent before I left home but some remnants of the glory days remain. Like that street, my childhood was on the cusp of a different era, and I was on the cusp too.
I didn’t fit neatly into my family. I came after everything else. Nostalgic gatherings talk about ‘194’ the number of the flat we lived in until I was two years old. 194 is everything that happened before.
If I am candid, and I usually am, I thought the local kids were rough and I thought I was smarter than all the kids I knew (I probably was smarter than a lot of them to be fair). Unlike them, I had almost no social skills and was clearly a bit of a snob. An unhappy, scruffy and socially awkward snob. With a monobrow and bad teeth. Who used to pick her nose and leave the snot under the coffee table.
It make me cringe to admit it, but over the years, the concept of being working class has been central to my identity. I’m not sure I ever belonged to that class though, and not because of what I earn or how I live, but because I never felt restricted. I never felt trapped.
Of course, I still eye-roll at the suggestion that going to the theatre or buying food from M&S is any indicator of class. It is an indicator of wealth to an extent, but in truth it represents the choices that I make. I choose deliveroo, Ocado and Uber with my dispensible, and sadly, my not-so-dispensable income. Why? Because I can and because I want to.
All I know is that when I struggle to pronounce something in French or when I don’t look the part, I suddenly feel like I don’t belong in the room. But that’s because of the room I chose to be in, and this is a feeling I feel more frequently with every passing year.
It isn’t because I am working class or middle class. It might be because I play the clown. Or because I am fat and ‘down to earth’. Or because I interrupt others without thinking. I don’t read many books either.
Or it might be that I am something else.
But I’m not nothing.