Abridged from Lessons Volume 1
It wasn’t until I was five-years-old that I realised there were children and families that lived a different life from mine. That was when I was rudely dragged from my little council estate to attend the school in the village next to the town. Up until then my world- view ended at the roads in and out of our estate. Every family was not far off identical. Our houses were built the same and they contained (on the whole) a Mum, a Dad, some brothers and sisters, a dog and barely a motorcar between us. We played in the street until our mothers yelled us in for tea, a splash of children’s TV and - when Dad got in from work – bed. We wore the same clothes: hand-me-down pullovers, shirts and shorts from our siblings with elbows darned to extend longevity.
Once at school, although us boys and girls from the estate stuck together, we were in a minority and we were exposed to “class” for the first time. Not that I would have comprehended what it was at first but I knew it was something and that something crystallised as the years went by. That first year at school I witnessed my first “class” humiliation that has stayed with me. The school held a “Big Toy Day” where the kids were excused lessons for the day and allowed to carouse in the playground with their favourite big toy. It was a ritual. The boys from the private roads of nearby paraded shiny Claud Butler bikes, Johnny Seven guns, beautifully pressed Rawhide cowboy outfits and all sorts of other treasures to behold. We rolled in with trollies steered with string and constructed from discarded wood and pram wheels, bedraggled Action Men, Popeye glove puppets, toy monkeys and home-made, amateurishly painted totem poles. Even at that tender age we felt a strain of what I can now identify as shame.
I noted how, when asked where I came from and replied the Longmead Estate, teachers, adults and sometimes other children could not hide a change in facial expression. Sometimes I saw pity. Sometimes I saw distaste, sometimes I saw apprehension. I could not understand why. It was the best place to live. When I moved from infants’ school to the junior one next door I started to mix with some of the non-estate boys. On visiting their houses I saw that they were in tree-lined roads, were much bigger and grander and had tarmacked drives with cars parked imperiously on them. There were fridges and TVs that danced with colour and manicured Mums that asked us to remove our bumper boots before entering. There were strict curfews on wandering outside and we were encouraged to play Buckaroo or Subbuteo on the polished parquet floors. Life was a daily adventure of discovery then and I felt no discomfort at meeting and mixing with people who had different lives.
The first time I remember thinking through these differences was at age eleven. It was then we sat an exam called the eleven-plus that would decide what school we went to, who our adolescent friends would be and, to some extent, the rest of our lives. One hour- and-a-half long test of memory and an establishment cleaver drops and decides your fate forever. My father said to me in his later years that my failing my eleven-plus was a massive event in my life that he contended spurred me on to achieving certain things in adulthood. He said it made me rebellious and angry because my elder brother and sister had both passed.
My Dad spoke many words of wisdom but he was wrong here. I deliberately failed the exam. I looked at my best friends, especially dear Tony who lived around the corner and who I walked to and from school every day and who I had met standing on a drain as we were both punished for misbehaviour on our first day at infants’ school, and knew they were not passing. I desperately wanted to continue to knock about with them and not go to the local grammar school where they wore little blue uniforms with caps. If you read The Beano we were Dennis the Menace and they were Walter. So to questions like where was Jesus baptised, I wrote the Thames. My parents never believed this, but it was true.
From a class of thirty pupils about seven boys passed the exam. Not one of them was from our estate and all of them lived in the closes, cul-de-sacs and gardens of owner- occupier suburbia. I couldn’t work that out. Why would where you lived dictate level of intelligence or memory or ambition?
About this time I started to take an interest in my family history and for the first time I identified as working class. My mother’s family came from a line of the rural poor. But they seemed to get by and there were examples of ancestors lifting themselves out of poverty. Her father, my granddad, became a skilled builder and ended up buying his own house. When my parents took the council house offered to them my mother agreed with my father on the condition that they saved up and got their own place rapido. My Dad could not see the rush – he was thrilled about having an indoor toilet and not sharing the house with three other families. They were still there forty years later.
Dad was from Battersea. Some may suggest that it was a family history littered with workhouses, suicide, unemployment, imprisonment and disease. One great uncle jumped off a London bridge to his death, weighted down with horseshoes, following despair at not being able to feed his family in the 1930’s depression. Another died from malnutrition. My grandfather was a WW1 casualty. His sister-in-law and family members were killed in the 1940 bombing of Battersea and so on. It was a grinding existence. But the survivors I knew, like my grandmother who attained the age of 100, were happy, optimistic, strong and decent people. I don’t know who it was, but someone suggested that my Dad, when he returned from WW2, flirted with communism but later self- educated and pursued a career in administration in the NHS. For a brief period in the 1970’s I remember him being terrified of the rise of one Tony Benn. His childhood and distrust of stability never left him. I can recall him burying tinned food in the garden – preparing for the worst.
One family member, upon returning from the war charted a different course from my Dad. He grew up in arguably the poorest road in Battersea. His neighbours and best
friends would become notorious in London’s underworld – and they and my uncle saw things differently. When that same family member came home from the war he was bitter. Had they fought to maintain the status quo? A situation where 99% of the country toiled, starved and died while the other 1% owned all the land and resources having somehow constructed some pseudo wall of respect and deference around them. Like fuck he had. My uncle and his ilk had had enough and were not interested in trade unions and protests – they went on the other side and stayed there. He was a criminal for much of his life but a more honourable and decent person it will be hard to meet. Sounds bollocks, but true.
My prejudices deepened once I left school and entered the world of work. I was sixteen and after a period of idleness landed a job as a messenger boy at a leading daily newspaper. My Dad gave me some advice: “almost half of any workforce don’t have or use their brain, the other half are bone idle. If you use your loaf you will get by. If you graft hard you will get by. If you do both, you’ll clean up.” He was right. Up to a point. I grafted and screwed my loaf. The days went quicker. And I steadily progressed through the newspaper to decent jobs in the library and business information departments. But then I would see graduates arrive and be placed automatically above me. I’d see others who had trouble spittling a stamp move past me in the organisation because they had attended a university. It was frustrating and incensed me. They’d smile patronisingly as they glided by.
This was the 1970’s and industrial unrest was rife and in Fleet Street the trade unions
were king. These same graduates were the most vocal and active in these daily battles. They read the Socialist Worker and traipsed off to Grunwick to add support to striking workers. They banged on about the plight of the working classes yet to a man (or woman) they came from privileged backgrounds. This never sat easily with me. They became union representatives and avoided all work they were being paid for as they wallowed in endless, pointless union business. Eventually, after some years and knowing there was only so far a working-class boy would ever go in this organisation, I left and set up on my own. I managed to have a very successful career in business and through that was able to indulge in my love of writing.
I was never sure about the label “working-class”. For many periods throughout history the so-called working class have been deprived of the dignity of work, for one. I am now comfortable and live in a nice house with a shiny car on a tarmacked drive. Am I no longer working-class? I will argue I am. I see working class as a state of mind formed by heritage and attitude. I see myself in the context of my forebears. I see the class system diluted, but still there. We’ve had a prime minister from a poor, minimally educated background, ironically a Conservative, Mr Major. But only the one. But how many kids from council estates have reached the top in business? Why are the only roads out boxing and football? (Forget the latter) I believe that white, working-class kids now have it tougher than we did. Who is batting for them? Who dares? This section of society have been wrongly maligned through recent history. When we went out and got tattoos in the 1970’s they were badges of belligerence, now all the Gavins and Tristrams are sporting them – they are “cool” and arty. Our dogs are dangerous pets, their animals that are trained to hunt and kill foxes and deer are not. When we had a scrap at a football match we were hooligans. When they went bananas at a London demo they were protesting students. But, I remember my estate and the others I frequented with or without rose- coloured spectacles. Community is an over-used, twisted word these days normally trotted out to denote a section of society who promote their “differenceness” and not integrating with the rest of us. But we had real community. When anyone on the estate died someone would knock on every door and collect money for a reef. When the hearse arrived at the house, we’d draw our curtains, or stand outside and bow our heads until the cortege left. We really did pop in and out of each other’s houses borrowing sugar. We were comfortable with each other. The women folk standing outside chatting to one another, laughing and joking in the evenings as they walked to Bingo together. The men drank in the same pubs and or tended the same allotments proudly. These were real people some of who broke the law but most of who knew the difference between right and wrong. I would not change my upbringing for the world. It was fucking glorious.
So, what advice would I impart to young people on the wrong side of the Great Wall of Privilege today? I would say follow your dreams. As Alan Sillitoe (who I was fortunate enough to befriend) said in his seminal working-class novel Saturday Night, Sunday Morning – DON’T LET THE BASTARDS GRIND YOU DOWN. Take my old man’s advice too. Work hard, think hard. Most of the others do not. Kick those barriers away. You’re better than them.
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