There's nothing romantic about poverty, but Kevin Maguire regrets the passing of genuine social camaraderie
In Monty Python's Four Yorkshiremen sketch, a group of well-dressed chaps on holiday, eating risotto and sipping Château de Chasselas, brag about who endured the hardest upbringing. Supping cold, milkless tea out of a cracked mug was the good life compared with drinking from a rolled-up newspaper, which itself was deemed better than sucking on a piece of damp cloth. "But you know," says one of the smug Yorkies, "we were happy in those days, though we were poor."
I snigger at that mocking, prolier-than-thou Python skit when I think back to my own childhood in South Shields on Tyneside. Money was tight in our family in the 1960s and 1970s. Eight of us, two parents and six kids (I was the third), squeezed into a three-bed council house. Dad was a miner, and mam got up early to clean houses in the posh bit of town and worked in the then Wright's biscuit factory.
We were bought new clothes at Christmas, Easter and the end of the six-week summer holiday to go back to school, with the "Provy Man" selling clothing coupons knocking for his money every week the rest of the year. Holidays, abroad or here in Britain, were for mythical figures we read about in the Daily Mirror or watched on TV. But we didn't suck rags and it wasn't the hole in the road with a piece of tarpaulin over the top which one of the Python private schoolboys joked was a luxury.
I do, however, grimace a little recalling how we once had no writing paper for my homework. Thankfully, the impecunious working class cherished cleanliness: I handed in the sums on a Kleenex tissue. Back then we just got on with life like everybody else on the Whiteleas estate. There was no self-pity, no hang-ups and no inferiority complex. We were working class. I don't recall any pride or shame in that. It was what we were. End of.
I'm wary of peering through rose-tinted spectacles to that era when I prefer lying on a settee in my centrally heated sitting room to enjoy the footie on subscription Sky Sports to huddling around the coal fire, washing drying on clothes horses pulled in a tight semi-circle around us, to watch On the Buses.
Yet there was a genuine sense of community, a natural solidarity that the working class created and which a more affluent middle class, which celebrates the individual, never experienced. The mines and shipyards of South Shields produced industrial workers who knew they needed to work and strike together, creating a camaraderie which extended beyond clocking-off.
I, like every lad I knew, feared the man who knocked on our door complaining we'd broken a window or woken him while he tried to sleep after the night shift, because our parents sided with him. Similarly the teacher who complained about bad behaviour at school would find parents who sided with them instead of a dad who wanted to knock the living daylights out of them in the playground.
Working-class values survive and indeed flourish in parts of our country, although they're in retreat. The closure of big workplaces, including the collieries and shipyards, is a factor. Toiling in twos and threes in small businesses will never engender the collective values of, for example, a thousand men hewing coal half a mile down into the earth and four miles out under the North Sea. The deliberate marginalisation of trade unions by successive governments and employers has played its part, too, denting the confidence of individuals by isolating them instead of bringing workers together.
Millions of people in an increasingly atomised, post-industrial Britain must be suffering what a Marxist would call false consciousness if they think that wearing a white collar to work automatically confers middle-class status. The economist Will Hutton's report on pay reached iffy conclusions, though a wealth of statistics remind us that half of full-time employees earn £25,428 or less a year. Include part-timers, and the median for all workers drops to £21,320, or £410 a week.
A sizeable number who think – or at least tell pollsters – that they're middle class must be on wages in socio-economic groups that even Ed Miliband would not include when he extends the squeezed middle to include everyone he hopes will vote Labour.
Perhaps the X Factor generation feels there's something embarrassing about being working class. The comment attributed to Maggie Thatcher about how a man older than 26 using a bus must be a failure may be apocryphal, but she, John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and, for obvious reasons, Buller Boy David Cameron champion the deceit of a classless Britain even though inequality has never been greater.
Writing the working class out of the cultural script adds to the confusion. BBC1's controller, Danny Cohen, was denounced by right-whinge media as a Dave Spart when he dared suggest TV needed blue-collar comedies to complement Middle England's Outnumbered and My Family.
Class isn't whether you call a mid-day meal dinner or lunch or a toilet a lavatory, but life chances. That includes how long we live, when a bloke in the grittier parts of Glasgow may die 13 years earlier than a resident of well-heeled Kensington and Chelsea.
Class should matter more in politics than it does, yet it's shunned by politicians. They are happy to talk about gender, race and sexuality, and then run away from discussing, let alone confronting, a major dividing line in society.
I regret the fading of solidarity in the working-class community I knew in my youth. What I regret most, however, is the conspiracy to avoid class as an issue because it's convenient for an influential, powerful and wealthy few to pretend it doesn't exist. And so a far larger number of people become confused about who and what they are and, most importantly of all, how to make Britain fairer.
Kevin Maguire is associate editor (politics) of the 'Daily Mirror'
Fifties suburbia was all unwritten rules and snobbery. David Randall recalls an almost lost world
Class, to me, always means crockery and, in particular, the "workmen's cups" in which my mother served tea to handymen and the like. Their existence ensured no working-class lips soiled the family's utensils, and they were even kept on a separate, lower, shelf. If that makes my mother seem an intolerable snob, you hadn't met our neighbours. Several would greet workmen with the news that, on no account, was the loo to be used. Should the need arise, these fastidious chatelaines would add, there are excellent facilities at the pub up the road. Thus were their avocado-coloured ceramics unsullied by the proletariat.
This is how it was in the Fifties and Sixties in Worcester Park, a Tudorbethan enclave laid out in the 1930s. On one side of the railway line were mainly terraced homes, which gradually, as you crossed towards our side of the tracks, shaded into semi-detacheds, which became larger and larger and, finally, detached. Our road, Edenfield Gardens, was the local Mason-Dixie line: on our side of the street, semi's; on the other, detached. Fraternising was frequent, but tensions were there. My brother struck perhaps the smartest blow in our road's muted class war when an especially appalling woman announced to him that her husband had booked a family holiday in the Canaries, then an ostentatious luxury. "Oh," he replied, "our milkman's just come back from there."
The detached homes had a certain type of name – "Tall Trees", or "Hilltops" – suggesting to the distant correspondent they commanded several choice Home Counties acres. (Another, "Pantiles", was treasured by us, if only because we enjoyed removing the "L" from time to time.) Ours merely had a number, one of many signs that you had not quite "arrived", others being net curtains, pebble-dash and garden gnomes. Front gardens in our road had to be neat (otherwise you were letting some unseen side down), but not showy. The place for the trays of blowsy plants bought at the local nurseries was the back garden, not the front. That would have been vulgar.
This was part of the unwritten Common Law of the suburbs, adherence to which ensured no one thought you common. The dos and don'ts of the suburban Sunday featured strongly, which was strange because, apart from the church organist two doors down, we knew no one who was anything other than irreligious. Thus, on the seventh day, we boys could play in the garden, but not outside. You could saw, but not hammer. You could raise a frame for runner beans, but not your voice. And bonfires were for Saturdays.
It was, then, a childhood of grammar school and golf club, of steak-house meals and two-star hotels. Its watchword was a lack of adventure – both socially (I knew no one you could remotely call working class), educationally (there were but three books in the house) and sexually. When I was 14 or so, I started meeting a girl in the park. She had dark hair, and was pretty as a picture. Unfortunately, like most pictures, she was also painted, and, to my parents, any girl wearing make-up at the age of 14 was plainly up to no good. Alas, I was gated, and the opportunity to find out if they were right was lost.
You might think an upbringing so narrowly middle class was ideal preparation for Cambridge, but it wasn't. Suddenly, I was mixing, and competing, with the products of public schools. They oozed entitlement, but often lacked real self-confidence, the giveaway being their anxious probing to discover where you went to school, how much your parents had, etc. Old boys from the really big schools were not like this, and my best friend in college was an old Harrovian. His parents bought him a Bentley for his 21st. They had even more money than my girlfriend's parents, who had homes in three counties. But it was always hard, for all their consideration, to feel anything other than a poor relation when visiting. "Do you ride?" one of my girlfriend's relatives once asked, a question, I immediately realised, not designed to find out if I had a bicycle.
I graduated, joined the local paper, and immediately fell in love with the first person I interviewed. She was a nurse, her father a clerk of works, and her mother a woman who, at 13, was an under-house parlourmaid. When we told my parents we were engaged, you could, to paraphrase Peter Kay, have cut the atmosphere with a special atmosphere cutter. The following morning, my mother brought me tea. "We thought you'd do better for yourself than that," she said. How wrong she was. Within a few months, they had fallen for her nearly as completely as I had – proof, I like to think, that there are, even for inhabitants of the Worcester Parks, forces more powerful than class.
Silly voice, pink shirt, Matthew Bell is definitely posh. But the higher you go, the more complicated it gets
The trouble with class is you only know what you're given. In my case, that was an expensive education and a decent grounding in bridge. Oh, and I do like vintage cars. In fact I own a couple. According to my colleagues, that makes me "posh". Never mind, they say, when I ask what the similarities are to Victoria Beckham. You own a 1923 Delage – of course you're posh.
Well, I'm the first to admit I have a silly voice. And I do own a pink shirt. But to be a member of the upper classes takes more than that. There's clearly still an elite in Britain, one not defined by influence or wealth. So how come nobody in today's poll defines themselves as upper class? One reason could be that the upper classes don't do market research. Another, that to label yourself upper class is a sure-fire sign that you're not – unless you're Julian Fellowes, in which case you modestly insist you're at the bottom of the top. The poshest people I know were busy estuarising their accents in the sixth form. It doesn't help that the gradations of class become impossibly complex at the top, where money and power increasingly jostle with lineage and acreage. David Cameron has all four, which to many makes him the definition of upper class. And yet, in certain drawing rooms, he is irredeemably middle class – his father a stockbroker, his mother a magistrate.
In the end, class is relative. We are born into certain positions on various pecking orders – wealth, education, civility – of which we gradually become more aware. The hope is that we can die somewhere else on those scales if we wish. In the meantime we're left with a problem of terminology. Yes, I started out more fortunate than some, though every sports day, when elaborate picnics would emerge from F&M hampers, it was evident that I was by no means the luckiest. Because as Joanna Lumley put it, you don't have to be posh to be privileged.