Sounds like the title of a play by Simon Gray, “The Alien Middle Class”, but it’s just a phrase thrown out the other day by a senior government adviser. If working-class children are to get into the best universities and land the best jobs, then they are going to have to learn to fit in with the “alien middle class” – so says Peter Brant, head of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission.
Examples of the sort of “fitting in” he has in mind include going to restaurants and theatres. And presumably knowing how to behave when you get there. No tearing up the seats, no throwing up over fellow diners. (No one is saying behave like a banker.)
There is also a reference to clothes. You’re going to have stop dressing like shit, is what he means. Myself, I think the alien middle classes are in need of similar advice. Let’s be honest: nobody knows how to dress at the moment. The men with the biggest bellies eschew the protection of a tie and wear the tightest jackets, while the women with the plumpest thighs eschew the protection of aesthetics and wear the shortest skirts.
Spillage is the look of the hour, and all classes save the aristocratic, who are kept lean by walking around their estates, and formal by the need to insist on feudal distinctions, aspire to it. As an adviser to a government that fancies it has the common touch, Peter Brant daren’t go all the way and say that if you really want to get on in life you should learn to fit in with that even more alien social class, the landed gentry. But I can say it.
Little of what Peter Brant recommends will be listened to by those he hopes to help. His mistake is to assume that what he means by “getting on” is what they do. But the truth is that you don’t need to hit it off with the middle classes to be a reality star, a DJ, a footballer, a rapper, a personal fitness trainer, a daytime television presenter. If anything, fitting in with the middle classes – many of whom live on a pittance and are therefore not emulable – could be seen to be a hindrance when it comes to following such career paths. And pretty soon anyway, if you’re successful, the middle classes will be queuing up to fit in with you.
Here’s the problem Mr Brant faces. Our society gives confusing signals. When we aren’t urging our young to drag themselves out of the mud, we are wallowing in it with them. You need street cred if you’re going to grab a late-night boozy snog from the wife of the Speaker of the House Commons, not a qualification in accountancy or social work. And while I wouldn’t dream of saying that you can’t have street cred and a good degree from Cambridge, it’s my guess that it’s not the degree that gets you noticed.
I’m sympathetic to Peter Brant. He stretches out a hand to help people over a divide they don’t want to cross. The restaurants might be full, and the theatres, too, so long as they’re staging musicals, but as a culture the middle classes are a busted flush. At the grammar school I went to in the 1950s, even those of us who called ourselves radicals or communists bought the idea of intellectual betterment, and in so far as moving up a class was the means to achieve it, we bought that as well.
We kept a small reserve of plebeian rebelliousness in our satchels but otherwise consented to being taught manners and pronunciation, respect for authority and sportsmanship, and a mawkish middle-class attachment to ourselves as a sort of corporate body of the improving young. “Forty Years On” we sang at morning assembly, and I wasn’t the only one holding back tears. But at least it wasn’t “I have a dream”.
Not that this preparation for “fitting in” worked particularly well for me. No sooner did I move among the alien middle classes proper than I realised I still wasn’t one of them. They were too certain of their place in the world for me, too unshakably in situ. I could do restaurants. I could do theatres. I didn’t dress like shit – why, I even bought a pair of buffalo-skin Chelsea boots with my first term’s grant – but Cambridge remained theirs and not mine. They weren’t the aliens. I was.
There will always be an us and a them, even if the owners of the privileges intermittently swap places. But the idea of entitlement to culture that my school had given me – culture in the sense of access to thought, fondness for books, familiarity with libraries and galleries, unembarrassment with words like “art” – remained strong however unentitled otherwise I felt.
Those petted bourgeois bastards might have owned the streets, but they couldn’t elbow me out of my share of mental space. That’s what I wish Peter Brant had told the underprivileged to “fit in” with: not the nights out in the West End, pleasurable as they are, not the gliding smoothly through the niceties, but the art and literature and music which, in fairness to the middle classes, they think is theirs only because no one else seems to want them.
Cue Peter Brant. Tell them, the insufficiently mobile working classes, tell them – whether or not they’re fulfilled presenting daytime telly – that civilisation is their entitlement, that it’s not the property of any one class, that it’s alien only if they allow it to feel alien, that the smart thing is to run at it with avidity, not away from it in shame. And when they get there, guess what? They’ll find that the alien middle classes have packed up and gone to learn to be DJs.