Knowing my Place by Barbara Nadel

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The United Kingdom is still a very class dominated society. Our Prime Minister, David Cameron, might like to think that he’s being ‘one of the people’ by flying with a budget airline to Spain for his holiday, but he’s fooling no one. We know he’s rich, we know he’s aristocratic and we couldn’t really give a toss whether he chooses to spend his own money on budget flights or whether he wants to go first class to the Moon. If that were public money, I’d be pleased, but it isn’t and so I really don’t care. Fly cattle class across the Atlantic or to Australia, David, and you’ll impress me. If not, just keep it to yourself.

There’s the same ‘look, we’re just like you’ thing going on with the Royal Family. Prince William is marrying a ‘commoner’. I suppose taken in the sense of ‘not royal’, Kate Middleton is a commoner, but she’s hardly Sharon from a council flat in West Ham is she? Her parents are millionaires, she’s connected. William, dear, marry Sharon whose mum drinks Bacardi Breezers down at the Working Mens Club every Friday night with her unemployed boyfriend and maybe we can talk about how much life experience you can share with the common herd. Maybe it’s because we’ve got a Conservative government now, but there seems to be a lot of upper and upper middle class guilt going on at the moment. Maybe they’re trying to appease the rest of us, fearing, after the student protests against tuition fees at the beginning of the year, a revolt amongst the ‘unwashed masses’? I can see why they might be nervous. A lot of us on the dole is probably quite a worrying prospect. But then when you live in a gated community, or surrounded by beefy security men, I can’t really see how some Scally with his mum’s bread knife is really going to give you too much aggravation. Not unless, of course, you tell him how you’d really like to be like him. Oh God.

In my circle of friends and family, I know a lot of people who have recently become unemployed. Government cuts have hit hard and even those of us who are still employed are just about clinging on by our fingernails. I know people with mental health problems, people with terrible addictions and folk who suffer physical illness with almost no money and so support whatsoever. What do you think David Cameron, Prince William, all the rest of you, that these people, all the ‘unwashed’ and that includes me, think when you say you’d really like to be ‘like us’? Basically it’s unrepeatable and do you know why? It’s about aspiration. I was the first person in my family to get a university degree. Go back two generations and you find hunger and illiteracy. Don’t these privileged people get that although we might not want to be ‘like them’ we do want some of the advantages, the power over our own lives and a few little luxuries, ‘just like them’. If we didn’t, why on earth would we bother to better ourselves?

When wealthy and powerful people tell me that they’d love to be ‘just like me’ it’s because they see the life of a writer as somehow dashing and romantic. They see shabby chic garden flats in West London where great ideas blossom over a picturesque old manual typewriter. They don’t see the headaches over the bills, the wild and uncharted mess that accompanies anyone who works 24/7 or even the overflowing cat litter tray that has to be dumped in the bin every morning. Less Lady Antonia Fraser and more Amy Winehouse after a heavy night, I am the sartorial equivalent of a derelict pub. Who, in their right mind, would want to be me?

Well, it’s people who don’t understand and I don’t blame them for that. What can people like Prince William or David Cameron know about people like me? Not much. They could try harder to get to know us and we could have a shot at not being so touchy and resentful. But one thing they must get to grips with if any of this class thing is ever, ever, ever to even begin to change is that they are not like us. They can’t be and even hinting at some sort of connection is ridiculous. Further, to say they want to ‘be like us’ and actually envy us our ‘homespun ordinariness’ is deeply, deeply insulting. So David and William, you go ahead and be wealthy, privileged and all the rest of it and I’ll get on with working and looking like the wrath of Satan. I wish you well. I hope you wish me well too. Just don’t say you’d like to me like me, because you wouldn’t.

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