Michael Parkinson’s TV interviews were often a sign of a boring Saturday night in when I was growing up, a brief period of televisual purgatory before Match Of The Day came on. Though obviously a master of the one-on-one interview, Parky’s technique in teasing out stories from some of the world’s A-listers (and Billy Connolly, every other bloody week, seemingly) wasn’t so complicated that it couldn’t be deciphered by a teenager with even a passing interest. After warming up his guest with a jovial exchange and a chance to plug their latest vehicle, the Yorkshire maestro would make his move. Hitching up his trouser legs to reveal the tops of his socks, Parky would fold his arms and lean back in his chair as he exhaled, half-conspiratorially, half with the air of a challenge: “Now, you had a very difficult childhood…”
At first it was amusing how regularly this template was used as a gateway to more serious territory, a clear signal that we were transitioning from light-hearted mischief to deep and meaningful discourse. And then it became kind of weird how similar the ensuing stories were: a tough upbringing, strong parents, hard work. Basically, Parky was giving our untouchable celebs a chance to talk up their humble origins, a free hit. ‘Life wasn’t easy in that small-town rat race – but, underneath all this make up, I’m just like you, y’know?’
Now, I’m under no illusion that these personal stories are precisely what we want to hear in these circumstances – the universal struggle, striving to overcome adversity. It’s also part of our own fascination with the rich and famous. We all want to feel some sort of connection with celebrities, on a human level; but we’re wary of them spending too much time telling us that they’re just ‘normal people’ – like us – for fear of them ruining our view that their status is something to aspire to. When the stars of film and TV hit the red carpets during awards season, this relationship becomes even more finely balanced. Not only are these stars expected to look immaculate in designer clothes, but their speeches need to show us that they’re in touch with the issues of the ‘common man’. There’s no better compliment we can find for a performer, while holding aloft their award – an award they’ve been given for their talent – than to say that they’re ‘down to earth’. Just like one of us.
This, I believe, points to a murky little thought festering in our collective psyche that we still haven’t quite squared ourselves with – that there’s something noble about being at the of bottom of the ladder looking up. It’s a sign of our inverted view of social mobility that the wealth and fame that comes with achieving success makes us feel a bit uncomfortable, meaning that those that do manage to climb a few rungs – get a better job, buy a bigger house – spend an inordinate amount of time talking up their working-class credentials.
It’s part of the reason why certain sections of society scoff at millennials and their privileges. There’s a snooty view that you can’t live comfortably and afford things like cars, holidays and a university education, and not be working class. More often than not, those that come in for most ire are the children of people who have worked their whole lives to create a comfortable existence – and when they try to relate to their working class background, they’re criticised of virtue signalling and playing down their entitlement.
And still there is even more hypocrisy at play. For every person who identifies with their working class roots, there is someone ready and waiting to paint those at the bottom of the societal ladder as an underclass. “It seems as though working-class people are the one group in society that you can say practically anything about,” wrote Owen Jones in his brilliant book Chavs. It’s the conflation of working class with poverty that exacerbates this view, and creates a polarising vision of a section of society who can be neatly blamed for, among other things, Brexit’s ‘howl of rage’.
One way of changing this toxic narrative is to encourage more voices to be heard. Know Your Place is a collection of essays on the working class, by the working class – for which one of our regular contributors, Cath Bore, has written an excellent piece. At the time of commissioning the book in 2017 – in reaction to a tweet by novelist Nikesh Shukla – Know Your Place’s Editor Nathan Connolly felt that the post-Brexit, post-Grenfell debate in the country had spiralled so far away from the point as to being ridiculous. “It felt as though a lot of commentators felt justified placing their own opinions in the mouths of the working class,” he says in his introduction. “What we rarely found was the working class allowed to speak for themselves. An awful lot could be justified in their name without actually giving them a chance to speak.”
Another writer who has contributed an essay to Know Your Place is the Birmingham-born Kit De Waal, who has set up a writing scholarship for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. “Working-class stories are not always tales of the underprivileged and dispossessed,” she wrote in a recent article for the Guardian calling for publishers and newspapers to make more room for working class writers. “These are narratives rich in barbed humour, their technique and vernacular reflecting the depth and texture of working-class life, the joy and sorrow, the solidarity and the differences, the everyday wisdom and poetry of the woman at the bus-stop, the waiter, the hairdresser.”
Analysis of the 2014 British Labour Force Survey shows that publishing is the least socially diverse of all the UK’s creative industries: 43% of people working in publishing, including those in the influential editorial roles, were from middle-class origins, with only 12% from working-class backgrounds. Similarly, 47% of all authors, writers and translators hail from professional, middle-class backgrounds, compared with just 10% of those with parents in routine or manual labour. “If the majority of decision makers – gatekeepers – come from such a narrow social and cultural set (white, middle-class, good contacts, right accent and cultural references),” writes De Waal, “then the question of who gets published and which stories get told is unlikely to change.”
I’ll be honest with you, I have absolutely no idea whereabouts I fit into our country’s fractured class system – and nor am I bothered. The fact that I can happily sit in a coffee shop and eat avocado on toast while working away on my MacBook will undoubtedly make me middle class in many people’s eyes. That’s fine with me, as I’m aware of the privileges that have been afforded me – and my actions and lived experience will be the ultimate judge of my social credentials. If we’re to get away from a fetishised view of our class structures, we need to hear a wider variety of voices from those who identify as working class. Know Your Place is an excellent place to start.