Get rich or try sharing - a working class life
Amazingly and excitingly, I find myself at the beginning of a PhD on Gas, Pollution and Heritage, researching its impact on working class communities. So it feels important to clarify my own working class position if I’m to approach the subject with sensitivity and seriousness. Like many working class people, my route into academia has been lengthy, precarious and expensive, but still enjoyed all the way.
So, the following piece is about my own working class life, which has mostly been a life of fun, community, but also the impacts of intergenerational poverty. It’s not a misery memoir - but it’s difficult to talk about the effects of class, poverty and disability without parts of it sounding like one! Nor is it a desire for sympathy. Apart from some of the poverty related deaths, illness and violence that affected my family, I wouldn’t change any of it. I’m proud to be working class, and especially love my family’s Irish and Welsh working class culture.
People from the poorest sections of the working class face a conundrum when they explain the impacts of intergenerational poverty. Without our real life stories, class related poverty is reduced to abstract think tank statistics. But as first person accounts they risk sounding like stories of individual difficulties, rather than what they actually are: illustrations of a deliberate political system - the British class system - and the particular violence it inflicts on those at the bottom.
Hopefully, these working class stories, that usually go unrecorded, can collectively help towards creating understanding and change.
Huge thanks to Lumpen: Journal for poor and working class writing, and the Class Work Project, where an original version of this piece was published and where many of us shared our shared stories at a workshop in Machynlleth Bowling Club. And a shout out to the supportive space of the Working Class Academics.
Thank you for reading,
Get Rich or Try Sharing
A working class life
(CW - mentions suicide and assault, but not detailed)
Image description: The author aged seven, in the living room of their council house on Christmas day, next to their sister and dad, 1978. There’s a small Xmas tree, old black and white telly and some presents being opened.
’Poverty is caused by personality defect’ Margaret Thatcher
I’m working class. How is this defined? Class definitions evolve, but when I was a child, class was loosely categorised as lower and upper working class, lower and upper middle class, and the upper class and aristocracy. There was a kind of underclass too, but it was unclear to me what this was called back then. Recently I’ve heard it described as the ‘poverty class’, 1 which seems like a useful definition.
My family began life as lower working class. By the time I was in my teens, redundancies and disabilities meant we slid into that revolving door of intergenerational poverty, illness and addictions. However, disability benefits, free school meals and state housing kept us above water - just.
‘Lower working class’ broadly meant you lived on a council estate or in precarious rented accommodation. Your parent(s) were probably classed as ‘low/semi skilled.’ You went to a secondary modern or comprehensive school. You qualified for benefits. You had a high chance of slipping irreversibly ‘downwards’ if any one thing went wrong in your life, like illness, job losses or arrests.
So, what did this look like? Boys From The Blackstuff, maybe? Del Boy Trotter and Birds of a Feather? Or I, Daniel Blake, where everyone is moral and worthy and kind.
Well, no working class experience is universal, but mine went like this:
It was heated arguments about the neighbours who bought their council houses under Thatcher's Right to Buy policy. It was furniture on hire purchase, shared bedrooms and a car battery on constant charge in the kitchen. It was cheering on Big Daddy with my Nana and my dad putting money on Red Rum to win the horse racing. It was reading ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.’ It was Alsatian dogs barking on tiny balconies in the flats opposite. It was my big Irish Catholic family, aunties, cousins and grandparents all living on the same street, same estate. Mostly, it was fun.
Image description: A white, blond Jesus, colourised, with arms outstretched is stood in front of, and with his back to, two homeless people depicted in black and white. A fake quote reads: “The poor are defective,” and is attributed to: ‘Jesus, probably.’ Artwork and videos attributed to LuckyBlackCat.
It was holy water from Lourdes passed around as a remedy for everything. The bleeding heart of Jesus looked down at us from the doorways of our solid white council houses. It was us kids playing on the metal and concrete playground opposite our house, parents vaguely watching from windows. Politically our family ranged from royalist conservatives to radical republicans and everything in between, mostly supportive but sometimes morally claustrophobic. My dad would take us to church on Sunday mornings where the priest would race through Mass, followed up by a Guinness in the social club next door, tobacco smoke hanging in the air like fog.
Lower working class was my dad leaving school at fifteen, attempting to run away to America, making it as far as County Offaly. After that he joined the army and flew out to Jordan during the Suez crises. Like many working class men in his regiment, he was also very left wing. I grew up seeing no contradictions between being in the armed forces and being a socialist (a phenomena explored in the amazing book Veteranhood by Joe Glenton.) He eventually broke his leg, got infected with gangrene, and was discharged. He then got a job in Gloucester Iron Foundry, walking several miles in the early hours and late nights to clean the ovens. The abrupt closure of the foundry in 1982 devastated many families, including mine. 2
Image description: An old poster from Gloucester Iron Foundry, from Grace’s British Industrial History, where the authors dad worked, showing illustrations of cars and their parts.
Lower working class was my teenage mum, immersed in the beatnik culture of the 60s. She became pregnant at seventeen, and was heavily coerced into adopting out her baby. She fought back however, eventually raising her baby Julia as a single parent in a hostile, sexist word. Tragically, Julia contracted meningitis at eleven months old and was left severely brain damaged. She required (and still does require) high levels of specialist intervention. When Julia was five, my mum met my dad and they created a family, full of love and fun - and unconditional love is no small thing to build a life on.
Image Description: Kitty Little, the authors mum, smiling a huge smile, at the common-for-all home she was sent to in 1965 to give birth out of sight. She’s holding baby Julia. She’s with three other teenage girls.
When we were children, lower working class was coach rides to the National History Museum, piano and violin lessons, Irish pipe bands, and occasional caravan holidays in Wales. My mum taught us French words over breakfast and played us classical music, in between listening to her Rolling Stones records. I knew that Beethoven was deaf and that Mozart wrote his first symphony as a child. Because working class doesn’t mean uneducated, though it might mean lack of formal qualifications. My mum had only been abroad once in her life, but she loved everything culturally European and cheap prints of Van Gogh’s sunflowers and Rembrandt’s shadows hung on our walls of our council house.
Working class was my dad’s friends who arrived from Chile and sang ‘The Internationale.’ Visitors spoke in Spanish and French, and called each other ‘Comrade.’ Because working class is also internationalist. It was visiting my dad’s old friend Bill at his trailer, who’d fought in the International Brigades. It was Marie, a family friend, who took me to visit Karl Marx’s grave and showed me Renoir’s paintings of ‘lazy, bourgeois women.’ Politics that I was bored and embarrassed by at the time. My dad once picked us up from school wearing a Russian style fur hat, topped with a hammer and sickle badge. Parental embarrassment knows no class boundaries, it seems!
Lower working class was an immaculately tidy house, partly because of my dad’s army days - I don’t think he’s ever left the house without shaving! It was wearing Sunday best and a never ending round of washing and drying, because working class is often dignified and keeping up appearances.
Redundancy, disability and the slide into poverty
Later, lower working class was collecting strike fund money for my mum’s cousins and uncles in the South Wales coal mining communities. Arthur Scargill was a hero in our house, and my Auntie Lou would rage about Kinnock selling out the miners. Industry was closing everywhere and jobs were scarce. Redundancy happened for my dad and about a hundred or so other men at Gloucester Foundry. We experienced an unusual burst of feeling rich, buying a washing machine and tumble dryer with the payout, quickly followed by unpaid bills and free school meals. My dad found care work, but by then the night shifts and stress took their toll and he had a huge stroke at forty two years old, that he only just survived. It was then the slow realisation that unconditional love and support is severely tested by poverty.
Image description: BBC article, 14 Dec 2021, detailing the poverty a working single mother, named Christine, is experiencing at Christmas.
Lower working class was my mum struggling with M.E, depression and mistreatment by medical professionals. Despite this she was endlessly patient and caring. Children from all over the estate found their way to our house for hot chocolate and cakes. Stray cats wandered in for food and she even found time to teach English to migrant women. Then at sixteen years old my sister Julia moved into a supported care home and my mum sank into a deep grief as she tried to cope with the loss of her eldest daughter, her own illness, and my dad leaving home. This convergence of poverty, disability and precarious income left us increasingly vulnerable.
[Years later my mum would end her own life, tired of battling depression, poverty and the loneliness it created. ‘In my dreams I'm Carrie Bradshaw,’ she once told me. Her death left an empty space where a life of music and poetry should have thrived.] 3
By now, aged thirteen, it was my mum trying desperately to care for us, but needing to frequently stay in bed. It was three members of my family registered disabled and the unstoppable slide into poverty. It was visiting my dad’s bedsit with the shared hallway and bathroom and the ‘friend’ upstairs who’d invite me into his room, offering me toast, hugs and sexually intrusive questions. It was a kidnapping and assault by older boys and men in an unfamiliar flat with graffiti on the walls. It was looking after a neighbours children, the parent gone AWOL, nothing but pot noodles in the house and old curtains used as bath towels. It was police officers laughing along with a man who'd got me drunk and tried to assault me. It was the men that seemed to be forever at our house giving us beers and more, skilful as predators are at seeking out vulnerable families. Our house rattled with bottles of Diazepam and Ativan which I often stole, leading to an addiction that required medical intervention by the time I was fifteen.
[A note on violence, addiction and crime. The things I mention here are not even the half of it, and I highlight them not for gratification or sympathy - I want or need neither - but to illustrate the frequent danger that poverty puts poor families in. Mentioning the violence in our stories is a dilemma as the middle class gaze tends to settle on these incidents, without understanding their complexity. Lower working class communities aren’t *more* brutal, but they do contain more brutalised people and this plays out in our lives. Despite this, working class communities were also the most caring in my experience. But, in my early teens, violence and threat was definitely a feature of my life and of many other kids I knew and it shaped us, of course. Apart the all-too-frequent physical threats, there was the added dimension of brutality caused by lack of household income, and by institutional neglect. This applies to the council estate teenager being assaulted and disbelieved, the destroyed belongings of the homeless person, or the struggles of the mental health service user. Add in being black, a single parent, or gender non conforming and the worth of our working class bodies diminished according to the rules of class system.]
But, lower working class was also all the people who made me tea and food, got me home at all hours when I was stranded, and subtly looked out for us. Because for every predator there are another thirty people who, despite their own struggles with poverty, offered comfort and fun, as is so often the way in poor communities. The flip side of danger can be freedom, and I roamed the streets at all hours, sometimes alone, mostly unafraid, breathing in the diversity of humanity. Lower working class was also a couple of kind teachers encouraging me to come to school, noticing my frequent absences and slumped head at the back of the class. The benefits of an Irish Catholic school swung in my favour for a while and a level of community care buffered me and kept me in education.
It was older boyfriends, like the skinhead who was on a curfew and had to be home by 10pm every night. It was football matches where our friend was called a dirty monkey by racists who threw coins at us through the fence. I was wary of football crowds for a long time, although later I would join up with a diverse Anti Fascist Action group, made up of council estate youth, punks, football fans and lecturers, discovering dimensions of fascism that were new but familiar: the roots in Irish politics, the Rangers - Celtic divide and the ‘No Surrender’ fascists of the Unionist movements.
Aged fifteen, lower working class was living in a one bedroom flat with my dad, as I struggled to revise for my neglected O-levels at the kitchen table, my dad offering encouragement and food, as he gradually recovered from his stroke, working night shifts as a security guard. The flat was too small for both of us to live comfortably for very long, and at seventeen, it was leaving in the middle of my A-levels and linking up with a group of new found punk friends. We lived cheaply and shared giros, in between cleaning and factory work. We ‘skipped’ our food out of supermarket bins and talked feminism, animal rights and politics into the night. People from all round the world visited us: the Greek punk escaping national service; the Swedish punks who drank hard, and shouted loudly; the Americans who put our picture in Profane Existence magazine. I settled into this new world of protests, hunt sabs, housing co-ops and poll tax riots. We were Thatcher’s misfits, with a passion for politics and loud music, and I felt like I'd found my people.
So why is any of this important now?
My childhood showed me that being working class, being materially poor, isn’t necessarily a problem as long as you have an economic and social safety net of affordable housing, dignified work, pay and benefits, and well funded education and health systems.
Image description: T-shirt that says: ‘Get Rich Or Try Sharing.’ T-shirt available at THCT.
My teenage years showed me that poverty for working class people increases as this social safety net is unravelled. I can map the timeline of risk onto my family as redundancy, disability and low/no pay began to spiral. It was then that our lives became precarious, leaving scars across the generations. This was at the beginning of the Thatcherite political project to undo council housing, universal education and health care: Neoliberalism. Four decades later and its so much worse.
Poor and working class people are constantly papering over the cracks in the welfare state. The deeper the cuts, the busier and harder our lives become, voluntarily forced to fill in where underfunded services fail, trapping people into endless cycles of poverty.
A few lucky breaks have cushioned me lately from the harms of intergenerational poverty. But these periods of relief in our working class lives are usually precarious and short lived, a sticking plaster over wider systemic poverty that permeates whole families and communities, and are passed down the generations. No amount of individualised social mobility can properly undo this. Parental income is still the single biggest determinant of future income, life expectancy, health and wellbeing, regardless of education opportunities, and despite endless political rhetoric around ‘levelling up.’
I also look back at my teenage years, my twenties and thirties - the good and the bad - and realise that when the welfare institutions failed, it was the collective organising that picked us back up: the neighbours; the housing co-ops and workers co-ops; the gigs; the protests; the squats; the unions; the spaces to come together and swap ideas, offer support, and crucially - to party and have fun.
Whether we wanted to or not, we were creating alternative models for a society, supportive of those who fall through the cracks.
We were never going to be rich and nor did we care, but because of our lived experiences we knew how to share.
Next week: Class and NGOs/what even is class in Britain, anyway?