To transmit just how lumpen my origins are an anecdote from my former English teacher will start the ball rolling. He began teaching at my comprehensive in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1984 and he left over a decade later, attempting to inspire some of the cracker kids to do something with their lives. Well, in 1994 and six years after leaving school, I had gone back to college and gotten myself a place at posh Edinburgh University.
I visited my former teacher to give him the news and he told me that I was the only student he’d ever taught who’d gone on to study at university (if I remember correctly, he repeated this assertion after his teaching career finished about five years later). At the time this didn’t mean anything to me (your own culture, after all, doesn’t surprise you in the least, does it?) but in the intervening two decades I’ve come to realise just how “underclass” my beginnings actually were as I came to learn that my solidly working-class friends usually had a decent percentage of their classmates going on to study at university as do the kids in my current hillbilly mountain range in Andalusia, Spain.
I might as well keep rolling with the anecdotes now I’m going off on one, as they paint a pretty little picture. I remember my mother cooking a grand total of one meal during my childhood. We just ate chocolate bars, bags of crisps and went to the chippy. Maybe poured some breakfast cereal and milk into a bowl from time to time, come to think of it. But we were essentially feral and God help any kids in our area “acting posh” by going home to have a meal with their family instead of playing miles from home at midnight…at the age of 8 lol; we’d make their lives hell, the snooty bastards. Like I say, I remember a grand total of one cooked meal made by my mother when I was growing up: fish-fingers, peas and tinned potatoes. So memorable an occasion was this culinary cornucopia that it’s indelibly etched in my forty five year old head, a good thirty five years after the event!
Just about all of my first cousins were expelled from school by the age of twelve, never to step foot in any place of learning again. Funnily enough, you’d never have guessed it but none of them ended up thriving in any way unless you count dead by forty as success. Evidently embarking on a substance abuse career when you’re in single digits age-wise isn’t a cool start in life and sniffing glue doesn’t do too much to enhance cognitive powers.
My half-sister, twenty years older than me, reminisces fondly of her own idyllic childhood, given away to my granny as a kid because my mother remarried and we guess the new husband didn’t want any knocks to his manhood such as a kid from a previous bloke; he still battered my mother frequently, of course, but presumably not because her old kid was on the scene. Anyway, the delightful memories of being on a bus with her granny who announces loudly to all and sundry: “And this ‘un here. Her mother didn’t want her…her father didn’t want her…and here’s me, old fucking mug that I am with the little cunt” Nostalgia for childhood much, anyone?
I had a horrendous speech impediment as a kid (which only miraculously disappeared the day I left home at 18 which is, I think, kind of a thing in the psychological literature) and not only would my mother not take me on a bus the two miles to the hospital wing where they dealt with such issues, she wouldn’t even answer the door when a therapist was allocated to us (“I haven’t tidied the house; it’s a fucking shit-hole” and woe betide me if I hazarded the suggestion that maybe tidying the house up a bit might be preferable to her son going through life ridiculed through not being able to do something as simple as speak in a non-retarded fashion).
A friend asked me how I managed to somehow escape from these seemingly intractable, socio-economic/pathological familial problems and fashion a decently cultured life for myself and, upon reflection, I broke it down into 5 areas:
1). the sudden death of my mother when I was 12. To posit this as a good thing seems unholy, right? Which, of course, it is…but the secondary consequences arguably contributed to taking me off the feral path I had previously been on: all the good kiddies’ stuff of thieving, violence, arson etc. were knocked on the head by the unexpected bereavement which went something like this: “Your mam’s dead…” and then no reference to the loss ever again by anyone in the family. I somewhat predictably didn’t do too well without any period of mourning or, God forbid, support or love. I turned to OCD shit to get me through the next few years before finding no.4 on my list below (alcohol) to facilitate minimally traversing life’s terrain for the following decade and a half; but, at least I wasn’t out stealing cars and ram-raiding and generally making life hell for everybody around me. Instead I went inwards and withdrew for the remainder of my childhood into a very dark, guilt-laden place (I’d been caught thieving just a month prior to my mam’s death and she’d had to go to the cop-shop wracked with what we soon came to know was cancer to get me out and I carried this guilt and shame throughout my adolescence I suppose and beyond).
2). My English teacher (there’s always an English teacher, right? Just like there’s always a universal law broken by a tribe in New Guinea lol) who told me when I was 12 that I could do my O-level (the exam you do at 16 in the UK, since changed to GCSEs) there and then, but he wanted me to do non-syllabus work to try to develop writing skills beyond the scope of an English O-level. I couldn’t go “acting posh” of course so I did fuck-all, but at least some recognition was there and I still remember the feeeeeeling of being praised 33 years later.
3).Literature. Thanks to the above teacher, I read a lot of fiction in my late teen years as I couldn’t be around people because I had too much anxiety but books were one thing I could delve into to find better worlds and kind characters. So I consumed lots of fiction and started seeing a world outside my limited underclass experiences.
4). Alcohol. Now I’m not defending alcohol here but it offered me a way of functioning with some confidence in the world and it engendered lots of experiences (all bar and nightclub-based pastimes admittedly but it was a start) that would otherwise have been denied me and I balanced my consumption pretty well between heavy abuse and abstinence over the years.
5). A Hindu family who rescued me in my early twenties from a life of squats (illegal house-dwelling rather than the king of barbell lifts) and substance abuse. I was welcomed into their family and entrusted with their businesses, included in their weddings and religious ceremonies and treated like a legit member of their family…and from these roots something was born…
I’ve stumbled through life since, studying and working at three of the most prestigious UK universities: Edinburgh, Warwick and Oxford, with no connection to anybody or anything from my childhood culture. The benefits of this are manifold, not least of which I’ve had nothing resembling depression or crippling anxiety, no suicidal ideation or emotional breakdowns since sequestering myself away from my old life although I’m obviously caught adrift of all cultures as I can’t say that I’m too comfortable anywhere.
When you grow up so far outside of mainstream culture you can get overwhelmed by a common-or-garden occurrence and it can prove pretty tricky to maintain any sense of self-regard. I still remember seeing a bag of pasta in a friend’s kitchen at the age of 18. I picked a piece up and attempted to consume it as if it were a crisp because I’d simply never seen pasta before. Although I passed it off as a joke, what do you think an instance like this does to somebody who knows they can’t mix socially either in their old world or their current one? I’m just so outside the pale culturally because yes, I have the top-flight certificates from some of the snootiest uni’s in the world…but my cells are made up of decades of “proper untermensch experiences” lol. Life’s a battle alright and I think the pasta anecdote is pretty illustrative of the inferiority I carry around inside about my turbo-lumpen socialisation, constantly feeling ashamed, guilty and a fucking fraud in life. The only way I can elevate myself out of this feeling is by creating projects where I can help folks and dogs who are suffering with mental health issues in the former case and abandonment in the latter. I think that’s what I’m probably going to dedicate the rest of my life to…and psilocybin and meditation. I’m hoping that those things will help me transcend my impoverished cultural upbringing.
Listening to one of my favourite podcasters, Glenn Loury, I was introduced to Philippe Lemoine, a PhD candidate in Philosophy at Cornell University, who referenced a book about the British underclass written by Theodore Dalrymple, a doctor, who has worked amongst said sub-strata for years in a notorious part of Birmingham, UK.
I quickly became engrossed in the sordid, tragic and often hilarious anecdotes (well, the stories themselves aren’t necessarily the height of hilarity although Dalrymple’s manner of framing them certainly are) and the book inspired me to put a few words together for Cultural Confessions here at MMA. Pretty chilling stuff to be honest and it’s a real testament to the human spirit that allows some individuals to prevail and to escape the violence, crime, sheer hopelessness and degradation of such “upbringings” (and I use this word very loosely as often nothing said to even approach an upbringing is rendered by the parents). Interestingly, from my own perspective, Dalrymple comments that in all his thousands of home-visits as a doctor there was one activity he cannot remember ever seeing in a patient’s home: the simple act of cooking. I know this sounds far-fetched but as I’ve already commented myself, I saw it on only one occasion during my own childhood.
Despite being unmistakeably working class herself (daughter of Indian immigrants, she worked in a foundry as a teenager) and growing up in a place often describes as “a bit rough”, my partner had no idea of the underclass world very much detached from mainstream society, a place where taxis, pizza-deliveries and buses won’t even go after certain hours and where even the emergency services rarely venture for fear of mass-attack and I find this to be the case with the majority of working-class people I meet. People who had working parents or food in the kitchen or academic aspirations or anything uplifting in life often don’t know that these hellish enclaves exist because they maybe never even have to drive through them.
Incredibly, the writer-who has worked in some of the poorest places on earth such as African countries, Latin America and the Pacific Islands-states that the “mental, emotional, cultural and spiritual impoverishment of the western white under-class is the greatest of any large group” he has been exposed to and he believes it’s their hopeless culture bereft of agency and full of despair that’s to blame for this. On first look, this seems a ridiculous claim to make as everybody instinctively knows that it can’t be true, but as the essays progress and even the trainee doctors from Indian slums start commenting that there’s something even more despairing in the British inner-cities than back in their homelands you have to sit up and start taking notice. To be honest, even though I come from the type of place Dalrymple references, I found myself having to cast some immediate mental aspersions on his assertion because, come on, it can’t be that bad culturally now, can it?.