The class analysis, whether strictly Marxist or vaguely sociological, has fallen out of favour in recent times. Feminist, "queer", and various other perspectives have supplanted it. If one wanted to be cynical, one might say this is because it allows middle-class academics to locate themselves "inside looking out" of their analysis, rather than "outside looking in". "Identity politics" has been all the rage. So many perspectives, so little tenure. But I think it's more that the truth of a sort of phenomenological relativism -- one person's ceiling is another person's floor -- has, for whatever reasons, become overwhelmingly self-evident. "Grand narratives" have become embarrassing.
A good friend took me to task, not so long ago, over something I'd written here: you are now middle class, he said, like it or not. Well, yes and no. True, I have acquired a few degrees, some middle-class attitudes, earn a middle-class income in a middle-class job with a final-salary pension scheme, and tend not to watch TV or chat about sport. But I didn't have a middle-class childhood, was state-educated locally, as were my kids, and my neighbours are much the same mix of lower-middle and working-class everyfolk that I grew up with. Despite everything, I seem not to have come very far in the world. But I like to think this mongrel mix of attitudes is what makes me interesting, at least to myself. Forced to wear a label, I think I'd call myself a "petit bourgeois bohemian".
Of course, our nostalgias are mainly false-memory constructs. The past is not somewhere we can visit, and that phenomenological relativism that has become so self-evident tells us that "The Past" was the aggregate of millions of individually-experienced parallel and interacting realities, anyway. I have no real idea how it would have been to have grown up as a girl, for example, born to my family in the same town in the same year, with the same abilities and attributes.
Sometimes those of us at the humbler end of society do get studied intensively, but our actual identities and experiences get processed into aggregated statistics and evidence, that represent everyone and no-one. Nobody is as dull as their statistics. Imagine the surprise, then, last year, of opening a book being discarded from our library shelves (Education For Living, by J.R.C. Yglesias, published by Cory, Adams & Mackay, 1965) and seeing photographs of familiar faces and scenes I hadn't seen for 45 years.
The book is a study of my own primary school, Peartree Spring Junior, illustrated with many photographs by Margaret Murray (and, incidentally, a classic of mid-60s book design) taken during school activities in 1963/4. And, yes, I am in one of them (I think), looking dubiously at some school custard. Most amazingly, this is my school as I remember it. It is a book about a school as a lived experience, as a beacon of good practice, about ordinary children being valued and nurtured as individuals, about good teachers being given the chance to do a good job. It is a book about optimism.
Miss Hendey... Worth a whole post in her own right.
There's a telling autobiographical passage in the book:
I was at school with Trevor Huddlestone and Peter Pears. Neither shone in the eyes of their contemporaries half as much as did the captains of cricket and of football. Today I cannot remember the names of those athletic giants, but I follow with admiration the careers of Trevor Huddlestone and Peter Pears ... At the same school there were others, equally sensitive, who took a long time to recover from an education which allowed boys to value games and 'good form' so highly and to mock at deeper human qualities. To be clever and artistic and sensitive was to be scorned and humiliated.It's a story you hear so often from those who have been privately-educated in single-sex environments, and that deep sense of resentment against the bullying Masters of the Universe seems often to underpin the commitment to social justice of many activists. We shouldn't knock it -- without middle-class reformers, we'd still be sending our kids up chimneys. But it's not my story. I don't have those middle-class ghosts to lay.
My story has two early parts. First, it's an optimistic story about growing up in a brief window of opportunity when Britain came as close as it ever has to becoming -- in some special places at least -- a socialist utopia, where resources were poured into public schemes -- schools, housing, libraries, swimming pools, community centres, light industry, transport. Part Two is about how it was all taken away in the late 1970s, just as we came into adulthood. No more public investment, no more jobs, no more future. Sorry. Were you expecting more?
This is where my ghosts live, and I doubt I'm the only one. I'm 57 now, and approaching retirement, and I still haven't really come to terms with the fact that "Part One" will probably never, ever happen again. It's hard not to interpolate that national failure of nerve into a personal failure. It's like an expulsion from Eden.
And if anyone ever wanted evidence for why Grand Narratives have become embarrassing, the failure of Britain to secure and build on the social progress made in the 1950s and 1960s is it. We (we?) seem to have decided we simply couldn't afford that Big Story any more. Despite everything, we finally managed to become a nation as dull as our statistics.