Thursday, 22 January 2015

Salty Bread

You shall leave everything you love most dearly:
This is the arrow that the bow of exile
Shoots first. You are to know the bitter taste

Of others' bread, how salt it is, and know
How hard a path it is for one who goes
Descending and ascending others' stairs.
 Dante, Paradiso, Canto XVII

It is the fate of most of us to go through life without touching the sides.  Whoosh!  There it was, gone.  Was that it?  I'm afraid so...  Next!  Yet, although only an exceptional few ever make any lasting impression, there are still places -- maybe not in the glare of the spotlight but also not quite in the outer darkness -- where unusual, interesting, fulfilling lives can be led.  But you may find that those places are not marked on the map handed out to you at birth, and you may need to become a bit of an explorer.

This, in Britain at least, has always been a matter of social class and education. "Class" has become unfashionable as a way of describing oneself, and the organisation of society.  The idea that you are to any degree defined and constrained by your origins, or that mobility between classes does not simply correlate with an increase or decrease in disposable income, is at odds with the more marketable idea that everything is a matter of choices, of elective lifestyle.  That the choices available to you might in themselves be defined and constrained by your social origins is never part of the sales pitch.

I think I've become more class-conscious as I've got older.  That is, it has become more obvious to me that, despite meritocratic claims to the contrary, you are as profoundly and permanently marked by your social origins -- high, low, or middling -- as by, say, race or gender.  It doesn't seem that way when you start out.  Whatever circumstances you have been born into, if you have been gifted with intelligence, creativity, and perhaps a little originality, your early life is all about your own personal exceptionalism.  Sure, most of my friends are doomed to repeat the ordinary, dull lives of their parents, but me, I'll never fit in, because I'm different!  But the thrill of exploring the territory of your own unique "difference" diminishes, when the realisation dawns that the price of trying to escape the gravitational pull of your origins will be never to feel fully at home anywhere else, either.

Banal as it sounds, I tend to feel this most on Saturdays, when I go to do the weekly shop.  I can choose between a number of supermarkets, depending on what we need and what mood I'm in, ranging from the downmarket anonymity of a Tesco superstore (situated off a dual-carriageway like a customs post to Nowhere) to the upmarket calm of a Waitrose in nearby market-town Romsey (which shares a carpark with a country lifestyle store where you can buy riding tack and hen coops).  In either of those stores, however, I wander the aisles, thinking, "I bloody hate these people...", whether it be the hyper-obese matriarchs in mobility scooters shrieking at brattish children, or the deluded snobs of rural Hampshire, happily paying those "reassuringly expensive" prices.

There is a smaller supermarket I use more often, situated in town near to the University, where I know I will meet a series of people I have worked with over the last 30 years, many of whom are long-retired, and hungry for a chat. The frequent stops mean the shop can take twice as long, and there is something unsettling about watching the wizened husk of a former professor of Rocket Science shuffling along absent-mindedly with a basket of cat food.  Laudably, the shop employs several shelf-stackers and trolley-retrievers on a "care in the community" basis, including a woman who sings and laughs constantly in a rather demented way and at the top of her voice.  In the wrong, uncharitable mood, though, the undertone of despair beneath the forced jolliness of her constant cackling and warbling can take me to a very dark place by the time I reach the checkouts. I often end up stuffing the bags in the boot of the car with a strong sense of relief: let's get out of here!

Most often, though, I use a large Sainsbury's in a nearby estate built in the 1960s on the top of a gentle hill, which has an uncanny resemblance to the town I grew up in.  There, although I know nobody, I know everyone, and they know me.  It's a pleasant feeling.  It's got a lot to do with body language, and choice of clothing.  These are "my" people, from my class of origin, living lives that -- with a little less awareness of difference -- would have been mine, and sometimes I can experience a deep sense of peace, simply pushing a trolley among the plumbers and builders, the primary school teachers and nurses, the postmen and electricians of the skilled, aspirational working and lower-middle classes.  And yet, of course, I am never now more than a weekend visitor, passing through.  Like thousands of others before and since, I left town at the first opportunity, never to return, becoming yet another displaced person, exiled by education.

So, wherever I happen to shop, it seems, I will drive home with the salty bread of exile stowed in the boot.  Which, let's be honest, is much nicer than the white sliced Sunblest of my youth -- though perhaps not as nice as a fresh-baked pain de campagne from a proper French boulangerie -- and I couldn't eat anything else, now.  Although getting the bags up and down all those stairs is becoming a pain.  Maybe it's time I signed up for online grocery deliveries?

On reflection, maybe not.  I'm still sufficiently a product of my origins to be embarrassed by the sight of an Ocado van pulling up outside.  So, who's gone all posh, then?

Museum staircase, Innsbruck


seany said...

Brilliant piece Mike I've never read anything that I can relate to better than this article on this subject in my life.
Coming from what we like to think is a classless society [very debatable ] I was always impressed by British working classes apparent contentment with their status and what to me was a disinclination to climb the social ladder when I lived among them in the sixties and early seventies.
this seemed an admirable trait to me as it contrasted with my fellow countrymen's desire to reinvent themselves as someone socially better than birth had allotted them.
Just like you Mike as I aged I realised it is not possible to be someone other than you initially felt you were and be happy with oneself,isn't life a bitch.

Mike C. said...

Thanks, Michael. I think I've got a little series of these meditations on class, status, opportunity, etc., in the pipeline. It's a subject close to my heart...


Kent Wiley said...

Apparently at least in the U.S., increasingly it is education that defines class distinction. The level of educational attainment determines economic circumstances. Naturally there is a chicken & egg circularity to this.

Having been part of the education mill, what are your observations on where students came from and where they were headed? Were many crossing the divide of their backgrounds to move into better economic situations? Or is it merely "lipstick on a pig"?

Generally speaking, that is...(The prerogative and domain of retired, cranky men.)

Mike C. said...


Clearly, I believe 100% in the value of education, and in free access to education at all levels for those who can make use of it.

However, I don't believe that the primary purpose of education is economic self-improvement, or could be, in a society based on inherited privilege. We rarely, if ever, find people of upper middle-class origins working in jobs such as cleaning offices or emptying dustbins, despite the (presumably) even spread of ability across society. It doesn't take a lot of working out to see that "social mobility" is pretty much one-way, and only linked to educational achievement for those going "up" the social ladder. There seems to be a complete absence of compensatory "snakes"...

My generation benefited from generous state subsidies in the form of grants to the most able top 10% or so, not loans, which aided the entry of people like me into areas of employment previously inaccessible (my parents, like most pre-WW2 children, left school at 14). This has now stopped, and so has "social mobility" -- surprise!

It's a complicated area, where wishful thinking predominates -- as in Lake Wobegon, all children are supposed to be above average!