I hate talking about class. At least I do now. It wasn’t always this way. It used to be fun to talk and write about it when I had fuck all. Class was the indiscriminate fist with which I would righteously ‘punch-up’, much to the satisfaction of my comrades.
It’s far trickier, however, to touch the topic when you’ve made a few quid. When you’re no longer scraping to get by, questions are asked as to how authentically you can represent working-class experiences. In fact, aren’t you going to have to turn that righteous fist on yourself?
Having spent my life railing against middle-class people and the wealthy, certain that their affluence was in some way linked to my hardship, I now find myself at an uncomfortable crossroads. In the past year, I’ve been given a taste of how the other half live, as the material circumstances of my life changed dramatically. While I still feel like the same person, I feel that my claim to being working-class grows more tenuous by the day.
The pivotal moment came when my first book, Poverty Safari, won the Orwell Prize last year. The first thing I asked was: “Can anybody take this away from me?” That question revealed a lot – mainly how I felt the opposite of entitled to win or to even be considered.
That year still feels like a dream. I am now often introduced not only as an Orwell Prize-winner, but also as the writer of a book that George Orwell himself would have commended. This strange association with one of history’s most celebrated authors is flattering but, as I feel it, undeserved. And yet it has quite simply altered the course of my life forever.
The accolade parted the choppy sea of circumstance that for so long had obstructed my progress. Those invisible barriers that impeded my social mobility disappeared and the glimpse of a previously alien life, one without constant financial anxiety, came suddenly and surprisingly into view.
Some people seem bred for success. When people of a higher social caste become successful it is unremarkable and rarely something they must justify. When you grow up in poverty and become successful, you are never allowed to forget it. “Where did you learn to speak so well, Darren?”, is the innocent but rather offensive question I am routinely asked by people who haven’t won an Orwell prize. There’s a reason why some find my ability to articulate coherent sentences so surprising. Few would ask privately-schooled Glaswegian historian Niall Ferguson where he learned “all the big words” he uses.
That’s not the worst of it. The real boot in the balls comes when, having been deemed successful by society, you are repeatedly held up not simply as an example of a ‘diamond in the rough’, but as poster-child for the system itself. The system you succeeded in spite of. Having made your name railing aggressively against the status-quo, you are suddenly celebrated as living-proof of its enduring utility.
But one mustn’t complain. One must be grateful to have ascended the slippery snakes-and-ladders board of British society, right? Mustn’t rock the boat too much, for what is given can also be taken away and I (hubris alert) worked hard for my seat at the table. The fear of losing that seat now plays an intrusive role in my thinking, so utterly bowled over by my luck that I dare not protest too much in case the seat is abruptly revoked.
Rather than success, prestige or wealth giving me more freedom to tell society some hard-truths, it has become a rein which, when politely tugged, brings me reluctantly into line. Being granted a seat at the table, rather than unleashing my inner-revolutionary, has had an immediate, moderating effect.
Some of you know what I mean, don’t you? Those of you who can still recall the moment you were offered a seat. You recall the sudden tension between concerns about your community and concerns about yourself; your earnings, your social-standing, your legacy and your next move up the board. When you began to see yourself as your colleagues, contemporaries or an audience might see you, and your incorruptible principles developed a sudden and convenient elasticity which, rather than a lack of moral fibre, became evidence of your fair-minded maturity.
The previously strident views you once held and regularly espoused got easier to laugh off as naïve and idealistic. The jobs you called other people hacks for doing gradually gained your respect. Those expense accounts you once criticised as excessive were suddenly justifiable and fair. You changed. You adjusted not only to a certain quality of life, but also became intuitive to what it simply would not do to say, should you wish your run of luck to continue.
It’s amazing how quickly you attune to the prevailing sensibility in this lucrative domain of legitimacy. How grateful you are for the exacting dimensions of the professional sandbox you have been permitted to play in.
I’m now the guy who talks about poverty. My seat at the table is contingent on my willingness to regurgitate ‘personal experiences’ of class, addiction and trauma because that is the reheated vomit that guarantees my social mobility.
I still harbour radical beliefs. I’m still angry. But every seat at the table comes with its own unique restraint. Mine is no different.
I can still recall vividly the struggles I faced prior to moving up in the world, but that visceral sense of poverty’s all-consuming immediacy is impossible to retain. I am already beginning to forget what it felt like to struggle on a daily basis.
The impact of political decisions on me is now negligible. That’s why many in my tax-bracket can afford to lecture others about being ‘civil’ and ‘polite’. Affluence pampers you to the extent that you can no longer relate to those whose lives are routinely thrown into chaos because of ill-considered (or downright malign) political decisions.
Twelve months of living comfortably has partially numbed me to the reality millions face in the UK, so what hope is there for those with real power and influence, who rarely contend with reality at all, to bring about meaningful change? In the absence of enough seats at the table for everyone, I fear they will have to be rudely upturned at some point. After all, nothing captures the attention of the ruling class like poor table-manners.
From the moment I booked my first ever First-Class train ticket – the morning after the Orwell ceremony – I was different. The rules of the game changed the second I had something to lose. The moment I realised there is something worth conserving.
Perhaps some of you other ‘diamonds in the rough’, ascending the ladder, will identify with this description of bitter class-conflict? Not the class-conflict curdling public discourse in Britain, but the one quietly raging within your own heart. This is not to say that I don’t still have an appetite for radical change or am unprepared to make sacrifices in pursuit of social justice. But if revolutionary mischief is imminent, it is now highly unlikely that I’ll be firing the starting-gun.