7 November 2013 — Wounds of Class
[This is an interesting and evocative essay which in some respects, parallels my own life. Fisher is also the author of the book, ‘Capitalist Realism:Is there no alternative?‘. WB]
I have just come back to London from the North West of England, from my hometown, Barrow-in-Furness. My father died a few months ago, at the start of the summer, a week after I returned from Japan, where I had lived on and off for the previous three years. Now, my mum is on her own. Because of this I have decided to stay in the UK. Not entirely because of my mum’s situation, but also because I felt guilty about being abroad, that I should be back home, back here, doing something. Nor was it really a decision in the full, free sense. Luckily, a job came up at the last minute in the school I return to work in during the summer and I took it.
I had a few days off last week and so my sister and I took the opportunity to go up and visit our mum, hire a car and spend a few days driving around the Lakes. For some reason I had got it into my head that I wanted to eat High Tea in one of the fancy, quaint tea rooms in Hawkshead or Cartmel. This idea though, made my mum uncomfortable. She didn’t say anything directly of course but it became clear that she was trying to deflect us from our purpose, trying to persuade us to have something in the generic Ambleside Garden Centre, suggesting to us that as far as she knew there were no other tea-rooms in Hawkshead when the first two looked a bit run-of-the- mill for our sophisticated tastes. We pressed on and discovered there were plenty more, but in the process we had decided that we would instead go to Grange over Sands’ award-winning tea room the Hazelmere.
Grange over Sands is filled with rich retirees, big houses, solid, real-ale serving pubs and little shops selling hand-crafted wares of all kinds, and now we were going to enter one of its most esteemed middle-class enclaves. My sister and I are by now largely oblivious to such things, having gone up the class ladder far enough and having lived in or visited enough foreign countries not to be intimidated in the mere Hazelmere tea-rooms in Grange. But we forgot that my mum is who she is, and that my dad for all his bluff and bluster was the same, stalked by fear and shame in such places, their sense of not belonging there, of being intruders, of being implicitly judged and watched and the anxiety that somehow they will be exposed is ever-present. They will do something or fail to know some vital piece of etiquette and their inferiority, their position, their roles as housewife and cleaner and worker on the Home-help, as a boy who left school at fourteen and got a milk-round before he worked in a shipyard, their origins in council houses and Glasgow tenements, will be conjured spectrally up before them to be sniffed at and mocked.
We know this too, really, we felt it going on to University, feel it still, my sister and I, she with her anxiety around her middle-class friends whose parents are all teachers and doctors, me with my endless writing of novels I can’t bear to do anything with as it means engaging with them, having to make them like me, listen to their opinions of my work. But for us, half clambered out of our class as we are, we don’t find a Grange tea-room existentially threatening. She said it herself, my mum, and it immediately struck me, the disavowal, “some people get nervous in tea rooms, don’t they?”
“Do they?” I asked. My tone wasn’t particularly sympathetic. This is something for which later I will apologize.
“You know,” she said. “ Worrying that they will do the wrong thing.”
These are the wounds of class, ever-present, life-long. Knowing that you’re common, not good enough, not one of the decent people. That for some obscure reason despite all your work and care, being a good parent, educating your children, paying your taxes and scrimping and saving you should be ashamed, not of what you have done or failed to do but of what you are.
The question of what she should do now, my seventy seven year old mother, who was married to my father for over fifty years and who has lived in Barrow-in-Furness since her family moved there from Scotland when she was a child is something she, my older sister and I discuss and have been discussing since my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in February of 2012. She had a very minor stroke a few years ago that has left her lip numb on the left side and compromised her sense of taste, though, as we like to joke, given her cooking that’s probably a blessing in disguise. Other than that though, she is in excellent health, just as my dad was, except for that stubborn, inoperable lump in his pancreas that responded well to the chemotherapy at first, then didn’t, spread and in a few months whittled a big man, an ex-body-builder, down to nothing.
At her age death can come at any time and though she had aunties back in Scotland who lived on into their nineties, we are mindful of our one-time neighbour, the posh Mrs Fletcher, who lived in the detached house next door and whose husband helped build the road of semi-detached houses with gardens on the outskirts of the town that we moved to from the terraces, yards and back streets of Barrow Island when I was ten. We remember how she had a stroke and was found by one of her army of equally genteel regular visitors dead on the kitchen floor. We wonder how long she may have lain there for, unable to move or cry out for help, though even if she had been able to there would have been no-one but her bemused little Jack Russell to hear her.
We don’t like my mum being on her own, we worry. Several times we have floated the idea that she move down South to Ramsgate where my sister lives: while there are practical advantages to this if her health declines there is also one real disadvantage, she knows no-one there except her daughter. In Barrow she is constantly surrounded by familiar faces; her cohort, now mostly a series of widowed wives of ex-shipyard workers, their children and even grandchildren, shop workers and café owners and builders, not to mention members of her own family. She is the eldest of nine siblings some of whom still live in the town, or in the North and come back frequently or visit from Canada, where many of my relatives have settled.
My sister and I couldn’t wait to get out of the town when we were younger. I have finally attained a sense of neutrality such that I can walk around it now without feeling depressed or claustrophobic or angry, my sister’s relationship to it remains more conflicted, she is keener to talk about how ugly and dispiriting it is yet is more nostalgic for her years there and still knows people she went to school with. The idea that my mum might want to continue living there when she could be in a granny-flat in Thanet, with better weather, nice parks and France visible on a clear day seems mysterious, except of course that her life is and has been seamlessly woven into the fabric of the town over decades. She sees men who worked with my dad or people who knew him, people whose loved ones or who are themselves suffering from cancers, even strangers strike up conversation on the bus remarking on his absence, how they always used to get on together and now my mum’s always alone. She understands this world, she speaks its language, in accent, in nuance, is expert in its ritual expressions of sympathy and condolence and stoicism, its endearments and jokes. This is community, not as a sudden coming together of the like-minded but as a form of intimacy and ease among people who have known each other through generations, which is ever-present and which coalesces around people at key times, moments of crisis, grants them legitimacy, nods along to their wise words, and through the ease and openness it gives to speech offers something therapeutic.
In a sense, living there for so many years, the repetitions, the routines, the small talk and the familiar faces, growing up an old in the shadow of that shipyard, in this provincial, working-class world that seemed to us as kids, encouraged to think about a life beyond it, sterile, grey and joyless, was the daily work, the daily investment that is being returned and repaid to her now by the whole town and it has helped immeasurably with her grief.
This is the balm of class. In which we know it’s best, as long as we can, to leave her smothered.