My great-grandmother was a housemaid. She wore an apron, she cleaned, she scrubbed. She said: “Yes Ma’am,” a few hundred times a day. The next generation were more or less the same, on both sides. One grandfather was a bus conductor, the other operated a printing press (I like buses and writing, go figure) Then along came my father. He won a place as a bank apprentice, ended up running it and catapulted my family into the comfortable ranks of the middle-class. I was the first to go to university. My grandmother was very proud.
But I was naïve and class was never a thing for me. My school was free, but well-respected. There were poor kids, there were middle-class kids. The poor kids started fights and sometimes came to school with dirty clothes. We middle-class kids played netball and sometimes came to school with completed homework (most of the time, in my case, unless you include mathematics).
I remained naïve at university. A friend once told me that the “rich kids” were allotted different lodgings, which may explain why I never met them. My friends were like me, solidly middle-class. In fact, class wandered onto my radar just once and that was when I mentioned to a lecturer that I might like to work at The Times. “Nonsense,” he sniffed. The barrier was perception of my class. Off I went to work in regional news.
Local newspapers are havens for the socially-naive. They’re about “sticking up for the little guy” – the humbler your origins, the more you fit in. My job was best of all – working the streets, talking to ordinary people about extraordinary things. I quickly learned that the rougher I spoke and the shabbier I dressed, the more success I had. I used a coarse accent and wore a huge, shapeless Parker. When the Editor described me as “rough but funny” (the former being a word British people use for those from a lower social classes) I assumed he was joking. My accent was fake! Another time an older colleague told me: “The Editor is no working class hero you know.” I thought it was an observation. Now I realise it was advice.
Not once did I think perception of my class could influence my success. Not once did I try to classify or categorise myself. The first time I even thought about class, I was almost 30 and living in Colombia (now, of course, I could write a book on the subject. Maybe I already have)
A friend and I were chatting recently about another girl, who hadn’t wanted to attend a get-together I had organised with a different friend (I will never learn my lesson when it comes to mixing people)
“Hon, think about it for a minute,” my friend said.
“It was probably the class thing.”
“Eh?” I said. “But they are from the same class. Okay so one is a bit richer than the other now, but that doesn’t mean anything.”
My friend shook her head.
“You are thinking like a British person,” she said.
“You know Britain is the only country in the world where money doesn’t indicate social class, where you can have a poor aristocrat and a rich chav.”
(Okay, so she didn’t say chav, but it is the word British snobs use for members of the lower social classes and I like to demonise it wherever possible, so thought I would insert it here. It translates as ñero in Colombian Spanish, which is even worse)
Anyway, back to my friend.
“Think about it,” she continued.
“One of them takes taxis everywhere. The other takes the bus.”
Well if that’s not a classic Bogotá definition of social class, I don’t know what is. Can you imagine? The moment one of my friends became successful, well, successful enough to take taxis, she immediately moved out of the class and comfort zone of my other friend. Even though I know for a fact that my “high class” friend grew up in a rough part of Bogotá and was so poor when she started work, she lived on crackers and hot sauce.
Astonishingly (or perhaps not, sometimes I swear Bogotá is a mirage that only exists so I can write about it) the topic came up again a few days later.
This time I was talking to another friend when he mentioned a woman in Bogotá, who is single, about my age and whom I don’t really know but am convinced holds a grudge against me. Like a cat, I am always drawn to those who fail to appreciate my charms.
I enquired innocently about the woman’s health.
“I wouldn’t go there,” my friend sighed. “That woman is not exactly fond of you.”
“Why?” I whined, pulling a face. “Is it the blog? Is it the book?”
“Neither,” my friend replied. “It’s probably the class thing.”
“WHAT! She doesn’t like me because I am from a lower social class?” I squealed.
“Are you joking?” my friend replied, confused. “Isn’t it the other way around?”
A ridiculous conversation followed about regions and houses and schools and universities and I won’t bore you with it, except to say that my conclusion was that the woman and I am from the same social class (that would be the Sunday-gardening, cupcake-baking, rosemary-growing, child-psychologising, broadsheet-reading Middle England) I hope I never see the poor woman again because I am a snake and will be unable to resist bringing it up.
Of course it has troubled me. In fact I have done nothing since but thought about social class which, if nothing else, proves the extraordinary ability I have to concentrate on irrelevant, theoretical issues rather than the fact that, once again, I am back to writing full-time and I really need to pay my bills.
Anyway, I have always been one of those people who yearns for meritocracy – that utopian ideal that people will rise to the ‘top’ of a society thanks to their hard work and talent, rather than their birthright. Then I watched this video. The guy is basically saying that people like me, who go on about meritocracy, forget that in every society someone has to be at the bottom. And in a meritocracy, the ones at the bottom are assumed to be the ones who “deserve it” – in other words, the “wasters”. The rest of us ‘meritocrats’ will insist they deserve their low social status, regardless of the reality. Those people then end up feeling guilty, miserable and utterly rejected.
If you are still with me, I have to say that the struggle for meritocracy was always one of the things that saddened me most about Colombia (here, if your Dad was President of a company, you are likely to succeed him. If your Mum sells chewing gum at the traffic lights, you are likely to follow. Most Colombians think “social mobility” is a brand of chiva, their much-celebrated party bus)
But if Mr de Botton is right, that meritocracy does cause higher rates of depression and lower tolerance for “failure”, does that explain why Colombians are supposedly so happy? I mean if you are President of a company because your father was, why would you worry about whether you deserved it? No-one will question it, because everyone knows that is how the system works. And if you are selling chewing-gum at the traffic lights, well, no-one is going to question that either, because everyone knows that is how the system works. Is this the secret to millions of happy people and a non-existent fear of failure?
England is the opposite. We don’t have true social mobility either (the biggest indicator of our future income is still our parents’ income) but it’s closer – my own family is an example and there are millions more. And yes, you will be asked your occupation at a dinner party but not your surname, nor your father’s occupation. And the personal responsibility that comes from living a little closer to meritocracy is making us bloody miserable. We have more depression, more suicides and Colombia kicks our ass in every “happiness poll” on the planet.
So bearing in mind the importance of my own happiness and self-esteem, I am going to have to ask you to stop judging me on my achievements. Perhaps you could use my social class instead. My great-grandmother was a housemaid. My father was a banker. Take your pick.
Like this? You’ll love Colombia a comedy of errors.