Random musings of a composer in London
When I first stepped out onto English soil 16 years ago, I was completely oblivious to the complex class spiderweb into which I was walking. Of course, we had a class structure in South Africa, but as you’ve probably guessed, this was designated mainly by race. As terribly politically incorrect as this was, it did make things easy, especially in my young, naive child’s mind. Black people dug up the roads and vacuumed the house, white people worked in offices and drove BMWs. Simple. We were white, so we socialised with other whites. Some earned a bit more, some a bit less, but we were all essentially the same: White middle class. My parents were thankfully quite liberal, but I knew plenty of other white families who were openly derogatory about other races and their cultures. Such was the twisted world of apartheid South Africa. Things did start changing somewhat after Mandela came to power in 1994, but for the most part the social structure in the rural farming community where we lived remained largely unchanged. Blacks and whites lived totally separate lives, we in our comfy carpeted four-bedroomed houses and they in their primitive huts with straw roofs and open fires.
So it was naturally quite perplexing for me to settle in a country where the class structure is not nearly as obvious. On my very first day, shortly after disembarking the plane, I walked past a building site and was somewhat surprised to see a white guy shovelling dirt out of a hole. A couple of days later I watched intrigued as a team of white binmen collected the rubbish on my street. At first, I assumed this meant that everyone was the same, that class here simply didn’t exist. But of course that was very naive of me. I quickly learned that people here do indeed fit into one of three distinct classes – working class, middle class or upper class.
But this is where things get awfully complicated. Ask a builder what class he is, and he will probably tell you proudly that he is working class. “Salt of the earth, mate.” Cool. Easy. So all builders are working class then? Erm, not necessarily. Take Darren: He grew up in a working class family and started off working on building sites. But he now owns his own loft conversion company and employs teams of builders all round the country. He works in a plush air-conditioned office and drives a sleek new Jaguar. He will tell you he is middle class, pointing to his collared shirt and his prim secretary, but technically he is still a builder by trade.
Right, so it’s about money then? Well, that comes into it perhaps, but again, assume at your peril. I once dated a girl whose dad had the top job at a factory. They lived a very comfortable life in a stylish house with all the mod cons which I would have associated with middle class life back in South Africa. However, when I put this to her she seemed quite offended: “We’ve always been working class, we’re not posh!”
The deeper you dig, the more convoluted it becomes. Where you live, what you eat, what you wear, what you watch on TV and what sports you like can all contribute to what class you fall under. Most middle class kids to go to university, many working class kids don’t. Middle class men are happy to use an umbrella when it rains, but take one to a building site and you’ll be laughed at. Working class people consider themselves as simple, honest, hardworking people holding the country together, and are liable to label Brits in the other social classes as “posh wankers” who haven’t got the guts for a “real man’s job” (say “mayn’s”). Middle and upper class people, by contrast, will often opine that the working classes are “a bit rough”, and consider them prone to violence, crime and, *cough*, unsavoury sexual activities. There are a few grains of truth in both perhaps, but as with any stereotype these opinions are vastly overinflated. When you dissolve away all the extraneous assumptions, the bare metal of the matter is simply that class isn’t really about your job or your bank balance; it’s about your culture.
Funnily enough, Brits don’t have any trouble assigning themselves and others into social classes. Most of them know instinctively where someone fits, even without speaking to them. And these days I generally do too. But explaining it is a struggle. It’s lots of little snatches of information, like how you conduct yourself, your accent, what vocabulary and grammar you use, what culture is important to you, what your parents do, where you hang out and what part of town you live in. But at the same time there’s no rule book which states that if you listen to classical music you are middle class and if you live on a council estate you aren’t. It’s more instinctive than factual.
All this leaves me in an odd position. What class am I? Do I import my old class assignment from South Africa to the UK, or is my class here determined by what I do for a living? The latter would certainly seem to apply to the lady I saw recently on a BBC documentary about London Underground. She is a cleaner, which most Brits would unanimously proclaim as a working class profession, yet in her home country of Russia she was a successful professional cyclist, basically a celebrity. So if this is the case, then based on the jobs I’ve had since I’ve been here, I am both middle class and working class. I have worked in a mortgage consultancy, an electrical installation company, at Tesco as a delivery driver and as a manager in a corporate office. In each profession I have had to mould myself to the predominant class structure in order to get on with my colleagues. A couple of years ago when I worked on building sites, the mere mention of art, rugby or university would generally be met with scornful remarks, so instead we talked about football and women with big breasts. At one stage we were working on an electrical installation job at the British Museum. As we were carrying a length of trunking through a display on ancient Mesopotamia, one of my colleagues remarked: “What kind of nobhead comes here and spends all day looking at these bits of old rock anyway?”
So during that period of time, I probably would have considered myself working class, based on my profession. But I would then find myself strolling home at night listening to Mozart or Beethoven on my iPhone, and accompanying my girlfriend at weekends on trips to art galleries and old castles. My colleagues, by comparison, wiled away their evenings watching Eastenders and spent their weekends playing football. I’m not in any way trying to insinuate that one pastime is superior to any other; only that they are very different. In which case, can I really class myself culturally with a group of people who have mostly alternate interests to my own? I don’t think I can.
So, I’m middle class then? Well, I don’t know. I live in Streatham, definitely not one of London’s most salubrious areas. I don’t own my own home, instead I rent a room in a flat shared with a couple of friends. My salary is not great – I don’t even earn enough to afford a car anymore. On paper I actually tick more working class boxes than middle class ones, and yet I feel more middle class than I do working class.
The conclusion I have come to is that as a foreign immigrant, I am in the seemingly enviable position of not being categorised into any social class, as opposed to having it pre-formatted into me by generations of social stereotyping. As a result, I have British friends who come from both working and middle class backgrounds, and I enjoy all of their company equally. But the downside is that, like a jigsaw piece from the wrong puzzle, I may perhaps be able to squeeze myself into a social space with similar gaps and protrusions, but I will never quite fit completely. And as long as that’s the case, I will never truly feel that sense of belonging that comes with the pride of belonging to your own class.
I have been struggling, since I became part of England’s green and pleasant land, to define what that je ne sais quoi is about this place that sets it apart from everywhere else. How is it that despite being a resident here for only ten years, I already feel so at home in and proud of this country that I will defend it as if it were my own birthplace. At first I thought the answer was that there are other places in Europe and elsewhere around the world that are duller, less successful or less engaging overall, therefore making England superior by comparison.
But the trouble with that explanation is that no matter what aspects of English life you focus on, you can also find plenty of other nations that are far more accomplished at them: More spectacular scenery; better sunshine; bigger houses; more picturesque villages and more emotive people. England didn’t invent Italian cuisine, we don’t excel at American luxury, our people didn’t give birth to epic German composers and we don’t conduct our lives with flamboyant French flair. The weather is somewhat uninspiring, we regularly lose at all of the sports which we invented, and our most famous creations are a style of breakfast, a bascule bridge and a small car.
And yet despite all this, I am still inexplicably drawn to this country, even though it doesn’t appear to do quite as well as anyone else at anything whatsoever. And I am not alone. People all over the world have attempted to artificially inject the “English feel” into everything from houses and country clubs to cars, literature and movies, even though it nearly always falls short of the real thing. For such a small island, our influence over modern culture is phenomenal.
So what is it then that England offers, which no other location in the world can lay claim to? Well, I think I may finally have come up with the answer:
England does Nice better than anyone else.
Now bear with me here, because that doesn’t sound like the type of gushing compliment fitting of a land so unique that the entire world has failed to replicate it. In fact if you ask most creative writers (especially English ones) they will probably tell you that the word Nice is banned from their vocabularies altogether. They associate it with plain, bland and hum-drum. “Nice” has become synonymous with “meh”.
But the thing about Nice is that in reality, despite it’s unfortunate overuse leading to writers spitting at it whilst brandishing a cross at arm’s length, it is actually the most concise way to describe our most comfortable state of being. Nice is a perfect cup of tea after a long day at work, it’s curling up in a warm bed on a frosty night, it’s a tumbler of amber scotch in front of a crackling fire under ancient oak beams, or a landscape of rolling green meadows stitched with stone walls and peppered with white sheep. When you meet the neighbors down the street with a cheery hello, or you finish the last piece of bacon on your plate in a good breakfast café, the only way to describe your unrivalled contentment in that exact moment, in a single syllable, is with the word “nice”.
As of yet, I have failed to discover anywhere else where the word Nice is more appropriate, more of the time, than in England. The weather is neither extremely hot nor extremely cold – it’s nice. The people are neither crazily flamboyant nor completely unappealing – they’re nice. The landscape is neither incredibly breathtaking nor completely featureless – it’s nice. The lack of annoying insects is nice, the plants we grow in our English country gardens are nice, our dry sense of humour is nice and a pint of best bitter is of course very nice indeed!
And the point is that although we may like to titillate our senses with the extremes of spectacular scenery, radiant sunshine or day-glow culture, this places us out of our normal comfort zone. When Brits head off on holiday, we might ooh and aah over the features of other lands, but when we get home afterwards and put the kettle on, we can’t deny how satisfying it is to sink into our normal sofas with a normal mug of tea and a normal newspaper.
Like a comfortable old sweater or a well-worn record, England excels most at that infinitely subtle art, not of being extreme, but of being extremely nice.
Something struck me recently, whilst I was struggling to scour a pot which had been left unwashed on our kitchen counter for about two decades: Every action that we perform during our lifetime can be broken down into two basic conceptual categories: Creative, or Destructive.
Creative processes involve bringing something into the world that wasn’t there before or improving, changing or restoring something and thereby increasing it’s value to ourselves and to others. It is the embodiment of an idea, the realization of a goal or the assistance of a fellow being. It can be as literal as painting a picture or as abstract as smiling at a stranger. Creative processes will always have some kind of aim, and more often than not have a defined conclusion.
Destructive processes by comparison are generally aimless, lazy and wasteful. They are the actions that remove something from us, degrade our personal environment or which expend energy or resources without giving us a useful return – a night slumped in front of the television or a rude gesture at a traffic light. They are selfish actions, indulgent often, and yet they are generally the ones we forget with the passage of time.
Our spiritual well-being thrives on Creative processes. They are the very fundamental building blocks of happiness, for upon completion of these actions we feel successful, fulfilled, victorious, ecstatic even. They are the moments we often remember for many years to come, doused in the heady scent of nostalgia. They make us feel more intelligent, more cultured and more purposeful, and they give us, and others around us, the inspiration to keep creating. Even the most mundane or indeed unpleasant Creative processes give us satisfaction upon completion, and in fact generally more of it than we imagine before embarking on the task.
But human beings are creatures of irony. In reality we are incredibly good at enduring discomfort. We are smart, initiating and with the right tools at our disposal we can adapt ourselves to an incredibly wide range of less-than-advantageous situations. But our fatal flaw is that we believe that we dislike these situations far more than we actually do. And so, when given a choice between a Creative or a Destructive process, we will often choose the Destructive one, because we believe that it will cause us less pain. Take out the rubbish or watch TV? Go out with friends on a cold winter evening or stay at home? Give up our seat on the tube for the pregnant lady, or pretend to read the paper? In all of these situations, the Destructive process beckons, and yet the Creative option gives us a modicum of inner peace, however small, that we can draw on later for the warmth of happiness.
So go forth now, and do your washing up.