The Word Rabbit

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This article was written on 13 Apr 2016, and is filled under Uncategorised.

Jarvis Cocker and being neither fish nor fowl

Tonight I’ve been listening to Pulp’s magnificently melodic slice of arch vitriol, ‘Different Class,’ which is still as vast an achievement as it was when it first came out in 1995. There are two songs on it, the first, ‘Mis-Shapes’ and the second, ‘Common People’ that made me think about my time at university, which ended that year, and about my own self-identity as someone who has never quite understood what class he’s supposed to be in.

At school, I was the top of the social tree. We lived in a seventies house with big picture windows and Dad had a managerial job with Boots. Mum was a secretary, which mums were supposed to be, and we were so posh that we had our TV in a cabinet, with a small silver chain around a decanter that said ‘SHERRY’ on it and which had come from John Lewis. This, to my modest brain, seemed like we had ascended a peak and found ourselves at the summit. Really bad things, people who had made bad decisions, were something you saw through the window of the company Volvo.

Then I went to university, and what I thought was my perfectly drawn social map went out of the window. There were people there who were a lot posher than me and who thought I, who came from Nottingham, talked funny. Go to their houses during the vacation, and you always went south and stayed in places that were properly old and saw photographs of grandparents who were officers in the Second World War, rather than mine, who were enlisted men.

On the other side were the genuinely working class people, the ones who had got there because they had put in the hours and worked hard, often to transcend fairly rubbish circumstances, and deserved every second of it. I was neither, and I didn’t know which of these I was supposed to be – the working class, academic tough or the posh and bookish ones who were at ease with three different types of cutlery and smirked amongst themselves when I pronounced ‘hyperbole’ wrong. I tried both and neither fitted.

The answer was just to be myself, but I was eighteen and barely had enough life experience to get myself across the road. ‘Being myself’ was an alien concept, because nobody, repeat, nobody, was going to like a dorky teenager with a basin fringe and glasses that he wanted to make him look like John Lennon whose notions about his class identity now looked like a fake ruined castle. Worse yet, I no longer fit in at home, because I was now a ‘university type’ of the kind that robust heterosexuals liked to batter around the town. I was stumped. And in many respects, still am.

It took Jarvis Cocker to give that shape. In ‘Mis-Shapes’ he sings about people who had ‘learned too much at school,’ at least enough to see that the future of their sometime aggressors was ‘nothing much to shout about,’ which is something I recognised. Once I had gone about three months into my degree, I must have known that there was no way out because I was reading the course books voraciously and, for the first time, my monochrome world was slowly going Technicolor. There were new possibilities ahead and I was daring to like them.

And then, in ‘Common People, ‘ he sings about the people for whom university was just a form of three year cultural tourism through other people’s lives and, as the lyrics go, ‘everyone hates a tourist.’ The subject of the song, someone posher than Jarvis by far, is asked to look at the other, normal people and be ‘amazed that they exist’ while thinking ‘that poor is cool.’ And I saw that as well. We might have had our TV in a cabinet I now know I was supposed to find vulgar, but I was only one generation away from a council house, and poor wasn’t cool. It was something we, as a family, were running from as fast as we could, while eternally dragging it with us.

I thought about this today when I wandered into a cafe in Cuckfield, a village in East Sussex. It’s also the most remorselessly middle class place I’ve ever been, a village preserved in aspic from a time that might have been 1930, and correspondingly expensive, with Mercedes soft-tops and Maseratis lining the street and shops that sell things for people who have the itch to buy something but don’t quite know what. By ill fortune, I wandered into this up-market eatery, which was full of the kind of people in Barbour jackets who wear sunglasses on their heads and clothes from a more upmarket version of White Stuff that would cost me a week’s pay. While I was there, three identikit women with shopping bags came in and talked about kitchens. And yes, I felt out of place again.

My English teacher said that there were two types of pilots in the Battle of Britain. The officers, who had been to public schools or to select grammar schools, and the sergeants. Who hadn’t. He also said, and he was right, that I’d always feel I was wearing sergeant’s stripes. I felt them today. Out of place in the cafe with its braying toffs, and happier by far in my remote cottage where the people who worked the farm used to live, Jarvis’ words, satirising low aspirations and cultural tourists came to mind.

And you know what? I don’t care, because I’m the equal of anyone. My granddad stormed ashore on D-Day, my Dad worked bastard hard to improve his standard of living and I’m working just as bastard hard in an economy that’s gone to ratshit to be a decent human being. If the sergeant’s stripes are on my sleeve, then it means that everything I have was worked for, not given and, as an idea, that’s infinitely better than a lazy posh drawl and a brittle sense of self-assurance. As to the people who have no aspirations, well, you make what I’ve achieved even better, because it means I’m really not you. As an idea for a song that Pulp or Jarvis might like to cover, that’s not half bad.

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