I have long considered writing some autobiographical notes on social mobility, as my own path and position is relatively unusual and demonstrates some seldom made points on gender, the multi-factoral nature of the process, and generational effects. However, this has been prompted by a holiday in Italy, in which it seems I have definitely become middle class, a conversation there with a Somalia-born British journalist (Ismail Einashe), and then finding the BBC radio documentary on this topic by Hashi Mohamed, who coincidentally is another Somalia-rooted Londoner who has made it into a very middle-class profession.
Even on the journey to Italy, I had been thinking about how this was a very middle-class trip. It wasn’t that I was flying Business class, or even with a non-budget airline, but what I was to do once I was there. Not only was I going to be in Naples, with the obligatory visits to the archaeological museum, Pompeii and Herculaneum, and which of course were great: I was also dropping into an academic conference and then hiring a car to get to small town where I could meet a friend who grew up there. Thus, this holiday was also generating the cultural and social capital that we know helps ‘middle class kids get middle class jobs’. I even got to chat to a prominent British sociologist who happened to be at the conference, and who has edited two books on migration with people I know from my time in London. I don’t think this is the end of any journey, but I started life very working class and this change has been a gradual accretion of various attributes.
I was talking to Ismail about this, and he mentioned his piece on Britishness for the Guardian, with its focus on belonging and second-class citizenship, the latter being a trope I’ve used in academic work in the past. Indeed, in other work I have written about the process of becoming British that does take in more than the moment of citizenship. What caught my eye in this, though, was the mention of the passport as the end of the process and his recollections of schooldays:
As the end of term approached, my classmates would ask where I was going on holiday. I would tell them, “Nowhere”, adding, “I don’t have a passport”
At sixth form, doing a History A-level, and armed with citizenship and so passport, he was then able to go on the school trip to Versailles. This, I replied to Ismail, made him a few years younger than me when I got my passport and first went out of the UK.
So why was I 20 when I got my first passport? I had the right status as a citizen, but in my family and wider circle there was no history of going abroad: I didn’t think it was something one did, I hadn’t the confidence, I didn’t know how to. This is another attribute that can be a marker of class: like the kids I remember seeing in a documentary about Newcastle-upon-Tyne, I’d barely been out of Stoke-on-Trent for more than a day or so in my life up to the age of 17, other than for Stoke City away games, and had never been to London. The documentary by Hashi Mohamed, now a barrister, mentioned other things, including experience of enjoying and attending classical music and sport events, drinking fine wine and more, that are part of how people ‘fit in’ and so reproduce the same types of people. He also mentioned how particular opportunities for work experience would be available for the children of barristers’ friends. I recommend this documentary as an introduction to the ‘unwritten rules you must learn to get a top job’, but with the caveat that this is true of far more opportunities, with the ‘top jobs’ being some of the most desirable. Me, I spent most of my childhood in a street found to be in the top 1/3 of 1% in the index of multiple deprivation (i.e. 299/300 other areas are less deprived). I’m the only person in my family not to leave school at 16, and all my grandparents and both parents worked in the pottery industry. I also had my education disrupted by family breakup, and was eventually in a household that on today’s standards would be a Troubled Family due to crime, long-term ‘out of work benefits’ and more. I’ve seen alcoholism and violence at first hand. Just as important, though, was the fact that our social networks did not include anyone outside Stoke, and I knew no one that had been away to university, nor anyone who had a job that was not ‘skilled manual’ (except for one I’ll come on to). I didn’t know anything of classical music, or great literature. I didn’t know of the unwritten rules, or even when they might come into play.
Avoiding ‘certain fates’ is not just about talent and hard work. Ismail’s turning point was the move to a high performing sixth form, with a diverse range of students. Hashi Mohamed’s turning points came courtesy of Newsnight and a letter asking for work experience, and then a subsequent personal introduction to someone who could help arrange the pupillage. My turning points came both earlier and later, but also involved my mum, who’s a great example of how social mobility isn’t just about improving education and getting a middle-class job. Furthermore, this complicates my story, because the disadvantages described above were coterminous with a couple of serious advantages. The headline complication is that, while my childhood home and where my mum still lives, is one of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the land, when she moved there my mum had just gained a PhD in mathematics.
So, yes, my mum grew up in a council house, with parents who both worked in and were killed by the pottery industry, and she did work in the pots too. She got into a grammar school at 11, left at 16 and worked in industry, married, had kids and divorced. But while me and my siblings were small, she did a maths degree with the Open University, and then the doctorate at Keele. After divorce, she became a maths teacher at an ex-grammar that had changed to fee paying, but this was after I’d passed the 11-plus and been offered a place at the same school under the 1980s ‘assisted places scheme’, which enabled kids with poor parents to get fees paid by the government. So what I did gain was educational capital of straight As in science/ maths A-levels and then a Cambridge degree in Natural Sciences, and this paralleled my mum’s educational capital. However, neither of us had the kinds of social or cultural capital, or the being comfortable in middle-class environs, that would often go along with this. My mum still lives on a council estate, just a mile or so from the one she grew up on. By some measures, she has not been socially mobile at all, despite the PhD and teaching job. Perhaps it was a gender issue for a particular generation, certainly a parent/ family issue, but the moving out and moving on just didn’t happen.
On the other hand, I stayed at school post-16 and went away to university at 18. At that point I didn’t have much of the transferable cultural and social capital, being still a working class kid into house music and football, and knowing little of the world. But I’ve been able to build on that, and much of it because of the need to make new friends when leaving a home town, and the diversity that comes with doing this in Cambridge and then London (itself geographic capital, perhaps). In the end, after not totally fitting in at school, and moving into another world at university, I’ve become comfortable in middle-class worlds. And as a consequence, I’m doing the next stage of the social mobility, where I move in very different circles to the rest of my family and do the omnivorous cultural consumption of the group I’m now in - ‘Established middle class’ - according to the Great British Class Survey. Knowing this, any denial that I’m middle class would be absurd.