I am breakfasting in a Hostel in Vietnam, making polite conversation with a group of fellow brits when one of them asks where I’m from. I tell him and I am shocked to hear him say, “me too!” My hometown has a population of roughly 3000 people. Most people have unsurprisingly never heard of it. The two of us keep talking and discover we’re the same age. “Which school did you go to?” he asks, and at the same time we realise why we don’t already know each other.
There are two schools in my hometown, the state school that I attended and just around the corner, with its perfectly manicured cricket lawns and imposing gothic architecture, a private boarding school. There is a moment of awkward silence, though I’m not sure why. Almost a decade after leaving school and half a world away from home, does it really still matter which school a person went to? I want to say no, but I’d also be lying if I said in that moment something hadn’t changed, that old rivalries and my own prejudices about privilege weren’t momentarily awakened over a breakfast of banana pancakes.
I have a shameful secret. I am a bit obsessed with social class. I don’t mean to be and I’m not sure where this obsession comes from, but maybe it has something to do with our deep-seated national obsession that has somehow become almost a part of our DNA.
Because it is a national obsession. While America is still battling with the legacy of slavery and issues of race, Britain similarly can’t seem to shake off its preoccupation with social class. Before eugenics was fully embraced by the Nazis it was a popular idea among English intellectuals at the end of the 19th Century. These early adopters of eugenics were less concerned with race and instead focused on what they saw as social purification, which they suggested would include the sterilisation of the less intelligent working classes. Then there’s British literature, which from Austen to Orwell can be pretty much defined as one very long conversation about class.
My own social standing is something I’ve always been confused about. People often assume I’m posh because I’m from the South of England and I don’t sound like a farmer or Danny Dyer. But I’ve also spent enough time around real posh people to know that I can’t convincingly pass as one of them. I don’t know how to sail or play golf, I’ve never owned a pair of trousers in any colour other than black, blue or grey, and once at a party I could not contain my derision when listening to a girl named Binky explain that her quirky nickname was the result of her au pair’s inability to pronounce Victoria.
Then again I suffer from a typically middle-class kind of discomfort when talking to tradesmen. I self-consciously drop my ‘ts’ and awkwardly call them ‘mate’ as I shake their callused hands with my too-soft ones and wonder if they can tell I don’t know what a Monkey wrench is.
I recently found myself unable to enjoy an acclaimed British drama because I spent the entire duration furiously googling its cast members, trying to work out the exact percentage of them that went to private school.
I’m not saying the Benedict Cumberbatches and Tom Hiddlestons of the world don’t deserve their success, only that it can be difficult not to resent them slightly when their very names sound like incoherent noises made by a drunk Prince Philip with a mouthful of pheasant.
Even our vocabulary is an indication of class, with publications like the Daily Mail predictably providing a handy list of words to avoid if you don’t want to sound ‘common.’
And all of this is nonsense. Our clothes, our hobbies, our accents and whether we say napkin or serviette – I know it’s all nonsense. But despite this I find it difficult to go about life without a chip on my shoulder. I think the reason for this is because unlike class, inequality is very real, and so sometimes the easy thing to do is point a finger at a group of people we think represent that inequality.
Of course the reality is that nobody fits neatly into any one box. We all fall somewhere in between the two extremes of privilege and poverty, and everything else is fabricated bullshit. I take comfort in my suspicion that everyone probably feels a bit like I do, out of place, misunderstood, constantly uncomfortable in every social situation.