By Kenn Taylor
But you don’t sound like you’re from Merseyside?
So you’ve lost your accent?
Did you go to a good school then?
I am tired of these questions. Every one of which is laced with prejudice and projection, even if those asking don’t intend it. Aside from any personal frustration at them, what’s more important is they illustrate some of the skewed perceptions that many middle-class people have in their encounters with working-class people.
Whilst my accent isn’t the strongest going, it is the one I have had my whole life. A mixture, not untypical, of my mum’s Liverpudlian, my dad’s Lancastrian, and me growing up in an overspill estate of Birkenhead—a place where accents range from the strongest ‘Scouse’ to basically exactly how I sound, varying even from door to door.
These questions first came up when I went to university locally in Liverpool and were almost always from middle-class students from the south. Many couldn’t seem to grasp that in a metropolitan area of 1.5 million people, there is both variation and commonality in speech and accent that comes from a complex mix of cultures and migration. This confounded their media-driven expectations about the area and its people. When years later I moved away for work, living all over the country and working for predominantly middle- to upper-class cultural organisations, such questions became even more common, and were often asked after just meeting someone.
I found these questions most often came from people who’d spent the least amount of time in Merseyside, yet considered themselves for some reason to be experts on how people from the region sounded—as well as on what the ‘local character’ was. Many would, without invitation, want to share their thoughts on this with me.
More interestingly, I noticed it became something to challenge me on: ‘But you’re not really a Scouser’, I was told, though this was something I never claimed to be—nevermind that what a Scouser is in reality is pretty ambiguous anyway. Especially when the dockland communities that Scouse culture emerged from were as much in towns like Bootle and Birkenhead more so than suburban parts of Liverpool itself. As well as this, many dockland communities were moved from riverside neighbourhoods to new towns and housing estates miles inland, often in different boroughs and counties. In short, as those of us with personal experience know, working class and regional identities, accents, and cultures are complex and multi-layered. Many people do not want to engage with this though, because it confounds their comfortable assumptions.
The challenge implicit in this question, of course, is the assumption that being ‘Scouse’ has a particular form and characteristic, an ‘other’ that can easily be defined by someone else based on the signifier of an accent. This challenge was often accompanied by follow-up questions like: ‘So were you middle class then?’ or ‘So you went to a good school?’ I answered, for context, no to both. My dad was a railway fitter and my mum a cleaner and we lived in a working-class community. My dad became disabled and couldn’t work so I grew up largely on benefits, eligible for free school-meals et al. I went to a bog standard secondary modern school and worked for a couple of years before attending Liverpool John Moores University, as the first person in my family to enter higher education. Yet merely because my accent didn’t fit some people’s expectations around class and regional identity, I would often find my experience and identity being interrogated.
After such encounters, I often asked myself why I should have to explain any of this? Why do people feel entitled to ask such prying questions and make such statements, especially in a professional context? When you are usually just trying to respond quickly to the initial common question, ‘Where are you from then?’ why should you have to make the effort to satisfy their curiosity? A curiosity which, in reality, is about whether I and indeed other working-class people and people from Merseyside conform, or not, to their prejudices and assumptions. But you are judged too if you don’t want to respond to such questions or take issue with them.
All this is a demonstration of the boxes that many middle- and upper-class people put working-class people in: a projection of what they want and expect from working-class people. The working class, it is assumed, have thick accents. Being from Liverpool, it is assumed, means being working class, whereas being from, say York, means being middle class. This is, of course, nonsense. Liverpool has middle-class suburbs, a significant professional sector, five universities. York meanwhile has a working class hit hard by the decline of local manufacturing and high property prices because of tourism and gentrification. However, if you don’t fulfil the stereotypes of what more privileged people consider to be working class or what people from a particular place are like, your identity and culture is questioned by those who have no real experience of it.
Academia and the cultural sector are rife with this. Because class is almost always viewed through a bourgeois lens, it is seen on their terms, as something they can define based on their own prejudices about the dress, accent, behaviour, etc. of working-class people. Some like the idea of having a bit of a working-class presence in their organisations. Yet they often only want and value working-class people who ‘fit the mould’ as they perceive it. That working-class people are as varied and complex as middle-class people, and so are their accents and cultures, is something many do not want to engage with.
This seriously impacts on the opportunities afforded to working-class people and how they are judged and treated within bourgeois and elite structures. Indeed, it even impacts on what stories are allowed to be told within culture. A working-class writer from Liverpool who wants to do something set in the region but whose work is not suitably ‘gritty’ to fit the bourgeois imagination of the place will usually have a hard time getting it told through most mainstream mediums. In contrast, witness the visceral critical reaction to Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (Morace, 2001, p.11) when it was first published. In part because it showed a side of pretty Edinburgh that many people, residents and visitors alike, would rather pretend didn’t exist.
There is no better anthem about class, prejudice, and performativity, than Pulp’s ‘Common People’. Its vitriol about an upper-class student trying to act out what they perceived as working-class behaviour because they thought it was ‘cool’, was sparked by someone Jarvis Cocker met at art school—a type of encounter now less likely as arts schools have become further dominated by people from privileged backgrounds (Romer, 2018). It illustrates Cocker’s genius that in a three-minute pop anthem he can say more than most of us in a thousand essays.
Less remarked on, is the also brilliant ‘Mis-Shapes’, from the same album (Cocker et al., 1995): We don’t look the same as you / And we don’t do the things you do / But we live around here too.
This too is an angry and danceable song about being ‘different’ in a working-class context, because being working class is not about conforming to a narrow set of stereotypes set by others: a particular accent, a way of dressing or behaving. As Cocker exudes in Mis-Shapes, being working class doesn’t mean you have to be, as we said around ours, a ‘bad scall’. And of course, there are plenty of bad scalls in the middle and upper classes too.
This issue goes beyond accent. At a conference I attended, talk of class prompted someone to rant about how there were working-class people in the arts, they just needed to throw off the cardigans they wore to fit in. ‘You have nothing to lose but your knitwear’ perhaps? I realised, as they were speaking, that I was wearing a cardigan and considered momentarily, if this made me a reactionary class traitor. Then I remembered that my mum, who spent her working life as a cleaner and in factories, also liked a nice cardi, and how popular it was, in the football casual fashions in the North that I’d grown up around, to re-appropriate middle-class knitwear styles and brands—often to the horror and confusion of those who were used to wearing them. Cardigans and class were again just as complex as accents.
Never having had money for decent clothes when I was young, the first thing I did when I got my first decent paying, albeit insecure, job in my mid-twenties was to go and buy a smart overcoat that I’d long coveted. Wanting to look sharp is far from class treachery. And when you have often had little, being able to own ‘something nice’, even if it is singular, can cover up for a lack of security in general. ‘Oxfam chic’ meanwhile is often favoured mainly by those who like to try and ‘slum it’ in the same mould as the student in ‘Common People’ and others who engage in the performance of what they see as being working class. As Nathalie Olah discusses in Steal As Much As You Can (2019): ‘Cosplaying as the working class is one such method used by the middle-class ascendants to the highest ranks of the media, advertising and art institutions. Disguising their own privilege by wearing tracksuits and talking in mockney accents.’ (p.158)
Meanwhile, if you’re rebelling against working-class conventions, which can be just as restrictive and repressive as middle-class ones, then engaging and playing with elite-controlled aspects of culture can be interesting and alluring. Even if you far from swallow them wholesale. As a teenager in the 1990s, I was inspired by the Manic Street Preachers, as they demonstrated that being working class didn’t mean you had to limit your tastes or interests. Nor if you became interested in other things, did you have to abandon popular culture. They showed that grappling with the ideas and the language that is used to control you and turning them to your own ends, is the opposite of class betrayal.
Some view as a burden the feelings of ‘in betweenness’ that can emerge when you have working-class origins but end up with a level of education most working-class people are denied. However, I take the view that these feelings can be powerful. As noted by Lee Crooks (2020) in his abstract for the Working Class Academics Conference:“my capacity to inhabit – and slip between – the environs of the campus and the everyday spaces of the city beyond, I argue, provides a basis for creative transgression, doing things differently and scope for a healthy injection of working-class counter-culture, collective solidarity and humour. At the same time, this feeling of being ‘out-of-place’ and not knowing my place to some extent frees me from the conventional norms and expectations of what a university academic should do and be.”
Something echoed by Chloe Maclean (2020) at the same conference: “a cleft habitus [a feeling that ‘this is not the place for me’] is not solely a site of dislocation, but can be utilised as a resource to challenge the reproduction of hierarchies within an institution.”
Much of the middle- and upper-class who dominate the culture sector and academia, do not want to grasp these complexities, viewing class as a principally visual and sonic set of signifiers that they can easily pick out and identify. This creates serious issues. As the current push to increase working-class representation gathers pace, there’s a risk that recruiters and commissioners will go for what they perceive to be ‘obviously’ working-class candidates. Excluding those who don’t fit the mould, they might reject a young, working-class LGBTQIA+ candidate who doesn’t have an ‘urban’ accent and doesn’t dress or behave in a way they perceive as working class. This highlights the absolute importance of having working-class people in senior management, decision-making, and commissioning roles in these sectors, not just junior or public-facing positions, or as token artists, outreach staff, or lecturers. As well as this, organisations need to seriously measure the socio-economic background of their workforces and job applicants to identify how representative, or unrepresentative, they are of society. Of course, it needs to be acknowledged that these issues are intersectional and such challenges will be disproportionately worse for people who face other forms of prejudice and stereotyping on top of class prejudice.
Issues around this could also grow now that, like in the 1990s, but in contrast to the last twenty years, being working class is becoming trendy again. Where once ‘chav’ was bandied about as an everyday insult for things not cool, now ‘bougie’ is slung about instead. Where this is dangerous for the working class, is in the inevitability of the adoption and performance of what are perceived as working-class tropes by middle- and upper-class people by those desperate not to be seen as unfashionable and longing for what they perceive as ‘authenticity’. Through this co-option and crass distortion of working-class cultures, we would also see the exclusion of more nervous, more insecure, less supported working-class voices. As noted by Olah: ‘this fetishisation only makes class divisions more entrenched, by further pushing the working-class experience into the realm of morbid spectacle.’ (p. 108) Not only does this deny opportunities to people who are actually from working-classbackgrounds, it reduces their experiences and cultural expressions to a cartoon copy.
Perhaps more optimistically, this change in fashion could indicate a lower social tolerance for bourgeois norms. Yet the trouble about being in fashion is that being working class is likely to go out of fashion again eventually, with an attendant loss of opportunities. It reminds me a little of George Orwell (2013) writing about the anarchist takeover of Barcelona in the 1930s: ‘In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist … Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls, or some variant of the militia uniform …. I did not realize that great numbers of well-to-do bourgeois were simply lying low and disguising themselves as proletarians for the time being.’
Middle- and upper-class people need to be reminded of their prejudices and assumptions, and perhaps in the current climate they’re more likely to listen. Key to change though is ensuring that more working-class people take up space in positions of power in culture and academia. Then there needs to be a constant renewal of this through continued recruitment so that the numbers of working-class people in these sectors grow and expand through their hierarchies. Rather thanjust a token handful of working-class people brought in temporarily when there is a moral panic or it’s found to be trendy, who thenoften find themselves, in their relative isolation, up against a wall of established thought and behaviour. Change must come from outside as well, but without more working-class people in the permanent institutions of culture as well, any lasting change will be much harder.
We have to make sure the new drive towards working-class opportunity and representation truly platforms the working classes in all their diversity and complexity. That it is members of the working classes who get the opportunities to tell their own stories, not have them re-framed, twisted or co-opted by others to enhance themselves.
As it says in Mis-Shapes:
We want the things you won’t allow us
We won’t use guns, we won’t use bombs
We’ll use the one thing we’ve got more of—that’s our minds
This piece was published in issue 10 of Lumpen jourmal in June 2022
Banks, N., Cocker, J., Doyle, C., Mackey, S., Senior, R., Webber, M. (1995). Mis-Shapes. Retrieved from: https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/pulp/misshapes.html
Crooks, L. (2020). ‘One of our own?’ On being a working class, hometown academic. Retrieved from: https://workingclass-academics.co.uk/abstracts/#LeeCrookesAb
Maclean, C. (2020). Rise with your class, not out of your class: Auto-ethnographic reflections on imposter syndrome and class conflict in higher education. Retrieved from: https://workingclassacademics.co.uk/abstracts/#ChloeMacleanAb
Morace, R. (2001). Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting: A Reader’s Guide. London, England: Continuum.
Olah, N. (2019). Steal as Much as You Can. London, England: Repeater.
Orwell, G. (2013). A State of Affairs Worth Fighting For. Retrieved from http://bookanista.com/orwells-spanish-civil-war/
Romer, C. (2018). Specialist arts colleges are among the most elitist in the country. Retrieved from: https://www.artsprofessional.co.uk/news/specialist-arts-colleges-among-most-elitist-country