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Friday
Oct172014

On being Working Class.

If a man had a marijuana leaf tattoo on his neck and piercings in his nose and eyebrows, it would probably bar him from gaining employment in most places. On the other hand, if you had a poisonous snake that had taken up residence under your house, and this same man came to remove it, I doubt anyone would care too much about his appearance, as long as he had the necessary skills required to take care of the problem.

I have a friend who has a long beard of biblical proportions, his hair is also long and he wears it in a single braid down his back. Most would take one look and dissmiss him as an old hippie. He is in fact a highly skilled woodworker, and when one of those old historical homes in Charleston is in need of restoration, my friend can hand carve a banister rail for a curved staircase, for example, and his skills are sought after.

I remember growing up in England in the 1940s and 1950s when there were the remnants of a class system still in place. Two things ended the class system, the first was the Great Depression of the 1930s when the wealthy lost much of their wealth.

And second, the end of WWII when working men came home with an attitude of “I put my life on the line for my country, I want a piece of the pie.” In spite of Winston Churchill being regarded as a great wartime leader, he was voted out of office immediately after the war, in favor of a socialist (Labor Party.) government.    

When there is a radical change in government certain aspects of the old system remain. Things don’t happen overnight. One of the things that didn’t change immediately was the education system, so all my schooling took place under the old system, and change didn’t come until some years after I had left school.

Under the old system wealthy people sent their children to expensive boarding schools, where they lived and received intensive schooling. This was paid for by the parents, and when the student left school he was assured a top job, usually in the family owned business. They became CEOs and Captains of Industry.

The rest of the population went to a “Primary” school. There was no grade system as in the US. At 11 years old everyone took what was called “The 11 Plus” exam. This was a one shot deal. If you passed you went to a High School, often known as a Grammar School. Once there you would receive a good education that would set you up for a middle management job in industry.

If you failed the 11+ exam, you went to a “Secondary” school, were you received a very basic education, and finished at age 15. No graduation, or certificate of education, you just left and were out in the cruel world to do any laboring type job you could find.

One of the features of the Secondary school was a lot of corporal punishment and constant verbal put downs by teachers, designed to break a child’s spirit, and remove all self-esteem. So when these kids went out into the world, they would become good subservient workers who wouldn’t question authority. Or in bygone years these kids joined the army, and became cannon-fodder for the many battles fought to maintain the British Empire.

1947 was the year I took the 11+ exam. That was the same year my father got fired from three different jobs, and we moved to three different locations, and I went to three different schools. One school would be way more advanced than the last and I would be lost, then in a few months I would move to another school that was teaching stuff I already knew.

Needless to say I didn’t pass the 11+ exam. I don’t blame my father entirely, he had a drinking problem, and had a hard time adjusting to civilian life after the war. He served the entire war from September 1939, the month the war started until the end in 1945.

My saving grace was by age 13 we had landed in the town of Luton, just north of London, and my mother dug her heels in and refused to move again. Luton had a Technical School, not every place did, but Luton being a large industrial center, had this school that leaned towards an engineering education.

At the end of 1949 I did pass an exam to go to Luton Technical School, which later set me up for an engineering apprenticeship. Luton Tech was also a Community College where older students went. Lunch time would see me at the school bike rack, hanging my nose over the beautiful racing bicycles some of these older students owned. This lead to my eventually owning one and the beginnings of a life-time passion for bicycles.

So what does this all have to do with the man with the neck tattoo, and the other with the biblical beard at the beginning of this piece? Under the old class system in Britain, what set the working class apart was not tattoos and iconic facial hair, but a local dialect. And there were many different ones all over the UK.

This would have been educated out of me had I passed my 11+ and gone to a Grammar School. I would have been taught what is known as BBC English. That spoken by broadcasters on the BBC. A somewhat sterile but precise and correct version of the English language. I would have ended up a poor man’s Hugh Grant.

Instead I became a qualified engineer and later a framebuilder, so my accent didn’t matter. Like the hypothetical man with the neck tattoo, or my friend with the biblical beard, I had skills so it wasn’t a factor. Today I am proud of my working class roots.

 

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Reader Comments (15)

Wow! Where to start?

"One of the features of the Secondary school was a lot of corporal punishment and constant verbal put downs by teachers, designed to break a child’s spirit, and remove all self-esteem. So when these kids went out into the world, they would become good subservient workers who wouldn’t question authority."

Really? An entire education system designed to break children?

"what set the working class apart was not tattoos and iconic facial hair, but a local dialect. And there were many different ones all over the UK.

This would have been educated out of me had I passed my 11+ and gone to a Grammar School. I would have been taught what is known as BBC English. That spoken by broadcasters on the BBC. A somewhat sterile but precise and correct version of the English language. I would have ended up a poor man’s Hugh Grant.

Instead I became a qualified engineer..."

Amazingly, I have an accent (born [1950] and raised in Blackburn, Lancashire), I managed to pass my 11+ and I went to a Grammar school. Nobody taught me BBC English, and I don't think I ended up a poor man's H. Grant either.
I did, however, become an engineer and retired happy and contented in my 50s.

Like you, I am proud of my working class roots.
I'm also grateful for the education I had in England.

October 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Almond

Steve,
I went to school from 1941 to 1952, big difference. You say you were born in 1950, I'm pretty sure corporal punishment was abolished by the time you started school in 1955.
Dave

October 17, 2014 | Registered CommenterDave Moulton

An interesting post Dave. Like Steve, I passed my 11-plus, but being from Kent, I'm not sure that I have an accent! I will admit to being a watered-down Hugh Grant, but without the stutter and without the criminal charges for "associating" with a prostitute.
I was born in 1958, and no one told the school where I took my 11-plus that corporal punishment had already been abolished! After that my schooling was a very positive experience. The best education that money can't buy.
Regarding "BBC English", I'm glad to see that the these days the Beeb features a full spectrum of regional dialects (and ethnic backgrounds).
it seems that all three of us have left Blighty, and i have no intention of living there ever again, but i'm very thankful for the spingboard that it provided.

October 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMartin W

Engineering apprenticeships are few and far between in England these days. Maybe you were luckier than you realized.

October 17, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJW

Ha, me too. I passed the 11+, went to a grammar school.

And now, with my fairly broad westcountry accent...I'm an engineer.

October 18, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjon

From 1952 till 1958 I went to a school which in retrospect was a trial run for the comprehensive schools. Academically dodgey I was lucky enough to get into art school and obtain financial assistance for my years of training as a painter. So even if I left England in 1969 I am still gratefull to individual teachers and to the system that gave me the foundation for what has turned out to be a reasonably comfortable life. BUT do any of us truelly believe there is no longer a class structure in England ???

October 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnthony C.

I'm pretty sure corporal punishment was abolished by the time you started school in 1955.

Dave,

Not even close. I was subject to a (usually) deserved beating right up to leaving my grammar school in 1968. Like most old farts, I maintain that it did me no harm...

Steve

October 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Almond

Read Roald Dahl's memoir Boy, that whole book is basically about being beaten in school.

October 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRubeRad

But Martin it's always the others who have the accents, never ourselves.

October 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnthony C.

Good point Anthony!

October 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMartin W

Martin, coming from Surrey I always thought everybody else sounded peculiar, till one day I heard a recording of my own voice. Since then.................

October 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnthony C.

It’s great to have all these comments from the UK. Thank you. Looking back the worst years for corporal punishment were the war years in the 1940s. Often I and two other boys (The same ones.) were singled out for the cane, even though sometimes we had done nothing. This made me rebel against authority, which was not good in the work place later in life.

Even at the Luton Tech in my last year at school, every term the class would elect a student to lead the class in the teacher’s absence. The class voted for me, but the teacher would not accept it and made them vote again. Sure I was the class clown and was of a disruptive nature, but they might have given me the opportunity to change, but they didn’t, and that hurt.
Dave

October 22, 2014 | Registered CommenterDave Moulton

Yes Dave school can leave scars. With me there's a balance in my memories between inexcusable injustice and amazingly tolerant help. But even in the late '70s I was stiill glad that my son didn't have to go to an english school.

October 22, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnthony C.

OK I feel totally 3rd wheel in this discussion! My only saving grace is some ancestry traced back to England, not long after the establishment of Jamestown, post Indian wipe out events. They even were given land grants from Lord Baltimore.

My grade school principal had a paddle that was used on the back of the hands in the late 50"s early 60's.

October 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSJX426

Thank you RubeRad for mentioning Roald Dahl's 'Boy'. I bought a copy and also the follow up 'Solo' about his later life. Both are very entertaining reads.
Cheers, Martin

November 15, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMartin W

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