‘Who are you?’ shouts a lone motorcyclist across the breadth of the Suez Canal in the direction of the figure of T.E. Lawrence. This is a pivotal moment in the marvellous David Lean film since it encapsulates what the work is all about. Identity. As a British officer who had gone native and embraced the cause of Arab self-determination, Lawrence could never figure out whose side he was on. That was his tragic flaw.
Ostensibly, I’m the working-class kid from the council flat who went to university and became a writer. The implication is that I’ve moved out of that working-class milieu, left it all behind me and undergone what is known to the sociologists as embourgeoisement – a kind of assimilation by the Borg. But that would be incorrect. Besides, the metaphor is ultimately misleading and I need a more accurate one. The journey is more akin to one from a lower to a higher realm of existence. For we are talking value judgements here. The unstated assumption is that to be working class is a condition from which one needs to escape. For many people even the phrase ‘working class’ conjures up an image of a snotty-nosed urchin, who is stupid, criminally inclined and lacking in refinement. As if being working class were a state of sin and to be accepted by the bourgeoisie a case of entering into a state of grace. I don’t buy into that definition because I’ve met some middle-class people who are absolute shithouses and others who happen to be thick as fuck.
The nitpickers and apologists will baulk at me using the word ‘ostensibly’. They will assert that it is not the language of the common people, that it has a more nuanced, elevated register. I reject that view. As a writer, I utilise everything at my disposal. Knowing and using words, that’s what a writer does. It’s no different to a carpenter employing a hammer or a plane for a particular purpose. You wouldn’t use a masonry drill or a cold chisel on a piece of wood. Language is a tool.
Who are these common people anyway? I’ve heard it said that they speak in short sentences. That’s one of their defining characteristics, apparently. They also have a tendency to use words of one syllable. Do they now. So a simple declarative statement such as ‘I have a dream’ couldn’t possibly resonate with an audience? Try telling that to the admirers of Martin Luther King. The notion that polysyllabic words are more sophisticated is an oversimplification. Shakespeare wasn’t predisposed to think like that, nor did he write like that:
And the crow makes wing to th’ rooky wood.
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse,
Whiles night’s black agents to their preys do rouse.
The naysayers will also point to the middle-class cultural capital that I have accumulated over the years. You can’t be working class with all that baggage, they pronounce. But cultural capital is not the same as social capital or economic capital. If you lack connections to the old boy network and are economically disadvantaged you will still suffer from exclusion and discrimination no matter how rich your cultural capital.
This brings me to my final point. To refer to myself as a writer may sound particularly grand and presumptuous, but when I don’t actually earn a living from writing it’s hardly a profession is it? Let’s not forget that it’s middle-class people who have professions.