ENCYCLOPEDIA 1960s. Class unconsciousness

At the age of 18, I was not much aware of class differences. My family was poor but no-one in Selly Oak was well off in the 1950s. We local children all went to the same primary school. Perhaps we were too young to notice the very slight differences. At Raddlebarn Primary School I did well at the intelligence tests and was top of the class. I did not feel inferior at all.

Nor did I feel inferior at King Edward VI Camp Hill School which was otherwise utterly middle class. I could reassure myself that I had been awarded my school place on merit. I was not bullied at school; I only remember having one fight with another boy at Camp Hill.  I had more cash in my pockets than my middle class friends who depended on pocket money from their parents. I could afford to buy cigarettes whereas they had to steal them from family members. I was able to buy myself more fashionable clothes than they were given. My winkle-pickers with grey spats and pearl buttons gave me status.

As I grew up, I was given responsibilities which seemed to confirm that I was not inferior; head boy at primary school, Sunday school teacher, troop leader in the Boy Scouts, key holder for the local youth club. I did not just deliver newspapers on my paper round, I marked them up as well. In Selly Oak, even at the age of 15, I was a born leader.

Butchers bike OLD

A butcher’s bike, similar to the one I had to use. At 13 years old I was four feet six inches tall and the bike seemed enormous. The brown baskets on these would not be tolerated; our first job after deliveries was to scrub them with bleach and make them ultra clean and white.

However, I learned about nepotism. I would never be head butcher’s boy because there were two of us and the other boy was Mr Parkes’ nephew; he got the new bike with decent brakes while I got the worn out pre-war death trap. At church I could never be head choirboy; that was reserved for the vicar’s own son.

Garth House William Bidlake 1901  74DawlishRoad

Garth House, Edgbaston (left). Quite small as mansions go and trying to be vernacular. Dawlish Road, Selly Oak (right). Only a mile or so away on the map but a million miles away socially.

I felt as if we were all in the same boat, even the MP[1] who lived on our street and the shopkeepers on Raddlebarn Road who were the nearest we had to a middle class. There were, apparently, some upper class people in Edgbaston, a Victorian middle class suburb on the other side of the University. On my butcher’s bike I had to pedal to Lady So-and-So at Garth House[2] in Edgbaston (see above). I never saw her.

Daily Express St George

Dad’s newspaper: note the drawing of Saint George chained. The Daily Express wished for a strong British Empire, unconstrained. The chains were removed about ten years later.

At home, I never discussed politics. My father took the notion that a ballot should be secret and extended it to refusing to discuss how he would vote even with his own family. I suspected that he voted Conservative, not because of any ideological issues but through a sense of respect and obligation. He read the Daily Express. My mother probably had similar opinions. She worked as a cleaner for a Conservative councillor to whom she was loyal for many years.  Later he introduced my mother to Margaret Thatcher, a meeting my mother was extremely proud of.

Labour_Will_Get_Things_Done_1964.jpg       Macmillan

Electoral choices 1960s: pipe or slippers.

In the early sixties, there was not very much difference between the two main political parties. In general, they all agreed that the NHS should be supported, that council homes should be built, that the welfare state was a Good Idea. There might be foreign policy differences, and there was a polarised discussion about joining the Common Market. But everyone was very polite, except in Smethwick.[3] There was no name-calling; even words like ‘left’ or ‘right’ were used very carefully.

In Selly Oak, the elected MPs were alternatively Conservative or Labour between 1955 and 1992.[4] When I grew up we had a Conservative MP. I couldn’t vote until I was 21 but I showed my rebellious nature by declaring for Labour. The truth was that I could hardly tell the difference.

By the age of 18 I perceived my place in society with a late-Victorian sense of ‘self-help’. Perhaps I had learned about Samuel Smiles[5] in one of the encyclopedia that Dad had bought and which I read avidly. Smiles’ notion of self-help, tempered with an Anglican view of the innate rigidity of society, assured me that through self-improvement I could succeed in the world. So far, this had seemed to work.

The City of Birmingham itself, with its blackened municipal buildings and a million industrious inhabitants proclaimed the same message. By sheer hard work, the city had built palaces of industry and government. It had drawn fresh water and piped it from Wales. It provided electricity, gas, trams and buses to serve its people. It built schools, hospitals, parks and swimming baths. Jerusalem was indeed builded here; and also Bournville which promised a better place for working people by a benevolent employer.

It would be several years before I realised that I was being taken for a ride by this Victorian propaganda. I blithely reckoned that I could do anything but I was firmly put in my place by the school careers master. With my interest in biology, anatomy and chemistry I thought that becoming a doctor might be a good idea. I thought I was clever enough to get into Cambridge University.

The careers master’s first question was: ‘What does your father do?’ I momentarily wondered what on earth that had to do with my choice but I told him the truth. ‘My father is a milkman’, was my reply. He told me to forget being a doctor. He suggested that I would only be accepted if my father was already a doctor; what he meant was ‘middle class’.

I rationalised it; I was not meant to be a doctor; no-one else among my extended family and friends was a doctor. It would be a very long course, over several years; how could I support myself if my family could not afford it? This was one of the ‘what if?’ moments in my life. What if I had challenged his view? What if I had tried for Cambridge entrance? What if, in about 1974, I had graduated as Doctor Derek Perry?

Instead, I applied for a degree course in pharmacy. A partial doctor, so to speak, but achievable by someone who was not destined to qualify as a doctor. A pharmacist was just a clever shopkeeper selling something that required specialist knowledge. At least I might end up running a shop instead of sweeping its floors.

When I finally got to Chelsea College of Science and Technology I was surrounded by people who were more middle class than those I knew in Birmingham. My student colleagues were the sons and daughters of doctors, lawyers, and a fair number of pharmacists. One, I recall, had his own red sports car. I never made friends with any of them; I was already an outsider.

I dropped my West Midlands accent quite quickly. Not because I was ashamed of it but people would ask me if I was from Liverpool and did I know the Beatles? I wanted to fit in and tried to speak with a bland London accent. I noticed the geographical divisions between richer and poorer. My daily journey home from the college to my digs would take me from Chelsea and South Kensington, with its white stuccoed mansions in tree-lined and very expensive squares, to Acton where I lived in a shared room in a terraced house around the corner from a razor blade factory.

I remained class unconscious while I lived in London, despite the extremes I saw every day. I now knew that there were places I could never fit in and people I could never relate to. I was an outsider, a fact confirmed when I began to read Camus, Dostoievsky and Sartre. It was a start but it would be a long time before I achieved class consciousness.

[1] Victor Yates (19 Apr 1900 – 19 Jan 1969) was the Labour MP for Birmingham Ladywood from 1945 until his death in January 1969 at the age of 68. He lived next to Muntz Park and I pruned his roses.

[2] Garth House was built in 1901 by architect William Bidlake as his own residence. It was a very large ‘arts and crafts’ mansion which tried to look like a cottage.

Smethwick election    Malcolm X #2

[3] Except in Smethwick in 1964. This was a poster put up in the constituency during the 1964 election. The candidate, Peter Griffiths, was both a Tory and a racist. Malcolm X visited in 1965 in solidarity with the people. Smethwick is quite close to Selly Oak by bus.

[4] 1955 Harold Gurden (Conservative); Oct 1974 Tom Litterick (Labour); 1979 Anthony Beaumont-Dark (Conservative); 1992 Lynne Jones (Labour)

[5] Samuel Smiles (1812 – 1904). The origins of his most famous book Self Help are in a speech from 1845: ‘I would not have any one here think that, because I have mentioned individuals who have raised themselves by self-education from poverty to social eminence, and even wealth, these are the chief marks to be aimed at. That would be a great fallacy.’  … ‘Every human being has a great mission to perform, noble faculties to cultivate, a vast destiny to accomplish. He should have the means of education, and of exerting freely all the powers of his godlike nature’.

 

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