Sunday, August 23, 2009

I Drink Tea Even While I Blog, Me

The latest newsletter from Laurie Taylor, previewing this week's Thinking Allowed program.

It was the egg and chips which first made me realise that Jim lived in a different world. We’d gone back to his terrace house in Bootle one day after school and were sitting at the table in the back room when his dad came home from a long shift on the railways. I remember him saying ‘Hello’ as he saw his son and me at the table but he then vanished into the tiny kitchen.

Jim and I went on chatting for a few minutes about school and Liverpool’s chances in the coming Saturday game until suddenly his dad re-appeared and without a single word placed a big plate of egg and chips and a steaming sugary mug of tea in front of each of us.

The egg and chips were delicious. No doubt about it. And the tea was just great. But even as I followed Jim’s example and finger dipped my chips in the runny yolk I felt confused by their sudden appearance. Had Jim exchanged some hidden sign with his dad that said he was ready for egg and chips and tea? And why had I been automatically included? And why had it been so readily assumed that I wanted or even liked egg and chips? And why had no one even asked how much sugar I wanted in my mug of tea? And why, come to think of it, were we so happily wading into such a substantial meal at just after five in the afternoon?

Of course, the answer to all these questions was quite straightforward. Jim and his dad were working class. And members of the working class at that time thought it completely natural to eat five o’clock in the afternoon. But even more, as members of the working class they took it for granted that everyone else ate at that time and would happily regard egg and chips and tea as the perfect meal for the occasion.

How different from my own dear lower middle-class home where eating a heavy meal in the late afternoon would have been regarded as dangerously close to a satanic rite. Neither would my mother have ever tolerated egg and chips on her dinner table, or, even, in her wildest dreams, have allowed any member of the family to accompany any meal at all with a mug of steaming tea.

The more time I spent with Jim the more I came to realise the taken-for-granted aspect of so much of the terraced life around him. In Jim’s road everyone seemed to smoke Woodbines, read The Daily Mirror, take coach trips to Blackpool to see the lights, have a regular flutter on the horses, eat tins of assorted biscuits, drink mild and bitter (‘mixed’), and finish off any evening out with a bag of fish and chips. (No-one I knew in my road in Crosby did any of these things).

I realised, of course, that it was hard cash which determined some of these choices, but I also sensed that everybody did much the same as everybody else because that was a way of saying that you weren’t too posh or stuck up or different.

When I went on from school to college in Kent and began to talk in this way about working class life in Liverpool I was accused of being sentimental and romantic. My new friends pointed out the sins of the working class: their drunkenness and violence and sexism.

At the time I was snobbish enough to accept much of this argument. I began to wonder how I could ever have seen life in Bootle as somehow worth celebrating.

But at the end of my first year I came across a copy of Richard Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy. I read every word, placing ticks in the margin to record the similarities between life in my Bootle and his Hunslet. And I insisted on reading out chunks to my snooty new friends. Compare this, I said imperiously, to your own isolated, miserable, bourgeois lives.

But reading Hoggart did make me wonder why not one of my Bootle friends had ever expressed any personal pleasure at the way they lived their lives. Had they been no more able than I was to see its great strength and vitality? And then one day in the early 70s I heard the perfect answer. The Liverpool sculptor, Arthur Dooley was talking on the radio about the destruction of even more Liverpool terraces. The architect who was responsible for this latest bout of demolition sought to justify his action by telling Dooley that not one of the residents had complained about being moved out to the new tower block estates on the edges of the city. Dooley was not convinced. ‘Let me tell you this’, he said in his strong Liverpool accent, ‘There’s no-one as easy to rob of their culture as those folks that don’t know they’ve got one’.

Fifty years after the first publication of Uses of Literacy, I’ll be talking to three scholars with very different views of Hoggart’s contribution to sociology and cultural studies. Join me for that at 4pm or after the midnight news on Sunday or download our podcast.



the fall of rome said...

Even though Taylor has written some good stuff and promoted interesting people ideas on his radio show, he still is that middle class kid from Crosby, for better or worse.
Putting the writings of Richard Hoggart back into the public arena however can only be a good thing.
Anyway, the only reason for my post is to ask the question, what is the similarity between Ralph Milliband and Richard Hoggart?
Answer: Parents who understand the working class, children who don't and couldn't care less.

Anonymous said...

What a lovely piece! Totally recognise it as I have and still do somewhat straddle the two classes myself. In our house, egg and chips is a real treat. We have it when we've totally run out of truffle oil.