My mother wiped the working class out of my accent
Laura Kennedy: I carry with me talismans of where I have come from – imperfect teeth, colloquial phrases, a powerful fear of not having enough money
“Being working class is not about any one thing – money, or values, or origin, or habits.” Image: iStock
Last weekend, I was precisely where I tend to feel most uncomfortable – sitting in the midst of a group of people, all friends of a friend, at a birthday picnic in a park on what was the hottest day of the year so far. Idling there in the middle of several conversations but not committing to any, the frayed strands of a nearby exchange brushed my ear, and I heard someone say “Well, I was born working class so I’ll always be working class.”
I didn’t hear whatever string of ideas had led them to this point, and the light breeze carried off whatever response was offered to this statement. I lost track of the conversation when the person next to me pointed out, sniffily and with a good deal of chagrin, that I appeared to be sitting on their designer sunglasses. I was.
Through the afternoon, as the people around me ate olives and chorizo, that statement kept returning to me. The one about always being working class; not the one about sitting on sunglasses. It stuck mostly because this is something that has been on my mind, particularly since moving to London almost a year ago. Here, class is a much more calcified concept than it is at home, and the subtle and not so subtle signifiers can be seen, heard, smelled and tasted everywhere. Avocado and poached eggs on sourdough, anyone? On sourdough “taste”, mind, not sourdough “toast”.
I feel conscious of my teeth – a signal that I don’t come from a wealthy home
I was raised by a single mother who worked several jobs in Limerick city; she looked after children in our home, and she supervised evening study sessions at a school while caring for her mother as well as my brother and me. Talk of class has fallen out of fashion, except to openly deride working-class people as somehow in need of guidance from their betters (just listen to how many middle-class people talk about working-class Brexit voters).
However, when you reach a certain level in arenas like academia, or the media, you look around and realise that while many types of people are in the minority, almost everyone in the room, regardless of gender, religion or skin tone, is middle class. More than any other factor, socioeconomics or class determine your chances in life.
I had a good mother, and good luck, and I worked hard. All three were necessary and still there was no guarantee I could exit the circumstances of my upbringing. My parents did not go to university – I stayed long enough to get my doctorate, so in some ways I can pass for a while among my peers.
In others, I can’t. Colleagues around my age, raised in affluent middle-class homes all without exception had braces in adolescence. I feel conscious of my teeth – a signal that I don’t come from a wealthy home. I often remember my mother responding to my teenage complaints by telling me I could get braces for myself when I turned 30. I still haven’t got them. I think she figured 16 years would have made them cheaper. Not cheap enough.
The point is this – I was raised working class, though my mother corrected every word from my mouth to ensure my accent did not reveal it. This might have been self-loathing, or snobbery, or something she perceived as increasing my chances in the world. I suspect a bit of all three.
However, if we are the sum of our experience, then I carry with me talismans of where I have come from – imperfect teeth, colloquial phrases, a powerful fear of not having enough money to live and pay the bills, and an intense distaste for hipster food fads. Yes, let us not forget an intolerance of university-educated people who talk about poor and working-class people as though they consider themselves Jesus walking into the unwashed rabble, nose pinched and jaw shoved outward, bearing a basket of loaves and a smug expression.
Being working class is not about any one thing – money, or values, or origin, or habits. I don’t quite fit in with the middle-class people I spend much of my time with these days. Neither can I truly comfortably slot back in where I came from. It is interesting that in a region that is less and less attentive to the concept of class, you can feel so very aware of it.