Know Your Place is a collection of twenty-three essays written by working class writers about their experiences of being working class in Britain today. The writers’ families identify with a variety of colours and cultures, which add to the way they are perceived by themselves and others. Most of the writers appear to have attained a university education, and to have moved away from the environment in which they were raised. The essays explore the effort required to push against perceptions, the cost of trying to realise their potential in spaces dominated by those whose background is one of greater privilege.
The collection opens with The First Galleries I Knew Were Black Homes, in which Abondance Matanda talks of art, accessibility, and who decides what is valued. It argues that the supposed elite of the art world should not assume that the unrepresented are culturally deprived.
“Being a black working class woman, I exist on the peripheries, in the shadows of British society. It’s scarily likely that you might not see me or my experiences portrayed at all, let alone wholesomely in our visual culture or art history.”
The author’s peers do, however, know about art and heritage. The problem, as in many of the issues raised in the following essays, is breaking through the barriers erected by traditional gatekeepers who do not always see a need to facilitate change.
In The Pleasure Button: Low Income Food Inequality, Laura Waddell discusses the joy experienced when consuming fatty, salty food, which is accessible where healthier entertainments are beyond limited budgets. Those who can afford to drive to a large supermarket and stock up on fresh fruit and vegetables will often shake their heads at the dietary choices of those living in poverty, ignoring the causes. This reaction, to blame the poor for their situation, is a recurring theme.
Several of the authors discuss the positives of growing up working class, which includes the comfort of belonging and a feeling of community. In The Death of a Pub, Dominic Grace recalls a drinking establishment he frequented in south Leeds, where generations of the same families would get together after a hard days graft. It may have been a rough place but these were blokes enjoying friendly banter over a well earned pint at the end of a long day. Unfortunately, to me, it was reminiscent of the attitude of the wealthy to their London Clubs which ban women as this would change member’s freedom to talk and act as they choose. The working man’s pub appeared intimidating to those who did not belong to that socioeconomic group.
Many of the essay authors’ parents worked hard to enable their offspring to progress through education. Those who made it to better schools write of the challenges this brings. Just as work colleagues may not appreciate the difficulties presented by a lack of parental contacts or financial backup, so classmates did not understand why house size and quantity of possessions could cause embarrassment. There are also casual preconceptions, such as the assumption that a package holiday to Benidorm is somehow less admirable than a bespoke journey through a remote corner of Asia.
There are discussions on benefits, sexuality, visibility and the culture of blame. There is a correlation between poverty and mental health as well as the obvious physical effects of poor nutrition. In Where There’s Shit, There’s Gold, Ben Gwalchmai looks at rural poverty and the jobs he took as a child living in Wales. The Housework Issue (The Other One) asks why certain jobs are looked down upon, especially those that provide benefit to many.
“We, working class women, and all of us, have been sold a lie. The fabrication that if we work hard, do the right thing – whatever that means – that we’ll be ok and get the good stuff. We’ll get the status, and a good sense of pride, and if we’re not ok we deserve our poverty; it’s our own fault because we’re not working hard enough.
The inconvenient truth is that a badly paid and low status job with no prospects like cleaning keeps you poor. Hard work does not lift people out of poverty or issue status, not if you scrub toilets for a living anyway.”
In Reclaiming the Vulgar, Kath McKay asks who defines good taste, and who cares. Value judgements have been attached to many things, including how people furnish their homes, dress and speak. This results in sizeable portions of the population being silenced, their voices somehow deemed unworthy. In The Wrong Frequency, Kate Fox explores the judgements made about those who speak with regional accents. Class differences are reinforced by perceived regional stereotypes.
Many of the essays deal with belonging and the disconnects successful social mobility can introduce. In What Colour is a Chameleon, Rym Kechacha discusses the necessity of talking and acting differently in order to gain acceptance.
“I have heard too many people frown when they hear me speak, too many people assume I haven’t read that book they’re talking about […] I know that no one is fooled about my origins, and I don’t even know if I want them to be.”
The final essay, You’re Not Working Class, is by the editor of the collection, Nathan Connelly. In it he asks what the term even means. There are those who try to delegitimise others who identify as working class. They are thereby complicit in attempting to silence someone who does not conform to their expectations.
To be better understood it is necessary to be heard and these essays provide a platform from which marginalised writers may speak for themselves. From the quality of the arguments presented it is clear that they are more than capable of elucidating cogent and balanced opinions. The stories they tell provide a lesson a wider audience would undoubtedly benefit from learning. This is a recommended read.