Austen, fish & chips, and history: what does class mean to you?

At our recent photo shoot, BLOWN AWAY, Jo chatted to both models involved about their thoughts on class, what it means to them and their background. Here is the interview with the wonderful Ted Richards. For more, come along to see our models perform at our next fashion exhibition on March 29th. 

Where did you grow up; how do you think it (helped to) shape your identity?

Britain, North of England, Lancashire, majority of my time living in a market town at the centre of the Ribble Valley, recently moved to a hamlet on the A59 and utterly remarkable. I lucked out and attended a school with Pendle as its backdrop and countryside all around. Got a bus there and back, on good days it arrived five minutes late. On better days it did not turn up at all because a riverbank had broken or storm had arrived and school was out. On bad days I missed it altogether. I’m the product of getting lucky in life and growing up somewhere with good schools in a family where books were never far from reach. I got lucky and good people decided to be friends with me who would make fun of my accent with kindness not cruelty. My luckiest stroke was being taught early on to be who I wanted to be and who better to copy an accent from than the smartest woman I know.

What does it mean to you to be northern?

Not Southern? Easiest way to find meaning in something is to determine what it does not mean. ‘Northerness’ is often, I think, the product of not identifying with conventionally southern traits; a posh accent, tip-toeing around subjects and a strict rule against conversation in public places. I have never lived anywhere else but I am not sure my friends would take me seriously saying I was Northern. I do not sound Northern, I get my accent from my southern mother and I think I am far too concerned with politeness and not hurting people’s feelings to be truly Northern. But some things have crept in. I have a veneer of bluntness to the way I phrase things and sometimes let little ticks slip into my accent. Really, the proper northerners I know are my sisters- not afraid to look like idiots, very ready to tell people when they are wrong and extremely uncomfortable with Fish and Chips costing more than £3. If I was being romantic, I would say that I have a Northern heart but a Southern brain and the two do not often get along. If I was being corse, I would say that I am too cowardly to be northern but to thick to be southern. Read Gaskell, she makes a far better display of Northern/Southern relationships than I ever will.

What has changed for you since coming to St Andrews?

Regional pride certainly helps guard your old identity. A fantastic trick of being from Lancashire is that you have two opposing identities; not-Southern and not-Yorkshire. This means you build gentle animosity towards the former and great friendship with the latter by sake of good humour. Unfortunately, my accent does not lend itself to easy regional identification and so I got to pick and choose when to reveal my origins. At this point general mockery from all parties commenced and I chose who I wanted to be friends with. Recently I have adopted a more English identity through working in a thoroughly Scottish-dominated café which is lovely and humorous. Probably, the thing that actually changed most was I veered towards a friendlier attitude to the north as nostalgia brought out a great deal of pride I never knew existed. Subsequently my accent has actually softened into accepting more Lancastrian quirks. Coming to a fairly varied place like St. Andrews you quickly find out what turns of phrases differ from place to place and me and my token-Yorkshire friend probably tally up the most of these quirks.

Do you identify as coming from a particular 'class background'?

Yeah, extremely middle class. Like, if you could find a more middle class person with more privilege than me I would be stunned. I don’t even have the handicap of the upper classes by being too privileged. I got to grow up going to the theatre, ballets, art galleries, museums and farmer’s markets. Kind of makes me a little sick listing them all like that. Briliant as they are, my sisters never let me get away with my younger self’s claims of being part of the Marxist Proletariat, no, I was and am as bourgeoisie as they come. Turns out they still get invited to the revolution though so I’m game.

What does that mean to you?

Means that I have to work hard. Not on schoolwork, I went to a good enough state school to teach me bookish things. Nor on eloquence or etiquette, because I would hope that I have spent enough time watching Cary Grant films and talking in pubs to learn the basics. Being a middle-class, white, heterosexual male you have to work hard on learning to listen to other people, understand the roots of your privilege, why it matters and how not to piss people off. And to work hard on when you fail at those things, as everyone does, always attempt to make amends. Funny enough one of the best places to learn that stuff, without the risk of offense face-to-face discussion sometimes offers, is in the pages of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens two of the most middle/upper-class figures in our canon. So yeah, basically do not be a wanker and read good literature.

Do you think that class is performative or that it exists in a more concrete way?

Concrete. Emilé Durkheim can sod off as far as I am concerned with his performative nonsense. Class is defined by socio-economic strata’s that are, historically, fairly easy to identify. That is the great gift of history- it teaches you the tools to analyse the human condition. One of the most interesting human conditions for me is class and it is a very concrete manifestation throughout history. Firstly, this does not mean it is inflexible. Imagine a stick of chewing gum. Before being chewed it is a pretty brittle bit of gum. That is my basic class bracket or system of social relations. Those on top and those who work. But once you start chewing, applying the gum to different periods and eras you find that it is stretchy, squishy and malleable. It can be those who pray, those who fight and those who work. Or it can be the nobles, the middling sort and the peasants. It could be the aristocrats, the merchants and the labourers. Perhaps it could be the bourgeoisie, proletariat and lumpent proletariat. I think Paul Mason recently put it into new, 21st century capitalism that I want to read about. But yeah, it is not something that comes about because people choose to operate a certain way, I think class is a concrete construction of a social relation to the means of production. But that changes with what the means of production is, be it the plough, the mill, the jenny, the coal furnace or the computer.

How flexible do you think class boundaries are?

Flexible enough to ease congestion but not enough to allow social equality or class harmony. Have you ever worked as a waiter, and if so what has your experience been? Yeah I love working as a waiter. Well, I’m not really a waiter, I make coffee, take orders, clear tables and bring people food. I always see being a waiter as more grown up and restaurant based. I’m not sure. Yeah, I think being a waiter counts as my job. I will ask my boss. It is a good experience though, I get to meet tons of new people and have loads of conversations with interesting folks. The service industry is a pretty student-friendly, middle-class friendly occupation. You make friends and they move on or you do. Nothing is very permanent and anything can be replaced. Except cheesecake, turns out if you eat it all it can’t be replaced instantly.

What is your perception of class in St Andrews?

Middle class as f*@K? Does that sum it up well? I think it does. Yeah, this is probably one of the most middle/upper class universities. I think I have only seen about three people without a MacBook in my few years here. People make class-jokes about ‘poverty’ Dundee and having an android, I even heard someone be classist about a loaf of bread the other day. Apparently, everyday value is not up to scratch. We have, I think, the most expensive Tesco’s in the country and everybody goes along with it. The accommodation is horrendously expensive. Most social events (I am being generous, I mean balls or fashion shows. We don’t really do anything else) are north of thirty quid. It is a joke and the students are the punchline for paying. But, I go along with it because we are the third best University in the country, I love studying here and all my mates go with it too so it would be odd if I complained. Money is not something talked about a lot in British, middle-class etiquette.