Costa, Class, and Contention

“You can’t be working class and drink in Costa Coffee.”

This statement, courtesy of a Tory hopeful in Wakefield, Yorkshire, has sparked outrage across social media, with one Facebook user commenting: “Ffs, you can have a house you’ve got a mortgage on, a car on finance, and holidays paid for with credit cards, and be working class.” Every comment I came across in the immediate aftermath was expressing, often vehemently, the opinion that yes, actually, you can be working class and enjoy Costa Coffee.

But here’s the rub… to my mind, a working class person doesn’t have the privilege of credit. They don’t qualify for mortgages and credit cards, car finance or overdrafts.  I know – this is my life, day by day.  It’s hard, sometimes soul-destroyingly so.

And no: I don’t drink in Costa Coffee. I actually manage to go “out” for meals, drinks, etc maybe three times a year, on average.

“Working class people have to drink in Costa – we’re the ones who haven’t got time for coffee at home”, mewled another Facebook comment.

Strange: even when I had to be out of my flat at six a.m to catch the first bus out of the village I was living in at the time, to the city, thirty miles away, where I worked, I managed to have a cup of coffee at home. Sometimes, I managed two cups of coffee at home.  It’s a little trick called getting your backside in gear, rather than deciding that you can buy an extra ten minutes shut-eye for three quid on the run.

And I was contending with the demands of a serious mental illness – schizophrenia – and literally no support, at the time.

There was no way in hell, back then, that I would spend £3 on coffee on my way to work: £3 was almost a week’s electric on the meter (£5, all I could afford at the time, a fact which meant I became incredibly ill every winter.) £3 was (then) the price of a single bus fare back to the town five miles away, if I missed the last bus my weekly ticket was valid for (which was run by a different company than ran the buses that stopped five miles away, and left Norwich at 5.45pm. I finished work at 5.30pm. I ended up walking five miles, in evening light, half of it without pavements or street lights, on two occasions in the time I was in that job.)

£3, to me, was worth a hell of a lot more than a cup of coffee.

Financially, things are slightly better now – I own my own home, outright (thanks to compensation paid in respect of my father’s death, aged 61, from asbestos-related cancer), and I don’t have to spend £30 a week on bus fare, travelling a three hour round trip, to get to work.  Being married, I not only have emotional support, companionship, and help with the daily demands of schizophrenia – I can also afford to have a functional level of electricity credit on the meter. Hell, I can even afford broadband internet access, something that wasn’t the case seven years ago.

I still don’t drink in Costa Coffee.

I haven’t had a holiday for three years – the last holiday I had was a birthday present, so I didn’t pay for most of it. It was in Hunstanton. I travelled by bus.

I still don’t have the option of taking out credit cards. I still wouldn’t be approved for an overdraft or a mortgage.

Sometimes, it’s still a close call at the end of the month. Sometimes, my wife and I  still have to do without things. Sometimes, those things matter: last year, my wife was unable to attend a conference at which she’d been invited to present her experiences as a woman with Asperger’s: the conference organisers provided funding for academics to attend, not anyone else, a crowdfunding campaign was largely ignored, and we didn’t have any way of paying her travel to Edinburgh, and overnight accommodation.

So – no. You’re not working class if you drink in Costa Coffee regularly. You’re not working class if you have access to credit.

Yet, “being working class” seems to be something many people cling to, an identity they wave like a battle standard.

Why, though?

Being working class – actually working class, as my father was, working 12-14hr days in a slaughterhouse, as my grandfather was, working in a furniture factory, all for never quite enough money to have a lifestyle, rather than just a life, isn’t fun. Not having the money for school trips to Italy, or for the equipment for PE lessons on a dry-ski slope in the nearest city, and having to spend the time everyone else is off enjoying themselves helping the headmaster with his admin, is crap. Especially when everyone else gets back, and decides you deserve to be the target of jokes about how your parents don’t have any money for the next two weeks. Every. Single. Day.  Getting told you’re “not showing team spirit” when you explain you can’t afford to join your workmates on a night out because you wouldn’t be able to get a bus home (no, not even the one that stops five miles away), and, because your rent is due tomorrow, you can’t afford to book a hotel room, or take a taxi (30 miles, at out of hours rates – not likely, even if you could find a Norwich cabbie who was up for driving out to Shipdham in the early hours of the morning), and having your boss spend the rest of the following week making you do all the jobs no one else wants to do as a kind of punishment, is soul-destroying.

Being actually working class isn’t fun. It isn’t glamorous, and it doesn’t get you a nice lifestyle.

But people who manifestly aren’t working class seem desperate to claim that they are, really, honest, guv.

I suspect this has something to do with the rather bizarre media insistence that “real, working men and women” are the only people who “really know what’s going on.” We don’t like “experts” any more, and experts are frequently middle class.  And, while those who genuinely do know what they’re talking about don’t really care whether anyone listens or not, those who have a little less than half a clue about the complexities of issues – any issues – can’t stand the idea that other people may not know what they think, what they’d do, if only they had power and influence. If the shift in political temperatures is towards listening to “the working man or woman on the street” – well, then, of course we all want to be working class, because being working class is what gets us attention, gets us listened to!

Only, when you’re actually working class, when you can’t afford cars and holidays and fashionable clothes and Costa Coffee… you don’t get listened to. You get ignored, or you get patronised. But you don’t, ever, get listened to.

Genuine working class people tried to explain that we weren’t racist, but we were concerned that, as technology resulted in the automation of more and more jobs, and globalisation allowed companies to pick and choose the cheapest and easiest to exploit workers from across the globe, native, working class populations, in working class jobs, weren’t receiving the upskilling and re-skilling needed to benefit from jobs in emerging sectors – we couldn’t afford to pay for the training needed, or take time out of our current, hourly-pay jobs to attend courses, etc, but no one was offering to help us out. We were being left behind as the world moved on around us, and, what’s worse, we were being driven out of the industries we were skilled in by managers focused on profit, who saw people as simply “resources”, and were eagerly awaiting affordable, viable automation, so they didn’t have to deal with pesky things like “breaks”, “holidays”, “maternity leave”, “health and safety” and “wages.” We tried to explain that we valued certain rights and freedoms, as well as certain subsidies for traditional industries, that resulted from Britain’s membership of the EU, but were concerned that the wider EU community didn’t fully appreciate the complexities of Britain’s geography and infrastructure issues – issues which Westminster has never been particularly interested in addressing.

But we didn’t get heard. The people who got heard were the working class posers, often with hands on strings of media outlets, who brayed about “immigration”, “sovereignty”, “loss of the British identity and way of life” (an identity cobbled together from just about every country we’ve ever owned, invaded, or occupied), and, memorably, “money that could be better spent on our NHS” (which is rapidly being sold off to the manifestly-not-working-class likes of Richard Branson’s Virgin group…)

The posers, then as now, stepped in front of, and in some cases stepped on, the actual, genuine working class people, ensuring our voices never made it above a strangled whisper.

But then, playing pretend has always been a popular British leisure pursuit, from schoolyard games of cops ‘n’ robbers to fancy dress balls and drag queens. We really shouldn’t be surprised to find that vocal, privileged individuals with a very comfortable lifestyle want to pretend to be the hardworking salt of the earth.

And their game of pretend wouldn’t be a problem, if it could be played from the other side: while someone financing a very nice lifestyle on credit, whilst working a 9-5 office job, can pretend to be “genuinely working class”, a factory shift worker on minimum wage, with no access to credit beyond loansharks and disreputable payday lenders, struggling to adequately heat their housing association flat, and unable to afford to “go sick”, because they’re paid by the hour, and if they don’t show up, they don’t get paid, can never even have a moment’s glimpse at what it’s like to not have to live that kind of life.

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