What happens when your working-class background and beliefs collide with a middle-class life that you’ve accidentally fallen into? Well, in my case: turmoil and conflict.
I have nothing against the middle classes, you understand. It’s just not who I am.
When my husband Will and I first met, we were on a very level playing field. A huge field, knee-deep in the Glastonbury mud of 2007. High on music and hedonism, scruffy and having the time of our lives, apart from my broad Yorkshire accent and his soft southern one, there were no differences between us.
We were inseparable after that. I’d just landed my dream job in breakfast television in London after years of hard graft. But my working-class ways remained. Will was a successful surveyor, and it soon became clear we were from very different worlds – his an affluent village in Bedfordshire, mine a council estate in Leeds. But we were crazy about each other.
Fast forward a few years, and we were about to buy our first flat. We had a meeting with a financial advisor who congratulated me on being “a Northern lass come good”. Not only had I moved to London from a humble area up North and carved out a well-paid career, but I had also met a fine middle-class man to marry.
Sitting there in his tweed, it was as if the financial advisor was welcoming me to a higher status. Did he imagine I’d be working down t’pits? I told him to b----- off. Obviously. Will understood, and swiftly poured me a drink.
My earthy Yorkshire roots would always have me bursting with pride. I love that county and everything it stands for. I was also proud of making a life for myself in London. I had worked very hard to get here.
Then something terrible happened... There I was, in our lovely north London flat. Will and I had entered into a debate about the injustice of private schooling, and he exclaimed: “Just admit it, Em, you’re middle class now.”
“Wash your mouth out, Will,” I shot back. “I will always be working class.” But he tilted his head, and gestured towards my glass of very good Chianti and the accompanying cheeseboard I was enjoying. Oh dear.
Was he right? Had I actually – yet accidentally – become middle class? Or almost as shocking, was I now a Champagne socialist? I mean, north London’s full of them. I felt like a hypocrite. But then again, can the hard grafting working class not enjoy good wine?
This was eight years ago, and the internal conflict continues. Three children later and I find myself caught between my middle-class husband and our gorgeous, rather privileged little ones. By this I mean that we live in a nice house, eat good food, have lovely holidays and the kids have all the books they could ever read. You know, the important family things.
But imagine my horror when my eldest son, then aged six, asked for an avocado smoothie at the local farmers’ market. A perfectly reasonable request, of course. He was – still is – clearly unaware of any class-related avocado connotations. That is how it should be. But I must admit, when I reluctantly handed over £5 to pay for one of the most extortionate drinks I’d ever come across, I may have quietly told my son never to ask for such a drink up North. Please. We’d be disowned. I realised I probably didn’t actually know what an avocado was until around the age of 20.
And yet, not long ago, my friend and I treated ourselves to tea at The Ivy. After mopping up the very last dregs of the truffle sauce accompanying my chicken Milanese, I reached into my charity shop handbag to pay. With my American Express card. Maybe I really am a hypocrite. I feel like it sometimes.
But this is what’s so confusing about the British class system, which sometimes feels like a very outdated way of framing identity. Yes, there will always be fundamental differences between my husband and me. Will is not a man with expensive tastes by any stretch. But he prefers private dental care, whereas I’m not fussed. He’s privately educated and I’m not. I shop at charity shops but he doesn’t. He has a very fancy laptop, mine is possibly the first one ever made. We vote for different political parties – the less said about that, the better. But despite our differences, it somehow works. We have the most important things, like morals, in common.
As my best friend Laura back home in Leeds once put it: “Isn’t class just all about good manners and how you treat people? And that has absolutely nothing to do with money or status.” I think she put it perfectly.
So at 42, here I am, sandwiched between two worlds, appreciating my fortunate financial situation while always acknowledging my wonderful working-class heritage.
Whatever the outward trappings of my adult life suggest, inside I know I will never feel properly middle class. Whatever on earth that means.