« Tories vs big business | Main | Beyond New Labour »

November 12, 2014


gastro george

I followed a similar trajectory, Chris, although my parents were first-generation lower-middle class. A few comparisons:

Being an outsider. Most definitely. But I never felt that I was out of step, just that they lived in a different world that I wasn't really interested in.

Ambition. I agree again. I never felt the desire to pay for expensive stuff because it was expensive. But actually we live in a more real world. Many of the rich have no idea how other people live, and don't care. There are other things to strive for.

Relationships. It's notable, though maybe not surprising, that the better friends that I have come from similar backgrounds.

But I think overall the important thing is to be true to yourself and your background. I never forget the council estate I was brought up on. It makes me a bit chippy with some people (so even more the outsider) but life would be impossible without it.


There is a whole generation of Boomers, make and female, who are first gen University which you are part of. My background was very similar - Direct Grant and Univ of London on a full grant. I suspect that Oxbridge didn't do you any long term favours, which is a very unfashionable thing to say, whereas I'm bumping along OK.

Suggest you move on from Oxbridge and enjoy the provinces like I do - articulate, available men are in great demand...

Happy to offer more specific advice if welcome :)


Steve Hemingway

Many thanks for articulating something that many of us from a background similar to yours cannot manage, in spite our our Oxbridge education.

It is very interesting to compare your account with a recent article by someone who received an Oxford education at about the same time that you did, but whose father also was Oxbridge educated: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/82ce89ec-5967-11e4-9546-00144feab7de.html.

Simon Nicholas

I guess I'm what would once have been termed upper-working class (lower-middle class?), and all my relationships have been with working class or middle class women. I went to a Grammar school and a good friend of mine from that school went to Oxford and met his wife there - she is middle class and he is from a coal mining village so he has certainly in one respect transcended his background. Both of us encountered upper-middle class women when younger and we have concurred that our accents marked us out as entertaining curiosities to those women and we sensed a divide. I guess we both now possess middle-class sensibilities and I feel its no coincidence that we both married women who, though from more affluent backgrounds, were used to people with accents and thought nothing of it. I have a friend from my area who ended up in the City and she quickly dropped her accent though was simply pragmatic about it and not at all ashamed about where she came from - to the contrary she felt it was more a reflection on her upper-class colleagues being unable to identify with her as a working-class person.


While having a lot of sympathy for these experiences, it occurs to me that social mobility may take 2 or 3 generations to be really effective. The first-movers,like Chris and the others, gain significant material benefits, but offset by significant social discomfort. in the subsequent generations, i suspect the material benefits subsist, but the social discomfort withers away.

I would worry that, pushed to an extreme, the argument that social mobility through education has negative consequences might reinforce those elements/belief systems/ideologies which try to restrict access to education for certain groups.

William de Quetteville

I'm intrigued by this. Equality (at least in a narrow economic sense) is no cure at all for the ills that you identify. Being an outsider tends to be, in my experience, a self fulfilling prophecy and one that it is usually unwise to apply as measure to the broader social context.

As for relationships ... my best friend is a Salford Manc whose dad is Irish crane driver, who attended the local comp in between stints at the Hacienda, then went to St. Martin's. The mother of his daughter is a French, university educated fashion designer from a classic haute bourgeois French family. The moral of the story? Economists are rarely cool. Equality / social mobility / the moon being made of green cheese isn't going to change that.

Enjoy the more regular posts; they are thought provoking even if I don't always (rarely?) agree.


This is an uncharacteristic read which prompts me to ask questions from the perspective of a working class failure.

Whatever happened to despising the individualism of the aspiring working/middle class? This was once a perfectly respectable position for struggling members of the working class, and their educated betters to align with. New Labour seems the short answer. To be sure, I’ve no quibble with the view that local politics became an electoral liability from the late ‘80’s. It most certainly did. But legitimate reason fed the ferment, and New Labour’s third way hardly touched the sides of the structural causes. What happened? Unionisation was made more difficult, another short answer that doesn’t tell all.

Collectivism was once a defining cultural feature of the British working class unionised or not. And behind scapegoating the poor hides a cultural demolition job on this – the fruits, I believe, of explaining away ‘Thatcherism’s’ failure’s with flippant disregard. Culturally “we” have been taken back to being “the working poor” with only themselves to blame, obviously, because its axiomatic we could if we tryed all be middle class, the ones, such as yourself, who do very well indeed are proof of this . It’s laughable. And conversely, egregious failure, as exemplars of the type of personal failings at play here, can be found and paraded as representative of all. Not so funny.

Robert Wheeler

Chris, this is a great piece. I'm an immigrant and about 10yrs younger but managed to slip into Oxford and identified a LOT with what you've written, your experience isn't unique to lucky kids from Leicester. I've been lucky in that I've faked it playing rugby, rowing etc to get along. You can tell yourself you shouldn't have to change to integrate in your own country but you don't need me to tell you there's no going back ...


I say, I say, I say. How do you tell if someone went to Oxbridge?

You don't. They tell you.


Robert, interesting - when I first read the post I wondered about comparisons with immigration. I think I once read some startling figures about Irish immigrants and mental health, which suggested that coming to a richer country had hardly made them happy.


A good post, but I think you really need to discuss the counter-factual (impossible, I know).

How would a bright, working class boy who didn't rise as you did feel?

Your options would be far narrower than the ones you've had (although you may have been ignorant of them).

Your relative poverty may have made you more materially ambitious.

And would you still probably be a bit of an outsider amongst your peers.

I suspect you may have felt frustrated that you never reached your potential.

Chris Purnell

Snap! Except for Oxford that is; I became a teacher mainly because it wasn't a building site.

Icarus Green

I am a younger reader, and I know what you're on about.

I would consider myself from a lower middle class background like gastro george. My father is a private in the army and my mother a housewife. Both never finished secondary education.

I was the first person in my extended family to go to college. Many of my cousins today are either unemployed louts, drug addicts etc.

Here's what I've found:

1. One of the biggest problems is no cultural or social capital. That's vital. Everyone was quite posh in Trinity, I had nothing to connect with people with. Their lives were another galaxy from mine. I commuted to college for 4 years because I couldn't afford to stay in Dublin, even with the grant. Thankfully the tuition was free. The only friend I made in college was a guy from a far more deprived background from mine who came from Somalia. Thats not a coincidence. I was lucky I didn't have the strong 'culchie' accent that most other people from hometown have, otherwise people would have thought I was stupid.

2. Having ignorant parents means you have to spend years calibrating your career path and journey yourself. I never had anyone to read books to me when I was younger or help me with my studies. There were literally no books in my house outside of the bloody bible. By 12 or 13 I stopped asking my parents questions about anything. To be blunt, the Nobel Memorial Prize committee isn't going to be calling them up anytime soon. The guidance counselors in my small school in nowhere told everyone bland rubbish. Most teachers were not university educated either. All friends were not. There were whole fields, mostly the professions, I knew nothing about. My interviewing, job search and approach was embarrassing coming out of college. My ambitions were quaint.

3. The problem of cultural capital is even worse in postgrad business school. I imagine its the same in medicine and law. Anyone that wasn't bankrolled and from a modest background was a nerd who won a grant/scholarship (like me). I remember distinctly one day in a project meeting 2 of the guys saying they couldn't be bothered and that they'd already secured jobs through family. This was 2 months into the masters! Management consultancy is a pretty elite occupation. While they hire many nerds, many more of my classmates who were not as smart as me, still nailed down jobs in the area on the basis of whether they projected cultural capital or not.

Which leads me to the theory that I think any social mobility from bottom to top there has been over the past 2 decades has almost certainly been due to nerds climbing the ladder. Average or sub average guys academically have no chance at the top tier professions. Most of that gain has been in quantitative/logic professions where you can't judge a person except for his work. Many of the other top professions are oozing with upper class dunderheads and bullshitters who carry themselves a certain way or have connections.

And in time, they too will send their kids to private school and teach them about how to really get a job.

Its a cruel world but ultimately managers and senior partners/executives know they need nerds in there to do the heavy lifting and the real work so theres a chance for us outsiders.

Lord Sidcup

If wealth really does 'isolate', maybe you've just been unlucky?


Perhaps the key advantage of coming from a wealthy background, is a deep-seated expectation that you will live life as a wealthy person? After all that is the reality you would be familiar with growing up. I'm sure many successful people, grew up with dim parents, not being read to, but found that irrelevant to claiming a place in their world.

Seems, that self-expectations and esteem are key factors in reinforcing class positions (and Irish culture might not their either?).

Dave Timoney

Another characteristic of upward social mobility is a tendency towards sentimentality, which is both a way of grieving over loss and of projecting authenticity (you can touch my scars, if you like).

I suggest you stop watching Corrie so much and go down the pub.

Jonny Upright

Or as The Boss put it: 'end up like a dog that's been beat too much, and you spend half your life tryin to cover it up'.

Great piece.


everyone thinks they are an outsider.

gastro george

There is a difference between sentimentality and a personal knowledge of the difficulties that the excluded classes face.


Arse from elbow is being a right neo con hard man today, no sympathy for Marxist stockjobbers! Check your privilege as the kids say...

May be this is more an intellectual problem rather than a class problem? The famous self made businessman or chipper spiv has no regrets at being considerably richer than you...

People who are born clever and sensitive may feel "outsiders" regardless of their class. Figures like Kafka or Tolstoy were out of step with their time. The former turned it into great literature the latter radical pacifist love for mankind. Keynes on the other hand embraced the idea of being very clever and rubbed lots of people up the wrong way as a result.

The often implicit assumption that ability is skewed rather than distributed widely ignores the negative effect a person of ability may feel when they realise their parents and friends are different.

May be chris needs to start a dating agency for Marxist totty? There must be clever women who are excited by reading Das Kapital. Who needs viagra?


I thought this was an excellent and heart-felt piece. I'm from a fairly modest background and know exactly how you feel. It's taken me 20 years to get the level of confidence in my work and abilities that people from well-off backgrounds with plenthy of cultural capital seem to manage by their mid-20s.

Looking to the future, how can we develop a sense of working-class intellectual aspiration and education without the unions and other infrastructure which existed a generation or two back?


Congratulations on an excellent piece. However, I think that the problems with social mobility you describe are less to do with wealth than with the English - and it's specifically English - class system.

By way of example, anyone who followed the recent Scottish referendum debate will know that Boris Johnson, for example, attracts a certain level of admiration and amusement in England for his Eton and Oxbridge background and affectations (posh accent, latin tags and so on) while in Scotland and for the same reasons he's considered a complete numpty.

rambling Sid

Not sure that what Chris is talking about is England specific. I am Scottish and I went to the same sort of rugby playing grammar former grammar school as he describes, then a Scottish university. Still, what cultural capital I had came from that school's library. Icarus Green has the rights of it in several ways, the underclass have next to no cultural capital. My grandmother had all her teeth extracted as a twenty first birthday present. Whilst a very interesting person whith whom I spent much time, she could barely read and could not well prepare me for meeting middle class women!

Trying to give working class kids more cultural capital should be a capstone 21st century Labour policy. But , while I don' t rule out long sessions of ernest discussion of the early novels of DH Lawrence (completely pan British experiences), indeed think they could be a good idea, I am not sure our social justice aware educationalists feel the Facebook generation will buy into this. But this lack of awareness of the infinite richness of the freethinking life is the key to having a better life, if the one you have been born into is dragging you down.

But I thought this a good piece, from someone who tries to think about where we have been and how we might do better. Do not despair Chris, you aren't alone, and everyone occasionally sentimentalises the past.

The comments to this entry are closed.

blogs I like

Blog powered by Typepad