In the 60s I would hear my father describe the Orkney in which we lived as a classless society. Then I didn’t know what ‘class’ meant. We were literally thousands of miles away from the industrial central belt, where the enormous shipyards, steel works and mines employed numbers which were in excess of our entire community. The Second World War made men of my father’s generation into union men, cementing their hatred of the forces hierarchy that was the badge of the pre-war Churchill world where workers won the war despite the blunders of the Colonel Blimps in command.
But in the isles unions and working class solidarity were a tenuous thing. The social aspirations of working people, farmhands, tradesmen and fishermen were predicated on the feudal patronage and allegiance to the mores of the Protestant Kirk, the Masonic lodge, and the acceptance that you would be Christian, subservient and thankful. In political terms Labour was a dirty word and socialist affiliations would ensure you were ostracised from the Kirk’s elder-led ladder of opportunity.
Without any kind of religious divide to speak of – there were no Catholics in evidence, or apparent consolidation of working class identity through a boss/worker dynamic, our only picture of the upper classes were the Lord Snooty visions of the joke toff. There were no private schools, so you might say today no choice, but like the very distant comic image, the few gymkhana children of the bona fide Laird class would disappear to Gordonstown and Eaton never to be seen again but in plus fours and loud cartoon voices. They however never counted in our world – they were already a whole galaxy apart.
We were all the same, or so we thought. We all wore home-knitted ganseys, and split into innocent childhood ‘gangs’ that divvied up the geography of the 2000 strong town into Nessers, Middletooners and Northenders. The demarcation of the gang boundaries could be a fluctuating as with all turf disputes. The Northenders claim took in the slaughter house, the egg packing factory and the Thornley Binders grain Store as well as what would now be known as a ‘mix’ of social housing. The Middle Tooners encompassed the ‘scheme’ of former army huts known as ‘The Attery’ that become temporary post war housing but lasted well into the 60s. Also the stone built villas of the retired sea captains, the three bakeries, the harbour and the school. The Nessers, the most feisty of the tripartite Stromness gang culture, laid claim to the area south of a burn that ran past a disused distillery that once produced Old Orkney Whisky, although there could be disputes about whether their line was not indeed another burn that lay further north… Within the Nesser’s patch lay the museum with its wonderfully politically red-faced collections of stuffed birds, animals and plunder from the British Empire, as well as a scattering of former air raid shelters which provided them with first rate gang huts and stores for the annual Guy Fawkes bonfire collections. Their’s was the largest area of council housing, the Captains villas petering out to ones and twos as you moved southwards until you reached Anderson’s boat yard and the nearest you might get to a place with a workforce that might suggest class solidarity.
There were divides in pay and education – the doctor, the teachers, the ministers (there were 3 forms of Protestantism plus methodist hall) were still revered and treated with some deference. This was the separation of education which perpetuated the need to please those in positions of influence. You could not risk a bad reference from the schoolmaster or the minister in your hope to enter the Post Office, nursing or the Navy… Attitudes or questioning views that could be described as uppity let alone subversive, could seriously impede your life’s ambitions. ‘Cleverness’ was talked of like some genetic given that ordinary people couldn’t achieve.
My father always insisted he was working class, a badge I realised could not apply to myself and nor technically to him as an adult. Still he wanted his family to share his working classness. He ended his career as a respected and radical educationalist and headmaster of the same school he attended as a ragged boy, and we lived in one of the afore-mentioned large merchant’s villas sandwiched between the new grey-harled council scheme and the crumbling substandard fishermen’s houses on the harbour.
If finance and professional status is the only definition of class then he was indeed the ‘working class boy made good,’ when he shifted himself to the middle class via a teaching diploma and by default his offspring. His attitude and those he taught all that he influenced, remained resolutely empathetic with the trials of the working class and the view that each individual retained the agency over their own life to make it the one they wanted it to be. He railed against unfairness, the plight of the under-dog and the injustices perpetuated by the powerful Kirk and feudal Empire- driven hierarchy.
The mass battles that were to be fought in the isles were not union or wage-based but were about the very survival of small peripheral and financially poor communities in the face of their perceived expend ability at the hands of a distant state justifying ‘national interest’. Middle and upper class London ( there was no power in Edinburgh) wanted to develop nuclear power, uranium mining and nuclear dumping and the insignificant peasant fishing and farming communities were mere gnats of irritation in their grand plans.
40 years on from the ‘classless’ innocence of my island youth I can appreciate that the divisions of opportunity and class were always more subtle than I may have thought then. Returning from the city as a refugee of Tory policies in 1986 it was apparent then that everything was on the shift and the bubble that was old Island Orkney was straining and breaking too.
In the wake of a push to bigger scale operations and EU regulations it emerged that industrial zones were preferred where people worked separated from their living communities. Planners told us this was for the best. Where small carpenters or blacksmiths operated next door to homes, hotels, butchers and bakeries, the new thing was to separate work and living. The financially robust did not want their nice new bungalow sited beside a noisy joiner’s shop surrounded by white vans. It was cleaner, more efficient, made economic sense to have food parks, industrial zones and residential areas.
At the same time it removed work as a sensual part of the fabric of the people’s lives. No longer could you walk from end to end of our small street and hear the noise of electric saws, smell crabs being boiled, fresh bread baking, oatcakes or fudge wafting, see beef carcases dripping blood on the floor through the back door of the butcher or the hose swill the blood across the street into the town drains. The dislocation of everyday life from the means of production of our necessities in particular food, has bred a sanitised class that balk at the simple hands-on dirtiness of what is means to provide for life. Work has become a thing separate from life that you go somewhere else to do and others don’t see.
The butchering, crab killing and welder’s flashes are all safely hidden from view and consciousness and have become an unknown world to most. Our workless non-class who cannot even aspire to the level of working class might if presented in a rural context be shooting seals, deer and snaring rabbits to survive, only to be much frowned upon by the emergent environmental class who manage not to see too clearly the human deprivation on their doorstep which results from the supremacy of the protected mammal. Foreign poverty is much more sexy it would seem.
A confident middle class has burgeoned in Orkney since my return in 1986. It was starting back then as refugees from elsewhere in the UK flocked to buy up the quaint old fishermen’s and crofter’s houses dirt cheap (but not so cheap the ‘workers’ could), effusing gushingly over the qualities of the ‘real’ community they had discovered. These were economic migrants with substantial stashes of cash that could fund non-working lifestyles of leisure pursuits and marginal tea-room operations. The below tolerable houses are now tarted up and titillated with government grant schemes homogenising even the paint palette to a selected shade card of colour options…And so in stead of the plethora of hotch-potch life there is now supplanted all the best accoutrements of transition to total gentrification.
Slick glassy galleries packaging the indigenous past, a fringe of satellite craft shops and further galleries reselling ersatz versions of the former place ad infinitum is the façade that sells itself in the weather- acceptable few months technically termed summer, while high culture from elsewhere is dispensed into ‘Orkney the Venure’.
This new middle class is a self sufficient social enclave of its own in a way it never was in years past operating within its own sphere, regaling in the virtues of clotted cream and despairing in the waiting lists for swimming lessons. Even the museum has had to withdraw its politically incorrect stuffed birds from its windows in the face of bird politics, only to replace them with much less intriguing felt offerings and touristy gizmos.
It was never classless here, as at the age of five I knew the boy who came to school in jumble sale clothes had less money than me, but now you can see the evidence of class difference much more clearly. The rampant middle class are on the rise loudly proclaiming their success at assimilating themselves into these blighted but ‘picturesque’ and disintegrating working communities.
In my childhood the differential was smaller, now it is vast, and the great working unwashed that spray slurry, stink of bait and know humans kill animals because we are top of the food chain, are in danger of extinction in their own environments for spoiling the sanitised green kailyards of the nouveaux gentile. This new middle class insist on the comforts of city supermarkets, knows their rights and vociferously insists on them. They stack themselves onto committees and into the better paid professional jobs, while as a region we remain staunchly among the lowest ranking wage economies in the UK.
Is middle classness a combination of finance, attitude and dislocation from your own roots with the unexamined assumptions that applications of your cultural values apply universally without investigating first whether or not they are appropriate in an adopted context?
Where does that leave the product of a middle class upbringing searching for a lost working class heritage? Well ditch the guilt, you’re still far from a posh kid. Use the skills you have to illuminate that the inequalities in society are still about class, where humans lose touch with each other’s living and working situations and the seismic unfairness there now is in access to opportunity.
The rich/poor divide is obscene and the middle class cannot be allowed to salve their social and financial consciences by psychological transference to distant causes and frilly single issues that ignore what is happening to the disenfranchised in their own backyard. The simple post war rules of class have changed and those most in need of a voice are even more disenfranchised than ever before.
In the years when the prevailing spin was that class was dead in Britain, the acquisitive individualist smoke and mirrors concealed the fact that this is very far from the truth. Organised middle and upper classness which never needed union meetings to consolidate its power is in ascendency while traditional organised working classness has evaporated along with the only mechanism it ever had to organise- work. Class is now something of a moveable feast split into many shards of definition akin to the fluidity of identity itself. And we are left with the simple truth that the poor are always with us, be they financially, aspirationally or educationally, that is unless we choose to change that.