Firstly by Douglas Bruton

I am not sure where it is I belong or even what this class thing really means…

Firstly, (and there will only be a ‘firstly’ for reasons that will become clear) I find it hard to know which class I belong to. My parents were brought up in the poorest part of Edinburgh and they were not educated – my father was bright enough but his poverty held him back… he had three jobs by the time he was fourteen and there was no money for school and no time… he joined the army when he was twenty as an escape from poverty and as an escape into some sort of education.

My mother kept a house that was clean as a new pin and my brother and I were always turned out smart – she’d have been mortified if we weren’t. Debt was never countenanced and we never bought anything we did not have the money for.

Education was held up as the golden ticket into a good future. Everything was sacrificed to my education – including my place in the family.

When my father was posted to Germany at the end of the 1960s I was forced to attend a forces subsidised boarding school for two years. Then after this I stayed with my uncle in Edinburgh so I could finish my education all in the one place – my uncle was a refuse collector (we called them bin men in the 1970s). I wore second hand clothes at high school; my school bag was a rescued miner’s haversack that had seen better days; I washed and ironed my own shirts, and cooked (if frying potatoes can be called cooking), and I slept in an unmade bed that held my shape like a nest. There was no money in my pockets and no money in the house I lived in. I did not really feel I belonged there.

Then a teacher and her husband adopted me in 1974 and seeing the potential in me they steered me successfully into university.

They were middle class – he played the Bassoon in the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and she was a graduate form Oberlin college in America.

I did not feel I belonged in their house and I did not feel I belonged at university either.

I did not think I was clever enough or from the right background – mostly because my background by then was quite blurry.

Now I own my own house and I have been a teacher for all my working life and I have two degrees and I am as far away from the boy I was growing up as I could ever have imagined – as far away from that wee boy as my father could ever have imagined for me. I am broadly socialist in my thinking and work hard for those who need a leg up in life.

But I cannot be said to be working class in any conventional definition of what that means. Indeed, whenever I think of class I have a crisis of confidence…

the same crisis of confidence I had as a kid living with my uncle and four male cousins and again as a fish out of water at university –

because I am not sure where it is I belong or even what this class thing really means… does it have any meaning or relevance in today’s society?

Is it to do with money or education or what school you went to or who your parents were or who you vote for in an election or the sound of your voice or what you eat or drink or manners or cleanliness or life expectancy or culture or what?

Seems to me that nothing is as fixed as it was and everything is in transition.

So, you see, I am stuck on that ‘firstly’ of my opening paragraph and not knowing if I am being a fraud to say I come from the working class. It is not a quiet shame that holds me back from taking ownership of the right class; it is a genuine misgiving about whether this division by class is in any way real in our modern multicultural society.

The impact of my origins on my writing: There were no books in my house (except a copy of a biography of Scott of the Antarctic, which my father kept on the top shelf of his wardrobe, a prize he won at school and never shared with me). My parents were not into books and any contact with reading that I had was through school. The quality of that experience will always be dependent on the teachers you have. I had a great Primary school teacher in Miss Keeble and she read lots to us and I fell briefly in love with books: ‘Stig of the Dump’, ‘The Borrowers’, ‘The Family From One End Street’ and ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ – a wonderful year. Then later at high school when I wasn’t reading again another brilliant teacher said I should read Lawrence’s ‘Sons and Lovers’; I did and that led to me doing a degree in English Literature and Philosophy. Somehow I knew that I wanted to be of the world of literature, even in Miss Keeble’s class, but I always thought that was as a reader… until one day I got a computer and wrote a whole novel in snatched time over six months and there were moments when it was nearly as good as sex; I was thirty-one by this time.

I think I had to get an education in reading before I found I could write, as though I was catching up on what was not part of my background growing up.

I write about people and I hope I write with a universal compassion and maybe that is somehow tied up with not being rooted to one place or one people but being of all people.

Author: Carmen Marcus

As the daughter of a Yorkshire Fisherman and Irish Mother, my writing brings together the visceral and the magical. My debut novel #How Saints Die was published with Harvill Secker in 2017. It won New Writing North's Northern Promise Award as a work in progress and was longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize in 2018. My poetry has been commissioned by BBC Radio, The Royal Festival Hall and Durham Book Festival. As a child of an 80s council estate I am an advocate for working class writers and stories. I’m currently working on my first poetry collection The Book of Godless Verse and my next novel. I try to live up to the words of my first critic and primary school teacher ‘weird minus one house point.’

One thought on “Firstly by Douglas Bruton”

  1. This is a great story and is like so many I read about working class writers. However, I do question (respectfully) anyone who sees themselves as working class who went from school to university and then had a career from then on. My own transition from working class to pseudo-middle class didn’t start until I was 40 years old and after I had spent my life doing unskilled jobs and later on working as a carpenter. I’m 60 now but most of my life I’ve been working class and I don’t think I’ll ever feel like I’m anything else, regardless of income or occupation. My roots are in my blood. I’ve been moulded by my childhood but also by my adult life. I’m flawed in the way that some working class people are. I have little confidence in my ability, have a little bit of a chip on my shoulder and assume anyone who speaks posher than me is not like me. I very much enjoyed reading your words and I can see why you ask yourself the question. Best wishes. Steve

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