The British Class System : My Part in its Downfall

Tim

Not actual photo of The Escape Artist

The Escape Artist grew up in rural England (East Anglia) in the 1970s in a village where the British class system was alive and well.

The social structure of the village hadn’t really changed since The Domesday book of 1086. At the top of the village hierarchy, there was the landowning family who lived in their country mansion set in parkland.  The family had lived there since their Norman ancestors crossed the English Channel in the 11th century looking for opportunities for rape and pillage.

There were no shops but there was a Church. There was one pub with a saloon bar (for the middle class) and a public bar (for the working class). The class lines were clear and well-defined. Everyone would have naturally categorised themselves into working class, middle class or upper class.

The Escape Artist was born into a middle class family.  But the village was so small that everyone knew everyone. This had the effect of throwing the children together with others from different classes.

So, even though The Escape Artist was a commoner and a bit of an oik, I spent enough time with the upper class family to admire their oil paintings, horses, Landrovers and their mansion set in rolling parkland.

At the same time, my best friend in the village was a boy from a working class family. His Dad was not around much…it was hard for him to spend time with his children…what with him being in prison.  And no, I don’t mean he was a lawyer or investment banker working long hours in a metaphorical Prison Camp. He was in an actual prison, having unsuccessfully tried to rob a post office.

Even as a child, The Escape Artist could see some paradoxes in the class system. I knew that the rich had more than the poor (genius!)…but I also noticed that when it came to Christmas presents, the poorest family spent the most on toys for the children.

As a 9 year old, The Escape Artist was not very zen and coveted a ridiculously expensive toy called Tin Can Alley (an electronic gun with a laser beam) in much the same way that Gollum covets The Precious in Lord of the Rings. Yet it was my working class friend that got the toy for Christmas, not me. I know, boo-hoo. 😉

There were other differences as well. The Escape Artist may not have been the poshest tool in the box but I could see that being rich had some advantages over the alternatives.

My highly mortgaged parents would come home from work with tales of stress, deadlines and demanding bosses / clients / colleagues. And when interest rates went to 17% in 1981, holidays and newspapers got cancelled. Boo-hoo again.

The Escape Artist compared and contrasted this with the landowners who seemed to answer to no one (no boss, no mortgage lender), didn’t seem to have any money worries and had multiple streams of passive income gushing into their bank account.

The effect of all this was that, whilst I could definitely see the advantage of being rich, I could also see there might be more to it than just having more money to spend on plastic tat from Hong Kong.

And I grew up being able to switch between working class and middle class and upper class environments….if not smoothly (nothing in my youth merits that description) then effectively enough.  And without tying my own identity too strongly to any of those class labels.

This flexibility helped me over the years.  At my state comprehensive The Escape Artist managed to keep a low enough profile and play enough rugby to avoid getting beaten up by the local yobs.

Things improved when I went to a sixth form college in Cambridge which included rowing, mysteriously posh girls and enough alcohol to make geography field trips interesting. University was more rowing plus frugality training (living in student squalour with Yorkshire lads that wouldn’t put on the central heating unless someone had died of hypothermia).

When The Escape Artist first moved to London, he resisted the temptation to announce his arrival into high society with a move to a swanky part of town. Instead The Escape Artist rented a shared flat in Bethnal Green (pronounced: Befnal Green) near where the Kray twins murdered one of their victims.  In the same way that Fulham had blue placques everywhere (Jane Austen lived here etc etc) Bethnal Green had yellow metal police signs that said things like “Fatal Stabbing: Did You See Anything??”

Living in the East End offered several benefits. 1) I could walk to work in the City 2) cheap rent* 3) funky but edgy urban bohemia and 4) enough cues of poverty to encourage gratitude and discourage lifestyle inflation.

I’m guessing that many people think the City is a bastion of class privilege…but this view is outdated. Working in the City back in the day, I saw the class system breaking down as traditional British merchant banks got sold to foreigners and the new investment banks started to import European / American / Asian talent. As a result, Nice But Dim posh English people (that 20 years before would have got a job at a stockbroker) now ended up as financial PR consultants or estate agents.

Training as an accountant, I was surrounded by middle class people. I then went to work in corporate finance where I met working-class-made-good millionaires and posh people that were broke.   The message I took from this was that you could be rich and from any class….and you could be poor and from any class.

This may seem obvious to a sensible person like you but its ignored by the mainstream media, where tired class-based clichés are recycled continuously. Working class families are all described as “Hard-Pressed” (rrrright….have you ever been to Florida or Benidorm?).  The middle class is labelled “The Squeezed Middle” (errrr…Waitrose and Boden seem to be doing OK).  And we suspend disbelief and play along with the idea that Paris Hilton and other trustfunders, toffs and celebrities must be happy despite their obviously self-destructive behaviours (yay! Rehab!).  It’s all bullshit.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been skint and I’ve been rich….and I prefer rich.  But the evidence (and my personal experience) suggests that spending does not bring happiness once you get over median earnings.

The beauty of being rich is not that you can add more shit into your life. No, the beauty is that you can remove shit from your life: pointless meetings, forced commuting, neckties and other such things. Happiness comes naturally when you remove the things that make you unhappy.

One reason I don’t watch The News is that the coverage of politics is ridiculous.  I can see that if you’re a TV producer, its tempting to pander to class stereotypes and frame the debate as a left vs right, rich vs poor Punch & Judy show.  Let’s find a Toff and a Leftie and have them shout at each other!!! Like I said, its all bullshit.

The implicit message that we receive from politics, The News and the wider media is that We The People are not in charge of our own destiny.  We are told that government knows best or big corporations know best.  And when those institutions are revealed to be less than perfect (surprise!) people then complain like bratty toddlers…but do nothing to help themselves. This is learned helplessness.

But you are in charge of your own life! You shouldn’t be deferring meekly to anyone…because the class system has gone.  Are there still bits left? Of course. We still have a hereditary monarchy. We still have a slightly embarrassing second chamber (The House of Lords) that is not elected.  Britain still hosts some quaint social events like Henley Regatta and Glyndebourne.  But, in the important aspects of life, Britain is vastly more meritocratic than it was in the 1970s.

Unfortunately no all-staff memo was sent out confirming that the class system was being quietly dismantled. So these gradual changes have left many people a bit confused.

The class system has left behind a set of outdated limiting beliefs which hold back individuals in ways they are often unaware of.  These blind spots can get passed on to you from parents / teachers / friends in your money blueprint. So people that grow up without any role models that aimed high, may never aim high themselves.

The hangover from the class system also holds back British politics. The best book on this is Bring Home The Revolution which makes the case for updating British politics and the constitution away from their class roots and into the modern world.

Whilst all the main parties trace their history back to a class base, the Lib Dems and Conservatives have broadened out in recent years.  The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn? Not so much.  They seem unable to organise an opposition party in a brewery.  Perhaps the American Democratic Party could do us all a favour and open a UK branch?

But effort spent complaining about politicians is a distraction from improving our own situation. So let’s focus on what we can control: our own thoughts and actions.

You need a mixture of class traits.  You need a blue collar work ethic, middle class manners and upper class self-belief.  The trick is knowing when to deploy these at different times in life.

When you’re just getting started in your career, an aristocratic sense of entitlement is a disaster. Better to start with middle class diligence.  But later on, you need to cultivate your inner aristocrat.

A nice middle class boy like The Escape Artist had to abandon some conditioning to free himself from The Prison Camp. When I quit, I had to accept the idea of living off wealth generated from capital rather than from my own labour each day. Personally, I didn’t have a problem with this…but I know from my coaching that some struggle with this mental adjustment, at least at first.

Pursuing financial independence boils down to selecting the right class mentality for each element. So you combine earning like a middle class person whilst spending like a working class person and investing like an upper class person…either in shares (think Warren Buffett) or property (think The Duke of Westminster).

Its about being able to flex your thinking to your circumstances. For example in my attitude to exercise, I try to cultivate a blue collar work ethic whereby hard physical work is not something distasteful, its an everyday reality.

Ultimately, financial independence is about optimising for happiness.  And happiness = reality – expectations. So I try to manage my expectations whilst improving my reality.

To avoid hedonic adaptation, I cultivate proletarian surprise when things get posh. For example, I got taken to a fancy London restaurant recently.  In these circumstances, I try not to think:

Hhhhhm, this finery is only to be expected for someone of my high and noble birth.  Truly I am entitled to such splendour in my surroundings because I am a Prince of great wealth, taste and distinction

Instead I think:

Blimey…this place is posh!  Seems like only yesterday I was eating re-heated Pot Noodle in my scummy student flat…and now I’m surrounded by unfathomable luxury and able to afford even the finest lager that money can buy!

You may say low expectations. I say gratitude. 🙂

Further study materials:

*sadly, no longer

5 comments

  1. glenelg14 · · Reply

    Good advice, I have for many years consciously chosen to be as classless as I can often recalling lines from Rudyard Kipling’s IF, walk with kings but not loose the common touch etc etc

  2. Love reading your articles. Just the fact you lived in Bethnal Green makes reading this article all the more relevant. someone who probably experienced many of the same things I did working in the City and living in East London. Still working on my escape but with your insights hopefully it will be sooner than tradition dictates.

  3. Bang on. Took me soooo long to realize the value of being a social chameleon rather than feeling like an imposter in ‘all three’ worlds. As Beyonce once said, ‘Who needs a degree when you’re schoolin’ life.’ Although my degree was kind of handy…

  4. FrugalFox · · Reply

    You are absolutely right about where you grow up making you a chameleon adapting to the people around you. I grew up in a decidedly rough East Anglian town often on “school token” because my dad was out of work.
    The other day I found myself on a work trip to Germany with people debating whether they should hire a Ferrari or a Porsche to drive to the factory we were visiting. I played it safe by telling them to get the one they usually don’t hire. Back in England later I got back in my ’09 Astra and drove home 🙂

  5. I think many middle class people feel that they have a foot in both camps when it comes to class, and that we can rub shoulders with the rich and the poor. Well, as Jarvis Cocker said, we’ll never live like common people and we’ll never live like the aristocracy either. We can happily visit both lifestyles for a quick sample, but most of us won’t really understand what it’s like to be stuck in the lower or higher level. But I know which level I’d rather be stuck in, and it’s certainly not where I’m worrying if I lose my job if I’ll be able to feed my family.

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