Look back in langour

Hi All – my old friend asked a few of the gang to chip in on his commendable blog, and though we’re risking a tower of Babel with a lot of differing views a couple of us have taken it up. A little background – I’m a scientist from a large English market town, which is to say hell. I wasn’t always a scientist, and I no longer live in hell, though I’m assured by many in my adopted country that hell is to be my final port of call. I was asked to give some perspective on things that can only be seen in detail from far away. If your eyeball is touching the ceiling, you’re probably not going to enjoy the Sistine Chapel. Turns out that achieving sufficient separation to get the space station view is more difficult than I thought, with each and every experience different for given observers. So I thought I’d loosely define this observer then take you where he’s been without drawing any conclusions, we’re all capable of that or we wouldn’t be bothered reading anything other than tabloids. I’d like to do this in three short snapshots – The beginning, the middle, and how I think it might end. And here’s the beginning.

It’s not in the blood, it’s in the mind.

It was at Ben’s house that I first learned I was subhuman. I was maybe seven years old. Ben and I had been friends for maybe a seventh of our lives, My people were always awkward when other kids played at my house but I thought that was just a space invasion thing. Many old school working class people were not big on having “strangers” (i.e. non family) in the house. What other reason for the hostility could there be?

It was at my friend’s house that I first felt condescension, and it felt bad. I can’t quite define how, but I knew they were better than me. It knotted up my stomach. Not that such a puckered up, tight assed bunch such as that family could ever have taken me for a ride. I was too smart. They talked in ciphers they thought above me . I grinned, took the patronizing “It’s probably time you went home now, your parents will be worried” as if it were a caring phrase and not the dismissal I knew it to be. I imagined them disinfecting him after I left.

I understood from that single phrase that they felt their son should have better friends, that I was an unfortunate toward whom they’d probably have felt charitable had I not been within touching distance of their life. But I was, and long before there was an unfriend button they pushed it. My it stung, and I never forgot it. It became pretty clear that Ben was told to stay away from me, that I was bad news.

This is the English class system in full effect. This is an often misunderstood mechanism of castes. There are millions of ‘untouchable’ sink estate kids, mostly white but speaking in Jamaican patois even though they’ve never been south of Mansfield. That’s cool, they’ve been betrayed by their parents, are disenfranchised at the lack of opportunity offered to them and believe they have nothing to lose. And then there are hundreds of thousands of old Etonians. These, the children of massive privilege, don’t rankle me either. The ones I’ve met have been truly grateful at their luck and realize but for accidents of birth it could all be very different. It’s those millions in the middle who possess that meso lack of grace. In my experience it’s this huge class of also-rans who drop the hammer at any given opportunity. These are the people who want to live in Chipping Norton and discuss “motor-sport” With Jeremy Clarkson.

How beastly is the bourgeois indeed.

This isn’t some chip-on-shoulder politics of envy thing. I was raised with the idea that it’s OK to make money, and if you can, to give as little away as possible in the way of taxes and look after number one – a born O.G. Conservative if you like. Raised by my grandparents, I’ll never forget the old man telling me about being smuggled out of France seven weeks after Dunkirk and being sent to the East End docks to load munitions. The dockers were striking for danger money, which the boys with their entrails frothing pink in the surf wouldn’t be getting. The returning soldiers broke the strike and he never paid a union due again.

All this to say, I couldn’t be more English. The nuances which come as accessories to the nationality have to be learned, and learned fast if you’re going to do anything. My expectations were painter and decorator at best. The poverty of ambition had to be experienced to be believed. Most of my family were staunch, sincere socialists (which didn’t stop them stealing enough building materials to add new wings to their newly acquired ex council houses) and growing up I kept my opinions and increasing political disaffection and apparent apathy to myself. Brand articulated part of what I felt quite well when he eviscerated the idiot Paxman a while ago.

A wonderful primary school teacher named Mr. Brooks at Gladstone lower school saw something in me that no one else did. I think that’s a talent of itself. That man helped shape my life. He showed me that things were out there for those who wanted to do them, demonstrated to me that I was smart enough to do most of those things and best of all, took me out of class to let me play with batteries and circuit diagrams all day. My first day at middle school put me in the class of a wonderful young woman who’s name escapes me, and I should be ashamed at this. The beautiful educator brought me books from her home library and let me read them in lessons. These deviant curricula again taught me so much that I shouldn’t have known at that age. Between these two marvelous teachers I got to read Animal Farm and Of Mice and Men years before these works were supposed to be accessible. In fact, my entire education passed without reference to Orwell, Steinbeck, Camus or Peter Benchley after that.

So I got more from two years of education between ages 9-11 than I gained until I entered the tertiary system aged 26. This was about the time I began to feel deeply disenfranchised, and I put everything I had in the middle and gambled. Colleagues at work would ask me “why are you doing your A levels now?” – a question which would never be asked in my adopted country. The derision and tacit hopes for flat failure were plain to see. There was no encouragement from anyone, anywhere, barring my far off parents, who I’m sure failed to see how I was going to get a chemistry degree after failing every ‘O’ Level I’d taken. I’m sure my marks would have been better in high school had I not set fire to the papers, or written “I love you” in answer to each question, even the essays.

I got to the party too late for a “free at the point of use” education but i did the research, found that chemistry grads had the best opportunities, I got that A level after two years of slogging up and down to Booth Lane college rain or shine after work. I enrolled at a new university on a chemistry HND program. worked my arse off and transferred to the second year of the four year degree program. Still, on going home I heard the laughter behind me, loudest from my family who felt that painter and decorator should have been my mark all along.

Still the smirking continued as I cleaned toilets, washed up at hospitals, emptied dog shit bins in the city parks and a host of other nefarious jobs in order to pay the rent and avoid the worst excesses of debt. Nuclear physics 2.2 at 3pm, cleaning Leicester City Council offices at 5. But things were changing. Some of the people I was working beside had the same kind of drive. They wanted something better, for themselves, for their children.

And we worked.

The day the final results were posted ranks up with the best of my life. I’d expected to scrape something, and began making deals with a god I didn’t believe in on my way up the stairs in the Victorian building housing the science faculty. There are no atheists in fox holes or at final exam notice boards. Careful not to bump in to anyone with my landscape gardening clothes muddy and wet I negotiated the crowds of people, hustling around the notice board like sailors trying to get a drink on their first landfall in a year. Eyes all over, scanning for your name.

2:i, BSc (hons) Chemistry

I had bought my ticket. Now it was down to the lottery,

After a happy (though though less than financially rewarding) couple of years in my first real job I learned to allow my energy free reign while withholding many of the negatives which usually accompany that kind of scattershot vim. This was noted by people I didn’t know were noting things, and I managed to gain a reputation as a prolific, if easily distracted,, researcher.

My career progressed as a spectroscopist (my particular specialty in physical chemistry) and once a reputation begins to snowball it’s difficult to stop. So when I found myself homeless and unemployed due to a failed gamble on a job in Italy all the old fears returned. The voices.

You really thought this would work?

You’re trying to be something you’re not.

You’ve been sussed.

You’re just another punter

But that’s not the truth. The truth is that sometimes you really do have to stoop down and rebuild your life’s work with worn out tools. I lived on a friend’s sofa for 3 months, chasing down job after job after job, No dice. But despite the disadvantages inherent in my position I had an ace in the hole, and it was a big one.