On top of the things James Brown said were great about “Living in America”, an additional one for me is the outsider’s perspective it gives on my own country. Interest in the UK is now fuelled by lockdown binges of Peaky Blinders on the one hand and Downton Abbey on the other. A confused American friend recently asked “So where do you come from on this British class thing?”
In his 1960s infamous and groundbreaking comedy sketch John Cleese ridiculed our class system. It feels like an awkward subject today as it did then. Many of us just wish class had retreated along with black and white TV, outside loos and coal sheds. So I reformulated the question in my head to the less awkward “which type of community did you grow up in?” After that pontification, my answer was : “poor, urban and multicultural”
I wrote about the poverty bit before, We were so far at the bottom of the ladder, we didn’t even make it onto the Cleese class sketch. I spent my formative years in inner city South Birmingham and North London. Without any fuss, we grew up with a diversity which was as influential as class in shaping our identity . Many of our school mates were only second or third generation British. Their grandparents had arrived in the migration waves that followed the second world war, forged ties across communities and faced down the duel struggle of poverty and racism.
There were rites of passage for all teenagers . First kiss, first football game…and in those days first smoke. But poor, urban kids like us had specific obsessions: Music, fashion and navigating trouble.
You could hear all types of music in our neighborhood, but Reggae was the main soundtrack and everyone wanted to be a DJ. In those days this was usually through a “sound system” with wobbly speakers piled on top of each other, booming out fresh imports from Kingston at neighbourhood parties. The average age of first buying a vinyl record would have been around 11 or 12.
Reggae and punk had been the most subversive music of the previous teenage generation . Back then, punk bands had no DJs to spin tunes between performances, so they hired reggae sound systems. The Punk and Rasta collaboration that followed was celebrated in Punky Reggae Party by Bob Marley and inspired a uniquely British, urban sound. It can be traced from the The Specials and the Beat and through to UK streetsoul collectives like Soul II Soul and Massive Attack and on to Amy Winehouse and even Stormzy. We loved Jamaican Reggae and US R& B, but we also had a sound that came from our own communities and reflected our experiences. It was political, but not ideological. It reflected our anxiety about violence and unemployment. The teenage toaster of the Beat, Ranking Roger sang of “Love and Unity”. Community and shared struggles above hatred and racism.
Despite our poverty, we were also irrationally obsessed with style. The precise geometry of where a trouser hem ended and a shoe began and the colour of the socks in between. The nurturing care of a pair of Brogues, High Tops or Nikes. The shame of being turned out in something below par. We were not peacockish. You just had to hit a certain standard and then you could go about your regular business.
The diversity affected the way we held ourselves and spoke. It was completely normal for someone of say Irish or Indian heritage to curse with a Yiddish word in a Jamaican patois accent….or the other way around. . We were poor, but our style and music was our source of dignity.
There was also a whole heap of trouble. It was not like The Wire. There were less crack dens and guns. Communities like ours could be vibrant and aspirational-with the music, Asian food, Irish pubs. But just beneath the surface, it seemed like an assault course of gangs, violence and drugs too. Joining a gang and dealing drugs were easy-access compared to healthier options. Poor kids like us did not go to university. Those with strong, united families tended to navigate better than those from broken or dysfunctional homes. For many , our futures hung by a thread. I was a proper tearaway, kicked out of multiple schools and in trouble with the law. I was eventually rescued by the influence and care of a wonderful teacher
It was a blessing to grow up with so much diversity. As Ezra Klein wrote in “Why We Are Polarised”: research shows how super-diversity with multiple identities and influences sets you up well for co-existence. Difference only becomes divisive and polarising when there are just two sides facing off across a single fault line. This is worse when bad politicians amplify identity above ideas and hate above hope. That type of politician is not faring so well in this pandemic. When difference is cut across multiple lines, it is a strength.
Covid 19 exposes the inequities of class and race, but it also shows how much we yearn for community, not tribe. As New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote”Community is based on mutual affection and tribalism on mutual hatred”. In this pandemic we are now united by our shared vulnerability and dependence on the same public systems and low pay delivery workers. Even our conservative Prime Minister acknowledged that our National Health Service is powered by love. Its workforce is radically diverse and disproportionately hails from similar streets to the ones I described above. Thats where I come from in the “British Class thing” . Here’s to Love and Unity.