It’s struck me over the past few days about how we view ‘other work’ in order to survive. Somebody private messaged me off a tweet that I’d put out about the reality of working-class life, to say that they were currently working in a supermarket but they’d be too embarrassed to put that out on social media as they are considered a success in our industry. They weren’t ashamed to be working, they just couldn’t deal with people’s reaction to the fact that they were working.
We know that our industry is dominated by the middle classes. We also sort of understand why – classes are a luxury and whilst they enhance a child’s life, they are not as essential as food and water. Therefore in many families, they don’t get privileged.
I remember a family member of mine telling their parent in front of me that they wanted to work on stage, and they were shot down in the flames of Welsh reality. “Our sort of people don’t live that sort of life, get real, and get a proper job. Stop living with your head in the clouds”. That desire was crushed and dismissed as quickly as the sentence was over. The family member went on to have a secure career – who’s to say if they’re actually happy or not, or whether they secretly still wish that they’d given their dream a chance. In our family, it just wasn’t an option. I was the lucky one – my mum believed that we only had one life so we should go for broke from the off.
For months now I’ve read how people have been struggling, how people have been petitioning to get more help from the government as, after all, they SHOULD be supporting the arts and our freelancers. Today the hospitality businesses are shouting the same. Where is the help? Indeed at the moment where are ANY jobs to be found. With even the reliable bar work suddenly disappearing under our COVID noses.
Here’s the difference though – some people have never expected this to be easy. They’ve always been grafting away at various jobs in order to make ends meet. They’ve done that because they’ve been brought up to understand that that is how you survive in this world. They’ve understood that nothing in life is free. You put your head down and get on with it. Eventually, things might change, but for now, to survive you have to live in the moment.
I’m proudly from a working-class background. The bank of mum and dad saved hard and made massive sacrifices to allow me to follow my ‘dreams’. Our holidays were spent for the most part growing up in some random caravan about 30 minutes from where we lived so that my dad could come down after work to join us. As life got a bit easier we upgraded to Butlins where my dad couldn’t join us but there was more for the children to do (for free). Other than those holidays I can’t remember a time where as children we went to restaurants. It was only when my father was made redundant did my parents suddenly have a bit more cash to go out and about. Sadly also by this time, my mum was gradually getting ill, so those well-earned outings didn’t last that long. I think that they managed about 3 foreign holidays in their lifetime. A tragedy when I think how much enjoyment they both had from them.
However, this upbringing has definitely contributed to my work ethic. You get nothing for nothing in this life. I’ve never signed on (when that was a thing) because I always had another skill to fall back on, which excluded me from getting a handout. I’ve cleaned houses, worked a bar, done so many desk jobs I’ve lost count, and my worse by far – cucumber packing. In other words, I was taught to do whatever I needed to do to survive. I knew that I had rent to pay and I knew that I wanted to eat – so those were my priority.
Now for the past 20 years or so, I’ve been really lucky, I haven’t had to do those jobs, but psychologically I’m always ready to go back to any of them (well . . . except the cucumber packing, I hated that the most). Even now that I’m a grown-up with children, I don’t manage to save. Don’t get me wrong we now (usually) manage a holiday once a year, but it literally takes us all year to pay for it.
My children are no doubt bored of me going on about not expecting to have everything in life. I worry that my grown-up middle-class world will ill prepare them for the realities of life. So I probably go on about it a bit too much.
We all think that we’re hard done by. I guess even more now with social media showing us everybody’s edited snapshot of life. I’m forever baffled by how many people eat out so regularly or manage to get in at least one holiday a year whilst also proclaiming that they’re skint. How the person one day online is proclaiming poverty then the next day they’re pictured with their Starbucks? Then I remember the student that once asked for financial support at a college where I was working, only to find out years later that their parents had a couple of properties. They considered themselves skint because they were shelling out for both properties. They didn’t think for one moment to sell off an asset in order to support the student. That’s probably why that family will always have money and my family won’t. I understand that my home is a luxury – let alone if I were in the position to have more than one property. Or what about the friend that told me that they were so skint they were going to go on holiday to feel better? They weren’t lying to me when they proclaimed themselves as skint, they thought that they were. They didn’t understand that skint meant no holiday.
Right now the people breathing sighs of relief overseas. They’ve earned that break and that cocktail because they’ve been living through the pandemic. They’re not being ironic, they believe it. Who am I to begrudge them a break? Then again that’s not the point of this blog – it’s to remind you that there are socio-economic groups far below you who also need a break, but they don’t have the luxury of a holiday (or even an M&S cocktail). How many times do we hear ‘oh but I didn’t pay for the holiday, it was gifted to me’ so it hasn’t cost me a penny? Of course, people say that to alleviate their own well-meaning guilt, but again the reality for the other classes is that they can’t afford the break from work. Even if they were offered an all-expenses holiday they couldn’t afford to lose the week’s wages to go.
As I look around the timelines and see people struggling I also see the survivors. The people that will work through the pandemic, doing whatever/whenever to stay afloat. Their priority is to keep the roof over their head and food on the table. I also see the faux survivors – drowning their woes with a Prosecco or two whilst Instagramming their designer plates. They will be OK regardless as their safety net is strong. There are people though with no safety net. They are the ones that we need to try and help.
Our industry needs a reality check. We’ve been shouting at audiences for not behaving the way that we want them to behave, yet now we haven’t got that audience at all, we’re clinging onto their bootlegs in the hope of recapturing a moment of glory. We had started to think that the audience should be grateful to us for performing for them, whereas all the time we needed them a lot more.
Every year at the college I bang on about the audience member who’s chosen to spend their hard-earned cash on coming to see our show. They had chosen us as their luxury item, therefore we owed it to them to give them everything we had (not mark it cos we were coming up to the end of the run and were slowly getting pissed off with the management). I give that chat as I’m from that family. That is my heritage.
Here’s the rub though – I’m from a privileged working-class family. A family that could save. From parents who were able to work in order to get us the things that we needed. There’s a whole other level out there of families living hand to mouth, relying on food banks to get by. How do we hear their voices in our industry, how do we support them?
We need to hear more reality stories and less edited lifestyle posts. Keeping it real online would eventually allow more people to live the dream offline.
So the pandemic continues . . .
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