exploring class and cultural capital – The Irish Times
Watching Paul McCartney headline at Glastonbury this summer reminded me that longevity is somehow seen as an important marker of cultural value. We value the timeless and perhaps that is where the problem lies, as working class culture has often been viewed as a disposable commodity. McCartney, the working class hero, offers proof that this is not necessarily the case.
Growing up in working-class Belfast in the 1970s and 1980s, diversion in the form of entertainment was a sort of coping strategy, a gateway to other lives, imagined and real, as they unfold in the pages of books or on television. screens. For my family, music offered respite from political violence. The Beatles (my father’s favorite band), Elvis and Adam Faith (my mother’s favorites), were the soundtrack of my childhood. If the radio wasn’t working, records spun on the turntable, first a Dansette record player and later a hi-fi recording system with its shiny, stacked plastic sections. Often the television was also on, in another room.
We never sit in silence, except perhaps at mealtimes. Then we would gather around the faux mahogany four-seater dining table, eating an array of my mother’s limited culinary repertoire: minced meat and onions, fried liver, boiled potatoes and canned carrots, and on Sundays, the silvery beef, which had as much taste and the same texture as the sole of an old wet slipper. Eating out was a luxury we couldn’t afford. The Skandia restaurant in Belfast city center was not for us. Food was fuel to be endured rather than enjoyed.
Besides the Beatles, my father’s other great passion was boxing. Muhammad Ali seemed as familiar to me as a close relative. When I asked why he changed his name from Cassius Clay, my father explained that he considered his old name to be a slave name. I knew about slavery by watching Roots. Ali felt like a poet in boxing shorts, dancing to the beat of his own brash, conceited banter. The working-class hero who danced around the ring from poverty to victory.
Cultural capital, a concept coined by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, refers to social assets in the form of education, access to books, language and all the attributes that facilitate movement in society. It is “familiarity with the legitimate culture within a society”, that is, what gives access to power and legitimacy.
Working-class people have long created their own cultural capital. Of course, it doesn’t give legitimacy, or guarantee access to social mobility, but what it does do is nurture that part of us that craves connection, diversion, fulfillment and creativity. The Catholic working-class aspirations that I have experienced seem to challenge Bourdieu’s theory that social inequalities reproduce themselves, primarily due to the unwillingness or inability of individuals in subordinate groups to acquire cultural capital.
Education and knowledge were seen as valuable in themselves, not just as a means to higher social status. Yet this level of education, often obtained through the rigorous process of academic selection at the tender age of 11, risked stigmatizing those who succeeded and those who did not. Those like me who benefited from a high school education had other choices that opened up in the form of a third-level education. It has not been without complications as one way of life is replaced by the new.
For Mick Nolan, writing in 32an anthology of Irish working-class writers, edited by Paul McVeigh, the new life of possibilities, realized through education, felt as “a fantasy world, where nothing exists but the landscape in pamphlet form, where the real life is played out elsewhere, beyond the facade,” making him nostalgic and nostalgic for the life he seemed to have outgrown.
My father grew up in the Catholic working-class enclave of the Markets and my mother grew up on the edge of the Markets. It was a hive of industry with various markets, a blacksmith, Inglis bakery, pubs and shops. There was always work and people worked hard but it was jobs that didn’t pay well and the housing conditions were bad. Life could have been bleak if it hadn’t been for the weekend dances at the Plaza or the Trocadero bar and nightclub. At Smithfield Market you can buy the latest records and buy used books.
I grew up on the lower road of Ormeau, which isn’t a million miles away, but it felt like a place of its own. By the time I was 12 we had moved further up the Ormeau road (always preceded by ‘the’, something to do with the fact that it was built in 1815 to replace the new Ballynafeigh road ; one route replacing the other with the use of ‘the’ denoting its novelty). Our new home felt like a middle-class utopia. Semi-detached houses with driveways, garages and gardens, formed in a cul-de-sac, provided an alternative landscape to red-brick terraces with concrete driveways and bits of wasteland for playing.
Life seemed to take on an expansive character: we rubbed shoulders with children from the petty bourgeoisie, some of whom were Protestant, and had access to their cultural references. Reading books was part of the course, something to share and discuss, not a secret, solitary hobby. It was the eighties Monty PythonMTV, Jaws. Life seemed to open up.
Traveling, another popular cultural activity, took the form of a week’s holiday in a rented cottage in Donegal. But aunts and uncles were heading further afield to campsites in Spain, returning with stories of having to pay for bottled water, intense heat and the memory of an amber glass porrón, a pitcher of wine in traditional glass, with its woven chain decoration, seemingly both exotic and decadent.
Reading by Louise Kennedy Offenses brought back memories of the cultural capital trade. In the novel, when the protagonist Cushla falls in love with the elder, married, Protestant Michael Agnew, she rides her bourgeois world of suppers in the Aga’s warming drawer, bone-handled knives and forks, napkins in linen and political conversations considered while drinking. a good bottle of wine. Cushla has her own capital to trade in the form of her ability to speak Irish. She is recruited to help Michael’s friends, who “played at being Irish”, learn to speak the language during their fortnightly get-togethers.
Working-class people have a history of challenging notions that culture belongs to the bourgeoisie. Two of the best novels to come out of Northern Ireland, namely Dairy by Anna Burns and Offenses by Louise Kennedy, show what it is like to bridge class, sectarian and cultural divides. The next works of Michael Magee (formerly Nolan), Close to the house, has been described as a “gripping self-fictional exploration of masculinity, class and trauma”. It seems that class is intrinsic to how we live and see the world, but it also determines how the rest of society perceives us. I may have left the terraced houses of lower Ormeau Road and acquired my own cultural capital, but I still feel deeply working class.
Sharon Dempsey’s latest novel is The Midnight Killing (Avon)
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