Class encounters of the third kind

As an ageing third-year, I want to recount for you two of my earliest memories from Oxford. The first was from the night of my Fresher’s Ball, and as we all waited in a tuxedo huddle, looking as if we had escaped a Jazz Band from the ‘50s, I overheard twoof my peers talking in conventionally-Oxford accents. One explained to the other about their disgust for Lynx products, saying that they smelt “cheap” and “common”, whilst the other agreed enthusiastically. The second recollection was from my matriculation day where similarly I was part of a mass of waiting black and white, suited figures in my college’s Front Quad. 

Once again, I overheard someone recounting in a conventionally-Oxford accent how they had called up their father to ask for more money because they had spent so much on going out in their first week that they barely had enough left to survive the term. I somehow doubt any of these people remember these experiences and I hardly expect them to. But you can imagine how jarring these experiences were for someone who had been raised on Tesco-own brand products and had worked in a McDonald’s during Sixth Form just to afford the necessities when coming to Oxford. 

I reflect on these experiences having recently seen that last year, just 30% of pupils at my alma mater, Springfield Secondary School, achieved a grade 5 in both English and Maths. This compares to a national average of 45%, whilst in the local authority the average is just 31%. No doubt the reasons for these statistics are incredibly complex, but they portray just how deep educational inequalities run, and in turn how firmly established class barriers are at such a young age. 

Before I came to Oxford, I would have called myself fairly privileged in my upbringing. I had a lot of stability and comfort at home, and may only have remarked on how I didn’t always get all the toys and Christmas presents that I wanted. But my parents gave me so much and I was and still am immensely grateful to them. I recognised that there were many, not just in Portsmouth, who didn’t have the luxury of only ever living in one home with a mortgage and a car parked outside. 

Oxford made me reassess many things about my own class identity, which has taken a while to come to terms with. Indeed, I have been meaning to write this article, or something similar to it, for most of my time here. Since coming to Oxford, I have been consistently made aware of my own class background and the relative lack of privilege which I experienced before coming here. I have found so many aspects of Oxford life jarring and difficult to be comfortable with, and not just the experiences I detailed above. 

Oxford made me reassess many things about my own class identity

Truly, I have never been entirely comfortable with formals and the experience of being waited upon by someone from probably a remarkably similar background to me. In fact, I often tell myself that if I had grown up in this city I would probably be in their position serving Oxford students instead of punters at my local McDonald’s. Practically anything involving formalwear has always been awkward for me, as evidenced by constantly having to explain to people at home that I have to wear a tuxedo and gown for exams. This isn’t just from the fact of inexperience wearing suits, but also stems from the fact that, unlike some of my contemporaries, my formalwear was not tailored or bought as a full piece, but is a Frankenstein-like creation of parts from either Tesco or various charity shops. 

The privilege which I have felt here has often been sharply contrasted by the humbling experience of returning home every vac break. I transition from my desk and swivel chair here to doing my vac work on a laptop sitting on my bed at home. From the sandstone dreaming spires here, to the high-rise Brutalism of inner-city Portsmouth. Oxford accents here to the local Pompey dialect there. Etc, etc…

Benjamin Disraeli spoke of the two-nations which sharply divided those living in Victorian society. People were so heavily divided by their class background or their religious backgrounds that one group could never claim to understand the experience of the other. Whilst we can add many more identities to those criteria, including gender and race, it is fascinating to think that 143 years on from his time, the experiences of different groups in this country still remain so alien as to make one assume that they live in a completely different world to their “others”.

I feel that I live in two completely opposing worlds which reflect opposing sides of the class divide in modern Britain. I experience the gross privilege and consumption of one side, and the harsh destitution and despair of the other. And in both there is a complete separation and ignorance of how the other side lives. 

Over the Christmas break, I was in a pub in Southsea, Portsmouth and bumped into someone I used to go to school with. He has been in my drama class and I had always thought he was a really cheerful person. One of the first things he asked me was if I had seen Saltburn and if I thought it was realistic or not. And then he asked me how it is that I got into Oxford, before saying to himself he really didn’t know how I could’ve got in. I told him I didn’t know either.

Image Credit: Oxford City Birdseye by SirMetal, public domain, cropped from original.

Image Description: Aerial photo of the city of Oxford.