I’ve always known I was working class, even before I had the words to articulate it. Aged three, I used to call my dinner “tea”. My father, a high court judge, hated it but I kept on doing it all the same. I’ve no idea how I just knew the word “tea” was working class for “dinner”. I guess it’s something that was just in me.
Back in the 1980s no one ever discussed working-class children who’d been falsely assigned middle-class status at birth. It was as though we didn’t exist. Because of this I’d retreat into a fantasy world where I’d been swapped at birth and Den and Angie off Eastenders were my real mum and dad. I couldn’t talk to my parents about this. My mother, a bus conductor’s daughter and the youngest of six children, was always telling me how lucky I was with my holidays abroad and ballet lessons. I don’t think she meant to hurt me; it was just her identified-poor-at-birth privilege that made her such an evil bitch. The children on the estate were even worse. They’d call me posh and make fun of my double-barrelled name. They wouldn’t let me play with them on the swings or smoke fags underneath the slide. I grew used to being excluded because of my class but it hurt.
There’s a word for people like me: überpoor (don’t worry if you’ve never heard of it; your ignorance just means you’re a privileged bigot). Basically, it describes the state of being poor while enduring the added oppression that comes with having money and a middle-class background. The queer poverty theorist J’amie Olivier came up with it in his brilliant work Whipping Chav. If you’ve not read it, please do. It explains so much about how poor people are not oppressed due to having no money but due to “poorphobia”: a widespread antipathy towards dog racing, Lambrini and the Waitrose Essentials range. Hardest hit by this are the überpoor: people who have been wrongly assigned middle- or upper-class status but are in fact poor. For centuries, such people have simply been invisible. No one has wanted to talk about us and our needs.
Thankfully, the release of Park Life in the mid-1990s came as something of a tipping point for überpoor people. Damon Albarn’s affected mockney accent finally proved to the world that yes, we did exist. To paraphrase Paris Lees on Conchita Wurst, Damon wasn’t middle-class or a millionaire pop star or any of these restrictive categories: he was just Damon, showing what it means to break through all the barriers! Obviously there was some opposition to such an image of liberation. Vile bigots such as Jarvis Cocker started releasing überpoorphobic anthems such as Common People, erasing our lived experience by claiming we merely thought “that poor is cool”. I always felt the NUS should have no-platformed Pulp due to that line about how we would “never understand how it means to live [our lives] with no meaning or control”. I never forgave them for letting the band play at the £400-a-head Cambridge May Ball I attended in 1996. The Bollinger leaves a bitter taste when there’s some northern-accent-privileged tosser up on a stage behind you suggesting that you don’t even know your own class identity. Seriously, just listen to Different Class (content warning: überpoorphobia); it’s as though people like Cocker want poor people to be oppressed.
I’ve since worked hard to live my life as an überpoor person in a society in which our needs are often overlooked. One of the worst things is being continually mis-classed. For instance, last week my cleaner accidentally called me “madam” rather than “you slaaaag!”. I felt so erased I had to sack her there and then, single mother or not.
The credit crunch and age of austerity have triggered something of a backlash. I’ve tried signing on but each time I am asked to provide documentation to prove that I don’t in fact have a £50,000 trust fund. When I’ve argued this is irrelevant – I’m a fucking human being, not numbers on a bank statement – the ignorant staff at the Job Centre have suggested I am not “really” poor. What is most upsetting is that they then allow other assigned-middle-class-at-birth people to sign on simply because such people don’t have money any more. Like, how do they even know these people are genuinely überpoor and not just rich people who’ve got rid of all their cash because they’re essentialist bigots who believe that’s the only way to be poor? I call these people überpoorscum. To be honest, I don’t think they should be welcome in überpoor communities. It just creates an extra pressure on the rest of us not to be incredibly wealthy.
My hope is that eventually, more and more assigned-poor-at-birth people are able to recognise how privileged they are, welcome us into their communities and hand over all their lager and pool tables. So many APAB prople think it’s enough just not to mind if I rent a flat above a shop, cut my hair and get a job, but this implies being überpoor isn’t in fact more valid and painful than simply being poor. It’s essential that these poor people put us first given that we bear the double burden of not just being überpoor but of having lots of money while being überpoor and hence being mis-classed (it never ceases to amaze me, by contrast, how welcoming the rich are to the überrich, allowing them to adopt plumy accents while continuing to do all the former’s domestic work). The activism is increasing, though. I’ve recently set up a change.org petition to try to get Cocker’s current Radio 6 show cancelled on the basis that mainstream media should not be giving a platform to überpoorphobes. The final thing I want to do is sleep with common people.
Common people like you.