The final issue of the rather good Manchester magazine, Voices – Magazine of the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers, came out in 1984. This poem was featured in it.


Conjure up the images:
Glossy, stylish, upmarket.
You’ve either got it or you haven’t:
classy little number.
I’m not talking about that.
I’m not talking about
“a structural relation to the means of production”‘
Which isn’t to say that I don’t think
some own the means
and some are the means.
Because that’s true.
I’m trying to talk about history.
My own years of it.
This country’s one thousand, nine hundred and
eighty odd years of it.
I’m trying to talk about a relation
about cultures
about ways of life.
I understand when you say
we’re all people
I don’t believe in class.
I understand, too, when you say
middle class has become a term of abuse.
If we can’t all be socialists
it’s patronising
it’s insulting,
I understand that,
I’ve got my state education too.
Middle class is more than a term
it is abuse.
It’s a relation,
a culture,
a way of life.
And I’m implicated in it -too.
It seduced but didn’t marry me
Doesn’t house me, inherit me.
If I want it,
I want it out of lack.
I want ‘middle class’
because, ‘middle class’
is talking nice
and I can do that too,
Because it’s warmth,
and comfort,
cars and carpets.
Middle class isn’t
outside toilets
cold water taps
sliced white bread
second hand clothes
second hand furniture.
Middle class isn’t
chapped hands
snotty noses
shoes that rub.
Middle class isn’t
gangs on the street
wild time and the coppers round the corner.
It isn’t shared beds
going hungry
empty spaces.
Middle class isn’t
being told not to presume
being told to work hard
in your secondhand school uniform
and non-regulation shoes
with your cheap pen
that leaks all over the page
and stains your fingers.
And you must be grateful girl
and think of god.
Aspiration is what it was all about.
If you will talk like, look like,
think like us
We’ll let you in
When I was eleven
I lost all my friends.
They didn’t make the grade.
Six of us from a final year of eighty-six
passed a test we didn’t know we were taking.
And it took three years
to make some more.
It took getting quiet
and talking different.
It took scandal
When my father made it
by the front page of our local newspapers
by being sent to jail.
And when our headmistress,
most holy Sister Francis,
explained she couldn’t ask me to leave,
But if I was to say
I thought it better that I did
they could arrange it
I was the centre of attraction.
And I dug
my worn down heels in
and thought I’d try it their way.
But you don’t forget.
The ‘O’ levels and ‘A’ levels
and grants to go to university
don’t mean a lot
in Chorlton and Hulme and Stockport.
They mean something
they mean getting out
they mean a crack in the sky.

We were all schooled in Macmillan’s forcing house.
Get a degree, they’d say
Don’t live like us, don’t die like us.
Great aunts, uncles, the first to go
from little houses in Leigh and Wigan
and diseases of the lung.
Yes, they all smoked,
but some of them worked the mines.
And, more recently,
Dan and Tom and Steven and Pat,
leaving widows and children, some of us
with our bits of paper
qualifications, mortgages
A different way of life.
But families are strong
and you don’t forget.
Pat worked in the fifties
erecting pylons across the country
And when that was done
and electricity lit the nation
He found a dark little corner in the docks
pleased that in the sixties they’d dropped the tally
and you didn’t have to fight for work.
I remember him as a child
coning home to Russell Street
and eating huge meals of soup and bread.
I remember a tin horse
he gave me, and walking back from Alex Park
how he bought a whole quarter of chewing nuts
just for me,
something else in his pocket for Kevin and Susan.
I didn’t visit him in hospital
dying of stomach cancer
This huge huge strong man
who’d frightened and fascinated me.
I was at the funeral,
out of place.
Talking to Steven, dead a year later.
And Dan, before him, in Belfast.
Both dead of heart attacks.
Before they retired, all of them.
A life of work, for the likes of me.
And I can’t easily
with this heritage, with this knowledge,
accept comfort, security, progress.
I can’t define my interests and my needs
separately from those
of the class that made me.
Because all that I’ve had
I’ve seen paid for,
life by life.
I’ve seen the loss at which I got my gain.
Nothing slips down easily:
not my past,
in which ashamed of where I lived
and what my father did,
I’ve denied it
pretended I didn’t have a brother or a sister
My past in which I lost myself

Class is about conflict
and yet,
it grieves me that a woman I like
is so removed from me.
Feminism doesn’t seem to make it easier
at times like this.
I know, you know
we share, as women, much that is common.
The way we’re treated
looked at
thought of
what we can and can’t do,
We find unity in that
but whole areas of experience and expectation
clash between us
when we try and talk of class.
And we’re not just talking it:
we’re living and have lived it.
You’ve never told me
and I’ve never asked you,
what it was like,
A strange land lies between us.
If we are ever to traverse it,
or even map it out
for future reference
we must first make the journey back ourselves.
I would hardly know the way.
I remember signposts, crossroads:
early marriage
illegitimate children
eleven plus failure
These mark my way:
I need to rediscover all the roads I didn’t take.
I don’t know what guided me;
mistakes my mother had made perhaps.
But I need, for her,
to make a more courageous stand.
To say, yes,
the violence, the fear
the terribleness of it all marked me
kept me on the narrow path
to independence and success.
But more than that.
I have to give them their due
for every time they told me off
when I said I couldn’t be or do something
I said I wanted
because I was a girl or we were poor.
Mum and Margery with their friendship
and their strength
taught me women don’t need men
in order to live and be happy.
And Ray’s dad taught me about socialism
in practical ways
by being generous and good
and showing me which books to read.
I cannot trace out
the way they formed me.
But I find myself now,
uncertain of the future,
uncertain of the past
with some small strength.
I believe in a basic goodness
about the way
we think to live.
I don’t deny your sisterhood
or your comradehood.
I recognise that we are here, together,
separate in our histories,
separate in our reasons
And I do not deny that we look to the same future
We could be dead in five or fifty years
It’s important to me
that we don’t waste the time.
There is nothing we can do to change the past,
maybe even the present,
but we must be together in the ways the future asks.
I want to know
where it was and wasn’t the same.
I want to know the difference.
It has to be the first

Rebecca O’Rourke


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