Circumstances Are Temporary, Class Is Permanent

On Class, Social Mobility and Absurd Ancestors

My mother was born in a palace, the daughter of a family of wealth and influence. On coming to London she first worked in a factory. When I was born she was sewing for piece rates to make ends meet.

So when my daughter asked me what class we are I didn’t have a ready answer of plebian or patrician. Not having a ready answer turned out to be the right one, the question merited some thought.

The current method of measuring social mobility is based on the work of Goldthorpe in the 1970s. Originally it asked for your occupation in midlife and compared it to that of your father. Fifty years on the question has been adapted to ask what profession the main breadwinner in the household had when the respondent was aged 14. The seven categories are allocated to three broad ranges, the Salariat at the top, then Intermediate Classes and finally Working Classes.

When I was 14 my mother had a clerical job in a bank; routine work that put her squarely in the Working Class. The methodology does not ask if you were born in a palace. For me, my mother’s aristocratic heritage was just a rich source of stories. The reality was that our financial situation was precarious and there was no option other than hard work. Working Class it is, maybe.

Even without her history we didn’t fall easily into working class tropes. Although we lived in a terraced house, it was in a leafy London suburb and not a grim industrial town. When I was 14 my brother was studying at the LSE and I attended an eye-wateringly expensive school with my fees paid by the government, scholarships and bursaries. Education is the traditional lever for social mobility and we had pulled firmly on it.

By the way, if you want to give a poor kid some complex hang ups about wealth, privilege and entitlement, then send them to a rich kids’ school. Some of that may bleed into the rest of what you read here.

Both my parents were university graduates. My father’s very early death leaves unanswered what career heights he might have scaled. In Pakistan he worked for the Pakistan Economist, and as a younger man he had worked in the telegraph office because his English was good. At the time of his death he was an internal accountant for a firm of solicitors. His short life doesn’t give many clues but he clearly turned his hand to anything requiring literacy and numeracy. Without a family leg up I’d still back him to have free climbed his way up the social strata. His own father was apprenticed to a tailor when an illness wiped out most of the breadwinners in the family. Before that the trail goes cold.

It all seems to me to point to a place on the Working Class starting line, but with senses trained on the gun to race for a more comfortable economic destination.

Climbing the ladder

But what of my children? Both have crossed the threshold of 14 and in answering the social mobility question would put me in the Salariat; a senior management job gives me the hallmarks of Middle Class.

I’ll take that as long as they remember the path it took to get there: their grandmother sewing night and day while their father gurgled at her feet.

It all sounds very romantic and rags to riches, a salutary tale of hard work and good education being the foundation for progress; fuel for the myth of meritocracy. Well, perhaps not so much of a myth. A study by the LSE and UCL, reported by the BBC, concluded that social mobility was “the norm and not the exception” as 48% of people rose up the ladder from their parents’ position, compared with 31% who slid down. The social mobility game seems to have fewer snakes than ladders.

As ever things are not that simple.

Gregory Clark’s work has found that class is persistent for families. Individuals may break the glass ceiling or crash through it, but over the course of generations, certain privileges persist. He estimates that it takes ten to fifteen generations for familial wealth or poverty to dissipate. The New Republic notes his observation:

“…if you live in England and share a last name with a Norman conqueror listed in the Domesday book of 1086—think Sinclair, Percy, Beauchamp—you have a 25 percent higher chance of matriculating at Oxford or Cambridge.”

Clark, G The Son Also Rises

Something about the study sits uncomfortably with me. I’d like to believe that every person is a well of untapped potential waiting to be realised if only given the right opportunities and guidance. With my less dewy-eyed, more analytical hat on I can reconcile Clark’s observation with the UCL/LSE stats.

The Dyer lemma

Let’s start with Danny Dyer, a British actor. On “Who Do You Think You Are?” a TV show that traces the roots of famous people, we learned that he is a descendent of King Edward III (1312-1377). His reaction and the juxtaposition with the hard man, rough edged, cockney persona he projects (it may all be real) made for great TV.

A little bit of back-of-an-envelope calcuation tells me that in principle half the population of the United Kingdom could share the same heritage. Perhaps there is more to the saying that “an Englishman’s home is his castle” than we first thought.

The Dyer Lemma* provides the reconciling point we’re looking for. Even without the disruption of wars, rebellions, treachery and infidelity, it would only take a few generations for the second sons of second sons to be mixing it up with the rest of us. Clark’s observation that a core retain their status over several hundred years does not invalidate their cousins joining the ebb and flow of social mobility. Indeed, for a time they will over-contribute to the downward cadre as for them it is the only possible direction of travel. For all the Sinclairs, Percys and Beauchamps attending Oxbridge, there is a plethora of them who didn’t.

Even on Jacob’s Ladder some of the angels were going down not up. And though Jacob’s seed may indeed have “spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south”, very few were prophets.**

Goldthorpe’s original work on social mobility was limited in two important ways, which I believe he acknowledged – it did not account for the role of women in the workforce or of migrants. While the new mode of posing the original question “what was the profession of the main breadwinner…” leans towards gender neutrality it can still fall awkwardly in the career breaks many women experience and it misses the driving purpose of migrants uprooting themselves to change their stars.

My mother, woman and migrant, makes the traditional method of measurement next to useless in my case. Her story, while it is not unique, is both tragic and inspiring. It is also a reasonable case study for a three-generation model of the migrant experience.

From riches to rags

My parents had been married for just over seven years when my father passed away. Having worked in a factory, at a dry cleaner’s, and for a greengrocer, my mother had by that time acquired a large metal-framed Singer sewing machine. It dominated the dining room of our house. That room included a sofa bed which would be unfurled at night for her to sleep on. The rest of the house was rented out to lodgers. Her income from rent, that sewing machine, and her younger brother’s part-time jobs between his studies, formed the basis of our early survival.

There are two paths to financial security for the migrant, both involve dedication and hard work. Some have the acumen and appetite for risk to trade their way out of poverty. That wasn’t us. The other route is to study your way into the ranks of the doctors, lawyers and savants, out of the labouring classes.

For my mother, her straitened circumstances were a blip, a cruel hand dealt by fate but she still held the aces of diligence and frugality. Traditional, white-collar professions for her sons would provide enough money not to have to worry about money, and the linked but distinct goals of respect and respectability. Quality schooling and reputable universities were all part of that equation.

Her own family were Prufrocks to the Hamlets of the Kingdom of Avadh. The founders of our Indian dynasty were scholars and clerics at the royal court. The mahal, where my mother was born, literally means palace. It is in fact more of a grand country home, let’s call it a modest chateau. It is fronted by an Imambargah, a chapel will do as a translation for our purposes. The significance of the Imambargah is that it has two minarets. In this it is rare, possibly unique. The royal buildings of Avadh had four minarets, and during the British Empire Avadh’s kings had little else to do with their wealth than stand up grand buildings. Private buildings were only allowed one minaret. Our two were a mark of special royal favour. The gates to the mahal have recently been replaced. They feature the double fish emblem of Avadh, as the original gates did, another mark of royal favour.

New mahal gates

One of my ancestors was personal tutor to the children of an Avadh princess. The story goes that the British stirred up the soldiers in the princess’s palace to mutiny. My ancestor was in the bath. Hearing the ruckus he came out dressed only in a towel and faced the mutineers. He issued such a stern reprimand that they went sheepishly back to their posts.

My own grandfather reprised this act of courage, facing down a mob to save the life of a Hindu man in the Lalukhayt district of Karachi.

These snippets of history I got from my mother. In an unwitting precursor to Gregory Clark, she would tell me that our family had enough wealth to last for “saat pusht” seven generations but frittered it away in two. She saw first-hand the last vestiges of her family’s grandeur, and the hardship of migration first to Pakistan and then to the UK. It forged her character – diligence and frugality, dedication and hard work; wealth was a curse that led to laziness and indolence.

The goals were simple enough – security, respect, respectability.

What is respectable?

My first proper job baffled her. I was on the graduate training scheme at Ford, while my college mates were either doing crazy hours for silly money at Investment Banks, or duly, dully enrolled on training contracts for the big professional services firms.

Love for my friends aside, I still firmly believe that the audit profession is a full employment racket for the mediocre Middle Classes. It would have been the end of me and, while I eventually became an accountant by mistake, I count myself fortunate never to have endured life as an auditor. On the flip side this essentially meaningless activity is a predictable path into the Middle Class for those who aspire to it. Swings, roundabouts.

Guessing how much you can sell a car for in five years time (my last job at Ford) was still a bit too close to the actual act of manual labour for mum. She embraced that willingly for herself, she wanted something else for my brother and me. It wasn’t until I moved into one of the big consulting firms that she was reconciled to my “career” path, albeit briefly as I veered off again soon after.

I could have achieved the security objective as a plumber, I think I was better suited to it to be honest, but that respectability thing is a kicker.

That’s a neat encapsulation of the first two steps in the three-generation model. The first generation sublimates its own desires and comfort in the quest to set a platform for its children, a base from which they can power forward. The second generation follows in its wake, witness to what has been expended for its sake. Fitter, happier, more productive than its predecessor but ultimately slave to the same imperatives.

Third time’s the charm

The third generation, well this is where it gets interesting. The struggle to survive of the first generation is now a story, the history of the grandparents. The third generation lacks direct experience of those times, and the deeply ingrained philosophy of “get yourself a job first”.

Of course, most will follow in their parent’s footsteps, a small nudge up or down the place on the ladder that has been secured for them. Some will break out. Leaning on their financial security and their freedom from the schema instilled in their parents they strike a different path. They can take risks that might be incomprehensible to their grandparents, and make choices that will either be resented or revelled in by their parents.

The third is the generation of artists and musicians, the early blooming authors and aspiring sports stars. Of those that try, most will join the long tail of those who almost or never make it. The point is that they get the chance to try.

Those generations of my maternal ancestors who let generational wealth slip through their fingers were all well educated polyglots, university gold medals abounded. Their favoured pastime was writing verse in Persian and the higher variants of Urdu, and they were good at it – publishing books and occupying the pages of highfalutin journals. It wasn’t just a male pursuit, the women of the house were at it too, for reasons of modesty publishing anonymously. The problem was that no one was professionally managing the estates, investing the returns or handling expenditure like an adult. They were notoriously naïve, easily cheated and swindled.

The periodicity of the phases was longer in their time, leaning into the centuries Clark estimates, but the model stands for them too as medieval migrants with the Mughals – achieve security, embed it, leverage it, or in this case: spend it.

I find myself admiring those profligate ancestors. My brother, for reasons too complex to go into here, is custodian of a set of family treasures – decoupe art one of our forebears made. The pieces are delicate and really beautiful. Apparently as the family sat around in the mahal swapping verses and literary jokes he would join in and at the same time be snipping away with his scissors and these bits of paper ephemera would appear.

No photo description available.
Part of the collection of decoupe art

Yes, they had a life of extraordinary privilege, and yes of course they should have husbanded that wealth better. Nonetheless if all you can do with inherited wealth is curate it, then it is a prison. Life is a game of chance and cycles. Some generations have no choice but to build, to make a sacrifice. What’s the point if the drudgery continues through the ages?

And someone has to be the fall guy, to serve as a lesson that wealth, whether it takes a generation or ten, ultimately disappears.

There was a glorious, absurd, illogical stand my ancestors once took, refusing the money they were offered by the British for the land on which Lucknow railway station was built. The British were usurpers, their money was tainted. It was economic suicide; a genuinely beautiful sticking to principle and utterly magnificent act of stupidity. I never met them, I love them for both. Living in London I can rise above the irony and say we were never collaborators.

The gravity of their gesture lived on. My grandfather could have spared his family great hardship, spared me as a direct consequence, had he taken up property he was entitled to in Pakistan. He turned it down as others were homeless and adrift in their new homeland. By that time he had none of the familial wealth to fall back on, but the morality instilled in him, to do the right thing irrespective of the cost, is immensely precious. I love that too.

I don’t begrudge any of them their principles and the consequent costs. What matters in the end is not where you stand on the ladder but what you stand for. That can be from the privilege of a palace, or sewing night and day in a single room to make ends meet. Ultimately, that is true class. 

Which still leaves my daughter’s question to be answered. “What class are we?” the subtext, with the self-centredness of childhood was “What label should I attach to myself?” What I eventually said to her was that it did not matter. If it was important to her she could claim to be descended from great wealth or great hardship. The key was to know the history, to learn from it, to absorb the stories of courage, diligence, frugality, and understand the pitfalls of entitlement, indolence and profligacy. From there she should strike her own path and make good decisions or bad decisions, unencumbered by her ancestors, immediate or distant. She is, after all, the third generation.

END

* The Dyer Lemma is not a thing, I made it up

** Genesis 28:12-14

Find out more about my writing here.

Me and Me Too. Even You

Pepé Le Pew.svg

Source: Wikipedia

That moment when the penny finally drops about misogyny:

Me and Me Too. Even You

Signals saturate the spectrum
But now the noise is clearing
We can hear what we’ve been taught

The brooding dripping man film
Blade Runner. Deckard demanding
Rachel’s compliance
It’s OK she isn’t human
Listen

Bond, being James Bond
And we all wanted that
Magnetic watch
It’s all about the gadget
Not the girl. Listen

Today. Searching for the perfect gif
My cleverness and wit
I hear at last
The true lesson taught
At our mother’s teat
No never means no
You, Pepe le Pew. Even You

Ruswa Fatehpuri 2018

I wrote this while thinking of the perfect gif with which to respond to a friend on facebook – she had posted something about a hair colour change. Pepe losing his stripe or Penelope gaining one is a frequent plot device in the cartoons. It was going to be hilarious. Then I really saw what I was looking at.

Oh, and the fact that I masquerade in poet guise as Ruswa Fatehpuri is a poorly kept and entirely uninteresting secret. Was.

And if you are going to dive into a Blade Runner rabbit hole that involves Deckard really being a replicant you’ve pretty well missed the point.

End

Find out more about my writing here.

There is a Ruswa Fatehpuri chapbook out there too

 

 

 

 

The Lay of the Last Jedi

To celebrate the new Star Wars movie, which I am properly excited about, here is a Luke and Vader shaggy dog story for you.

Spoilers from episodes 1-6, but I’m not seeing the new film til Christmas Eve.

Stick with it, that’s the point of a shaggy dog story! And feel free to reblog, if like me you have no sense of self respect 🙂

 

The Lay of the Last Jedi

 

Listen. Here’s a tale well loved and often told

Of a young man filled with woe and righteous fire

Who finds his home a ruined smoking pyre

Young walker of the sky, Luke the bold

Brave but oft times reckless, our hero faces

His nemesis in the story’s fifth or second part

Dread Vader, Darth of name and dark of heart

Master of asteroid sized bases

 

With all his pomp and power Darth Vader tries

To turn the will of this untempered boy

He lures and bends his mind with every ploy

To make Luke join the path of dark and lies

Mismatched: bare youth, cold machine man

They battle fiercely with the humming blade

Both Jedis fearless Obi Wan had made

One schooled by the Emperor, one by Han

 

But Vader is the master of sabre and the Force

Luke’s still fledgling skill cannot compare

To the power that Darth Vader brings to bear

Strength fails, he cannot last the course

Yet when at last the lad is on his knees

His sabre lost, and whooped his sorry arse

Vader does not land the coup de grace

But asks instead without a pretty please

 

“Join me, Skywalker, Jedi, Flying Ace

Why bind yourself to the weakness of the light

You see in me the dark’s o’erweening might

Accept what comes to pass with poise and grace.”

“Never,” Luke claims his sabre and replies

“You killed my gentle mentor Obi Wan

I will not lose myself to what you plan

Nor will I listen to your evil lies.”

 

Still Vader tries to tempt Luke to his side

For he sees in him the Force runs wild and strong

And winning Luke would right an ancient wrong

The hubris that lost Annakin his bride

“Luke, I am your father, you know this in your heart”

Luke howls his proud denial to this cold truth

But knows the claim requires no further proof

It pierces him, as if a poisoned dart

 

Luke’s sabre droops as doubt now fills his mind

Vader senses that he may have won

He purrs, “Join me, my lost beloved son

I will make you Prince o’er all living kind

We will stride the cosmos you and I

Our power unfettered, desires one

All that we do will never be undone

Nor will any dare our mastery to deny.”

 

But a face rises in young Luke’s inner eye

The princess he knows not as his long lost sister

(We hope because we know for sure he kissed her)

Which fills him with the strength to rise and cry

“I deny you as my father or my friend

You are the monster that consumed him from within

Enough with all your talking, let’s begin

To fight again so I may bring your end.”

 

Luke finds his strength renewed and battles hard

Vader feels the chill of fear is seeping in

For the boy is pressing close and may yet win

Desperate he plays his final card

“Luke, you cannot know the power of the dark,

Yoda and Obi Wan hid much from you

They feared you and the things that you may do

Let me show you now the merest spark.”

 

Before his son can voice his negative reply,

Vader presses onward with his suit.

“The future is to me not blind or mute

Beyond the veil all my senses still apply

I have cast my power and I tell you true

This Christmas all the gifts you will receive

And when I say the words you will believe

What the future holds in store for you.”

 

Luke’s Christmases had never brought elation

In the home of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru

The moisture farm on which this young man grew

Was too poor a place for lavish celebration

The hardship he endured had cut him deep

An orphan who longed to hear a father say

“Here are precious things to mark the day

And bring you joy that will be yours to keep”

 

But Time and Fate heal all wounds and rifts

A princess and a smuggler are now his friends

This year he thought that he would see amends

And be hip deep in piles of wondrous gifts.

“Luke, there is a tree and gifts galore for you

A bike of BMX and three sixty Xbox One.

Three pairs of socks and stolen blaster gun

My words will echo in your power, you know them true.”

 

“How come, how come, what sorcery is this?

What fell and foul enchantment have you wrought

How did you pay, how was this knowledge bought

‘Tis true, ‘tis true your words I can’t dismiss.”

Vader takes his chance with an attack

The distracted Luke unable to resist

There is debris all around and in its midst

He falls helpless and prone onto his back

 

“Tell me,” he begs, now careless of his fate.

Darth Vader’s light sabre slowly descends,

Luke’s long and brave resistance surely ends

His father confidently lets him wait

 

The blade marks Luke’s face with scalding crescents

His smooth and beardless cheek is burned and marred

As in defeat his soul will soon be scarred

Vader fills with joy, for he has won

He shares his secret with his foundling son

“Luke, last symbol of my darling Padme’s love.

Skywalker, destined to rise above

Luke, my son, I have felt your presents.”

 

END

More of my writing here

Clair by Ruswa Fatehpuri

Clair

by Ruswa Fatehpuri

We make a seamless join
From knee to hip, shoulder, armpit
Your fragrant herbal hair
Against my cradling arm
A buttress arch reaching
To clasp a window frame
As we seek warmth and comfort
Upon the chapel pew

A romance in G minor
Orchestra chasing violin
In acrobatic leaps from wall to wall
Flirtation, conversation
Without words. Illuminating
Thoughts unspoken

Light scatters on the shadows
Where the buttress meets the window
Where the music lifts and leaps
Your knee. Your crossed, your uncrossed knee.
Your hand, my hand, our ungloved hands
The dancing strings;
The ringing chapel walls

A line where our lives meet;
An unforgiving pew
Your ear upon my heart
Tympanic, inarticulate.
The join, the perpendicular,
The buttress to the window frame.
Shadows reclaim the corners.
An exchange of warmth unvoiced

You can find more of Ruswa Fatehpuri here

If you are interested in my storytelling look here

More memories from college collated here

The Million Words

The Million Words

A sestina on word use

 

There may be as many as a million words 
In English – lingua franca of the world 
Which sponge like soaks up other tongues 
And claims all new inventions as its own 
Despite this fruitful garden we still choose 
To limit the range of language that we use 
 
Is it abuse to not put into use 
The full breadth of the lexicon of words 
To slam shut the brace of Oxfords and to choose 
To constrain ourselves into a smaller world 
Do we forsake the very thing we own 
By shackling the freedom of our tongues 
 
Or is it that we fear speaking in tongues 
Turning phrases others do no use 
If we claim the rare and complex for our own 
Always ready with les mots justes, perfect words 
Do we depart from the rest of the speaking world 
Is true erudition something we can really choose? 

 

So, fearful of ridicule, we choose
To lay conforming yokes upon our tongues
Denominate ourselves low in the world
Demote to the demotic what we use
To the commonest and easiest of words
We bind the cadences of what we own

 

But what if there was more that we could own
What if we were truly free to choose
From that list of nigh a million words
Free to twist and stretch our willing tongues
Bring the forgotten and obscure back into use
To enlighten and enrapture the whole world

 

Will we deal a recumbenitiban blow to the world
As we autohagiography the expressions that we own
And manifest what could be put to use
Or,  revealed as philosophunculists by what we choose
Will we trip upon our hamartithic tongues
As we dentiloquently squeeze out words

 

The world I fear will judge by what we choose
Nor are we free to unfetter our own tongues
We will never use that million list of words

Me

Today.

 

Monsoon IV

Monsoon IV

by Ruswa Fatehpuri

 

It does not rain in Singapore

The heavens weap single tears

Four miles wide, six miles deep

The pavements that we thought so even

Hide inch deep pools to soak your feet

As I once washed your mother’s

Before the thought of you

 

Small hand in my hand, ice cream sticky

Humid, wet as we splash puddles

Bath water warm, spring water clear

You learn what it is to love the rain

And I learn again

It does not rain in Singapore

And this small hand in my hand is not love

But something deeper, wider, something more

 

You can find more of Ruswa Fatehpuri here

Quote

Leisurely Payme…

Leisurely Payment

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?

No time to plumb the handbag dark,
And choose the card that hits the mark

No time to rummage diligent
Despite the queuing time we spent

No time to see, with groceries packed
The line behind grow long and stacked

No time to turn at Anger’s glare
White knuckles on its cash prepared

No time to make its face go red
With our refusal to think ahead

A poor life this if, fill of care
We have no time to stand and stare

With apologies to WH Davies

In response to DP: Game of Groans

To Bury Shakespeare

A little something to celebrate the birth of uncle Bill, and knocking on the door of a weekly writing challenge:

To Bury Shakespeare

 

Shall I compare you to a bag of douche?
You speak more smugly and knowing it all
Before your erudition we seem louche
The leering, unendowed, intellect small
And even when you get too grandiose
Calling the sun and moon to witness bear
You carry it with such nonchalant pose
That women swoon and call your poesy fair
We steal your words between our gritted teeth
Become the plagiarist to lift a skirt
They may succumb, but we know underneath
We are your students in the art of flirt
So long as women want romantic words
You are the Jock and we are but the Nerds

 

Ali Abbas

 

My books are available here, please rate, review and recommend.

 

DP: Turn Back Time – A Question of Moments by Ruswa Fatehpuri

A Question of Moments

by Ruswa Fatehpuri

 

In a life made up of moments
Of which I was but one
What will you remember
When I am dust and gone?

Will the page on which I met you
The page on which we kissed
Be well thumbed and worn
Or passed over and missed?

Will you ever turn to us
And plot the path we took?
Will you smile or will you weep
Or will you never look?

Will you tell your children
Of all that we forsook?
Or will we be forgotten
And torn out of the book?

 

In response to the turn back time prompt

My Do Over post is also of some relevance

You can find more of Ruswa Fatehpuri here