‘You must meet Susan!’ said my chum John. ‘She’s having a do!’
I sighed. I’m not shy, but I do hate almost everyone.
‘Fine. Which version of me would you like to present to Susan? White trash or bourgeois? Potty mouthed porn star or gracious Guardian reader? Shall I talk about running my own theatre company and being shortlisted for Kent columnist of the year’ (winks to camera) ‘or boast about how well I’m doing on onlyfans? What language shall I use, which accent, how shall I dress?’
Or, in short, which class would you prefer me to be?
Mostly we accept that gender fluidity is a thing now, with the exception of some shouty women. I’m female, but I don’t do nurturing, or being kind; I am quite concerned with my appearance, but only in so far as being pretty helps me get what I want; for your classic female I’m intensely competitive, sexually predatory, and honestly, slightly grubby. But I shall forever identify as a girl, if only because there’s more money in it. And that’s fine.
But class fluidity? No. I’m the class you perceive me to be, and it matters not that I acquired my money and education and rounded vowels well past childhood, and financed them by engaging in pastimes worthy of a Channel 5 documentary. No, I talk posh and I’ve got a couple of degrees; occasionally I even use Latin words like ergo: ergo, I’m posh and stuck with it.
‘Can’t you just be yourself?’ said John, irritably. Really, he gets awfully uppity for someone who doesn’t exist. Well, but which me? I’m a con artist and a chameleon; I’ll tell any story you want to hear. The middle classes make me anxious, make me fight down an urge to scream obscenities; I feel much happier in less polite society, but sadly my leaping up the class structure like a feisty young gazelle means I’m treated with suspicion by both those of working and middle class origins. Hence my urge to know in advance how best to please and placate a new audience.
I was interviewed by a Daily Mail journalist at the age of 20, because I’d left Oxford university to become a stripper. Now there’s a nice neat article with a handy moral message, ready packaged for Femail. ‘The demons that drove this nice middle class girl to the sinister side of life’ was the headline she wanted, and well I remember her unravelling into slack jawed incredulity at my telling her my actual life story. ‘But but – you do consider yourself middle class, don’t you?’ she kept asking me, breathless with angst. Scumbag behaves quite like scumbag should have been the headline, but that’s not much of an anecdote.
It’s a modern phenomenon, this urge to give yourself an identity, then extrapolate every other possible trait, belief, habit of consumption and of course, likely voting pattern from it. We cleave to our identities as a way to make sense of our place in the world, weave coherent narratives around our patterns of behaviour. They’re sometimes useful, I’ll admit – we know, for example, that certain socio-economic groups and ethnicities are more likely to get very ill and die from Covid, so we can choose to focus medical resources and perhaps more lockdown restrictions on areas where there is a higher concentration of those groups.
But for all I understand the urge to cleave to an identity, use it to explain every inch of our psyches, I think one should resist it. Not always knowing exactly what you are and what you think means you’re surely open to more possibilities. Coversely, sticking closely to one tribe in the culture war tends to bind people into ever smaller lives, ever more anxious about behaving in a way that suits them. All identifications with this or that sense of self, scumbag, girl, asexual, whatever, serve to limit us, and risk cutting us off from the possibility of transcending the corporeal. I’m more than a person that menstruates, to take the phrase that caused JK Rowling such angst; or white, or indeed, a creature that comes from Dickensian poverty. I can name and use those parts of me, but I can also escape them. With only one life to my name, it seems a shame to limit my experiences and outlook. If you take charge of your own story, you get to choose the ending.
As to Susan, I went with posh. I rounded my vowels and boasted about my vanilla career and property empire. I enjoyed hugging tight my secret self, the one with the mucky sidelines which fund my literary and theatrical habits. Maybe I’ll tell her about that on a different, more interesting, drunken evening, should there be one, or maybe she only deserves to see my more tedious self the once. To exploit the language of the moment, that’s my privilege.