Break out the champagne! I completed my UCU Equality Training yesterday. More importantly, I also acquired yet another t-shirt, this one with the legend ‘Standing Up for Education’; which, as a friend commented, is ripe with innuendo and only needs the presence of the inimitable Frankie Howerd, saying ‘oo-er missus!’, to be perfect.
Feeling elated by this result (well, t-shirts are hard to come by) and having an hour or two to kill, I thought I’d pop into the National Portrait Gallery.
This, dear reader, is where my troubles started.
The NPG is where I spent many a happy hour as a postgrad. Overcome by a wave of nostalgia and the need for a cup of tea (well, actually a loo – oh, the joys of a middle aged bladder!), I was soon there and marvelling at the changes fifteen years since my last visit had brought.
The Gallery had acquired a facelift and was a light and airy space to wander about, but I soon began to feel uneasy.
Now, it may be that that sense of unease was the result of having been immersed in equality issues for the previous eight hours, for I couldn’t help thinking, as I looked at room after room of British faces, of the role class has played and continues to play in British society.
We didn’t talk much about class on the course: a fact that hardly surprised me. Of all the identity issues – sex, gender, race, disability, class – class is the one that tends to be whispered and quickly passed over. To raise the issue of socio-economic inequality and its affects is to be accused of the politics of envy, and, heavens, we don’t want to be accused of envy, do we?
As I moved through the collection with what I like to think of as the graceful movement of a swan rather than the waddle of a duck, I became aware that the collection was dominated by upper class faces whose default expression was one of entitlement and confidence. They were born to rule and had no doubts about their place in society. Post industrial revolution, there appeared more and more middle class faces, proud that they or their parents or grandparents had ‘made it’; occasionally looking smug and self-satisfied.
Occasionally I’d come across the face of someone from the working classes. Usually these were politicians brought to prominence as representatives of the people. What I found interesting was that these portraits often shared a sadness round the eyes that wasn’t quite obliterated by the success that had brought them to the artist’s studio in the first place. Now, perhaps I’m reading too much into that look, but it seemed to me that there was an understanding in their gaze that life was precarious and that what had been achieved could be quickly stripped away.
What staggered me were how few portraits there were of people from the kind of background that I had or that my school friends had. When I came across one of these fellow travellers, I fell on them with delight: Ramsay Macdonald, Nye Bevan, Ernest Bevin, Harold Wilson, Bill Morris, Mo Mowlam.
If anything, the social mobility that brought these figures to prominence is even less likely today. I wonder if that is because the political class is dominated by people from the middle classes who do not have an intimate knowledge of the complex way in which lack of money informs choices and attitudes. (That might explain why, gulp, I often feel closer to the Conservative MP David Davis - born on a council estate - than Labour politicians brought up in traditional middle class families, whose understanding of such things is academic rather than lived.)
Feeling depressed, I decided to buy a postcard of Ruskin Spear’s brilliant portrait of Harold Wilson, swathed in pipe smoke, inscrutable.
Could I find one? Forget it. If I’d wanted a picture of any royal – even the most obscure - from the past five hundred years I’d be spoilt for choice.
I don’t get this obsession with the royals. Given that few Brits over the centuries have been royal or even middle class it seems weird we are more interested in them than in the history of the people and the centuries of struggle to achieve some modicum of dignity and respect for those not born to rule or without the privilege that attends to wealth.
The answer for this collective inertia is probably found in the contemporary collection. From the sixties on, the emphasis was with the celebrity: pop stars and actors, and politicians like Tony Blair who brought the stardust of celebrity to the political world.
I’m worried by this lack of political consciousness. For those of us on the left, the loss of the folk memory that it is possible for the people to change society makes it much more difficult to affect real change in our own time. The structures that shape our culture are not divinely inspired but the result of human action and will. And if we are not to be swept into a future where the failures of the financial system are forgotten and therefore repeated, we need to reconnect with that past and the heroes of that struggle pretty damn quick.