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  • Jamie McCarthy

Grammar School,The Arts World and Working-Class Displacement.

17th October 2019.


I was sent to a Grammar School at eleven. I passed the eleven plus, but originally replied saying I didn’t want to go to Grammar School. The local authority contacted my parents and the school, and I got pressurised into it. I hated it from day one. I even made up a story that I was being bullied so they wouldn’t make me go there. It felt to me like I was being punished for being what was thought of as ‘clever’: the price was to be taken away from all my friends who were staying on at St. Jo’s an extra year and then going to the Catholic comprehensives. I spent a last summer hanging out with my friends from St. Jo’s and then after that we never really hung out again.

I never felt at home at this Grammar School (that thought it was a public school). I never understood how things functioned and also didn’t want to. It felt like being there was a punishment and also by being there I was committing a betrayal to the people I’d grown up with. I would never be able to fit into the world I grew up in in the same way again. I’d had a different experience. I was spending my school days with different people. I would also never really fit into the world I’d been thrown into. There were all sorts of reminders from teachers and other students that I didn’t belong to the same background as them and the one I did belong to was inferior. I learned to shut up about a lot of things, because to talk about them would reveal me as an outsider and an ‘inferior’ one at that.

Look, I know how privileged I’ve been in lots of ways: I went to grammar school, I did A-Levels and got a degree. I work in the arts. I’ve had access to a lot more stuff than a lot of the people I grew up with (although I’ve probably always been in the lower percentage financially). And still, there was shit for me too. This thing about learning to shut up at grammar school … it feels like it was an early experience of something I’ve gone through in so many situations later in life. You somehow get the opportunity to be involved in something that is way out of your class background and you have the choice to either keep quiet, bury a lot of yourself and try and ‘fit in’, or to mouth off about what you experience and notice …. how the environment you’re in excludes and invalidates you and other people in yours or other situations that mean they don’t ‘fit in’. This takes a lot of extra work and emotional effort that someone who just really does ‘fit in’ socially doesn’t have to do and has no awareness of being needed to be done by others who aren’t in such a ‘good fit’ situation. The one choice you don’t have is not to have to do any work: shutting up takes work, speaking out takes work and part of you gets destroyed by either option.

There’s also that thing of feeling ambivalent about whether I really want to participate in an environment that excludes so many other people. Often that gets solved by the fact that I have to survive financially and so work in the environments where I can manage to function myself, but there’s also this question of access to certain ‘stages’, ‘platforms’, institutions … do I really want to succeed in those environments? Are they redeemable? Can they ever be more inclusive? Often the basic assumptions of those places and spaces work against them ever becoming more inclusive …. The spaces and the places have to be different spaces and places for that to happen. And again, if you always felt a ‘good fit’ in these environments you’re just not even having to feel any of this friction … not even aware that all this extra work is being done by other people just to keep their heads above water.

In the arts, it takes so much for a person to front their own work … it’s exhausting – more than a full-time job – it’s fucked-up how hard it is for people, regardless of their class background. If you have all this extra work I’m talking about, emotional, social etc. (and of course, I doesn’t just come from being working class), then it’s even harder. It amazes me that people can manage it. It proved too much for me. In the nineties I fronted my own performance work and (along with a lot of other things) it nearly destroyed me. Fighting that feeling that I ‘wasn’t up to it’ was so exhausting that I vowed I wouldn’t do it again. I look back and I think the work was good and also pretty brave in lots of ways: it’s not the work or the quality of it that stops me, it’s the effort it took me to be in the spaces I had to be to get to be able to make it. I make my albums at home now and quietly release them … that’s the work that I front now. I’ve also found a space where I think I can be both useful and creative in supporting other people who feel able to front work on a ‘bigger’ stage. Sometimes, I beat myself up about ‘having failed’, not honoured my own creative abilities and then I have to sit down and write, like I am now, about how actually I’ve done alright by myself considering all the extra work I’ve had to do just to keep going in this current arts environment. This too is extra work …

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