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26 July 2023

How not to drown

Growing up as a fish out of water.

By Charlotte Stroud

In Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, that superlative novel about social mobility, the aspiring Pip is advised to “get hold of portable property”. Over the course of the novel, the reader learns that this phrase has a double meaning. Diamond brooches and wallets of cash are portable, but far more precious is the cultural wealth that Pip accrues as he climbs the social ladder. As Pip learns, mastering how to speak, dress and even eat in ways that are recognised as refined are the most valuable portable assets. To possess such cultural capital is to move seamlessly through the world with pockets full of invisible gold.

Like Pip, I didn’t grow up with reserves of cultural wealth. Mine wasn’t a house entirely without books, but the books we did have accumulated like literary driftwood. Broken off and battered fragments of the canon were unceremoniously sandwiched between beach reads and crime novels, while an incomplete collection of encyclopaedias bowed the top shelf. We did not have art on the walls, the table was only ever laid with one set of cutlery, and holidays never required air travel. We were like any other working-class household and I had no idea that people lived differently. 

It wasn’t until I took a job as a nanny to fund my way through university that I learned of a parallel universe. In this previously hidden world, children were given books like Jane Eyre and Lord of the Rings at “just the right time” by parents who were determined to fatten them up with culture, like foie gras ducklings. At the dinner table, I watched in awe as the children held court, volleying with adults on subjects as broad-ranging as politics, art and evolutionary science. I found myself constantly silent, being without a well-known school name to trade on, skiing anecdotes to exchange, or any casually powerful connections to recommend me. I had made it to university, a first in my family, but suddenly the impediments to social mobility sprang up around me like an obstacle course.

Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist, coined the phrase cultural capital in 1977. He described it as everything that signifies class: mannerisms, taste, style of dress, habits, responses to social cues. Together, they make up our “habitus” – the way we perceive and conceive the world. Bourdieu argues: “When habitus encounters a social world of which it is a product, it is like a ‘fish in water’: it does not feel the weight of the water, and it takes the world about itself for granted.” Whether they’re fish or plump ducklings, children who are endowed with cultural capital from an early age possess the frictionless ease of the initiated. The world is their oyster, and they know how to eat them, too.

[See also: Virginia Woolf’s living book]

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As I discovered, the dinner table is often the place where we non-aquatic beings are likely to be exposed. Whether it’s the daunting prospect of which knife to use, the horror of being asked to open a bottle of champagne, or the paralysis that ensues when you see an artichoke or lobster approach the table for the first time, bewildered by how to eat it, meal times threaten to stand on the edge of your cloak and whip it off for all to see. I survived these experiences thanks to the children in my charge, whom I copied intently, noting how they scraped the artichoke leaf on their bottom teeth, how they deftly bashed, clamped and tweezed a lobster claw as naturally as though it were a plate of beans on toast, how they uncorked the wine for their parents with a practised dexterity.

If acquiring cultural capital was as simple as mastering the extraction of meat from a lobster claw, we might all have a chance of doing so. But as I gathered from subsequent nannying jobs, and then relationships, there is much more to it than food. Recognising the difference between expensive abstract art and a child’s painting, without having grown up with trips to the Tate, is something I learned only when complimenting a parent on their son’s talent.

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I found it equally difficult to eradicate the words “toilet” and “lounge” from my vocabulary, noting that whenever I used them they incited an unmistakeable wince. I am still to master the art of the anecdote, of retrieving those perfect marbles from my pocket – shiny from the constant polishing – but know they land best when they involve someone important and are set in a foreign country, which may be the reason I am no good at them.

What I know for certain, however, now that I’ve seen how it all works, is that these surface signals of class often mask a deeper lack. At worst they are employed as a deterrent, like banana skins on the ladder. The most debased forms of cultural capital – table etiquette, word choice – are often used to expose or even exclude those who have grown up without it. But in its exalted form – literature, art, theatre – cultural capital has the capacity to make us all wealthier, spiritually and materially. The last thing working-class children need is for this vital currency to be weakened by the modern left’s crusade against elitism. A race to the bottom in the name of equality will only mean the poor get poorer.

When I hand my son a copy of Great Expectations at “just the right time”, it will be because I want him to know what I didn’t, and because it will give him great pleasure. Everyone deserves to inherit this invisible gold.

[See also: Ballet to Blake, we must break the hold of cultural capital]

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This article appears in the 26 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special