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I’m not asking if I can take a seat at the table. I am demanding you move

When I was just a snot-nosed kid, I failed my eleven-plus. And so, my life changed.

By Stephen Tuffin

When I was just a snot-nosed kid, I failed my eleven-plus. And so, my life changed. I wasn’t aware of the change at the time because, well, I was 11. Nor was  I aware that the kids who’d passed were embarking on a journey full of potential and opportunity. A journey no longer available to those of us who had failed.  I believed I was stupid. I was never discouraged from thinking otherwise. Words like “career”, “ambition” and “education” were for the smart people. My “betters”.

For the next 30 years I worked manual or unskilled jobs. Eleven years in psychiatric care homes, two years as a road worker, 15 years as a carpenter. I was an accident-insurance salesman, a painter/decorator, a dry liner, and a mini-cab driver. To earn extra cash my wife and I took in ironing and cleaned people’s houses, we stuffed Reader’s Digest envelopes for pennies and delivered VHS videos door-to-door in the evenings.

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Then I was diagnosed with an arthritic condition and was told I could no longer work as a carpenter.  We had a mortgage, young children, no income. There were times when we didn’t have the money to feed the key meters that gave us heat and light. Times when the tyres on my car were so bald the steel shone through. Times when there was not enough money in the bank. On those occasions we’d queue at different supermarket tills to buy food and nappies, like strangers, hoping the cheques we were writing at the same time wouldn’t bounce. To this day, we break out in a cold sweat if one of our cards is declined. That shame, that fear, leaves an invisible mark.

With no visible future ahead of me, I decided to get the education I never had as a kid. There was funding for people like me back then. By the time I was 50, I had two degrees and was working, part-time, as a lecturer.

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You’d be forgiven for thinking this is one of those sob stories – what is it called? Poverty porn? But I’m not writing this for sympathy or a pat on the back. I’m writing it because I want people to understand that the sole reason I’ve spent the past 20 years getting an education is so that I might become a writer in my own right: a working-class writer. I never wanted to be middle-class, and I never will. I want the opportunity to write and be heard. I’m not asking if I can take a seat at the table. I am demanding you move the fuck over, because I’m taking my seat whether you like it or not.

Stephen Tuffin is supported by A Writing Chance, a UK-wide project from New Writing North designed to discover new writers from underrepresented backgrounds whose voices have historically not been heard in publishing and the media. You can read work by other writers in this initiative here.

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A Writing Chance is co-funded by Michael Sheen and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and supported by the New Statesman and the Daily Mirror. The project is delivered by New Writing North and literature organisations nationally, with research from Northumbria University.

This piece is published in Michael Sheen’s guest edited issue of the New Statesman, “A Dream of Britain”, on sale from 25 March.

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This article appears in the 23 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, A Dream of Britain