On and off the Steamers


I never gave it much thought, but I am in fact working class.

Perhaps, seeing as I am a touch autistic, I did not pick up the clues (subtle and otherwise) that littered my entire childhood: the kids I went to school with, the house we lived in, the suburb we lived in, the huge home library we completely didn’t have, filled with all the classics and those delicious atlases I never knew I craved. The art-books & encyclopedias I never once drooled over. Ditto the gramophone collection that wasn’t there – packed with all those fabulous shows tunes and classic symphonies. Dunedin had a superb public art gallery, world class, but I never even knew. The only art I ever saw was on the tops of biscuit tins.

As for aspirations and expectations – well I’ll get to that. How does one learn about things if they are simply not there?

Is this how it still goes – that the working classes replicate themselves endlessly via thought, word and deed? The narrow vocabulary; (I’m still learning words, 60 years later, that should have just been there from the beginning.) the narrow band of knowledge about … well: everything. Attitudes; food; politics; choice of radio station. And all the things that go unspoken – because they are unknown. Hell: if they had given me a seething hatred of fat-cat capitalists and a red-flag-waving appreciation of unionism – that would have been something! Nope. Not even that. It seemed I grew up in a cultureless void, unless one counted going to tea-rooms instead of coffee shops, shopping at the cheapest chains, wearing hand-me-downs, and that going by train to Christchurch  (a HUGE adventure) and staying with Grandma for a week constituted ‘a holiday’.

Not that any of that was impinging directly upon my consciousness, but it was all going in. It’s astonishing that I did not turn out to be a knee-jerk racist, for example. My parents were both awful! (Oh I still am in annoying little ways: little auto-pilot attitudes that still lurk in the corners. Who is entirely free of it?)

I did not enter a library until I was about 11. Never saw a concert until my late teens. Saw my first live theatre when I was 16~17. Think I mentioned art galleries. Museums? Yes! We went there, a lot. I announced one day that I wanted to be an archaeologist. Mum was delighted – but I suspect she had no idea how I was going to get there. Nobody did.

When Dad remarried (it was complex: My mother scarpered and left him with the kids. Don’t press me for details; I was under the bed most of the time..) some books did come into the house: medical text books. My stepmother was an ex-nurse. I won’t go into her backstory. Can’t. I don’t know it. But anyway, my big brother began investigating these tomes and soon discovered they were filled with exceedingly gross photographs and the occasional glimpse of genitalia. He memorized their locations and lured me in there one day, showed me all the juicy bits. I took a sudden interest in things medical.

Along with those books, the house acquired two books by Joy Adamson; “Born Free” and “Stay Free”. I eventually read them both, and a new world opened out to me. But what really pulled me towards them was the fact that her books were full of photographs of African women wearing no bras, and one (titled “A gift of fresh fish”) of an almost entirely naked girl – a lake behind her – holding an enormous fish at the end of each straining arm. Her face was one huge smile, but my brother and I were seldom looking at her face.

I never gave it much thought, but I am in fact working class.

I attribute to that a number of things, like for example getting through my school years and stepping out into the world with my Dux-prizes in my hands, and still being massively un-educated. I had no powers of critical thinking. I still didn’t understand the causes of W.W.1. I loathed classical music. I went to movies for the car chases. And perhaps most significantly of all – I had no grasp of just how fricking significant it was that I was Dux of my school in Maths and Sciences. Highest marks in my city, in some subjects. I was thick!

I dunno, I might be wrong, but the working-class mindset of my entire family (aided and abetted by the general loathing emanating from my step-mother), just might have set me up with a certain kind of expectation about myself. Or to spin it around, stated it more accurately, they failed to inject me with the expectations and aspirations I needed to move beyond that point. No-one had ever been to university. No-one knew anyone in the professional classes.I did not contain a sense of ‘automated profession-privilege’.

I met people like that a few years later at Architecture School. (Not everyone was like that. There was a plumber’s daughter (she made it) and others.) They marched forwards, their families close behind them, They never wavered, got their degrees, became professionals.

I can’t lay everything at the feet of my working-class origins. Bi-polar played its part.

I never gave it much thought, but I am in fact working class.

My father’s father (Peter) was a steamship engineer, apparently. He took to the ships out of Edinburgh around about 1900, seeing a way out of the grinding poverty that was otherwise his lot. There were mass-migrations out of Scotland at the time, all seeking better pastures. I have thousands of rellies in Canada, apparently. Thus he traveled the world, no doubt seeing far more of the inside of his ship that he did of anything else until he got off at Lyttelton, New Zealand, cashed up and ready to settle down.

[What was his job like? go here: www.shipsnostalgia.com. ]

Peter G married three times, and had mostly boys. The youngest was my father; Don. And by all accounts ‘Peter Pop’ was a real old bastard – raised on the mean-streets of Aberdeen – working class – no social welfare and a daily hike to the school of hard knocks. I met him but twice. Dad went to visit him, we had to tag along. It seemed strained. To my eye Pop lived in a junkyard, and apparently my perceptions were not far off the mark. Angry, drunk, pugilistic and prone to played absolutely rotten tricks on everyone; sending them of fool’s errands them berating them for their failure – that was my Scottish grandfather in his increasingly lonely dotage. “All  Men are Bastards” as the recent song goes.

I’ve tracked back though my ancestry. ALL of them came out to New Zealand by ship, all on the ‘steamers’. 3rd-class, or maybe worse. Welsh, Irish, Scottish, and one Norwegian. They got on and off the steamers. (Just that my grandfather stayed on his the longest.)

The ripples … kept rippling. But each of those victims still went forth, determined to not become like his own father/her own mother, they all advanced in their own ways; upward mobility was a phenomenon of those times and they all took the ride – advanced into the middle classes. Their children (my generation) advanced even further. I have cousins in the professional arena now, mostly on Peter G’s side of the ledger. Everyone else is upper-working/lower-middle/middle. We broke the mould out of which generations of Scottish children were stamped. Being Working Class is not to be ashamed of. We were not idiots, we were just victims, everyone damaged and some still damaging.

But humanity is marvelous – it can rise above all of that, given time. And libraries.

But I fear for the future. we could end up once again on the mean-streets of Aberdeen, or Brisbane, or Dunedin, surviving on the strength of our punches or our sociopathic powers – no social welfare – no way out. but that’s a political-rant for another day.


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