O Pioneers! (after Willa Cather) by Sarah Barnsley

Back home, our area of Coventry was originally named in the Doomsday book, and in the 19th century when still largely unpopulated, was a place for wealthy tradesmen. However, the city spread to this outlying area in the early 20th century and housing estates began to encroach on the land. My parents bought a two bed terrace there for about £1,500 and all around us, mainly families from Ireland bought up their own. In a way, they were the new pioneers, to borrow from Sarah’s borrowed phrase.

But this was a divided area: between those who owned their houses and those who lived in the identikit council alternative; of course it was only divided by banter. We were no sociologists, but we took on stratification when taking the piss out of those who weren’t allowed to paint their own house, where the streets had the same fence, where dogs roamed wild in hand me down clothes, and there was a pervading smell of poverty. None of the latter was true of course, but it was good fun at the time, and we were all mates (well mostly).

However, such divisions in the working class are often used by politicians to demonise and divide; so they no longer use class as a term, it is all about hard working families, not those on benefits such as the disabled (a third of disabled adults live in a low-income household). It also iniquitously hides the fact that many hard working low income families are on or below the poverty line.

Sarah BarnsleyNonetheless, it doesn’t mean we can’t take the piss out of our own; snobbery is not only for the middle and upper classes. Sarah Barnsley’s poignantly funny poem, O Pioneers! highlights such snobbery in a warm hearted way, when describing the family move; “We travelled to the wild West/Midlands, chugging through/cooling tower canyons in the/turquoise Ford Triumph that/Dad had bought for fifty quid.” But there is tension between parent and child in terms of identity, with the mother wanting to maintain a sense of being of a higher class than where “the cuffies lived,/with brown settees, half cladding/like unfinished Scrabble, and kids/who ran around with their arses/hanging out.” The child wants to belong, doesn’t want to be told to fuck off by the local kids no more, so when tasked with making a clay model of their home at school, “I quiffed the roof/into a triangle, pressed pennies/against the windows, attached/Scrabble pieces up one side/like a climbing ivy of squares,/and moved our cuffy arses into/the frontier, where we belonged.” Brilliant! (more…)