Saturday, April 12, 2008

Cultural capital

I'm just home from a rare night out with ex-housemate-once-schoolmate S, who doesn't get out much these days, and ex-housemate-once-schoolmate K, who gets out plenty, but not often with me.

We ended up wandering Oxford's tiny gay village (it's tiny, the gay people are normal size). It's not that we were specifically looking for a gay pub, just that they are the closest proper pubs to the shiny new Castle complex, where we'd eaten pizza. There are bars in there, but only an idiot would want to drink their uber-priced fizzy lager while listening to lowest common denominator music at ear-splitting volume. And I've never seen the point of drinking standing up.

We ended up in the Brewery Gate, which I'm sure used to be home to excruciating open mike nights, but which is now mostly home to low-key lesbians. And perfectly friendly with it, possibly because they mistook me and S for low-key lesbians ourselves. It wouldn't be the first time, it's been happening on and off since we were at school together in the mid-late 80s.

Not that I could give a monkey's arse, mind, but it did mean that once we'd finished arguing politics, we started reminiscing about how much fun that was and wasn't. The school in question recently held a '30 years since we let girls in' event. Doing the sums, you can work out that we were a relatively new phenomenon at the time, and there were some occasions when we wished they hadn't bothered.

In our year, though, the head of school was a girl. We wondered if that was the first time, but we couldn't really remember. The deputy head was a boy. I remembered being surprised they gave him the job, he was clever enough, and lots of people liked him, but they tended to go for the clean cut kids. He was a bit edgier. Worst of all, he was a smoker.

Well, said S, he got the race vote, didn't he.

What? I said. He wasn't black!

No, she said, but he was vaguely brown.

She had a point. Vaguely brown was the closest we got to black. I don't think there was a black kid in the whole school.

Hang on a minute, I said, I'm half Jewish! Why did that bring me no plaudits? Jewish has never been cool, said S. And what about me? I'm from North Shore. There were more vaguely browns than North Shorians. Also true, though that was more of a class thing than a race one. North Shore was the wrong side of the tracks.

I had sort of forgotten how clearly delineated those social slivers can be, how narrowly we defined our tribes. However homogenous a group of kids you are, you can always find a way to create a social hierarchy. Further back in time, at a primary school with a catchment area of basically one housing estate, I remember it mattering which end of the estate you lived on. Which cul-de-sac. It didn't stop us getting on with each other, even the vaguely brown ones, but it mattered.

And these were not down to choices we had made ourselves, paths we had taken, we were too young for that. This was 100% down to the hands our parents had been dealt, and the way they had played them. I've been mulling on this in a dark, premenstrual sort of way and I find it rather depressing.


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