‘Music is the soundtrack to our lives’ is a trite, meaningless and overused statement found on sad dating profiles, which grates on me almost as much as when people say ‘that works on SO MANY LEVELS’.
Some tunes have the power to become themes, for a little while, reoccurring at odd points; making themselves known to you. Songs can give resonance and meaning to unconnected life events and relationships. Hearing them, years later goes beyond mere reminiscence, and makes you draw experiences together.
Or it does if you are overly sentimental like me. Common People, by Pulp; occupies that position in my life.
I don’t remember where I first heard it, probably on Live and Kicking, or the chart show, or some other mid 90s relic. I would have seen the video first, probably when I was slightly too young fancy Jarvis Cocker (or realise that repeatedly watching these videos would permanently shape my preference for lanky effeminate men).
I bought Different Class with my Christmas money in 1997 for £15. Common People was never my favourite song on the album, but it was always my first choice for those nightly bedroom lone lip synching parties.
As an 11 year old in Castleford I probably didn’t ‘get’ that album fully, but it didn’t stop me listening to it every night, and then coming back to it throughout my teens. These were the New Labour years, where we were politicised briefly around the Iraq war and then demoralised entirely, where having a class analysis was old fashioned and played little obvious part in my life.
That was until I went to the University of Edinburgh in 2005 (after ironically, rejecting Durham after an open day because ‘everyone I met was too posh’) Having spent my late teens going to parties hosted by dropouts and Leeds College of Music students, I expected University to be a place of hedonistic excess taking place in a scene from the young ones, with a scuzzy Britpop soundtrack. When I arrived in Marchmont, in a flat with four beautiful well spoken young women I was initially, disappointed.
Two of my housemates were blonde, beautiful and clearly, a Different Class. I didn’t really expect to get on with them, I couldn’t imagine that we could possibly have anything in common as people.
But, if distance has the power to make the heart grow fonder, proximity can create unexpected bonds.
Despite – housemate A (lets call her Emma) being related to Swedish aristocracy (I remember a conversation about money, where Emma spoke of her worries about not getting a job after University. I said, ‘oh but you are Swedish, they have a good social security system in Sweden no?’ she replied disdainfully ‘I would never go on the dole!’)
And housemate B (Let’s call her Anya) being the daughter of a Russian oligarch
(my favourite memories of Anya include, her telling her family about how hard I work in a shop to support myself at university, which apparently had her mum ‘nearly in tears’)
Somehow, we became friends, intimate close friends. The sort of friendship that women often form in their late teens and early twenties, where you share your most difficult and troubling experiences, talk about sex and feminism a lot, drink wine, eat chocolate and in our case, occasionally, listen to Common People by Pulp.
Emma and I would get drunk and sing along, not really thinking of how laden with meaning the line ‘Why am I living with common people like you’ was. The lip synch parties in my Castleford bedroom had moved to Marchmont university halls, and acquired new participants.
Despite being very different, or perhaps even because we were so different, we got on as women living in the same place, doing the same thing. So much so, that we decided to continue to live together in our second year of University.
By this time, I had started to understand the class system a bit more. In my teens my perception of class was that there are poor people, rich people and everyone else; normal people: most everyone I knew fit the category of ‘normal’. There were some kids at school who were poor, but they were exceptions.
University was massively politicising as I came to understand more about the class system and how it operates, largely as a result of the different people I spent time with. My days involved studying English Literature with rich young women from the south of England, and my evenings working in youth centres in Pilton, Muirhouse and Granton. By travelling 45 minutes on a bus I was taking a tour through the class system, I became increasingly unsure of my own place within it, but nonetheless convinced of its existence and power.
By the end of the decade I no longer lived with Anya and Emma, they had gone abroad in their 3rd year and I had stayed behind, unable to afford a year in the States, despite a strong desire to test my theory that American boys would find my accent irresistible.
We stayed friends through their time in Edinburgh, I got a job as a youth worker after university and Anya got married to the son of another oligarch. The three of us went out for dinner once; no sooner had I sat down when Anya announced to her fiancé ‘Liz is a Marxist’, leaving me stumped as to how I was supposed to justify or elaborate on that. In retrospect it’s likely that I was as much a curiosity to them as they were to me.
I attended the wedding in 2010, in the months after the Conservatives had come to power with the help of the Lib Dems. Emma was there, of course. Their bond was stronger as they had a shared culture of wealth and privilege, of which I was always the outsider. Anya once took Emma out for a fancy dinner at Prestonfield in Edinburgh because ‘she likes that sort of thing’, the implicit assumption there being that I wasn’t into ‘that sort of thing’, and that going along with them to a fancy dinner would make me uncomfortable. That may have been true, but nonetheless: I wouldn’t have turned down a swanky dinner.
The wedding deserves it’s own post, it’s still something that I can’t quite believe I was a witness to. ‘That time I went to an oligarch’s wedding’ is a story I reel out at parties during conversational lulls or at times when I want some attention.
As you might imagine, my sister and I were the most working class people there by some margin and I don’t deal too well in such situations. I am bad in any environment where I am required to be something other than ‘myself’. Fitting in is not a skill I have, and I failed spectacularly at this event, even though truly, I tried. All my small talk fell flat as I accidentally said the things that I actually thought. The rich are not uncouth enough to argue, or disagree when you say something they are uncomfortable with – they just move silently, gracefully away from you.
Luckily though, there was booze. The finest booze I will ever drink – booze so expensive, I made sure that I sampled enough to experience it twice.
By the end of the last evening, after two days of saying the wrong things to the ‘right’ people I found myself drunk in a minibus with the various elites of Edinburgh university. Much to the horror of my younger, more reserved sister I thought it would be a good idea to try to start a round of ‘Common People’.
Emma didn’t join in this time, we weren’t in our first year flat any more, and the meaning that the song was laden with had become inescapable. The only person who joined in was a right wing pundit who also happens to like Britpop. He wasn’t embarrassed by singing along with this drunken interloper, it was after all his patch, not mine.
That’s the last time I saw Anya, Emma met me for a coffee for 10 minutes in London in 2011; otherwise we’ve not really been in touch. Emma leads a fairly luxurious life involving a yacht broker, if Instagram is anything to go by, and Anya has had a family, and high profile business responsibilities, or at least that’s what google tells me.
All relationships are fleeting, and I write this in part to fix it in words so I don’t forget. I don’t know what Anya and Emma think about me, or our friendship – what they think about University and what themes they reflect upon.
I feel like this story, should have a better ending. I have a strong desire to impose meaning on these reflections, and draw some sort of conclusion.
But I am not sure there are any firm conclusions here to be drawn. Our relationship happened as a result of being thrown together by chance and we shared in a common humanity because we were women in the same place, at the same time. In reality, I got a glimpse into their world far more than they ever saw into mine, I stayed in a high end hotel in St Petersburg – they will I am sure, never visit Castleford.
They are there, and I am here. I wouldn’t swap places, but I remain committed to dismantling the structures which violently keep us all apart. They are distant from the realities of poverty, which is directly connected to their wealth. I am closer to that reality, though cushioned from it.
And I rent a flat
(in a basement, not above a shop – slugs, rather than roaches)
Have cut my hair
And got a job…..
(a nice, allbeit insecure one, in the charity sector.)