Notes from a Provincial Queer: COVID-19 and Class

Why Lockdown Life is not the same for all of us — and why now is the time for us to talk about class and values

By Timothy Allsop

Originally published on Medium, 20 April 2020.

As a child, I grew up in a poor working-class family in rural Suffolk. My father worked in a meat factory until he became my mum’s full-time carer, when she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. I was seven years old. For several years we relied completely on benefits, and were forced to live frugally. From these early experiences I knew what it meant to be part of the ‘just managing’. Eleven years later, despite our financial struggles, I was lucky enough to get a place at the University of Oxford, the first one from my comprehensive school to go in a long time. My dad was pleased because he saw the opportunities a university education offered me. And he wasn’t wrong. It began a journey that would lead to training as an actor, coming out as gay, moving to London and finally reaching a point where my life became recognizably that of the middle class. But then along came Covid-19 and within a matter of days, as society went into lockdown, almost all my work dried up. My income dropped by nearly 90 per cent and looked unlikely to recover for months. Understandably, it made me anxious. Very anxious. But I also noticed that the anxiety felt akin to the precariousness I had experienced as a child. I was thrown back to a time when I had constantly worried about the future and money. It also made me think about the claim made by John Prescott in 1997 that ‘we’re all middle-class now’. He was, of course, talking nonsense, but in a way, he was reflecting a value system in which I was being taught to want to be middle class. Get an education, get out of Suffolk and make a life for myself. Consciously and unconsciously I was encouraged to aspire to middle-class ways of being, to use money as a measure of success, to relish competition and to seek reward and accolades while deferring to various forms of patronage. As a consequence, I had also devalued my roots and perhaps repressed part of my identity. The truth was I had never felt comfortable as a middle-class person or to the values I associated with it.

While Covid-19 may have brought my personal crisis to a head, the feeling that I was an outsider had been growing for some months. In October 2019, my partner and I decided to leave London. He was about to become a student and I was a freelancer on a small income. Staying in London didn’t make sense financially. The response from our friends was mixed and could roughly be divided into two groups: those who understood the financial and practical reasons and those who said things like why are you leaving London gay life or we’ll see you when you come into town. I felt the fear of leaving the city myself. I had got used to going out to gay bars when I wanted; I liked to spend money on eating out and going to the theatre. I liked being able to see a group of friends at short notice and host dinner parties and have drinks nights. There seemed extra pressure as someone who identified as being gay that living my best gay life meant being in London. Sometimes it felt like there was an almost cultish dismissal among many of my friends, straight and gay, of the rural or non-metropolitan space: especially when it came to issues of the rural poor and Brexit. I heard more than once at a dinner party a version of the phrase those ignorant poor people voting for Brexit and it would make me wince because I knew some of those people, they were a part of me, a part of my blood.

Our identities and social values are often shaped very early in our lives. The lived experiences of poverty and making do created a sense of allegiance that makes it hard for me to generalize or dismiss the working poor. My father was cheated of an education by the eleven plus and by a family that was taught to be suspicious of learning. Physical work was valued and given status instead. I remember my grandad saying on several occasions why do you need all that learning you long streak of piss? But after my father joined the Navy he began to see the world and the value of education. He took a very different attitude to his parents and encouraged me and my sister to work, without being pushy. But even then, as Thatcher’s children, we were being taught to strive for wealth and to be competitive while at the same time to reject or look down on the life we came from. I remember now riding around the fields, making dens, learning the names of plants from my grandma who had worked in the orchards, going to Speedway or the Suffolk coast on days out. There was value in these experiences that perhaps I learned to sneer at as I grew into adulthood. Univeristy had betterthings to offer me, the city had better jobs. Perhaps some of this was the natural rebellion of a teenager, but I do feel it was being reinforced by the wider values I was learning at school, in the media and in the politics of the country. By shifting from one class into another I tried to navigate the dissonance between my new life and my past by rejecting those things I had loved as a child, but it left me being a little uncritical of the new middle-class space in which I was moving. I often felt as though I was in some kind of social purgatorial swamp, belonging nowhere.

I have spent too much energy on playing up to values that were often questionable to me. As an actor there has been a constant sense of pressure to be seen to be achieving, not just on stage, but through networking and being visible on the theatre circuit. I think about the number of times I prioritised work in London over elsewhere or thrown myself into uncomfortable social situations on the expectation it might lead to work. I think about the times I allowed myself or other actors to be treated poorly by a director or producer because of the power imbalance, shutting down that instinct I saw in my father and grandparents to point out an injustice. I also think about how unhealthy it was to measure my worth by what play I was or wasn’t in, while quietly seething at actors and directors who were getting breaks because they could afford to work for low or no pay gigs. Like any industry there is unfairness, but having this time to take stock, I have begun to think about the work I want to create and to make sure my values are reflected in the work I do. The Covid-19 crisis has made me concerned for the survival of many smaller theatres but even more so for working class actors who may be unable to sustain themselves financially and mentally for the year ahead.

In my teaching work, I have moved away from teaching the kids of parents who were only interested in exam results. More often than not I would have to deal with parents wanting me to ‘help’ their child with their coursework and by ‘help’ I mean basically write it for them. I refused to do more than give advice, but even then, I felt as though I was doing a disservice to the fifteen-year-old version of me that could not afford to pay for extra support. The money from teaching was good, so for many years I turned a blind eye to many of the clients, but I could not shake the guilt. And I saw so many unhappy children, who were being pushed by their parents to study ‘respected’ subjects and achieve academically when many of them would have liked to have done something more practical with their lives. Social mobility doesn’t seem to come into play when the daughter of a banker isn’t even allowed to consider that she might be happier as an electrician. I taught one boy who liked carpentry but his dad had told him to think of it as a hobby and arranged for him to do work experience at a bank instead.

In my gay life, I have also been encouraged to celebrate the middle class at the expense of my working class upbringing. Indeed, gay culture has centred on the urban, monied and the career-orientated male to such an extent that it might be wrongly assumed that all queer people are middle-class. We do not gape just at the growing tension between Chalamet and Hammer in Call Me By Your Name, but at the beautiful Italian house and garden with its terrace, staff, and attic rooms of abused fruit. Gay intimacy is given weight, validity and expression between beautiful educated well-to-do gay men falling for one another in a beautiful space. While there is much to admire in CMBYN, we should also recognize that we are unconsciously being encouraged to see intimacy at its fullest in aesthetically bourgeois environs. There are rare excellent examples of working-class intimacy that have received some mainstream attention, such as God’s Own Country and Moonlight, where we observe gay characters learning to express intimacy and be vulnerable in tough living circumstances, but the box office takings in the UK market were just over a million dollars for God’s Own Country compared to Call Me By Your Name, which took nearly 2.4 million dollars in the domestic UK market. Of course, distribution of the latter was much wider, received Oscar nominations and was adapted by a firmly established gay film writer from an already successful novel, but still it raises a question of what class of gay we are being asked to invest in emotionally. For my taste, there was far more emotional engagement in Moonlight than there was in CMBYN in that I immediately connected with much of Chiron’s experience in terms of his sexuality and socio-economic background, certainly more than I did with the world of Hammer and Chalamet. As a teenager, I also remember Beautiful Thing as an example of a gay working class story but never saw any rural working-class experiences. As gay people become more accepted into heterosexual society perhaps we see a mainstreaming effect in line with the dominant culture, and I would argue straight culture has increasingly indulged in adoration of middle and upper class narratives — the Downton Abbey effect. It makes me think about ways we can give voice to working class gay experiences, especially rural ones. And perhaps as a minority, who have been long disregarded or persecuted by mainstream society, we should be wary of anything that celebrates power and money.

Covid-19 has required me to think about what I value and where my loyalties lie, and as I come to terms once again with financial insecurity, I think about the families who have no choice about where they live or the work they do. I have been thinking about my father a lot too. I have had to repeat to my dad many times not to go to his job, even though his employer has not shut. He has been ill, and after three weeks, is only now making a slow recovery. His employer has decided to stay open even though it is a non-essential service. It has a large warehouse and so in the workers have to go, even though the office staff are able to work from home. What frustrates me is that my dad and his partner feel obligated to work, because the money is essential and the company won’t furlough them, knowing that they can claim back hours unworked now when the firm is busier at Christmas. There are a lot of organizations still willing to exploit workers during this period. I feel ashamed when I think about the times I have flown on Virgin planes, when I read in the news the various ways they are trying to avoid paying their employees or wanting tax-payers money to help keep them afloat. A lot of us are making Amazon orders, even though we know a lot of their staff aren’t that well paid or well looked after. I think about how my comfortable middle-class lifestyle has been contributing to climate change. I can make better choices and that means engaging with what I value.

Now is the time for a conversation about what we have devalued. Because in questioning what we hold dear we also begin to question where power resides and how and why inequality continues. It is one thing to clap the NHS workers, it is another to agree to pay higher taxes so they can be paid fairly. It is one thing to give a knighthood to a war veteran who has raised millions for the NHS but it would be another to have fully funded it for the previous ten years. In times of crisis many of us draw inwards and think of protecting those closest to us, but there will come a point at which we must think beyond those familial realms.

Please do not think this is a personal attack on my middle-class urban friends; this is rather intended as a discussion about how we might better forge a broader communal identity with a set of values that does not exclude so many of us or depend on us playing up to mainstream middle-class aspirations. Indeed, there are positive and negative characteristics and values associated with both working-class and middle-class groups; I am not demanding we should replace one set of values wholesale for another. I also recognize that class is a relative term and may mean different things to different people — some might even deny its existence. But forty years of a dominant centrist and right-wing ideology has taught us to fear words like solidarity. I know I would certainly feel calmer and healthier if I didn’t have to worry about my success being measured by a set of values that no longer seem sustainable. The pandemic has created space for renewed conversations about communal effort, more equitable taxation and solidarity once more. Let’s not shy away from what it means in practical terms.