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Identity, culture shock and class distinctions

4 May 2017

Fifty years ago today I was celebrating Ascension Day in England, at St Chad’s College in Durham, where was a student, studying for a post-graduate diploma in theology. St Chad’s College was (and still is) a constituent college of Durham University, though it is no longer recognised (as it was then) as a suitable college for preparing people for ordination in the Church of England. I had been in England for 16 months, and at St Chad’s for 7 (my first few months in England I had spend driving buses in London). I was about to make my first visit to Scotland, where my mother was visiting her cousin Willie Hannan, in Glasgow. He was Labour MP for Maryhill.

My diary entry is written in almost stream-of-consciousness style, so I’ll post it and then make some comments. I wonder how much has changed, and how much is the same as it was 50 years ago. Back then there were student protests because of proposals from the Labour government of Harold Wilson to raise university fees for overseas students (like me) . Brit students paid virtually nothing — they were subsidised by local authority grants, so a fair proportion of working-class students could make it to university. Now I think British students cry #feesmustfall just like students in other countries. Perhaps Maggie Thatcher was responsible for that.

Thursday 5 May 1966, Ascension Day

High Mass at 7:00, with “Hail thee, festival day”, a Canaanite fertility song. I wrote to Dave Short, from whom I had a letter. He was born in Durham 23 years ago. Told him what I thought of his home town. I hate England. I hate its class distinction, which is so elusive and so ubiquitous. “So-and-so has a chip on his shoulder”, “I wouldn’t mind going to Southwark Diocese, but Mervyn Stockwood is the bishop”. “Why?” I ask. Why had he got a chip on his shoulder? How had he demonstrated it? What have you got against Mervyn Stockwood? And no answer is given. An embarrassed silence, and the subject is changed. You either know or you don’t. If you know, you are one of us, and if you don’t, no one is going to tell you. I bought a record, “They’re coming to take me away, ha ha”. I played it, and Pawsey said it was sick, but I like it. At 11:00 I went to Prin’s thingy on the gospels, and returned and played the record again, with Hoots there, and he laughed, especially at the second side which is the same thing backwards. At about 3:00 we had coffee, and Hugh says he can’t stand “They’re coming to take me away”, and Hoots doesn’t want it either. He’s the great bolshie non-conformist Hoots says it will drive him mad, O hell will it. So I put on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony which also drives him mad cause he only likes pops, but Hugh and I like it. And all the songs I like these days I see are concerned with loss of identity, the sort of I’m not sure who I am songs or I’m not him songs, like “It ain’t me babe”, or “I’m a boy”, or escapist songs like “I guess I should have stayed in bed” or “They’re coming to take me away”, and even Snoopy is the fantasy of a dog being a World War I pilot, as mine at 11 to 15 years old was being a World War II pilot. But it’s like St Chad’s itself, or the church having no sense of corporate identity or common purpose. We are all isolated, or perhaps just I am but no, Crauf is too really; we can’t communicate on a deeper level. Our psychological process is the same, but our values are different. He mourns the coming of equality, I mourn that it is not coming. Cousin Willie Hannan phoned after supper, saying Mum is flying up to Glasgow tomorrow, and I say I’ll try to go too. He says they had a good natter yesterday and all. So I asked Brang and he agreed. Frank Cranmer and Hoots came to coffee with me. Frank, of working-class origin, escapes the pressure by his fixation on academic tat. He wants his long sleeves, his fancy hood, and then he will be happy, but is that any substitute for treating people as human beings? Chris Cornwell talks of “yobs” in tones of great contempt. Pete Farrow learned to play croquet when he came to Chads. His father is a butcher. He says he’s working class, and to the others he can play croquet like an Anglicised kaffir, and he hasn’t got a chip on his shoulder like John Wickstead. Hoots and I argued about Daniel, he said it was composed in praise of Jonathan Maccabaeus, and I saying that it was political propaganda against Antiochus Epiphanes.

Some explanatory notes:

Hail thee festival day was an Ascension Day hymn, but rather than dealing with the theology of the Ascension, it wittered on about the northern hemisphere climate. Being from the “Global South”, I resented what I saw as northern hemisphere imperialism, hence the reference to it as a Canaanite fertility song. .

Lo, the fair beauty of earth,
from the death of the winter arising,
every good gift of the year
now with its Master returns.

Daily the loveliness grows,
adorned with the glory of blossom;
heaven her gates unbars,
flinging her increase of light.

Dave Short was an old school friend of mine who had been born in Durham, but had grown up in South Africa.

I had spent the previous day mostly in the company of a couple of Tories, and became acutely aware that they spoke in a kind of code among themselves.

There was (and still is) something similar in South Africa, though in South Africa the class distinctions are also complicated by race distinctions, hence the reference to “Anglicised kaffir”. “Kaffir” was (and to some extent still is) a term of contempt used by some white people in South Africa to refer to black people, just as the term “yob” was a term of contempt used by English people to refer to someone of a lower class than themselves. Working class people were tolerated in English universities, provided that they “fitted in” and distanced themselves from their working-class origins. If they didn’t fit  in, they had “a chip on their shoulders”.

St Chad’s College students c1967, with chips on shoulders

So in South Africa, black students were allowed into white English-speaking universities (until the government stopped it by the Extension of University Education Act of 1959) and were tolerated provided that they “fitted in”. That this is still a problem in South Africa is shown by talk of the need for decolonising tertiary education.

A few years later, in 1973, a conference was held in Durban on mission and evangelism, which was largely organised by white people. I wasn’t allowed to attend, being banned at the time, but I did sneak in to a couple of the events that were open to the public, and I asked a black Anglican priest I knew how it was going, and his response was , “They are skinning us, and trying to make us white.” Black people were accepted at the conference, but only on white terms, hence the reference to “Anglicised kaffir” to describe the similar process in English universities. The culture shock was that I was used to it in South Africa, but hadn’t expected to find it in Britain, the country of the mother of parliaments and the pioneer of democracy.

And there is the question of identity.

Part of my culture shock was finding that, in a supposedly Christian college like St Chad’s, people did not see their primary identity as being Christian, but rather in terms of class. It was class that made you who you were.

In South Africa it was race. But in South Africa there was also a difference before and after 1961, when South Africa became a republic. From the official government point of view, black people were “die swart gevaar” (the black peril) — they were out there, an undifferentiated mass. But there were distinctions among white people, Afrikaans and English. Once the Afrikaans people achieved dominance among the whites, then the aim became “white unity”, to withstand the black peril. And the attitude to black people then became “divide and rule”. So tribalism was no longer encouraged among whites, but it was emphasised among blacks. Ethnicity became all important, whether you were Xhosa or Zulu or Sotho or Tswana, and you must have a “homeland”. So there was an important switch in 1961: before then, tribalism was emphasised among whites, largely ignored among blacks. Afterwards, tribalism was encouraged among blacks, discouraged among whites. For whites, whiteness became the supreme value.

And that was when I began to see my identity primarily in Christian terms. I don’t think I was alone in this, it was a sort of Zeitgeist. Groups like the Christian Institute began circulating Bible study materials that emphasised II Cor 5:16-17 — if anyone is in Christ he is a new creature. Though we formerly judged people by standards of the flesh (whether one was black or white, English or Afrikaans, Zulu or Tswana), we now did so no longer.

Of course the government did not like this, and put more pressure on white people to see whiteness as the most important thing about them, and many did, but many also resisted and this culminated in the issue of A Message to the People of South Africa in which the main point was that we are saved by grace and not by race.

But this sense of a Christian identity seemed to be almost entirely lacking in an English theological college, and the fleshly distinctions of class seemed to be more important.

And now, in South Africa, there are some who seem to be trying to herd white people back into the kraal, or laager, of whiteness, and make them conscious that their whiteness is the most important thing about them, and I think, as Bob Dylan sang back in the 1960s, “Oh no, no no, no, I’ve been through this movie before,”

And so I wonder how much has changed in fifty years, and whether it has changed for the better, or the worse.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Yvonne Aburrow permalink
    12 May 2017 1:08 pm

    Britain is still a class-ridden society, but the classes have shifted and the slang has changed. A yob in the late 60s might have meant any working class person, but by the late 70s, a yob was a violent and uncouth person. Very upper-class people probably refer to “the hoi polloi” (bastardisation of Greek ‘i poli, the people) and “working class oiks”. Sometime in the late 90s, the term chav gained popularity, which seems to mean roughly what ‘yob’ meant at the time you wrote this diary entry.

    I like the idea of one’s religion taking precedence over colour or ethnicity. That’s certainly how I feel about Wicca (which tends to be a lot more universalist than many of the more ethnically-oriented Pagan religions).

    • 12 May 2017 6:37 pm

      Thanks very much for that — gives me an idea of how things have changed, and how they haven’t. Interesting to see the evolution of “yob”, which back then did mainly refer to young people, but definitely working class. “Chav” wasn’t in use back then, but I’ve come across people discussion it, and got the impression that it referred to the stereotype of the “Essex girl” and the male equivalent, mainly characterised by liking lots of bling. Back in 1967 there were still coal mines in Durham (I even went down one once) but I believe they are all gone now, leaving a lot of unemployment behind, and perhaps with nothing to do but drink, that might be partly responsible for the evolution of the meaning of “yob”.


  1. Ascension: Orthodox theology in Western hymns? | Khanya

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