I read recently in the Scottish Review
that Orwell identified as a 'middle-class prejudice' the view that the working class smelled. It was hardly a prejudice. I would argue that in the 1930s when he wrote about the poor, in comparison to the middle class from whence he, and at that time all academics came, we did
Our main problem with regard to that was hygiene poverty. I was born not much later, in 1942, into an extended family in which the poorly paid occupations were sometimes little distinguishable from slavery: lamp lighting, window cleaning, fish gutting, road sweeping, general labouring. My Aunt Nan married very well – her Davie was a bus driver.
My grandmother raised eight children in a run-down, two-roomed cottage in Albion Street, a slum area of Aberdeen, and until one or two left to be married or go off into the Army, the whole family lived in these crowded circumstances with just one small indoor sink. My mother, the oldest girl, regretted her lack of education and blamed it on the fact that from an early age she regularly missed school on a Monday as she had to look after her younger brothers and sisters while her mother took the week's washing to the communal boiler house at the end of the street. 'We have the washing girl back,' her teacher would sneer when she appeared on Tuesday morning. My mother was bitter to the end of her life.
But success at the 11-plus brought me via a senior secondary school into regular contact with an alien race: the middle class, of which teachers were my only regular contact. In August 1954, I was only 11 years old, in the first class, on the first day in the large forbidding city centre school where I knew no-one. Apparently, the subject was Latin. 'Please write down on the piece of paper I have put on your desk, your name, address and your father's occupation,' said Miss Smith, the Latin teacher.
Our address was Cotton Street, a residential part of the old industrial area of Aberdeen, by then largely tenement slums. On our street was the yard where poor families – like us – went to fill hessian bags with cinders discarded from the generation of gas, to use as cheap fuel instead of expensive coal. Just across the street were the stables of the Shore Porters Society, the oldest transport company in the country, established in 1498 to unload cargo at the docks. From their yard, the horse drawn carts went out rumbling across the cobbles at six in the morning, past our rattling tenement windows on their way to the nearby harbour. The next street, parallel to Cotton Street, was Fish Street, then Miller Street, Commercial Street, and Bannermill Lane – all around us the decaying remnants of early Victorian basic industries which had once been central to the wealth of the town.
As to my father's occupation – I puzzled – what did that mean? Did he have one? I knew for certain he had a job: he 'worked on the railways'. He was a labourer, he dug holes for the erection of the posts for the signalling system – the p-way as they called it (the permanent way) which, as a key part of the national transport system, had been essential to keep running efficiently all during the war. I was well into adulthood before learning that the admonition in train loos to not flush 'while the train is standing in the station' was to prevent the passengers waiting on the platforms from viewing the human waste which was dumped by the flush into the section between the rails – the place where my father worked, digging holes for signal poles to be erected, and sleepers to be laid or repaired.
But what should I put down as his 'occupation'? Digs holes? I still remember the terror of not putting down exactly what this formidable teacher wanted in the way of a correct response for 'occupation'. What she wanted was to find out which of the pupils in front of her had a doctor, teacher or lawyer as a father, and her prejudiced use of the information which she thus secured about our 'worth' was soon very obvious.
She needed only to look at me to see my circumstances. Unable to afford anything more than an oversized second hand blazer ('it'll do you for several years!') to make up my compulsory school uniform, the family resorted to dying my aunt Liz's recently discarded khaki ATS skirt, the best quality skirt she ever had she said, into the nearest navy colour the dye would allow. National health spectacles and a strong rural Doric accent completed the picture. After a first appraising glance, I was totally invisible to the middle-class staff and left school as early as I legally could, eager to escape that oppressive place of education.
But maybe the middle-class teachers with their baths and sinks just smelled us out, in our second hand clothes, poorly laundered. We were lucky to have an indoor sink in our Cotton Street flat, though the toilet was at the end of the yard. My mother's cheap 'scent' – her favourite Californian Poppy – was sparingly applied and only on special occasions. Once, as a young teenager, I bought her a birthday present of a lavender perfume, which she angrily threw out. Unrecognised by me, it was the perfume of what was scattered on the body of dead family members, laid out as they were at home, usually in the best room if there was one, or more likely in someone's temporarily vacated bedroom.
When I married a carpet salesman in a large department store, I moved up in the world, and into a sub-let with the in-laws who were posh enough to have an indoor toilet – though still no bathroom. I considered my friend Kath, married to an apprentice boy and expecting at 18, lucky to secure a flat – a couple of attic rooms in Gerard Street – then one of the worst slum areas in the town centre. I reminded Kath recently of these early circumstances when she was bewailing the fact that her upmarket bathroom renovation meant she could not have a bath for a week. Sex, menstruating, pregnant, lactating, nappies – no indoor toilet, and they had only a sink shared with neighbours on the landing. No wonder we smelled.
I suspect there are far fewer families these days at the extreme level of 'hygiene poverty' in which we lived, but income inequalities and class prejudices are as great as they ever were, and for many families, not only incomes but also housing provision is inadequate and insecure, and becoming so even for the children of the middle class. The circumstances of the current poorly paid workforces make me angry. Poor pay in a rich country is simply disrespect such as that suffered by my father, given to those stoically keeping things going while their lives are mired in the messes created by the rich.
I am now decades away from that class, no doubt brainwashed by 'the insidious effects of aspirational capitalism'. But as a regular traveller on the bus, I occasionally sit down next to someone in a shabby coat. Breathe in deeply… hmm. The unmistakable smell of the past.
Mary Simpson is Professor Emeritus of Classroom Learning at Edinburgh University