Last week, I attended two events featuring Jackie Kay at the Edinburgh Book Festival. She read from her new poetry collection Bantam, which as brilliant as her previous anthologies. I first heard Kay read from her collection Fiere at the Feminist & Woman’s Studies Association conference’ Rethinking Sisterhood conference in 2014. She quickly became my favourite poet; and, at that point, the only poet I liked since my sole previous introductions to poetry were the stale male crap I had to read in school. Kay is funny, witty, compassionate and so very, very generous. She is also utterly glorious in joy when reading her own work to audiences.
I could gush for ages about Kay, the beauty of Bantam, as well the discussion with Ruth Wishart at the Book Festival. There were some great questions from audience members, however the audience response to one question surprised me. A woman stood up to ask a question and started with the statement “this is a very middle class room”. I didn’t think this was too odd as a statement, but many people in the audience did not appreciate the generalisation and shut down the questioner completely. Now, Kay did say that we can’t ever generalise about audiences and spoke of all the ways she has developed to ensure that her writing is available to as many people as possible, regardless of issues like class.* Her tenure as Scottish Makar has seen her traipse up and down the country visiting all manner of places and pieces. Kay is absolutely dedicated to building generations of people who understand what Audre Lorde meant when she wrote ‘Poetry is not a luxury.’ However, the Edinburgh Book Festival is a very middle class event. Tickets cost 12 quid, which is not an insignificant amount of money for many people, and that is without factoring in transport to and from the venue or the fact that I paid 2 quid for a bottle of water having left my refillable one at home.** Having a spare 15-20 quid lying about to go to a book festival is well outwith the budgeting of many Scottish families.
The term ‘middle class’ is now understood as a pejorative defining someone whose access to wealth and cultural capital makes them blind to the reality of lives of many people. And, many of the audience members making negative noises in response to the term were doing so in order to disassociate themselves with the negative definition rather than addressing the barriers to participation in culture that many people live with every single day. Had the question been: ‘this audience is full of people who aren’t dependent on food banks’, perhaps fewer people would have taken it as an insult rather a description of an event where money is essential for participation. However it was intended to mean, Edinburgh Book Festival is open to people who have the capacity to save money to buy tickets.
In a perfect world, book festivals would be open to all people, but this isn’t a perfect world and the number of families dependent on food banks is expanding exponentially. But,1 in 3 children in Scotland live in poverty. Many other families live pay check to pay check . They live in areas with no accessible and affordable transport. School budgets have been decimated and trips to a book festival are the things that get cut first, despite being such an incredible enriching experience for children. Far too many adults are dependent on food banks to eat at least once a day. Charities are trying to feed children during school holidays to ensure they get fed at least once a day. Children are raising money to ensure that homeless people have dry socks; that we have people who are homeless or living in insecure accommodations is a disgrace. This is what we need to acknowledge and change.
Granted, language does change and many people who are middle class and wealthy are thoroughly unpleasant – as the support for Brexit makes clear. However, we cannot simply erase the original economic definition of the term middle class, not without erasing the lived experiences of people living in poverty or very close to the poverty line. We need to be clear what the full definition of middle class is and be very careful in how we apply it to specific situations and people. Using ‘middle class’ solely as pejorative is why several hundred people sitting in a marquee in Edinburgh during the various summer festivals (and without considering whether or not they are tourists who can afford to pay for hotels and meals out) immediately hissed at a woman pointing out the very real consequence of class analysis. Middle class is now ‘bad’, so no one is middle class – even those who fit the exact definition of the term in a Marxian sense. Frankly, more people need to get a grip and stop having minor tantrums when the truth of their economic status is pointed it. We need a return to a structural analysis of capitalism and a recognition that we can’t just identify ourselves out, particularly since the ‘no one’s middle class here’ noises were understood, by some, as a personal attack rather than structural analysis.
We cannot talk about the representation of people attending cultural events without starting from the point that it will always be closed to some people because we live in a society that punishes people for being poor. It really is this simple: economic class does exist and understanding it solely as a pejorative replicates the very behaviours and consequences that many activists think they’re challenging.
Poetry should never be a luxury; book festivals should never be a luxury. But, they are. And we need to be honest about why they are a luxury, not hissing at people who point out the truth
* This had come up in answer to a previous question.
** My medication means I don’t produce much saliva and occasionally have difficulty swallowing. No one wants to sit next to a woman who sounds like she’s choking up a lung because she has a cactus growing in her mouth.