A lot of people really love “Common People” by Pulp.
It is, for them, a reminder of their youth.
It has become the Britpop national anthem.
It evokes memories of the sunny, hopeful, optimistic, nineties.
It is the soundtrack to heady nights on the dancefloor of the indie disco.
It marked the moment when the outsiders took control, no matter how briefly, of the mainstream in a way that nothing else had; not Blur and Oasis battling for number one in the charts and not Suede at the Brits. This was their moment…by which, of course, I mean it was my moment.
But “Common People” has added meaning for those of us who actually are, well, common.
While few of us come from the sort of homes where if you called your dad he could stop it all by writing a cheque, it is equally true that few of us could genuinely identify with the fascination of such a person with the grim realities of our lives.
For “Common People” to mean something more than “Britpop banger” you have to have lived the life of the common person. That doesn’t mean you have to be working class to understand it or enjoy it…but it does mean that, unless you are, you can’t ever “get it”.
I didn’t need to pretend I had no money growing up.
Going to the dogs wasn’t poverty tourism for me and my dad, it was part of our culture.
I didn’t have to affect an accent and not talk proper…I had an accent and didn’t talk proper like what the posh boys done did.
Second hand clothes shopping wasn’t about retro fashion or shabby chic, it was financial necessity.
That was my life.
This was my truth.
Tell me yours.
I was in the second year of my degree course when “Common People” arrived and I was the only person in my family ever to have made it through the gates of a University., let alone to have actually achieved a degree. Neither of my parents, none of my aunts and uncles, not a grandparent, no ancestor, not even a cousin twice removed had ever walked where I was walking. Ten years earlier and my grades wouldn’t have been good enough but by the mid-90’s many old colleges had been granted University status and kids like me suddenly had a shot at a degree. I didn’t make it to a first class place of higher learning but I had made it somewhere that nobody else in my family had. This wasn’t St. Andrews or Edinburgh…many of my peers were just like me, working class, first timers, grabbing their shot at something better than their parents had managed. The rest of the student body were lower middle class kids who hadn’t tried hard enough at school…but even they had advantages over the likes of me. But, for the most part, these were kids like me. Common.
One weekend I travelled to Dundee for a weekend with my girlfriend who was studying art at Duncan of Jordanstone. As Friday night unfolded I found myself being introduced to her new friends; a French girl here, a boy who had attended Old Glenalmond there, another girl called Verona who came from Bearsden. All of them speaking in voices I didn’t recognise, talking about things I didn’t know about and dressing in ways I couldn’t comprehend. There is a moment in Graham Armstrong’s debut novel “The Young Team” where the central character describes a similar night out and the awfulness of people mocking you for, well, being you. Unlike his character I couldn’t console myself with the knowledge I could batter them…I wasn’t that sort of boy, so I just felt awkward and felt that way for days after.
A few years ago I attended a party to celebrate the fact that my wife’s old school friend had achieved something fairly impressive. It was held in a posh part of Edinburgh and at one point my wife’s friends husband approached the small group I was part of. He had attended our wedding a few years earlier and so I said hello and held out my hand to shake his. Without blinking he looked at me and then turned his attention to someone…else. Someone more important, someone more worthy of his attention and someone less common. Didn’t even shake my hand. Didn’t say hello. I didn’t exist. This time I didn’t feel awkward. I felt shame. And anger. Red hot anger. I stormed out of the venue and had to be stopped from calling a group of friends to come down and “fix” this situation.
That’s the reality of being common people. No matter what you achieve, no matter how much money you earn, no matter how many qualifications you gather, you will always be reminded of your place by girls from Greece with a thirst for knowledge. That’s why “Common People” isn’t the feel good hit of the summer of ’95 for me, it is a reminder of who I am and where I came from.
This isn’t some ridiculous Ian Bone “Class War” pamphlet or the equivalent of one of his nasty little demonstrations outside of the home of some “toff” or other. It’s not the missing chapter from one of Owen Jones’ books either. This isn’t political. This is about the truth of how being working class can define you, shape you…for good and for ill…and how it can twist the perception of others about you.
I’m happy that you like doing your best Jarvis on the dance floor. I like hearing everyone screaming along to the “Wanna live with common people like YOOOOOOOUUUUUUU” bit. I love that a song like that was such a huge hit. I am thrilled to my core every time I see Pulp doing it at Glastonbury. But, and I’m sorry if you don’t like this, if you don’t know what it’s like to be common person then this can never mean what it means to us. You might watch “Benefits Street” or “The Scheme” with disbelief and find yourself laughing…not us, we see the roaches climb the walls and we thank a God we probably don’t believe in that, like Jarvis, we found a way out.