When my father died, I kept the wooden box in which he had stored his tools. Dad worked as a plasterer, so the box is scarred and coated in plaster dust. But this box reminds me of all that I learned from him about earning a living. From Dad, I learned that loyalty and pride in your work are more important than how much you earn.
I was raised in North East England. For the first decade of my life, we lived in a small flat with an outside toilet. We bathed in a tin tub in front of the fire. Dad could have earned more working for another employer, but he was loyal to the small family firm he’d apprenticed to. He took pride in his work and often carried out jobs for family and friends for nothing more than a couple of packs of cigarettes.
We didn’t have much money, but neither did the people we mixed with. My friends were from our street, from my school. Those who had more money and lived in wealthier areas, those who spoke with less of an accent, were labelled “posh”.
Whether we like it or not, we inherit our parents’ attitude to money. I still carry the values that came from my traditional working class background: the need to work hard, be respectable, not act above your station, respect your elders and “betters”. My upbringing gave me a sense of fairness and a desire for equality. But in some ways, I always felt that I didn’t quite “fit”. I wanted an education and a career but I was the first generation in my family for which that was an option. When I achieved them, I would often underplay my success so that people wouldn’t think I had gotten above myself.
Just as having money can free us, so our attitude to it can bind us. I currently work as an area manager, responsible for a group of libraries and community buildings. My job and my lifestyle now would be categorised as middle class. Yet I will forever feel working class. I can afford to do the things my parents never could, but I’m not always comfortable doing them. I can eat in a fancy restaurant but never quite feel I belong there. I can be intimidated visiting an expensive shop. I value something because of its worth to me, not because it has a name that someone tells me I ought to value. I often feel guilty spending money on myself, because the purchases are things I want but don’t need. I would be horrified if someone called me “posh”.
I still feel as though I straddle two worlds: the world I was raised in and the one I have forged. Inside, I’ll always be that working class girl who never had much money. And I’m proud of the woman she has made me.
Andrea Stephenson at Harvesting Hecate