Knickers at the ready, wherever you're from

September 3, 2004

Caron Freeborn's Essex twang got a few laughs when she arrived at Cambridge. But 12 years on, she's still there, relishing class distinctions.

When, aged almost , I got a place to read for a degree in English, I teased my mum: "You'll be saying, 'My daughter, the Cambridge student...'" No she wouldn't, she claimed, "I'll say, my daughter - the university student..." This is an in-joke and if you see why it is funny, chances are you can't imagine what it feels like to construct a worldview where Oxbridge does not hold special status. But what if the daughter is being put down as snobbish by the mother? "Been there already, have you? Know it's the best for sure?" Any story relies on the perspective from which it is told. In his essay Imaginary Homelands , Salman Rushdie talks about the dual eye of the migrant, of having an identity that is "at once plural and partial. But, however ambiguous and shifting this ground may be, it is not an infertile territory for the writer to occupy."

Something similar happens when you change your life for one that more usually belongs to another class than your own, but at an age when you cannot simply segue from one to the other: you become a participant and yet observer in both. I went from an exclusively working-class existence to being a mature student at Cambridge, where I now teach undergraduates. I am the first person in my family to have gone into higher education. That is not the same thing as being willing or able to assimilate when you are 18.

I would not want to claim that I have experienced prejudice in my university life, but it is certainly true that I inevitably provoke a reaction. In a Cambridge context, I am never going to be unremarkable. When I first came up, people would often roar with laughter when I spoke, unable to understand that a voice such as mine wasn't inevitably used for joking.

My accent 12 years on, although modified, retains much of the nasal Essex twang; these days I sound posh to my family, common to my students and mongrel to everyone else. I have talked myself out of an easily identifiable place in the world. On the other hand, I have talked my way into a particular style of teaching; I have never been able to become excited by a narrow area of scholarly expertise, although I am grateful that many others do that very necessary kind of work. What my students get, in essence, is a literature groupie, a waver of metaphorical knickers, and this approach can be, for some, infectious. It wouldn't be ideal as the only available model, but any one student will encounter many teachers. In that some undergraduates form a personal relationship with me, I provide emotional proof that literature need not belong to one class alone, and this is as important for the public-school educated as it is for those from state schools.

Steve Padley, another class migrant who is a modern literature specialist at the Open University, feels that his background in the steel industry has been a special advantage in dealing with his often non-conventional students, "who might be frightened of academia. There's an immediate empathy there". But he believes that the books they must study do not necessarily reflect their experience. Multiple class perspectives are still largely lacking in the British novel; the "great strength and recent brilliance of what we used to call 'postcolonial' literature" has, Padley claims, subsumed class issues, made them subsidiary to immigrant/emigrant themes. Is it because class no longer matters in and of itself, or is it simply that so few people genuinely cross the divide that there is no mainstream need for a corresponding fiction? According to Deborah Bishop, the need is real and greatly overlooked. She deals with access for one of the older Oxford colleges; until her own belated education, she had believed erroneously that Oxbridge would be closed to the working classes.

"I allowed my personal perceptions of what's expected of an 'outsider' to limit my aspirations." She now spends much of her working life persuading state-school kids that "there's nothing more exciting than crashing headlong though a social barrier". Though she, too, insists that there are few literary representations of any such crashing.

One solution is to write the experience ourselves, to make that ambiguous and shifting ground we occupy textually meaningful. Yet success relies in part on our society conceding that it is not classless; in my experience, the more literate a social group, the less likely it is to recognise itself as privileged. But then "privilege" carries a massive amount of freight, to which some of us are constantly, rudely, determined to add our own.

Caron Freeborn is a senior member of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge. Her second novel, Prohibitions , is published by Abacus, £7.99.

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