Monday 22 July 2019

A touchy subject

The reaction to Kristina Chetcuti’s article about  why St Aloysius (or as referred to by those who went there, “College”) churned out so many of the country’s leaders, has revealed once again that family background and  social class,  especially where one went to school, are issues which are guaranteed to touch a raw nerve in this country.

I have often wondered why people are so touchy  about these things. After all, so what if your parents did not send you to any of the private church schools but sent you to a government school instead? Does that rob you of any of the success you may have achieved? Does that make you any less of a person or signify that you are inferior in some way?  Actually, I have always felt that professional and career achievements should be applauded even more in spite of the fact that one’s formative years were not spent in any of the hallowed halls  of what have always been considered Malta’s most prestigious schools.

However, I have lived here long enough to know that these things do matter, (and how) for reasons which have nothing to do with logic, common sense or even facts.  The elitism and aura of certain schools has always been as much about who was kept out as who was allowed in, which is why I have seen so many online remarks describing the St Aloysius article as an exercise in snobbery. It is also true that for many people, keeping the hoi polloi out of private schools was vital, even crucial for their mental well-being because they did not wish their children to mix with “that lot”.  On their part “that lot” have always carried the sting of that snub around with them, so much so that social mobility in this country is often reflected in the fact that those from a working class background with higher aspirations for their children, do everything they can to send them to either a Church or independent school. It is the ultimate badge to society that they have now moved onwards and upwards in the social class pecking order.

We are not the only ones to have such an obsession with class of course, and in fact, it is patently clear that it is one of those things we inherited as a British colony.

I recently watched a fascinating no-holds-barred documentary called All in the best possible taste presented by artist Grayson Perry about social class in Britain and he could have easily been speaking about Malta.

As a working class boy who through his art now mingles freely with the middle class, the documentary was as much about him understanding his own roots and belief system, as it was about the people he spoke to. His point of departure is that one’s class determines one’s taste, which may sound like stating the obvious but which he delves into in the manner of a forensic detective unravelling clues in order to decode what all this really means. I won’t go into the usual social clues and behaviour which differentiate one class from another (dress sense, home décor, choice of schools, cars, children’s names and social behaviour).

It has all been said before, but this documentary went further than just a finger pointing exercise of “look at what they’re wearing”. Grayson went deeper into it, in a very insightful,  often humorous, compassionate way which was in no way condescending. In very frank interviews, each group of people described to him the reasons for their taste and lifestyle (“all we do is patch it up really” said one owner of her sprawling, shabby manor in true upper class understatement). His findings resulted in him producing large woven tapestries to portray contemporary Britain.

He also wanted to examine just why the different social classes perceive one another with a sentiment which can only be described as revulsion. The middle class looks at working class people and registers horror at just about everything they do and say.  Similarly, the working class sneers at middle and upper classes, openly laughing at what they see as artificial airs and graces.  Three locations were specifically chosen to carry out interviews and field research: Sunderland, Tunbridge Wells and the Cotswolds  because they are each strongly identified with a specific class (working class, middle class and upper class respectively).

In Malta too, we have clearly defined, almost segregated parts of the island which seem absurd in such a small country, but which undeniably exist (I know someone from a middle-class family who went to live in L-Isla and was almost afraid to tell his parents).

As I watched  All in the best possible taste, I was trying to imagine a similar Maltese documentary on this intriguing subject, but I have a hunch the whole project would be a dead duck even before it got off the ground. We are much too touchy. Grayson Perry was secure enough in his own identity to speak candidly about his own background and how, despite his lifestyle now, a part of him will always be unabashedly working class.

In Malta, however, I often find that people are too busy caring what others think, trying to bury where they came from (or bragging unnecessarily about it), rather than simply embracing it proudly because it has made them who they are.

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