Fiction: A Working-Class State of Mind

Image: Mattieu Joannon

Wednesday 20th March, 2019

By Colin Burnett

Ah laid the boax ae painkillers alongside the boattle ae Smirnoff vodka oan the coffee table. It doesnae even matter tae me that ma flat is that cauld it wid gee an Eskimo the shivers. Aw ah kin focus oan is the troubling thoats which are circling aroond ma heid like a vulture stalks a dying animal. Jist waiting fur the right moment tae pick through the bones. Each thoat bringing another feeling ae hopelessness and his gid pal, despair. Ah heard earlier, oan the morning news, that the PM, Theresa May, hus called a press conference fur later in the evening. You jist ken that means somebaody is gontae suffer. As ah go tae light the joint ah hud pre-rolled in anticipation ae ma final act oan this planet, ah suddenly caught the sight ae a spider dangling fae a long silvery thread in the corner ae the room. This tiny creature wis trying tae swing oantae the shelf wae aw its being. But still it couldnae muster the strength tae make it. Ah’m sitting here hinkin tae masself, ‘Jist gee up, ma wee pal. You’ll never make it. Take it fae someboady who hus the t-shirt and the mental health issues tae prove it.’

Ah live in the sixth richest nation in the world. And, yit, ah kin hear Susan Boyle singing fae the rooftoaps and tae tell yae the truth ah’m even half expecting that Irish boay fae the telly tae turn up at the door wae bloody Pudsey the Bear in tow. Aw, what’s his name again? looks like Gandalf fae Lord ae the Rings, only efter he’s contracted an STD. What’s his bloody name again? Oh, aye, Bob Geldof, that’s him. Aye, that’s the boay. Mean, ah hink he wis actually oan the telly last week campaigning tae save a distressed looking tree or summit. Yae see, aroond here, it’s no the courts ae law or the politicians who keep the peace; it’s the drugs. Picture this scene. Each morning ah awake fae ma coma. Then ah sit oan ma patio chairs because ah cannae afford a decent couch. Ah sit there wae ma bowl ae Coco Pops whilst ah watch shows that kin only be described as propaganda against the working class. Ah mean, jist the other day, there wis this boay oan Jeremey Kyle who wis convinced his cat wis the anti-Christ. It wis summit ta dae wae the cat sitting oan his phone and dialling 666. Ah guess it’s true what they say aboot every litter. What’s the alternative? Change the channel and listen tae a graduate ae Hogwarts annoonce tae the nation that seeing me droon in poverty hus jist became a national priority. Either choice is hardly a substitute fur intellectual capital. Growing up where ah’m fae oor social status wis based upon how well you could fight or kick a baw. No exactly the criteria fur becomin the nixt Prime minister or CEO ae a Fortune five hunner Company, is it?

Pouring masself a gless ae vodka ah raise ma glass tae make a toast tae ma new companion, ‘This is fur you, little yin, Cheers.’ Aye, but again the wee man faws shoart. He’ll learn, he’ll see. Ah wis yince like him, a fighter. Now ah’m jist tired and ah feel sick at hert. That’s the hing aboot dreams and aspirations. They’re jist a fairytale story wur telt by oor parents. A fuckin make belief idea that gees us hope that hings will git better. An idea that a naeboady kin become a someboady yin day, that David did beat Goliath. The truth is the maire you try tae reach fur the stars, the closer you become tae reachin fur the boattle. It’s like when wur bairns wur telt be gid and Santa Claus will bring us loatsae presents. It’s a beautiful idea but there comes a point when we realise wuv been had. Aw it takes is fur some smart erse tae come along and tells us Santa’s no real. Then oor hale world is flipped upside doon. That’s what dreams and aspirations are in life, it’s aw yin big fuckin Santa Claus. Ah’ve realised summit likes. And that is that guys like me and the spider kin chase oor dreams, but we’ll never make it. In the end, fuck Santa Claus.

Mean, maist ae the boays ah hung aboot wae at school spent some time at her Majesty’s pleasure. Funnily enough ah bumped intae an old mate fae school the other week doon at the bookies. There ah wis, wishing a thoosand deaths oan the jockey ae ma fallen hoarse, when ah hear this voice that resembled a fog horn.

            ‘Chrissy, long time no see, eh?’

As ah turned aroond ah wis faced wae Matty Johnson, who we hud nicknamed Banana’s oan account ae him being a lunatic. He hud jist served a two-year sentence fur GBH when he attacked a guy wielding a mace. Ah mean, in this day and age who owns a mace? lit alone actually using yin. Some said he hud a fascination wae Game of Thrones, but who knows. It turned oot the halea incident wis aw oor a boay workin at Pizza Hut puttin too many slices ae pepperoni oan his pizza or some pish. We baith chatted awey tae each other like auld times, then he asked, ‘What yae dain wae yurself the now?’

            Ah told him, ‘Jist trying tae survive another week oan the dole.’

            Then, Matty eagerly explained to me the benefits ae prison. ‘Ah’m telling yae Chrissy,’ he says, ‘You need tae spend a bit ae time inside. Three square meals a day and Nae bills. Fuckin quality, man.’

            Ah stood there hinking tae masself, ‘Surely, it’s no came tae this. Ah’ve goat tae be incarcerated tae stay ootae the foodbank.’

            Ah mean this is the place people come tae make it. A place where you kin be whoever you want tae be. And here’s me taking career advice fae a mace wielding psycho while ah watch a hoarse decide whether ah will huv food in ma belly or a roof oor ma heid. Wae each waking moment ah try tae convince maself, ‘Something will turn up.’ Ah guess General Custer must huv said the same hing at Little Bighorn. And we aw ken what turned up there, another load ae irate Indians. Take a long hard look aroond, hings are doon aw acroass the board. You’ve goat Mr Burns in the White House. Guys who widnae normally steal as much as a penny chew are huvin tae steal tae feed their families. Aw, and if that wisnae bad enough, some pencil pusher in London hus decided tae take it oan themselves tae inspire the nixt, Charles Dickens.

The maire intently ah watch the spider, the maire care he seems tae take in his attempts tae swing oantae the shelf. Ah’m no shaire if it’s the weed or the vodka or maybe a combination ae baith but ah’m starting tae hink this wee guy is oot tae prove me wrong. Though again he takes a sip from the fountain ae failure. You see, it’s in oor DNA tae fail, whether it be me or the spider, we always end up dain what’s expected ae us. Which is tae come up shoart. It’s the price ae being the underdog.

It's strange though, how hings come back at you, yae ken? Memories. Yin conversation wae Matty talking aboot the old days and ah wis a sixteen-year-auld bairn again. It goat me hinking aboot the time ah spent in high school. You’ve goat tae understand yin hing, bairns fae ma area wur maire tolerated than encouraged by the teachers. This wisnae yin ae those Walt Disney films we wur making here. Yae ken the soartae film ah’m talking aboot. The bairn is involved in a terrible accident and hus tae learn tae walk again. By the end the of the film the teacher hus their airm raised fur winning gold in the 200m at the Olympics. Nah, this wis real life and like anyhing in this life, it wis tough.

The teachers wurnae able tae see beyond oor tracksuit or how we would say ‘ken’ insteed ae ‘know.’ Aye, in their eyes the factory flair beckoned for us when we left school. Granted, at the time ah didnae realise they wur huving a premonition because that’s exactly where ah ended up. Well, that wis up until a few months ago. When ma boss imported a machine designed in China that could operate quicker and cheaper than a pair ae hands. Honestly, ah hear aw the time folk aroond here complaining, ‘These immigrants are coming oor here. And stealing our joabs.’. Naeboady mentions R2D2 is the yin waiting in the wings tae pull our plug. Wae jist a few crumbs ae encouragement fae ma teachers though hings could huv been so much different. Ah might huv owned a factory insteed ae serving as a drone in yin by pressing a button aw day. Aye, ah could see it now, ‘Christopher Mathews, a captain ae industry.’ You never ken, Matty might huv turned oot tae be Scotland’s answer tae George R.R. Martin.

This time the spider is, close, real close. Ah’ve goatae admit this wee guy hus aloatae hert. The maire ah’ve watched his struggles the maire ah’ve come tae realise we are kindred spirits. We baith try and fail time and time again. The strange hing is this insignificant fleeting moment in life hus kept me fae drawing ma final curtain. Maybe ah wis jist looking fur something tae hud oantae before ah depart this mortal realm. Something, anyhing, that might show me there is still hope left in this world. Insteed ae the miserable existence that waits fur me oot there, waiting patiently tae greet me like an auld friend.

            It isnae like ah’m stupid. Ah ken the difference between a dream and a memory. Ah kin tell you the meaning ae love. But what um ah gonnae tell St. Peter when ah meet him at those pearly gates and he asks, ‘Tell me aboot what you learnt fae yur time oan earth, ma son?’

            ‘Well, St Peter, ah ken a gid joint when ah puff it. You’ll need immortality tae witness Scotland qualifying fur a world cup. Aw, and ah learnt tae appreciate the meaning ae poverty.’

            Nah, there’s goatae be maire tae aw this than that or what’s the point? The other night ah wis searching Netflix tae find summit tae watch. Ah came acroass a film ah hudnae seen in years, The Truman Show. That guy wis in it, the yin who used tae be funny, Jim Carey. Aye, he played this boay who realises his whole life hus been scripted. Dinnae git me wrong it might huv been the weed talking but ah couldnae help but hink boays like me aw live in our very ain Truman Show. We grow up, work in a joab that serves tae kill our ‘spirit,’ then, we settle doon, maybe huv a few bairns. And when the time comes tae draw our final breath, wuv accumulated enough debt that our creditors will be holding a seance. Aw because society tells us we need a flash motor, designer clothes, a holiday abroad yince a year, and a fuckin credit caird. The truth is aw we are dain is making sure aw these rich toffs huv made a tidy profit fae our time spent here aw the while we produce the nixt batch ae workers taea take our place oan the chain gang. The greatest trick those in power ever pulled wis gitting the workers tae believe we aw huv equal opportunities. Fae the moment we first open our eyes and until the time finally comes tae close them. Our lives huv been mapped oot fur us by them fae the cradle straight tae the grave. In this country ‘cash is class,’ when yur born intae a family wae a bit ae money and the right postcode you’re oan the home straight while the rest ae us are jist warming up fur the race.

You ken what? ah’ve kept faith in a system ma entire life that hus promised sae much tae boays like me but gave us sae little. That’s why if this spider kin make it oan the fourth attempt then ah’m gontae gee this hale ‘life’ hing another go. Aye, ah like a gamble as much as the nixt degenerate, fuck it. This wid be sign fae the beyond. Cos if it wis gid enough for Robert the Bruce, then, well, it’s gid enough fur me.

Watching the wee guy, he seems tae huv sensed what’s at stake here. This time he seems tae be taking maire caution. Aye, that’s it son, you’re nearly there, jist yin maire swing.

Ah cannae believe ma eyes, he’s done it, he’s oan the shelf, ‘Yes!!!’

Ah came close tae ending it aw the dae. Poverty does that tae yae, it isnae jist a word fur politicians tae throw aboot tae git our vote, it’s an illness ae the mind, boady, and soul. Earlier the day ah hud went aroond tae the cash machine at the corner shoap tae check ma balance. Ah hud £13.83 in ma accoont and that wis tae last me a fortnight. A paper boay widnae git up tae wipe his erse fur that. The Tories caw it universal credit, Me? ah caw it what it is, the legalised purge ae the working class in this country. Ah’m no kidding, ah hink ah musta came back tae ma flat wae post-traumatic stress disorder efter seeing ma net worth. Ma hert wis racing a million beats a minute. Ah actually thoat ah wis gontae huv a hert attack right there and then. Then ah decided tae Google ma symptoms tae find oot what it could be, turns oot ah wis deid yisterday. It aw hud goatten too much ah jist thoat tae maself in that moment, ‘This life is jist too hard.’ So, ah went and goat the boattle ae vodka ma mate hud left behind and boax ae pain killers fae the bathroom. Staring at the boattle and the boax ae pills, ma decision wis made. That’s when ah suddenly caught sight ae ma eight-legged hero.

Exegesis

My short story seeks to give a voice to those affected by poverty while also noting the various strands, both social, cultural, and economic, that someone on a low income can encounter and must overcome. Some of these issues include, for instance, the impact global capitalism has upon the agent. Though my story is set in Scotland, I feel the issues raised in it can relate to a wide audience as social inequality and mental health issues are universal phenomena. I identify myself as working class and therefore I relate to some of the barriers my protagonist finds himself facing. This allows me to present a short story that delivers an authentic voice and speaks to the working class in this country.

I first became aware how sociology and creative writing can work in harmony together to present a better understanding of the world we live in when I undertook my dissertation at Queen Margaret University, Musselburgh. My dissertation unearthed new data into the cultural production amongst working class Playwrights/Novelists in Scotland today. I explored how collaboration between social scientists and creative writers is integral in gaining a deeper understanding of the society we live in today. In my dissertation I was guided by the work of theorist Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu maintains the position that the socially dominant class seeks to exercise symbolic domination at the level of culture, and that symbolic violence is inflicted upon those who do not share in their dominant forms of culture (such as the working class) insofar as they are viewed as having an inferior or ‘wrong’ kind of culture. One interesting finding of note that arose from my work was that each writer should be recognised as an ‘organic intellectual’ per Antonio Gramsci. He acknowledged that the working class must produce its own counter-hegemonic struggle which directly challenges the dominant group of today. This challenge was met by my participants.

When I began writing this story I made the conscious choice to not shy away from the idiom of Scots. I wanted to signal my position in the ‘cultural struggles’ of the Scots vernacular, which is widely recognised as the voice of the working class in Scotland, as opposed to adhering to the universal language of English which is associated to the middle classes. In doing this I have been able to produce an art form that in the most literal sense speaks the language of myself and the people I know. The sociological significance of my piece lies in its capacity to connect the sociological and literary imagination in awakening a deeper understanding of culture and society. Both the literary and the social imagination communicate with one another to the benefit of unmasking the hidden personal and societal issues that may otherwise go unrepresented if we chose to produce cultural works that reject this dialogue with current social conditions.

Colin Burnett is a Public Sociology graduate from Queen Margaret University, Musselburgh. He is an aspiring writer and have other pieces of sociological fiction previously published by so fi zine. Colin is returning to QMU in September where he will be continuing his studies in the MSc Public Sociology. Colin can be found on twitter @ColinBurnett16.

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