What have people from the same town, from the same rung on the social ladder, got in common. There are the obvious things like skin colour and language, but that doesn’t get us far today. An Englishman from a town in Lancashire, or practically anywhere else these days, is just as likely to have a tanned skin as a paler one.
If his ethnic origins are different, then the language he speaks might be different too – his idiolect, as they say. If his place on the ladder differs then so will the language he uses. His language will vary: his bank of usable words – his lexicon, his topics of conversation, the range of his linguistic skills, even his accent.
If two people come from what might ostensibly seem the same cultural background, then their level of education might differ. However, if that is the case, then they really can’t be said to have the same cultural background – that consists of a whole baggage - a set of characteristics and features of a person’s life.
You’ve got to start somewhere – so let’s start with geographical location – but is that by birth or home, parents’ or one’s own. If you were born in the house you live in as an adult, you probably share a lot with someone born in the same street and still living there too – a neighbour. That kind of neighbour could be a lifelong friend, lover or spouse, or she could be from a different rung in the ladder – even only slightly different, or have a different religion.
In my boyhood, some of our parents would not allow their kids to play with lads from the Catholic faith. Growing up in the same street didn’t mean much to them – they never did anything together – never played together, spoke to one another. The only thing they were likely to do was fight each other as children will.
Still, coming from the same region, speaking a similar variety of the same language, and standing on the same rung of the social ladder does at least constitute some common ground.
The odds are that these two children – both boys, are fans of the same football team, watch the same TV programmes, eat similar food at similar times, and go to bed when their Mums and dads tell them to.
There is still room for individuality though – the two boys might enjoy a certain amount of rivalry in the locale – one might be the ‘cock of the school’ – the toughest and best fighter, the other the best footballer, one the top of the form, the other the school dunce. We would still say they were from the same culture.
In 2006, that doesn’t always apply. I wrote somewhere that whereas in the 1920s inhabitants of whole areas of a town or city were similarly blighted by unemployment and grinding poverty, in the new millennium the chances are that the family next door has two cars parked outside, goes on foreign holidays and dines out twice or three times a week, while the folks in the next house are permanently on their uppers, with a dad who drinks all his dole the minute he gets it, and kids who have habits that they have to steal to fund.
If we take two people from the same suburb of a small town, but who don’t know each other well, the odds are that they share quite a lot – maybe even the same ambitions, world view and political persuasion – perhaps not.
First of all, they could share what I call the same meteorological disposition – in the North West corner of England, this would be a stoicism in the face of day after day of heavy rain, weeks of cloud and drizzle, months without really being warm outside – but with the innate ability to be cheerful about it – disdainful of what the skies dish out onto their heads. Being from the same weather belt, the two people would probably dress similarly, given that they were of roughly the same age and gender. They would wear scarves and bobble hats to the footy – the same colour and stripe hopefully, they would come out in Bermuda shorts of the most garrish hue when the sun came out, and wear the same To-tectors going to their work, and similar footwear playing footy on the rec!
Their philosophical demeanor could well be similar, though it may well not be; how you feel about life often depends on how well you are doing in it. A more or less permanently unemployed person would inevitably be more pessimistic than someone who is well paid and has some job security and job satisfaction.
As for what I shall refer to as social attitudes, two people growing up in similar parts of town, from families in similar income brackets and similarly well off, might well display the same attitudes to their betters, equals and those worse off; might have a similar political preference at General Elections, and revere certain members of the community – the old, they very young, policemen, the cloth, and shopkeepers and publicans, and members of the opposite sex.
Their culinary tastes could be alike in broadly similar ways – eating a fish and chip supper once or twice a week, not eating very much fruit, cereal, seafood (except when covered in breadcrumbs or curry sauce), drinking beer quite regularly, and breakfasting on toast and marmalade through the week and a fry up on Saturday and Sunday morning.
Their sense of belonging would be not dissimilar – being white, born in the neighbourhood and of parents who were born two or three streets away – they would call themselves Oldhamers (Owdhamers), Lancastrians, Man United fans, Labour voters, C of E, and English.
Educationally speaking, they probably went through the same system, failing their 11 pluses if they were old enough to have taken them, doing moderately well at Secondary Modern School, later to become a Comprehensive School with a drugs problem, thinking briefly of going to university, but quickly and easily talked out of it when the O-Level results came out, going into a trade, becoming a plumber or an electrician, a joiner or a centre lathe turner or a bobby if they got a few good grades, a trainee at a bank or a supermarket if they had been good at maths, and a hod carrier or a dustbin man if they weren’t.
As for the day to day stuff – habits; they would have their haircut when it needed it, wear a tie for an interview or an appearance in court, walk around a local park with their girlfriends at weekend and see them in the pub while they played darts with their mates.
They would recognize similar types on foreign holidays, and get on like houses on fire and laugh and joke about the things they detested – bosses, having to run errands, kiss their moustached great aunts and bring coal in on nights when it was freezing three feet away from the blazing coal fire that had been on all day since Dad had lit it before going off to’t mill.
And that would be that, they would say, if asked, that they came from the same background – never culture – that was something that happened at the Free Trade Hall or the Library Theatre – they would never use that word, or really know what it meant, but they would share it just the same.
Robert L. Fielding