Tag Archives: social mobility

A Tale of Gloucester

For seventeen years, I lived not far from Gloucester. Like many English cities, it has a river and a cathedral; like all English cities, it is a city of contrasts. If you went there sightseeing you could come away with an impression of a majestic and historic settlement. You’d start at the cathedral (taking in a bit of the Harry Potter gloss and marvelling at the fact that a couple of mediaeval kings and their close relatives are buried there), travel along the Via Sacra, admiring the mosaic tiles installed by early 21stCentury City Bigwigs, passing through the newly developed docks (very posh) and fetch up at the museum. There, you’d learn about the Emperor Constantine (very big statue) and have the opportunity, should you arrive at the correct hour, to go back in time to visit the underground foundations from the Roman era. There’s even gold coins in thin pull out drawers to examine, treasure found in Gloucestershire fields.

If you went shopping, you’d have a very different experience. You’d have to make your way past the empty shops, the e-cigarette place, the tatty looking party shop and the smokers outside MacDonald’s on your way to H&M. It can feel as if all the money has been sucked away, diverted to Gloucester’s wealthier neighbour, Cheltenham. The mechanical clock and beautiful mediaeval architecture don’t quite make up for the litter and the hanging around, down at heel air of the centre of town on a week day. When you drive behind County Hall on your way to the car park, you can see the peeling paint and shabby interior of the office block behind the grand steps and columns of the imposing façade on Northgate. It’s a bit of a metaphor for the place.

I worked there for four years, more or less. Like the city of the past, Roman at its founding, the Gloucester of today is full of people who have travelled there to settle and seek a better life. I enjoyed working in such an interesting multi-cultural setting, one with well over a hundred languages spoken, teaching children whose families had, not so long ago, come from all over the world. They often brought home to me that so much of what I took for granted was particular to my own experience, growing up in a different time and place.

I remember one lunchtime, standing at the window with a group of Year 4 children, goggling at the rain and the enormous puddle that was rapidly forming in the playground as the drains were overwhelmed. Never one to ignore a teaching moment, I commented in my best teacher-of-young-children voice, ‘goodness me, it’s a good thing Dr Foster isn’t visiting today’…only to be met with a sea of blank faces. While Dr Foster and his visit, during the rain, was a part of my cultural upbringing, it wasn’t a part of theirs, even though they lived in Gloucester itself. I’m not sure they really enjoyed me teaching them the nursery rhyme, but I gave it a go anyway. It was a privilege to play my part in helping these young children to make sense of the world they now found themselves in.

If you were to visit Gloucester for a day out today, you’re most likely to find a cultural monument to a fictional mouse (a Tailor of Gloucester gift shop I believe – or there was, anyway – in the overhung lane that leads from Northgate to the Cathedral Close), rather than the good doctor. While you will find a rather grand bronze of the Emperor Constantine on his horse, you won’t find a Dick Whittington, with or without his cat or all his worldly goods, tied up in a red spotted handkerchief and hanging off the end of a stick, off to make his fortune in the city where even the streets are paved with gold; London.

So what is the point of all this tale telling of a place I no longer work, no longer visit for a quick dash to Clarks or Marks and Spencer because the parking is easier and I only want to pop? Well, you see, there are those who would like to claim that mobility, socially and economically, is a new thing. It’s a product of the EU or education or a post-war government policy or neoliberalism or globalism or something and it is contributing to a breakdown of the family and we should all get back to the old ways.

But it’s not a purely modern phenomenon. We might have travelled up and down the east coast of England, following the fishing fleet in the 19th Century. We might have gone to hiring fairs, to indenture ourselves for a set period in the 14th, or signed up as an apprentice, or gone to someone else’s castle to learn how to be a knight. In the Olden Days, we might even gone to London a poor boy and ended up as mayor and spawned a legend.

People have always travelled in search of a better life; they have always taken a chance and left their family and friends behind, taken the sadness of missing loved ones today in the hopes of a better tomorrow. It’s not easy, and I guess whether it is good or bad depends on what you are leaving.  But let’s not pretend that we have, like teenagers discovering sex, invented something new, or worse, that you can only live close to care.


I don’t like ladders.  If ever there is a need to go up into the loft, be it to fetch down the Christmas decorations, or to investigate the water or something, it is not me who clambers up, not if I can help it.  Once, about ten years ago, my friend Meg found herself locked out of her house, she on one side of the door and her children on the other (long story), and I, in possession of a garage key and a ladder, rather gamely volunteered to climb in through the upstairs window and let her back in.

It was all going so well, until the moment I reached the top of the ladder and, faced with the prospect of inching my way across the porch towards the open window (it didn’t look so high or so steep from ground level), I looked down.  It was then that Meg, much to my relief, informed me that actually, now she came to think about it, the patio doors were open, and, rather than making like a cat burglar, I could choose instead to hop over the back fence, making use of the wheelie bin on my way down the other side, if I liked, and I, legs turning rapidly to jelly, agreed.

My dad, on the other hand, has never had a problem with them.  One time, I must have been about eight years old, our neighbour’s chimney caught fire.  Theirs being a thatched cottage, and the local fire station being a good eight miles away down the Valley Road (lots of twists and turns), my dad, ever calm in emergencies that don’t involve his own children, hot footed it over the road to the other neighbours, the ones with the long ladder, and shinned up it as quick as you like, taking with him our garden hose (long) (we had a big garden).  The fire was out and everyone was having a cup of tea before the professionals arrived, wondering what was going on.

I don’t know, maybe if the house had been on fire I might have made a bit more effort, but there you are.  The one time I ever saw somewhere on fire (other than that chimney, and to be honest, the thing I really remember was my dad up the ladder, toting the garden hose) was when I was at university.  We heard the alarm go off, thankful that it wasn’t us who had to turn out into the cold and dark, peeped out of the window to see who it was who had been making toast after a night on the tiles, to be faced with flames leaping up the curtains opposite, fire engines with blue lights flashing, and burly firemen (I think they were men anyway; it was dark and I couldn’t really see) informing students that what they actually had to do, rather than shrieking and waving their arms about, was jump out of the window and they would catch them.

Ladders are better than ropes (or jumping out of windows) though, it has to be said.  I remember having a go at climbing up a rope once when I was at school.  I could just about manage to climb over the top of the wall bars, when ordered to by Mrs Savage, but up the rope?  The best I could manage was to swing ineffectually at the bottom.  The first time I ever encountered a rope as an actual, real solution as an escape from a possible fire (as opposed to an instrument of torture in a PE lesson) was when, at seventeen, I went for an interview at Oxford University.  It, and the horrible little bar fire beside which I was expected to warm myself and the lack of showers for the washing of hair, came as a bit of a shock.

I suppose I had had an unrealistic idea of what going to Oxford University might be like.  It had been an ambition of mine, ever since I decided that I was going to study English Literature (because I liked reading) and I had asked my dad one day, when we had driven down to have a look at the river (the one at the bottom of the Valley Road), shooting under the bridge at Ashton, rich brown and powerfully in full flood, where was the best place to go to undertake such studies.  And he, not really knowing anything about the study of English Literature, seeing as he was (and is) a civil engineer (hence the interest in the bridge and how it was coping under flood conditions), said that he thought it might be Oxford, because of the dictionary.  In my mind it was going to be some sort of cross between Mallory Towers and What Katy Did Next, but it wasn’t.

There was a boy who had driven his dad’s red (it always has to be red) sports car up, and who phoned his mates from the car phone because they were having a party.  There was a girl who spoke two languages (her dad was Portuguese, I seem to remember) who told me all about her house hockey competition and being head girl.  There were tales of young people being met by head honchos with special names and welcomed to the colleges with the preparation of their fathers’ old rooms.  There were modern-ish Junior Common Rooms, but despite my wafting through at half past one, nobody was watching Neighbours and I, clutching my NUS card and Doctor Martens, felt like a fish out of water.

A student already, a girl from the local FE college, I’d left the small minded, hierarchical world of school behind me – and in my innocence thought everyone else had too.  I thought I was living in a meritocracy.  I thought that what you knew, not who you knew, was the thing.  That’s the thing about social mobility, I suppose.  Maybe it does matter which school you go to, or which ladder you climb, but not in the way you would like to think.



PS I didn’t go to Oxford and I didn’t study English Literature 😉