James Blunt; photo credit: The Mirror
Dear James Blunt,
I get it. I know what it’s like to be mocked for my accent. I too have have looked around me and found no one who could guide my career. I’ve also been told my dream is unrealistic, unattainable, and utter crap. Brother, I’ve been there.
You and I are not alike, though. You see, despite my double-barrelled surname, I am not posh. I am unabashedly and inescapably working class. But I am American. And as a working class American, buddy, we need to talk.
In your letter to Chris Bryant, the Labour MP who criticised the structural inequality which prevents people like me from breaking into the arts (while never actually criticising you personally), you wrote that you were signed in America, a land—in your eyes, at least—“where they don’t give a stuff about, or even understand what you mean by me and ‘my ilk’”. You go on to celebrate my country as a place that “exploits success,” seemingly buying into the myth of the American dream. In America, it doesn’t matter whether you’re posh or poor; if you’ve got the talent and the drive, you’re destined for greatness.
If your letter were a record, this is where that scratchy stopping sound would play.
As I said before, I get it. I was told to lose my Appalachian twang, because it sounds uneducated. I didn’t have any mentors guiding my writing career, either. My family and friends told me to focus on my day job. When you’re working class, making ends meet trumps making dreams come true. Success is measured in stability, not by-lines.
When I told my family I wanted to be a writer, they were mortified. The first to graduate university, they thought I’d be a teacher or a lawyer or a banker. And because I had no idea how to actually become a writer, I did just that. After uni, I moved to Chicago and went into mortgages, making a decent middle class living. But, as you probably know, when you’re the creative sort, a mundane day job eats away at your soul. I was miserable. And then I was made redundant.
That was one of the darkest periods of my life, in which I very nearly ended up on the streets. Benefits and God—I don’t whether you believe in either—are the only things that got me through. I didn’t have the luxury of creating, of taking chances, of making the most of a bad situation. That situation was shit, full stop, and every last ounce of energy went in to getting out of it.
Laurie Penny touched on this very point in a series of tweets this week:
That applies on either side of the Atlantic, James. America is not some mythical meritocracy. For every Bill Clinton or Beyonce we’ve got, Britain has a Margaret Thatcher or Cheryl Fernandez-Virsini. According to a Bloomberg Business report last year, America has greater wealth inequality than Britain. Meanwhile, funding for the arts is in jeopardy, with inner-city and rural schools being particularly vulnerable. These are places where students are also more likely to be poor. And in the United States, when we’re talking about who is poor, we’re disproportionately talking about people who aren’t white. In light of this year’s mayonnaise Oscars (Mayoscars?), this is more relevant than ever.
But poor white kids like me can’t relate to you either, James. You see, with your privileged background, as Laurie Penny accurately pointed out in her tweets, you were encouraged to take risks. You knew, if you failed, that you would land on your feet. For countless kids like me, that wasn’t an option. It’s impossible to pull yourself up by your bootstraps when you have no boots on your feet.
You talk about paying for your first guitar with money you saved from your holiday jobs. Fair dos. No one bought it for you. But you know what money from my holiday jobs went towards? Nothing, because I didn’t have holiday jobs. I had jobs, full stop, which paid for my rent, my books, my education. This is the thing, James, if you’re a working class kid with ambition, your spare money goes towards paying for university, or rent, or childcare so you can go to work. You know, so you can live.
While you had money to blow on your dreams, we had dreams of blowing our money on guitars. Or in my case, a MacBook. Which I still don’t own, by the way.
If this sounds like “envy-based” politics to you, it ain’t. I look at writers like Laurie Penny and Owen Jones, who are both roughly my age and have been astronomically more successful than me, and I have nothing but admiration. Well done, those two, I think. They’re intelligent, thoughtful, and talented. They deserve their success. But both of them recognise they’ve had privileges which helped get them there. They know their Oxbridge background counts for something, perhaps unfairly, as the Ivy League does in America. Indeed, for every Laurie and Owen on your side of the Atlantic, we have a Luke Russert and Ronan Farrow here. Both of them are incredible journalists and brilliant men, but both have benefited from institutional and economic privileges I’ll never know.
But see, James, I’m not envious. I’m aspirational. I aim to be as successful as Laurie and Owen. I look to them as role models, as folks who have blazed a trail and who have invited me to follow. I don’t beat myself up over the fact that I’m not there yet. I haven’t had the education, or the opportunities, that the two of them have. Our paths are different, and our journeys began in radically different spots on the map to “making it.” I don’t think this in any way builds myself up, nor does it take away from their successes. It’s simply a fact.
As a working class kid from Kentucky, I’ve not had the same opportunities. And despite being American, which you seem to think is a get-out-of-class-free card, I’m still encumbered by many of the same oppressions as working class Brits. And I need you to understand this.
I need you to recognise that Chris Bryant wasn’t diminishing your success, or Eddie Redmayne’s success, or anyone’s success, simply because they’re posh. I need you to understand that just because we say you have privilege doesn’t mean you didn’t earn your success. When Bryant, Penny, myself, or anyone says this, we’re talking about the systemic elimination of working class people from the arts, from journalism, from government, and from any number of professions. This isn’t personal; it’s political.
No one is saying that you didn’t work hard to get to where you are. What we’re saying is that, in terms of this race we call life, you got a head start. And all we’re asking is that you recognise that.
A working class American