Up Front by Emma Hart


The C Word

I have a confession to make. It's the kind of confession I prefer: something a lot of people already know, and of which I am not ashamed, even though I feel I should be.

Last week I spent more on a dress than I used to make in a week.

In the last fifteen years or so we've gone from raising two kids on a sickness benefit to being able to buy our own mortgage. And slowly I can see all my old habits of stinginess starting to crumble. Behaviours that were once unthinkable are now becoming distinct possibilities – or being couriered to me from the States. And while it's nice to not be constantly stressing about money on a survival level, there's something about the changes I'm finding concerning.

It's as if the woman who used to spend $40 a week on groceries is becoming a stranger. She's being replaced by someone capable of thinking, "You know, I could buy that, because it's nice, and it's not even on special or anything." One day, I might turn into someone who just goes to the supermarket and buys things, and that thought terrifies me. Surely it's just a short trip from there to being unable to comprehend why poor people don't buy freezers so they can buy in bulk.

The attitude to food is one of the most obvious changes. Back when we were so poor that buying a dozen beer was a major extravagance, food was about fuel. It was about keeping people from feeling hungry. I had a long list of ways to feed a family of four on 300g of mince. These days our instant coffee consumption has plummeted and I've discovered I use more olive oil than ordinary cooking oil. What the hell is happening to me?

The answer seems pretty simple, if not something it's considered decent to talk about in New Zealand: I'm changing class.

Traditionally, New Zealand has three classes: the upper-middle class, the middle-class, and the lower-middle class. Which is bullshit. (I genuinely once heard the mother of one of my boyfriends describe their family as "upper-upper-middle class". She wore her collar standing up and drove an Alfa Romeo.)

Now perhaps I'm a little hyper-sensitive to class issues, because I've always felt slightly out of place. I was raised in a hard-up family which embraced the middle-class values of education, theatre and sexual liberalism. Almost all of my friends, however, came from working-class households. They had kitchen parties, bought beer in riggers and wine in cardboard boxes – and I'm talking about the parents here. Our lounge had bookshelves in it, theirs had velvet paintings of classily half-naked women, or mirrors with cars painted on them.

It's about more than money: it's about how willingly you spend what you've got, and what you spend it on. And it's about how you earn it. When we were at uni, one of our friends turned up with a couple of guys who "worked for the council". Actually in white collar jobs, but even though they made more than we did because they were working good jobs and we were students, a lot of us still looked down on them because they were Council Workers, and not properly educated. Not something anyone is proud of, but it is true. (Complicated for me not just by hovering between two classes, but also by their both being cute as little blond sexy buttons.)

There's a working-class accent, too. One of the ways Van and Jethro are differentiated on Outrageous Fortunate is that they have different accents. When I moved from a primary school in north Timaru to an intermediate down the south end, I was constantly bullied about 'talking posh'. I learned to mumble, shorten my vowels, use rising intonation and swear a lot more. For some reason I also knew odd things like perfect dinner cutlery etiquette (which is easy, and I don't understand why people supposedly struggle with it). By the time I was a teenager, I could spend an afternoon sitting on outdoor lounge furniture arguing about the relative merits of Australian car manufacturers while drinking DB, followed by an evening at the theatre discussing local body politics and, inevitably, other actors. Different clothes, different hair, different accent, different body language. Both poses to some degree faked.

Working Class Girl explains the very visceral reaction I had the first time I stayed in The Quadrant in Auckland. This was a little bit too far. I felt like I stuck out, like everyone felt I shouldn't be there as strongly as I did. Like when I left I'd get patted down for ashtrays. Which was ridiculous, because it was a Nice Hotel, so there weren't any ashtrays.

My Nanna lived through the Depression, and in many ways she and my aunt simply never stopped. Nothing was ever wasted, in case it came in handy. The ends of lipsticks and soaps were grated and melted down to make more. When the elastic in a bra started to go, you took a tuck in it. If she were still alive, my Nanna would be so viscerally disgusted by the amount of money my new dress cost, and its fundamental impracticality, that I'd feel compelled to go out smoking and drinking expensive cocktails and slutting it up with chicks in posh hotels just to rub it in.

Middle Class Woman isn't all fun, of course. I believe I'm required to start worrying about Good Schools, and property values, and my carbon footprint. I need to learn that there are more kinds of wine glass than 'red' and 'white', and to conceal my ability to drink instant coffee.

But the other day I came home, and parked outside the neighbours' house was a huge shiny Holden Monaro with a personalised plate that said "FD H8R". It gave me a warm glow, followed by a trickle of cold remembered fear. It might be a mixed blessing, but it's something I hope I never lose.

Emma Hart is the author of the book 'Not Safe For Work'.

(Click here to find out more)

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