In the latest in our series looking at working class voices in the arts, theatre maker Bridget Keehan takes us on a winding journey from a difficult childhood to creating works within the prison system.
Class is being given some long overdue attention in the industry I work in, and it’s led me to reflect on how my background informs the theatre I make. The project I’m currently working on, A Night in the Clink, takes place in the Clink Restaurant, Cardiff, which, before it received the mother of all makeovers, was HMP Cardiff’s Family Visits Reception. Rather like the restaurant, I’ve had something of a class makeover.
Often I’m perceived as being middle class and sometimes I actually feel it, perhaps most acutely when I’m in the family visits hall of a prison visiting a relative. I feel like the posh one as I’m processed through security obeying the rituals of lifting my tongue, emptying my pockets and standing on a particular spot to allow the sniffer dogs to circle me, in case I’ve secreted a phone or drugs where the sun doesn’t shine. The majority of my life is lived in middle class land – within theatres, arts centres, universities – environments associated with a middle class identity. Such places were alien to me until my twenties, when I finally became a student. On occasion they still feel alien. This is why I’m drawn to making theatre outside of theatre buildings and with people who may have had little or no chance to play, to write and stage their own stories. A desire for social justice motivates me, but in large part it’s a case of where I feel most comfortable. When I first started working in prison one of the governors said to me, I’ve never known anyone from the outside settle in to working in prison so easily, there is no mystery technique, it just felt familiar.
For years I’ve been coy about my background. I’ve never felt ‘proudly working class’ because the markers of that identity don’t quite fit. I didn’t grow up on a council estate, in fact we lived in large detached house. It was however, partitioned to pieces and filled to the brim with lodgers and tenants but looking at it from the outside you would have thought we were comfortably off. Although my dad was a true blue-collar worker he drove a Jag. There were many such contradictions.
The idea of a clear distinction between working class and middle class, like many binary constructions, becomes blurry with greater scrutiny. Sometimes I feel working class, sometimes middle class, and issues of power, powerlessness and privilege inform this. Ultimately I feel my class identity is hybrid and transitional, shifting according to context. It often feels confusing, which is perhaps why I need to write about it. So, to begin at the ‘beginning’…
I’m from an Irish Catholic migrant family, my dad from Drimnagh, my mum from Inchicore. They grew up with no shoes and not enough food to eat, but that was not uncommon for the majority of people living in the Republic at the time. Their dream was to get out of Ireland as soon as possible. They, along with half a million others of their generation, left Ireland in the 1950s, seeking work and a better life. My parents were still in their teens when they came to England and my dad remembers searching for rented accommodation and reading advertisements that said: ‘No Blacks, No Irish’. But their labour was welcome and there was plenty of work to be found. Dad was employed as a pipe fitter in Gloucester, where I was born.
Mum raised me and my siblings pretty much by herself and she also had the occasional part-time job – when my dad would let her – in a cake shop, a supermarket, then later an office job, which she loved.It was a deeply conservative, patriarchal environment to grow up in, bolstered further by my Catholic schooling.
The school system ensured gender and class division. I failed the 11-plus and was sent to a Secondary Modern where, at the age of 13, I was told I would no longer study history, geography and science but instead office practice, typing and cookery. I didn’t question it – this was how the world was – of course I needed to learn to cook and type, and of course the boys went off to do metalwork and woodwork. Us girls were being primed to become, at best, some bloke’s secretary and some other bloke’s wife. This completely fitted with my family’s expectations of what I should do, but it was not what I wanted. From an early age, when elder relatives and neighbours peered down at me and asked, What do you want to be when you grow up? I would say, I want to write books and draw pictures, and they would laugh, as though I’d told a joke. When I told my art teacher this she didn’t laugh, she said, you need to go to Art College. I went home and repeated this to Mum and Dad who laughed, but then Dad became serious and made it clear I was not going to college, particularly Art College. I was going to leave school, get a job, then get married, then have kids. In that order. End of.
The narrative in our household was that students were wasters, and art students a special kind of waster. I didn’t challenge them directly, I knew better than to do that, but I did rebel. At school I went from being the quiet one, who sits at the back of the class hoping no one will notice her, to a leading role as school trouble-maker. I stopped going to art class, I could no longer see the point, and after I got suspended I rarely bothered turning up to school at all. I would leave home in my school uniform and walk towards the bus stop, but then circle back to the house, climb into my bedroom via the window I’d left open, change my clothes, climb back out and walk into town for a bit of shoplifting: an eye shadow here, a bracelet there, and a couple of times a whole new outfit. It wasn’t just a desire to rebel that motivated my nicking sprees. Shame, a sense of injustice and, oddly, a desire for approval fuelled my habit.
I was ashamed of my clothes. As the youngest of the kids I generally wore the hand-me-downs and stuff from second hand shops. I craved new stuff and the rush of joy at having something trendy to wear that would be approved of by other kids, as opposed to sniggered at, was addictive. Although I had a part-time job the earnings were small and so shoplifting solved the immediate problem.
I also became attached to the implicit approval I received when I came home with goods not paid for. Mum was mortified but my dad was pretty keen on criminals, being a part-time one himself. So when I began to demonstrate some degree of skill in this area he was pleased. Rather than saying, don’t commit crime, the message was don’t get caught. The crime habit continued and, with my dad’s help, diversified. There were thankfully parameters set around our family’s criminal activity: no personal crime, no robbing individuals, but banks, insurance companies, the Council, the Government, were all considered fair game. Getting money from these institutions, particularly banks, was seen as getting one back on the system, the system that consigned you to poverty in the first place. Before any one gets the wrong idea I should make it clear we didn’t rock up to Lloyds with sawn off shotguns, demanding they empty the safe. It was more a case of borrowing as much money as possible, with no intention of paying it back, and spending with speed before they cottoned on. Dad had various names and addresses, which he utilised for this purpose. Small stuff, but serious enough. One day it all caught up with us, as these things do, but that’s another story.
Making money was top priority in our household, and not just through illicit means, we were strongly encouraged to work hard and as kids we needed to earn our keep. I was proud to start work as a hotel chambermaid at 11. I got to hang out with a bunch of women, mostly a decade older than me, who were happy to share their ciggies and stories. We drank tea together in a fog of smoke, made countless beds and scrubbed many a bog, sink and bath. I spent too long on all these tasks, day-dreaming my way from one room to the next, managing to finish only 3 rooms in the time in which everyone else had done 10, but then these were hard working women with kids to get home to, they didn’t have the time to day dream.
Contributing to the family income from a young age and earning one’s keep was, in theory, valuable training for when we reached 16, which was the age my parents expected us to leave home and fend for ourselves. I thought about signing up to join the RAF, as my brother had done. I went to the RAF recruitment office and they gave me a list of jobs to look at. On my brother’s advice I pointed to Air Traffic Control, but checking my qualifications, or rather lack of them, the Recruiting Officer suggested I join the clerical division. In other words I would be consigned to the typing pool.
I signed up, secretly dreading the prospect of basic training, but not knowing what else to do. I was saved by a week away in Tenerife. It was here that I met Hinch, a hard as nails beauty from the Gorbals, who told me I could come and work for him selling trips to holidaymakers. I was in. I cancelled my basic training and within weeks I was on a flight back to Tenerife. I worked in the day promoting timeshare (a racket run by some seriously scary individuals) and at night I stood outside bars persuading people to come in and drink. It was a huge adventure, although at times terrifying, but I was amongst a whole bunch of young workers that formed a transient community who looked out for one another.
I came back to England after a year and there followed a succession of low paid, dull as shit jobs: pizza waitress, store assistant, pizza factory. In my early twenties I felt desperate. I was spending my life doing work I hated with such intensity that it was making me ill. Although still young I felt old and the thought of living another 5, never mind 40 years, working in a world where you are so often disrespected and easily dispensed with (especially if you dare to challenge pay and conditions) was depression-inducing. I felt angry. I felt like there was no choice or escape, which actually was not the case.
This was the late 80s, when there were still tiny student grants available, and housing benefit and dole money were not so difficult to get compared to now. In theory I could have got sacked from the shit jobs, claimed benefits and gone to the library or an evening class but the biggest obstacle to making any of that happen was an ingrained belief that this was my lot in life. I could not see a way out of it. As I saw it only posh, middle-class kids became students and you had to be clever to go to college. I had barely any qualifications, having left school with only a couple of CSEs, so I couldn’t see how change was possible.
At this time, University was still the preserve of a small percentage of the population. I didn’t know anyone who had been to University, I barely knew anyone who had stayed on for sixth form. And when Dad joked that I was going to end up in Holloway, he didn’t mean the Royal one. I don’t think I really understood what a University was. Of course I’d heard of Oxford and Cambridge, but these places were as relevant to my daily life as Mars. At various points during my years of serving, scrubbing and selling, people had suggested that I should go to college but part of the obstacle blocking me from leaving shit job land for education was that I couldn’t see the point. I didn’t know what I would study or why and I didn’t have knowledge of the opportunities it would open. Consequently I stayed put in a miserable existence far longer than I needed to. I yearned for something better, something to engage my brain and inspire me, but lacked confidence to bring about change.
Eventually I hit a point of crisis, which spurred me to act and I signed up for GCSE’s in English Literature & Language, Drama and Politics. My classmates were all 16 years old, straight out of school. I looked young for my age, so no one seemed to notice I was 5 years older, and I took a while to reveal my age, as I felt awkward about explaining the gap. I loved learning and couldn’t quite believe that it was possible to spend time in libraries, researching and reading. I was overwhelmed by the privilege of it all and the discovery that my fellow students were not more intelligent than most of the people I had waitressed with, or the many waifs and strays I had met whilst working in Tenerife. The difference was simply one of opportunity and the cultural expectations of class.
The culture shock of class transition was sometimes intense, for example, if someone got angry and started shouting, I became flooded with adrenalin, expecting a punch up. I also reacted negatively to posh accents, assuming that anyone who spoke posh had it easy. It took a few years before befriending some ‘posh people’ to learn this wasn’t always the case and no reason to reject someone anyway.
Going to University widened my world of opportunity considerably. I have had the chance to do work that I love and to utilise my life experience to create theatre in places where it doesn’t usually happen, in young people’s care homes and in prisons for instance. Yet the privilege I now enjoy working in such contexts is double-edged because it is painfully clear to me from working with people in prison the criminal waste of human potential.
Access to opportunity and the support to enable people to make choices for their lives, which help them flourish, is essential for a just society. The sector I work in still lacks diversity in myriad ways. People who feel they don’t belong are highly unlikely to put themselves forward even when the opportunity might be there, if they look hard enough (And I’m not saying that they should have to look hard). Even if you summon up the courage to step out of your usual environment it’s going to take time for you to feel connected and, when you experience rejection, it’s more likely to confirm the sense that you don’t really belong. It helps to see that people ‘like you’ are already part of the world you wish to join. So I’m drawn to making theatre in the criminal justice system, always on the lookout for someone who wants to rebel against a system that has cast them in a role that is less than they deserve.
Bridget Keehan is Artistic Director of Papertrail/Llwybr Papur which she founded in 2014.
Recommended for you: Dr Michelle Deininger charts her journey from a council estate in Oxfordshire through her experiences in education to her current role as humanities lecturer at Cardiff University as part of our Working Class Voices series.