Yes, I’ve opened and closed and reopened this draft most days – without managing to write anything. All the usual anxieties of blog-writing (will people think I’m a narcissist? illiterate? boring? will future employers condemn me on the basis of total foolishness?) have combined with the self-consciousness of pleasing others. A good deal of lockdown animosity has arisen from inequality, which can basically be summed up as The Garden Division:
Stock Character A: ‘Look at those horrid people, going out for a walk with their family. Don’t they know how irresponsible they are?’
That family: ‘Stock Character A has no right to tell us what to do – he lives in a castle. Or at least that’s what we’re assuming.’
Government advert: ‘STAY AT HOME AND PLAY IN YOUR GARDEN THIS WEEKEND’
Everyone: ‘Stupid out-of-touch government. Don’t they realise some people don’t have gardens?
Everyone else: ‘People who don’t stay at home are so selfish.’
At least that’s the kind of dialogue available online, and in the media.
As a result of this type of conflict, I felt worried about describing my own situation online, anxious about a portrayal as a little middle-class princess in the palace of the suburban garden. I thought about writing about the meals I’d cooked, the routines I’d developed, but deleted posts, trying to avoid being dragged into those online debates – which pit poorer against richer, happier against sadder, part of a tribe against solo-householders. Let alone any mention of those still working ‘on the frontline’. Perhaps I should put some kind of ‘privilege disclaimer’ on the blog: what’s the right way to behave? It all feels oddly self-shaming sometimes, and in that sense, not particularly helpful to anyone.
It’s likely that I just spend too much time online and reading opinion articles; but regardless of source, I’ve learnt to feel guilt for every aspect of my existence. Guilt for private school, for being white, guilt for Cambridge, guilt for the garden.
My life is the dream of my ancestors’ upward social mobility, and of the hard academic slog carried out by the past two generations. I know I’ve used my privilege more than others in my position, but is it enough? I try to educate myself on all possible forms of oppression, and to let this guide my behaviour. I’ve always wanted to be a writer: should I give this up, to make space for those less privileged than me? I already give donations to useful organisations – what percentage of income should you give, and is this ‘effective altruism’? Perhaps this entire blog is just an exercise in smug, privileged narcissism. (it’s not what I think, but I worry that others, some day, will tell me how thoughtless I’ve been for showing off.) I work as hard as I possibly can, to maximise what I have inherited, as a result of my family’s hard work, but I don’t think it will ever be ‘enough’.
At the end of my first term at Cambridge, my Director of Studies / French supervisor congratulated me for my literature essays. I felt very pleased, and then quickly guilty again. I said thank you, and tried to excuse myself: ‘Well, my Dad’s a literature professor, so – ‘ My supervisor looked confused. He wasn’t there writing the essays, was he?’ Obviously not. But what if privilege held the pen? I know how hard I worked in school, and university, but I also know that I have been lucky to have a family who love me, who read to me as a child, and who valued my education. Reading opinion pieces and social media threads online makes me view this fortunate upbringing as the sole reason for any limited success I may have had.
Anyway, that’s all unhelpful. If you’ve read this, hopefully you can see I am aware of how lucky I am. All I want is interesting, diverse cultures of work / play / culture. For everyone to be able to make the most of life. The individual has a limited sphere of influence in truly redressing economic, social, and racial imbalances : for global impact, it’s also up to governments, legal bodies, and institutions. Not just little middle-class girls sitting in the garden.
(If anyone wants to give me advice on all of this, I’d be grateful on what I should and shouldn’t say).