Lucy Mangan: “In 1995 I learnt the truth about privilege”

Posted by for Lucy Mangan

1995 was a formative and eye-opening year for the Stylist columnist 

What was I doing in 1995?

I was gazing in delight, bafflement, awe and trepidation at the strange new world in which I suddenly found myself. I was at university – an old university, a university steeped and secure in its centuries-old tradition and populated mostly by the kind of people whose families had been going there nearly as long.

They seemed almost gilded to me. If they didn’t know each other directly, they always had a friend who knew a friend who knew a godparent, at least. They skied in the winter and went to second homes in the summer. They were confident to the marrow, elegant, articulate, charming, clever – or, as I put it more simply to myself at the time: posh.

I, from my state comprehensive in southeast London, who both wintered and summered in my three-bedroom terraced house in Catford, felt like an interloper. An interloper covered in shit. It was discombobulating.

But! Gradually things got better. First, I found my people. We sniffed each other out, you could say. I spent an afternoon with another state-educated English student, sober as judges (which was the life ambition/expectation of many of our compatriots) but becoming hysterical as we listed in turn all the things we didn’t know compared to our fellow students: war dates, classics outside the A-level syllabus, the fact that people had written books about books (it’s called literary criticism and we’d turned up to spend four years learning about it without knowing it existed). It helped. 

Then the poshos began to reveal themselves as individuals, and that helped too. This one with anxiety, this one crushed under the weight of family expectation, another who barely recognised his family because he’d been at boarding school from the age of four. Most of them were conscious of their privilege (not that we knew that phrase then), which made them generous with their confidence, elegance, articulacy, charm and cleverness; and the ones that weren’t aware of their advantage were… total tits.

But there is a percentage of total tits wherever you go, and this particular kind did not exist disproportionately – though I suspect they have gained a disproportionate amount of money and influence since.

More importantly, the whole experience taught me everything in life is built on shifting sands, that your perspective in life will be ever-changing and that you need to keep flexible.

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At school I had been the posho, the lucky one, the privileged one; I had a safe home with two parents still together who loved me and my sister and who always put us first, and we didn’t have to live hand to mouth. When my dad got ill and lost his job, we had a spare room and could take in lodgers until he got better. There was slack in our system, where I knew most of the children in my classroom had none.

To find myself at university where this seemed the equivalent of me having emerged from a Dickensian hovel was, once I was past the initial shock, hilarious. And then it was instructive, to be able to watch and see what is produced after generations of slack in the system. It gives you people who are protected. It gives you people who do not really know what it’s like to live without plenty of money (let alone what it’s like to live with none). They have literally never even spoken to such a person. The best of them believe others when they tell them; the rest don’t. 

1995 made me unafraid of posh people.

It made me see that they’re often better-educated but rarely cleverer than anyone else. It made me aware of my own privilege but also of how much of theirs is unearned and the clout they gain from it treated as such. It made me see that confidence as you move through the world is often – despite what we are told – absolutely real, but also that you can fake it well enough to pull in most of the gains it can bring. And it taught me where all the books are that can make up for any deficiencies in your own education and self-assurance, though I’m still working on my elegance.

It taught me, basically, that I don’t smell of shit. And neither, in case you are ever troubled by the same thought, do you.

Caitlin says:

I crave dearly to know what Lucy was like in the 90s. I would bet exactly the same.

Images: courtesy of Lucy Mangan

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