When people hear about my background, they immediately think I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I went to Oxford, you see, and before that to a pretty exclusive private school (pictured), and even before that to a private primary school. Add in some high-flying jobs and a master’s from an Ivy League university in the US, and people form a mental image of something between Prince William and the Great Gatsby.
This talk of privilege often makes me defensive. The implication is that I was handed everything on a plate, and that’s not true. I won scholarships to both of those posh private schools, and Oxford was free in my day. (We had this crazy socialist notion back then that access to education should be based not on your ability to pay but on your ability to think. Wild, huh?) As for the master’s degree in the US, that cost $30,000, but I paid it myself from the money I’d saved enduring a corporate banking job I despised.
Being a published novelist, too, is not something I was given by default because I am an “Oxbridge” man. I worked hard, took the rejections like everyone else, and got my break as a result of winning an award which was judged blind.
But maybe I shouldn’t be so defensive. You see, in other, important ways, I am privileged. Let me count the ways.
1. The brain I was born with
I am privileged to have been born with a brain suited for passing exams. To tell the truth, I never had to work that hard to win those scholarships or get those qualifications. From an early age, I aced every exam I ever took, while others worked much harder and got lower marks.
I’m not saying I’m more intelligent than other people. To me, intelligence is a very different thing from the ability to pass exams. I’m just saying that I am lucky enough to have a brain that is a well-tuned exam-passing machine. I have the kind of intelligence that is rewarded in this society.
I know this may sound arrogant or boastful, but to me it’s the very opposite. It’s something I was born with, and so it’s not something I can take any credit for: it’s simply a privilege to acknowledge.
2. The easy setting
I am a straight, white male, so by default I got the easiest setting on the game of life. In addition I am six foot three, and I’m not overweight, and I am in good health and I have no disabilities. All of these things affect the way people see me, the judgments they make either consciously or subconsciously, and these judgments can bestow significant privilege in terms of jobs, passing interviews and being given opportunities of all kinds.
3. Being British
It’s funny that I should talk about being British as a privilege, because I am about the least patriotic person you could ever meet. I don’t mean it in a misty-eyed, flag-waving, sceptered-isle kind of way. What I mean is that Britain is a stable, wealthy country, and I grew up without fear of civil war or famine or dictatorship or militia insurgencies or any of the other things that millions of people in other countries have to live with.
Being British also gives me access to great opportunities, both within the country and globally. When I lived in New York, simply having a British accent made many people instantly see me as intelligent, cultured and even sexy. I’m sure it contributed to me getting several successive promotions in the corporate banking job I was really not much good at, and then being given a job at The Wall Street Journal despite having no journalism experience.
Elsewhere the effect is less extreme, but still Britain seems to have a very positive image in the world at large, despite its extensive track record of slavery and genocide. And English is the default global language, so being a native speaker gives me more opportunities. Being British is another privilege to acknowledge.
4. My family
Finally, and most importantly, being born in the family I was born in was a tremendous privilege – but not in the way people sometimes think when they hear Dulwich and Oxford.
My parents are retired civil servants who worked very hard all their lives to achieve the security they now enjoy. Growing up, we always had enough for the basics of life, but not much for luxuries. My parents are the very middle of the middle class. They gave me comfort and stability, but never had the wealth or connections to fast-track me into the world of privilege.
But they gave me another, more important privilege. They worked hard, sacrificed, supported me and loved me, and put me and my education first. They took an active and thoughtful role in my development, both intellectual and emotional. For that and many more things I am extremely grateful to them, and it’s for this reason that, when people describe me as being from a privileged background, I don’t get defensive any more. I just smile and nod.