A Biographical Note

Paul Harper

Like everyone else, I am not what I seem. I am an academic at the University of London, with ordinary middle-class tastes for opera, theatre, art, reading, and good food and drink. I speak with Received Pronunciation and have a double-barrelled surname. But I was born into literally none of this.

Since there is no consistency to the human subject, no continuous and unchanging character to any human life, there is nothing essentially surprising about the radical changes I have experienced and doubtless will continue to experience in my life. But as a scholar and a human being assumptions are often made about my economic history and the (albeit constantly shifting) subject position I write and speak from, and I think that a brief biographical note might correct some misunderstandings.

I was born as John Paul Harper in Easington, a colliery village in County Durham, on 3 December 1977, not early enough to remember life before Thatcher. I added ‘Scott’ when my Grandma died in my late teens. I was very fond of her and it was her maiden name (‘You’re more Scott than Harper’ was one of her constant refrains). Virtually every man in my family is called Edward, including my father and both grandfathers, so I added that too. I’m the only Harper-Scott in my family.

A BBC news report on Easington and surrounding villages, like Horden and the newtown Peterlee (the two places where I grew up), gives a sense of the economic situation I knew as a child.

Unemployment remains relatively high and the area currently has the highest level of long-term illness and general poor health in the UK, and the worst life expectancy at birth. It also has the lowest percentage of people with degrees or professional qualifications, at 9%. And despite having a population of close to 100,000, the collection of former mining villages only has one high street bank.

The film Billy Elliot, which was filmed in Easington, gives an impression of the surroundings and accent I grew up with. (The TV personality Matt Baker, who was at sixth form college with me, was also born there.) For the first seven years of my life I was raised by a single mother, and started school on free meals. After that I went to live with my father and had what is called a ‘normal’ family life. I didn’t grow up in extreme material need, but neither was my family rich. We took no foreign holidays, and few at all. I didn’t go abroad until I was 21. I visited London twice before I was 18. I don’t think I ate a vegetable other than potato until I went to university. I attended a state nursery, which allowed my mother to work, and then state schools for the rest of my primary and secondary education.

My family worked in coal mines or factories; none of them stayed in full-time education past 16 years old, let alone went to university, before me. The only music I encountered at home was pop, the only literature murder mysteries, the only newspaper The Mirror, and the only available cultural possibility was to attend a football or (later, when Durham became a first-class county) cricket match. I read voraciously, however, and decided very early in life that I wanted something different.

Around the age of 10 I discovered that I could compensate for being scrawny and bright – two very unmasculine things in County Durham in the 1980s – if I did impressions of John Cleese that were sufficiently accurate to please the ears of County Durham schoolchildren. This made me feel contented with my otherness, so I attempted to change my accent altogether, to copy that I heard on Radio 4 comedy panel shows. The results were quite unspectacular, I’m sure, but at some point in my teens I had to tell my family that the voice I was using at home wasn’t the one I was using with friends, and that I had to decide between them. I opted for the ‘other’ one. As an undergraduate at Durham my received pronunciation was perfected. Shedding my childhood accent, an entirely conscious decision over several years, is now the single greatest regret of my life. Although I no longer speak with the accent, I still habitually use dialect words such as spelk, spuggy, and gadgie.

In response to encouragement from excellent music teachers at Shotton Hall Comprehensive School (as it was called then), I started listening to classical music in my teens, and attending Northern Sinfonia concerts. Developing a professional academic specialization in music seemed to me a life-changing possibility. With the aid of state-funded education I managed it.

I attended an elite university (Durham), but lived at home. I saved from my student loan for two years in order to be able to afford just two terms of accommodation at university in my third year. I took out a bank loan that paid for my doctorate at Oxford. The first two years after my doctorate were spent claiming unemployment benefit back in the North East. I now live in Oxford.

I don’t feel comfortable in the middle class I now find myself in; I feel diminished by the capacities and experiences that the middle classes typically expect other people to have, and often irritated by their lack of awareness of their own extraordinary lifelong privilege. If my experience is in any way remarkable that is only because it is unusual in my profession. I wouldn’t say that it constitutes me as a person any more than engagements with Wagner, Heidegger, or Marx in early adulthood did – but it certainly makes me continually sensitive to issues of class.

[This post was written in 2010.]