Sean Hughes and why I empathise with not belonging

I was sad to read yesterday of the death of Sean Hughes. I remember his appearances on Buzzcocks back when, under Mark Lamarr, it became one of the first panel shows of its type. It has since become far more chaste and tame, often fawning at its guests rather than mocking the ultra-sincerity that attends much of the music industry. Sean Hughes’ involvement was key to the success and format of the show at that time.

As I was reading one of the obituaries, I was particularly struck by one comment that resonated with me. Whilst most people think of Hughes as quintessentially Irish, he was born in London and only moved to Ireland around the age of 6 or 7. Hughes himself commented:

I got a lot of stick, like, ‘Shut up, you Brit,’ and I felt like an outsider from very early on.

The Guardian note:

He gave every impression of being a cussed character and committed loner, one of those who ended up in comedy (or at least, stayed there) not because it was cool, but because [of] his misfit character and the misery of his upbringing.

This feeling of being an outsider worked its way out in his comedy and wider career. He quit comedy at the height of his fame, infuriated at playing packed stadia full of 14-year-olds. Following a break, he returned to comedy with, as the Guardian put it, ‘knotty, almost wilfully uningratiating shows, which didn’t always cohere, but which throbbed with grumpy-gadfly personality’. He was the ‘the rumpled refusenik, a celebrity opt-out ploughing an ever grouchier (but just as funny) furrow along standup’s margins’.

I relate to the idea of the misfit outsider. Like Hughes, from a very young age, it became clear I didn’t really fit in anywhere either. I was born in Oxford – my parents having moved there from Merseyside a year before my older brother’s birth – but we soon found ourselves shooting back up to Merseyside. I began my schooling in Birkenhead and belonged to a church on a local working-class estate renowned as a ‘problem area’. A few years later, we moved back to the South Oxfordshire village in which I mainly grew up. But I spoke with a strong Birkenhead accent, made clear when at my new school nobody could understand a word I said and made no bones about telling me (including some of my teachers). This led to a short period of bullying until people grew tired of mocking the kid with the weird voice. You can read a bit more about that here.

Not only have I never quite belonged geographically, class has always been something of an issue too. My dad’s family were, historically at least, nothing other than working-class. They grew up in inner-city Liverpool and the 6 boys were children to a self-employed painter/decorator and a lady that worked on a picking line in a biscuit factory. Only two of their children went to university and, of those two, my dad first joined the merchant navy before going as a mature student when we were children.

My immediate family history doesn’t help much either. I have never lived in a house owned by my parents and moved from one rented property to another with some regularity throughout my childhood and even now with my own family. Education was never deemed of the utmost importance, I can hardly recall anybody reading anything, we never had a newspaper in the house and our family meals generally took place on our laps in front of the telly. But then, for all that, there was an implicit presumption I would go to university, we never lived on an estate or in a council home and my dad – excepting a year or so of unemployment when we first moved back to Oxfordshire – was usually in work doing jobs that required his latterly acquired degree.

Things were not much better as far as church life went either. I spent most of my youth in an essentially middle-class church in a wealthy town in Oxfordshire. It was not full of people like me. Most people were in good jobs, owned their own homes and generally seemed different. For all that, whenever we went to the local council areas, it was clear I wasn’t like the people there either. If middle-class was defined by the people in my church and working class by the people on the local estates, I didn’t seem to belong to either group.

Things were similar as I went to university in Liverpool. Down South I was common and didn’t fit in. Up North I was ‘dead posh’ and didn’t seem to fit in either. Most of that was determined by the sound of my voice rather than any experience I might have been through. Actually, many of the people I met in Liverpool churches were far more middle-class than me and my family but, because my voice was no longer obviously scouse in intonation, I was ‘posh’ and that was that. One has never really had a clear sense of identity nor belonging. I’ve only ever felt different and this means I have never been able to identify where I come from, where I belong and which class I happen to be.

It was interesting to me that a link was made between Sean Hughes’ lack of belonging and the almost constitutional inability to ingratiate oneself with others. It is very hard to cultivate relationships when your life has been a series of either leaving them behind or being told from the front-end you don’t belong so don’t bother trying. If one is continually told you don’t fit in, you can’t be surprised if those same people then appear to make little effort to fit in with you; you have as good as told them not to bother. If I happen to appear like I struggle with the niceties of relationships and ‘playing the game’, it is because the same people asking me to ‘belong’ to their group, or are offering funds or partnerships so long as we’re kosher, are precisely the same people who have spent much of my life making clear I’m different, not like them and therefore fundamentally untrustworthy as far as they’re concerned.

What lessons might we draw from this for the church?

  1. We can hardly be surprised that people do not want to come, or stay, in the church if we spend our time emphasising differences to the point that they don’t feel they can belong at all.
  2. We can hardly be surprised Evangelicalism remains a white, middle-class club when the white middle-class churches that dominate the movement are not welcoming to those that don’t fit their existing culture
  3. We can hardly be surprised that churches in working-class areas are underfunded and under-resourced when many middle-class people only ever talk about them whilst holding their nose and insist on conformity to their middle-class programmes and processes before they will trust those not like them

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