The current court case between M&S and Aldi, over Aldi’s apparently “copying” of M&S’s signatures “Colin the Caterpillar” cake has really gotten me thinking about the way we shop and spend our money, and also about the questions around class-issues that this whole thing raises.
The issue of class is something that is often bouncing around somewhere in my mind. As a working class person who was the first in my family to attend university (and a very middle-class university at that) to study in a field that is dominted by the middle-class (creative writing) with a hope to eventually have a very middle-class career (part writer, part university lecturer) and doing all of this from my very working class home (a privately rented ex-council house on a housing estate in the north of Manchester) class is a topic that is difficult for me to avoid. It is constantly reflected back to me in the differences between my writing and the writing of my peers – the words they choose to use that I have to look up because they aren’t something that has ever been a part of my lexicon. Or in the differences between my viewing habits and theirs – when I find myself hovering in a WhatsApp group discussion about some programme that no one I know has ever heard of, and I find myself fighting back the urge to reveal my ignorance by typing “I’ve just been watching Sweet Home on Netflix”.
And, as I’m sure you can guess from the fact that I’m a working-class university student who balances my studies with raising children and running a blog, I’m not exactly rolling in money! My husband works hard and we just about manage to pay all of our bills and have one family car, so we’re better off than many, but there’s also absolutely no room in our budget for a second car (so no point in me bothering to learn how to drive) and there are times when the mere thought of an unexpected expense like new shoes or a flat tyre is enough to make me wince. So that should give you some idea of where we’re up to money-wise.
All of that being said, were it not for my husband’s family, we would not have been able to live as comfortably as we have been able to thus far. We have, on more than one occasion, needed to borrow money in order to make ends meet. We’re incredibly lucky to have them there to help us out like that because I know my own family, as much as they would love to be able to help, more often than not they are only just making ends meet themselves (with the exception of my father when he’s had yet another of his uncanny windfalls – he’s got the luck of the devil that man). We’ve also received things like free tickets to BBC Gardener’s World due to my husband’s family connections or, just recently, my mother in law bought us annual passes to a theme park so that we could make the most of the summer with the children now that everything is beginning to reopen from that latest lockdown. These are experiences that I know I would never have as a working class person were it not for my husband’s family.
That brings us back to the question of class again – not that my husband’s family are particularly middle-class. Some members of his family certainly are middle-class, but I know that my actual parents-in-law have always worked in working-class industries and have worked extremely hard for what they have. But there is certainly a relationship between class, money and opportunity, and the line between who is working-class and who is middle-class is not as well defined as some people might believe it to be. I can see myself as someone who is between classes – having lived my entire life as someone who is definitely working-class and now working my way towards being middle class.
So, what does any of this have to do with Colin-the-caterpillar? Well, over the last few days, as I’ve been creeping in the comments sections of facebook posts surrounding the story, I’ve found that class is an issue that is repeatedly being raised as Aldi shoppers and M&S shoppers pit themselves against each other. The main arguments I can pull out from all of this is that M&S shoppers assert that M&S food is better quality and therefore worth the extra money, while Aldi shoppers assert that there is no difference in quality, M&S shoppers are simply paying extra for the prestige that is afforded to the M&S brand and that, even if there were a difference in quality, most people simply can’t afford the extra money. And so it is that this court case over a cake has become a symbol for the struggle between the working class and the middle class – a struggle that already feels like it is at boiling point without the need for caterpillar cakes coming along and exasperating the whole thing.
I am still unable to answer the question of whether my in-laws, who are in a position to be able to help my husband and myself out in ways that are more life-changing than I think they even realise, are working class or middle class, but I do know that the majority of the working class in this country – certainly up here in the north – are hurting, and hurting badly. Wages in most working class industries are so low that they need to be topped up by tax credits or universal credits just so that working people have enough money to live. Those people can’t work overtime in order to top-up their income because they will simply earn themselves a huge bill at the end of the tax year which reads “you earned more than we thought so now you need to pay back all those tax credits”. Home ownership is impossible because universal credit or housing benefit only takes rent payments into consideration while mortgage payments cannot be funded by the government – meaning that if a working person who receives universal credit to top up their earnings, wanted to move from renting to buying a house, the housing element of their universal credit would vanish leaving them hundreds of pounds worse off a month. And those people who are worrying about not being able to work overtime or buy their own homes are the lucky ones! There are working people who need to resort to using foodbanks in order to eat, and yet more people who would love to work but there simply aren’t any jobs available. It can often feel as though there is no way for a working class person to improve their living situation unless they are lucky enough to land a job which pays well above minimum wage and, as I’ve already stated, the majority of working class jobs simply don’t do that.
So, you can probably see how the fact that middle-class people can then say things like “it is worth paying extra for better quality products” while remaining completely unaware of how that just isn’t an option for many people, might make a few people angry.
The fact is, we are all just trying to live as well as we can on what money we have (or haven’t) got. I know nothing about the legalities of copyrighted-caterpillar-cakes, but I do know that, when a parent is trying their best to cobble together a child’s birthday tea on a shoe-string budget, the couple of pounds difference between those two cakes can mean the difference between whether or not there will be sausage rolls being served alongside the chocolatey caterpillar.
PS: If this blog actually got more than 10 views a week I’d monetise the thing and end on a picture of me sat the a table with a forkful of Colin in one hand and a forkful of Cuthbert in the other with the tagline “they both taste pretty good” then I’d deduct the cost of both cakes from my taxes. But I don’t get more than 10 views a week, so you’ll just have to make that mental image for yourself and my dreams of tax-deductible cake will have to wait for another day.
Take care of yourself out there! Xx