Ordinary, old-fashioned snobbery and the class war are supposed to be as dead as Monty Python’s parrot. Well, they’re not. I learnt that in my first year at university – not from lectures but while cleaning halls of residence. There, for the first time in my life (having been thought one of the posh ones at home, ‘up North’), I found myself on the receiving end of social snobbery. I had spent the previous year as a cleaner for a small hotel and several houses (while standing by my man as he screwed up his A-levels for a second time, in preparation for screwing up his degree). On arriving at university, I thought that I might as well make use of my references and familiarity with the Vileda range of cleaning products, so I obtained the position (mostly on my knees) of lavatory cleaner to young (mostly privately educated) gentleman undergraduates. And my ambiguous relation to my clients – at once equal and inferior – gave me a privileged view of them.
Cleaners and students. Students and cleaners. Perhaps it’s different at Oxbridge, but at tile-and-breeze-block Warwick the cleaners mostly hated the students. It was impossible to be a cleaner – even a student cleaner – and not hate the students.
Most students preferred not to acknowledge their cleaners at all. The standard response to three polite knocks on a door, followed by ‘Would you like your room cleaned?’, was silence. When followed by three less polite knocks it was ‘No’ – not followed by ‘thank you’. Unfortunately for both students and cleaners, the question (though compulsory) was rhetorical. We were told that we were not providing a service for the students but maintaining company property (used for business conferences during university holidays). When informed that room cleaning was not optional, the voices relented and agreed to accept the inconvenience, but, like Harry Enfield’s Kevin, they huffed about how ‘unfair’ it all was.