The real burn in Saltburn

The Brilliant Club’s CEO Anne-Marie Canning shares her thoughts on the hit movie Saltburn and how it relates to the work the social enterprise does through its ‘Join the Dots’ programme.

Saltburn has generated plenty of spilled ink and filled my TikTok ‘For You’ page for months now. I finally sat down to watch the film one afternoon, convinced by colleagues that it was a form of CPD. Whilst everyone wants to talk about the bathtub water or the vampire scene the real discomfort is elsewhere in the film for me. Around seven minutes in, I had to press pause as I was thrown right back to my first weeks at university. In this early scene Oliver attends his first tutorial, and whilst he is waiting for his well-off peer to arrive (late, of course), his professor asks ‘how did you get on with the reading list?’. Oliver replies that he read it all. The professor’s jaw drops, ‘What, all of it? There’s fifty books on there. Are you mad? The reading list is optional. I’ve not read half the books on there.’ Oliver replies, ‘I thought we were meant to’.

Realising you’re one of the minority of students who has taken the reading list very seriously is a common experience as a working-class student making your way in the first weeks of university. I remember vividly spending all my Education Maintenance Allowance on ordering a pile of books from a new-fangled website called Amazon. As first in family there’s no one to ask, no editions of books in the house, so you do the diligent thing and try to lay your hands on the recommended texts. This is the autodidact’s drive and it’s stayed with me for the rest of the life. You set me a question, or a challenge and I will go away and read everything I can on the topic. As a first-generation student, you learn to rely on your hard graft to swim in unknown waters. It’s one the things our ‘Join the Dots’ programme at The Brilliant Club seeks to address – the difference between hot and cold knowledge. Having someone you can go to with questions, who knows the ropes and can help you get to grips with the unwritten rules of university: one of our PhD tutors acting as an academic coach. Initial results from our first years of the scheme show great promise with significant boosts in academic self-efficacy and social belonging. We know the first three months are a challenging time for low-income students, who are at higher risk of dropout. Transition to university doesn’t need to be like Saltburn and Join the Dots is proving that.

Socially mobile people often describe a sensation of living between two worlds, or as Bourdieu called it, ‘habitus clivé’ or ‘cleft habitus’. Through my own experiences I have become interested in the role of food in social mobility. What we eat is the most fundamental of tastes. We can modify our clothes, music and other expressions of our preferences. But our appetite is more unruly – we want what we crave inside. A few years ago, I carried out research exploring how food comforts us and helps us to feel like we belong. It was called ‘From Fish Fingers to Foie Gras: Food and Social Mobility in the UK.’ Participants described how food connected them with their families, whilst also causing stress and strain in the new social worlds they inhabited. Oysters, rare meat, undercooked eggs, and olives caused discomfort. I’ll never forget a highly successful businessman telling me how he tries an olive every single year to try and persuade himself he likes them as he wishes he could join others in eating them at business networking events. In Saltburn there is a breakfast scene in which Oliver confidently orders eggs sunny side up. The eggs arrive wobbling on the plate, white, see-through and gelatinous and he is revolted. It’s the only moment in the film when Oliver refuses to bend his preference to blend into the family and sends the eggs back to the kitchen. For me, it’s most tense moment of the film and one I feel like I’ve lived a million times in my own life.

Saltburn joins a growing canon of films and books that address the modern experience of long-range social mobility. Whilst the film can be called a Brideshead Revisited for the modern age, there’s a reading list of my own I’d recommend for people wanting to understand the experience of making your way as a socially mobile person. You could read Lynsey Hanley’s memoir ‘Respectable: The Experience of Class’ or Musa Okwonga’s ‘One of Them’. Mike Savage’s ‘Social Class in the 21st Century’ is essential reading for getting to grips with the changing nature of social class in the UK.

It’s a strange and uncomfortable experience watching a film that considers your university years as period drama. Though if the film really wanted to nail that era, it needed a dose of Nelly Furtado, Pitbull and Basement Jaxx to capture the true vibes of a provincial nightclub circa 2006.

The Brilliant Club supports students aged 8 to 18 from disadvantaged backgrounds to access the most competitive universities and succeed when they get there. They do this by partnering with schools, colleges and universities across the UK, with a particular focus on mobilising the PhD community. The Social Business Trust has proudly partnered with The Brilliant Club since 2018.

21st June 2024

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