This is the first of a three part analysis of Owen Jones’ book Chavs. The second part will be published tomorrow, with the concluding part appearing on Thursday. All three can be read here.
Book Review: Owen Jones, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class. London: Verso, 2011. 298 pages. £14.99
To get rid of class-distinctions you have got to start by understanding how one class appears when seen through the eyes of another. It is useless to say that the middle classes are ‘snobbish’ and leave it at that. You get no further if you do not realize that snobbishness is bound up with a species of idealism. It derives from the early training in which a middle-class child is taught almost simultaneously to wash his neck, to be ready to die for his country, and to despise the ‘lower classes’.
-George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier
It’s a scenario familiar to many people from a working-class background. ‘You’re among a group of friends or acquaintances when suddenly someone says something that shocks you: an aside or flippant comment in poor taste. But the most disquieting part isn’t the remark itself. It’s the fact that no one else seems the slightest bit taken aback. You look around in vain, hoping for even a flicker of concern or the hint of a cringe’. Owen Jones opens his study of the state of working-class life in Britain with a personal recollection, of dining with a group of purportedly progressive, right-on friends, in ‘a gentrified part of East London’, when one of his hosts threw out an apparently light-hearted remark: ‘”It’s sad that Woolworth’s is closing. Where will all the chavs buy their Christmas presents”‘.
Jones points to the ubiquity of such ‘chav’-based mockery in contemporary Britain; in Ireland, this reviewer can often recall being in the company of middle-class liberal types who joke about ‘knackers’ and ‘Knackeragua’ at the drop of a hat. People in track-suits or Tommy Hilfiger jackets with cropped haircuts are fair game for middle-class mirth, but Jones points out that while such casual condescension routinely provokes merriment in the leafier suburbs of any British or Irish city, if it were applied to a black man or a gay woman, the response would be quite different.
‘If a stranger had attended that evening and disgraced him or herself by bandying around a word like “Paki” of “poof”, they would have found themselves swiftly ejected from the flat [......] Deep down, everyone must have known that “chav” is an insulting word exclusively directed against people who are working class’, he reasons. Oxbridge educated elites caricaturing people whose life chances are curtailed by inequality should be just as unacceptable as white people caricaturing West Indians as idle pot-smokers. ‘How has hatred of working-class people become so socially acceptable?’ Jones asks, in this spirited, timely, informed and insightful survey of British class conflict; ‘it seems as though working-class people are the one group in society that you can say practically anything about’.
As a former trade union and parliamentary researcher, it might be expected that Jones would keep himself well within the margins of strictly political concerns, but part of the strength of Chavs is the breadth of cultural and social analysis that its author brings to bear. Jones begins by pointing out the pervasiveness of class prejudice in British popular culture. One keep-fit class provider, for example, advertises its newest recreation activity – ‘Chav Fighting’ – as teaching clients how to ‘give [......] a kicking’ to ‘young Burberry-clad street kids’. Businessman Richard Hilton explains that classes are targeted at clients who wish to tackle the sort of kids who ‘have trouble articulating themselves and have little ability to spell or write’. One doesn’t have to go far to find parallels to this repellent class loathing in Ireland; the popularity of ‘white-collar boxing’ in recent years – though a more subtle form of exclusivity – surely suggests something very fundamental about class prejudices on this side of the water, when cities, towns and villages throughout the country already have many well-established boxing clubs, which happen to mainly cater for working-class males. Posh pugilists throw shapes in a ‘white-collar’ working-class-free zone, but nobody asks why this snootiness might seem odd.
One company in Britain even offers ‘Chav-Free Activity Holidays’, tapping into ‘resentment against the cheap flights which allowed working-class people to “invade” the middle-class space of the foreign holiday’, much to the delight of its growing customer base, Jones finds. One might again enlist an Irish example, the recent Multi-Trip travel insurance radio campaign, in which Bridie, a fundamentally idiotic working-class Dub, is comically contrasted with her sensible superior, the middle-class Craig, who despairs at Bridie’s ignorance:
Craig: [......] Multitrip.com, my new annual travel insurance from just €21.99.
Bridie: I goh a multrip.com policy too, an’ I went ta Venice; buh I didn’ like ih though.
Craig: Why not?
Bridie: Ih was flooded!
Jones cites an array of such abounding, acceptable slights and caricatures in British society, ‘a form of class hatred [that] has become an integral, respectable part of modern British culture’. Underlying this condescension is a fundamental misapprehension, he argues, ‘an attempt to obscure the reality of the working-class majority. “We’re all middle class now”, runs the popular mantra-all except for a feckless, recalcitrant rump of the old working class’. Historian and economist Conor McCabe made this point in a recent article on class relations in Ireland for Irish Left Review:
‘There are enough commentators in the media, and indeed within the trade union movement [.....] who maintain that Ireland has a majority middle class, with a working-class rump and a lucky few at the top.’
A tale of two Britains
Jones systematically dispels this Western myth and the assemblage of false assumptions, spurious claims and prejudices that inform it. In Chapter 1, he does so by recourse to an illustrative comparison between the media fanfare following the disappearance of Madeline McCann, and the rather more damp-squib of a response when a less affluent child went missing in the north of England nine months later.
McCann, who disappeared in the Algarve in May 2007, was the daughter of successful, highly intelligent and photogenic parents, whereas Shannon Matthews, who disappeared in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, in February 2008, was the daughter of an impecunious, pasty-faced, dishevelled looking mother from a council estate. McCann’s disappearance had, within a fortnight, generated 1,148 stories in British papers, with the sum of £2.6 million offered as a reward for her return by a host of British luminaries. ‘What a contrast with the pitiful response to Shannon Matthews’s disappearance’, Jones writes: ‘After two weeks, the case had received a third of the media coverage given to McCann in the same period’, with the paltry sum of £25,500 (later raised to £50,000 by the Sun) offered for the poorer girl’s discovery. ‘And yet, in both cases, the public was faced with the same incomparable anguish of a mother who had lost her child’.
Regardless of how the Matthews case was resolved – how it proved to be a very depressing and shocking incident of parental abuse – Jones argues convincingly that the whole affair unearthed some very disturbing prejudices in high places. One candid columnist with the Daily Mail revealed why she found the McCann case particularly compelling: ‘This kind of thing doesn’t usually happen to people like us’, she wrote. Another, writing for the Times, noted how the setting played its part. The McCanns had been holidaying in an upmarket resort, where ‘everyone is like us’, not like ‘the kind of people who wallop their weeping kids in Sainsbury’s', she unblinkingly explained.
Yet another writer was even more forthright in assessing why the Matthews case had only attracted a fraction of the media coverage that was still being directed towards ‘Maddie’ McCann (nine months after her disappearance): ‘Dewsbury Moor is no Home Counties idyll, nor is it a Portuguese holiday resort. It is “up North”, it is a bleak mix of pebbledash council blocks and neglected wasteland, and it is populated by some people capable of confirming the worst stereotype and prejudice of the white underclass.’ As leading British journalist Roy Greenslade commented in regard to this curious disparity in media interest: ‘overarching everything is social class’.
When it was finally revealed that Shannon’s mother, Karen, had colluded in the hoax of her own daughter’s disappearance, this issue of class antagonism again reared its ugly head. Right-wing journalists and politicians were back with a vehemence, on familiar terrain, thundering about ‘compulsory sterilisation’ for those on benefits, rebuking ‘whole communities where committed fathers are so rare that any child who actually has one risks being bullied’. Karen Matthews and her accomplice, Michael Donovan – isolated, depraved oddities – were now conveniently cast as representative samples of an endemic working-class degeneracy. The reality of the Dewsbury area was eclipsed by the shadow of their terrible crime. A place where people helped each other and many volunteers searched frantically and fundraised for a child they feared to have been kidnapped was now to be epitomised by its most untypical residents, as Jones shows. The Independent’s Melanie McDonagh exemplified this attitude when she characterised the emergence of an ‘underclass’ in British society as ‘a decline that this unfortunate woman [Matthews] seems to embody’.
As Jones stresses, ‘nowhere in this coverage was the idea that someone could have the same background as Karen Matthews, or live on the same estate, without being horribly dysfunctional’. Citing myriad examples of exceptional cases of criminality in working-class areas that have been cast as representative stories of working-class life, Jones quotes journalist Johann Hari’s observation that ‘freakish examples-such as people with ten children who have never had a job-are eagerly sought out and presented as typical’ by a reactionary British media, but only when it relates to working-class life.
One does not have to go far to find parallels in Irish society. Consider, briefly, the media coverage of the death of any innocent youth in violent circumstances in working-class Dublin and then compare it to the media effluvium when Brian Murphy, a child of the leafy suburbs, died in a fist-fight outside posh Dublin nightclub Annabels in 2000. Acres of column inches flowed when affluent boys had a bust-up that went disastrously wrong; for some reason, an identical incident outside a pub in Finglas would fail to attract even a fraction of this sensational coverage. Even when the life of a child is at stake, class is all-important, and Jones points to why media coverage may be skewed in this way; in Britain, ‘over half of the top journalists were educated at private school, a figure that is even higher than it was two decades ago. In stark contrast, only one in fourteen children in Britain share this background.’ Why such analysis seems so difficult to come by in Ireland may have something to do with the similar social backgrounds of those doing the analysis.
In his fourth chapter, Jones conducts a wide-ranging assault on the chav caricature as an object of comic derision and abhorrence in a wide range of arenas, from the ‘ChavTowns’ website and the highly popular Little Book of Chavs, to the Sun newspaper’s ‘away day in which all the journalists dressed up as chavs’ and university parties styled ‘chav bops’. Chav-mockery represents a marked departure from mid-twentieth century British culture, which saw an efflorescence of working-class cultural outlets post-World War II (in part because those who had defended Britain were increasingly vocal about asserting their right to a share in the spoils). This golden age of working-class cultural production saw films, plays and soap operas turn towards working-class Britain as their principal subject matter. This new popular culture seemed to stem organically from a changed society, as cheaper printing costs, higher literacy and the spread of television meant that working-class people also formed the principal audience for TV producers, film directors and writers.
These days, as Jones observes, most of the soaps nominally set in working-class areas depict an imagined, classless void peopled by small business owners who live side-by-side with a smattering of (if any) ordinary workers. So sensationalised and surreal had Eastenders become by the 1990s that former ‘scriptwriter David Yallop savaged the show’ as ‘created by middle-class people with a middle-class view of the working class which is patronizing, idealistic and untruthful’. When modern soap operas do decide to throw in a representative working-class character, often the chav caricature does the job. In her study, Irish Television Drama, Professor Helena Sheehan probed the almost surreal elision of working-class people from RTÉ’s Glenroe (1987-2002), in which “nobody even worked for a wage” – incredibly – for the first five years of its production history. Sheehan recalls that when RTÉ realised its error, programme makers finally decided to throw in an unemployed Traveller, then another, then yet another; for many years, no real engagement with the wide expanse of working-class life was attempted in the flagship soap.
Recently, RTÉ even thought it funny to get one of its most prominent presenters, Gráinne Seoige, to pose as the archetypal chav, complete with impressive prosthetics, and compete in a fake reality TV competition with her fellow presenter sister Síle, who failed to recognise her disguised sibling. In-character and in a fake working-class accent, Gráinne joked that she hadn’t ‘a rashers’ of Irish, not like her well-educated sister. Much comedy then ensued regarding Síle’s inability to understand the put-on working-class twang of another imposter on the show. Things got even more hilarious, apparently, when the show’s presenter used her Irish to tell Síle that one of the pyjama-clad, working-class stereotypes beside her was ‘rough’ and the other was ‘very stupid’. Síle might tell them how to ask for ’20 Major and a huge alcopop’ in Irish, she suggested. Much of the comedy of this episode of ‘Anonymous’ was based on the assumption that the ‘rough’ women from Pearse Street were innately comical and irretrievably thick. They came from an impoverished part of Dublin 4, Pearse Street flats, whereas the RTÉ women worked in the posh part, at Montrose; one side of Irish society was laughing at the other.
It is often risible, if also disquieting, to watch middle-class actors try to affect working-class accents in frankly absurd and cringeworthy Irish dramas – the award-winning Love/Hate (2011) being a case-in-point. So insulated is the bourgeois world of RTÉ from working-class reality that even acting working class is too much to be expected. Jones’s scrutiny of the extent of the chav myth in British popular culture – and the contingent absence of working-class reality on television screens and in print – furnishes some of the best analysis of the book. ‘The hopes and fears of working-class people, their surroundings, their communities, how they earn a living-this does not exist as far as TV is concerned’, Jones writes. While mockery of working-class people has become the norm in British (and Irish) society, it is no less hurtful for the people it mocks; ‘when Robin Nelson, a professor of theatre and TV drama, interviewed working-class viewers of the series [Shameless], they “declared their discomfort [......] because they feel they are being invited to laugh at their own class”‘.
This writer’s jaw dropped to the ground last year, along, no doubt, with many others’, when RTÉ’s resident doyen of the man-on-the-street vox pop, Paddy O’Gorman, described an estate he was reporting from as typically working class because he could see some people with tattoos and others wearing pyjamas in the middle of the day. Emma O’Kelly, reporting from a school in North Inner City Dublin last week, stated on RTÉ News that ‘compared to others these children are lucky; because it’s in a disadvantaged area, the school receives extra funding’. The concept that children living in one of the most unemployed and drug-ridden areas in Western Europe are ‘lucky’ is, well, typical of a certain type of amateur sociology practised in the Irish mainstream media. Earlier that same week, RTÉ repeated, verbatim, reports from business lobby IBEC that ‘absenteeism is costing Irish businesses €1.5bn a year or €818 per employee’. No examination or significant contextualisation of these statistics was ventured, nor were there any counterbalancing comments from workers’ representatives. Instead, RTÉ’s Newsroom blithely repeated IBEC’s suggestion that ‘return-to-work interviews’ should be forced on employees who have missed days, despite the fact that ‘minor illness [was] the main cause of short-term absenteeism’; catch a cold and get yourself re-interviewed, IBEC seemed to warn.
Michael Pierse is author of Writing Ireland’s Working Class: Dublin after O’Casey, which was published by Palgrave Macmillan earlier this year. You can read a review of the book here.
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