Thursday, 2 June 2011

Chavving 'ell...Polly Toynbee to the rescue.

Vicki Pollard with the distinctly chavvy Kate Moss
Warning: long rant and opinions aired!

Recently Polly Toynbee published an article on the term ‘chav’ (for readers outside England the closest equivalent would be ‘trailer park trash’).  Articles by Polly Toynbee often grab my attention, I don’t read the kind of press she writes in and I dislike her, for me she is the left wing version of Jan Moir in the Mail. The fact that she was writing about the term ‘chav’ made me chuckle before I even read it because I knew what it would contain.
The very fair, and already much promulgated fact that one should be careful before applying any sweeping stereotypical/derogative term is the ostensible subject of the piece.  Hearing a complaint about the denigration of the working class from someone who has always patronised the white working class and writes in a paper that has always failed to understand or empathise with working class culture is rich.  You can see it in her article when she ruminates on the fact that the word ‘chav’ is aimed at all on council estates or who are on benefits. No it isn’t, that’s only done by people of her background and class.  

I was also amused by her ruminations on the disappearance of the working class, talking of the weakening of the Unions resulting in the working class ‘losing their bearings’.  Now I am a staunch trade unionist but what pile of crap. It is obvious that this woman follows the (very middle class idea) that without political guidance from political cadres the working class won’t understand economics, income or social position. Does this idiot not know where Unions came from?  I can assure her that working class culture, in as far as any homogenous culture is possible exists and what’s more.. gasp!.. it has the cheek to do so with no input or guidance from elsewhere.  Perhaps the old, much beloved by the left, sentimental image of earnest marchers, going to evening college to do art classes, getting up and marching at command and automatically voting for their nice Labour MP from that intellectual Fabian family is hard to find evidence of. To be honest it never much existed.  The solidarity is still there, it is just that the British don’t tend to toe the line so easily. What to do when the so called traditional working class moan about immigration, refuse to strike unless it is in their own interest, want to own houses and then vote Tory?  How to handle the working class anger at the removal of grammar schools, their resolute lack of enthusiasm for Europe and resolute enthusiasm for a fight and our armed forces. The response of the Toynbee’s of the world has been to mutter about Sun readers, racism and lack of education.  The adoption of the word Chav has resulted from this as much as anything else. 

She talks about a lack of respect for so called menial and low salary work .. from  whom exactly?  My mother cleaned, as have many of my neighbours.  Certainly no one on the estate I live on has this attitude, anecdotal evidence reveals that the upper class seem to regard their cleaning staff as paid necessary workers whereas it tends to be the liberal middle class who either fuss over their cleaning staff or treat them like shit.  Polly reveals her ignorance when she mentions a remarkable work ethic, despite low pay.  So a job is all about pay and status?  Really you should only expect to work hard if you are well paid, probably a graduate with a nice house.  The fact is, that if you work hard you tend to keep your job, your chances of promotion are higher and your chances of improving your salary improve and ultimately it is the right thing to do… protestant work ethic anyone?  The fact that this is now less the case is as much down to middle class meddling, the stupid idea of lots of people going to university has damaged traditional routes into management and job security. Now you have to get the special key to even start your working life… this sanctification of university and downgrading of physical work and skills have been very damaging. 

Several comments to the article are cross reactions to Toynbee’s identification of the word ‘chav’ with anyone on benefits, in state housing or on low incomes.  The word ‘chav’ is widely used amongst the working class and aimed at others, not necessarily of the same background. I have heard Jeremy Clarkson, Prince Harry and Paris Hilton described as ‘chavvy’ in my local pub. I live on a South London estate, we have a thankfully small population of lazy, huge, chain smoking, work evading, screaming, swearing idiots adorned with dozens of children who make all of our lives less pleasant.  I don’t use the word ‘chav’ but it would probably be better than ‘fat, lazy, scrounging c***’ which is the general term employed in scuffles on our estate.  If the white working class have a cross to bear, it is being forced to endure people like this because they are coddled and funded, it is seeing our jobs being undercut as a result of people like Toynbee hiring  cheaper migrants to work for them and our schools being downgraded because people like her want to school their children in establishments with parents like themselves.

Certainly the behaviour of politicians and media demonising the dole scrounger and housing benefit scammer for their own purposes is disgraceful (although so are dole scroungers and housing benefit  fraudsters) and the policies that have led to many problems for the working class come from the top (unfair taxation, poorly organised education, denuded social housing stock, immigration levels).  I’m no fan of the Daily Mail, but the Guardian offends me as much, and no member of my largely left wing trade unionist family would ever dream of reading it.  Much of the damage done to working class life and aspirations has been caused by those with ‘improving’ agendas.   One of the best, most moving and well researched books on this subject is Michael  Collin’s: The Likes of Us: A Biography of the White Working Class (available on Amazon here) which looks at the origins of the demonization of this sector of our community.

It is interesting that when you look at the media’s depiction of the working class its representatives are lovable but immoral, our media like to think of the working class this way as it makes us ‘cosy’y et somehow completely different and implicitly inferior to them. Think of Shameless, Eastenders is also hilarious (which person exactly decided that working class Londoners live in flats almost rococo in the horror of their d├ęcor?).  However it has to be said that these media feckless characters are complete monsters and utterly unreal, if they did exist they would be ostracised fairly quickly.  Loud and gobby funnily enough don’t go down well either and nor does crime.  Try and think of a working class drama or soap where gobby isn’t the default.  These images are not coming from politicians, or the right wing press but from our creative media community.

Working class identity is not necessarily disappearing but perhaps it is becoming more difficult for commentators such as Toynbee to label and handle partially because they cannot come up with any good labels and partially because they just don’t get it.  Surely working class people are put upon and envy their ‘betters’ whom they can join by going to university and, I don’t know, becoming a journalist? I am Oxbridge educated, have a profession but still squarely regard myself as working class and that’s just the way it is. Throughout my childhood I have been surrounded with people who read, are intelligent and talented but never wanted or needed to move ‘up’ into a middle class milieu.  I don’t regard the feral underclass as being part of that, nor the kind of people that scrounge benefits. I regard the bankers and corporate money wankers as far more responsible for the troubles of today and have no compunction in calling them wankers, if I felt someone was behaving like a chav, I’d call them it. Not that they'd give a monkeys if I did.....

Just a personal opinion, no intention to cause offence...comments welcome.


Helen Highwater said...

This article of Toynbee's turned up at about the same time as an article in The Guardian about people struggling to live on the dole. It read like the work of a very sheltered private school 6th former.

"Ask most people how much the dole is, and they'll think of how much they need to comfortably live on, about £100. They are amazed by how little the dole is in comparison." (paraphrasing from memory...).


The rest of the article reads similarly. It's sheltered middle class kids who have only just discovered that benefits aren't very much to live on. There's a truly gut-churning bit in there courtesy of burlesque's #1 enemy, Laurie Penny (I once wrote a blog about her... she's young journalist of the year or something...), whinges on about how awful it is for young graduates being unable to find work. "We have 2:1's from Oxbridge!" Oh no, the world wasn't given to you on a plate - alas and alack!

It then reads like The Young Ones - Oxbridge graduates living 7 to a house intended for 4, unable to feed themselves properly and so falling ill during the winter from lack of food. Small children holding out bowls, asking Mr Bumble for more gruel. Oh no, wait, sorry, I exaggerate.

The thrust of the article seemed to be, "Waaah! Now that unemployment affects the middle class, this dole money really isn't enough!"

Like they've only just discovered this. *slams forehead into table top with unfortunate force*

This, coupled with Toynbee's piece, just seemed to ramp up the patronising elements. I mean, we really shouldn't use the word chav. These people are on benefits and cannot afford merlot from Marks & Spencer's Simply Food, for Christ's sake! No wonder they wear ill-fitting shiny tracksuits and produce hundreds of feral kids - but it's not their fault, it's because they can't afford petit pois on the dole!

Oh Gawd.

LollyWillowes said...

I absolutely agree with you and I loathe the Guardian, I wouldn't even use it to line the cat's litter box.
Smug, hypocritical and irritating beyond belief.
I have a degree myself but would rather have done something more arty/theatre/costume related but that was considered ridiculous when I was in school, I was academic and that's what was expected of those who were. But back then it wasn't ten a penny and of little value as so many seem to be now.
I despair at the lack of apprenticeships and proper work, especially for young men, nowadays.
Well done old bitch...for turning us into a service industry and even that is being taken away.
We need a rethink but I just can't see it ever happening now.

Mim said...

Nothing wrong with being working class, getting into university and becoming a journalist. It's what I did, and I managed not to turn into a Glenda or Polly Filla on the way. Not that that route is very easy now, with the introduction of tuition fees and the rise of unpaid internships; I personally am very concerned about journalism being an inaccessible career option for working-class kids. Journalism is increasingly becoming the preserve of the middle classes, and I don't think it's to the benefit of the profession.

RedlegsinSoho said...

My dig was at Polly Toynbee not journalists. A distinguished career in journalism could once start with a posh university or making cups of tea in the news room..would not happen now and this is disgraceful. Similarly someone of talent need not have a degree for a career in banking, law, commerce, insurance, brand management and so forth. I took my degree because I loved my singularly impractical subject not to get a job. It pisses me off that people are impelled to study and run up huge debts just to get on the starting blocks. xx

Climbing The Ivory Tower said...

Something always missed by Guardian types is the idea that society can be reflected in an uneven ladder, rather than as some trite Marxist stereotype.

The rungs towards the top are very far apart - there's a lot of space between an Emperor and a mere CEO, for example. The rungs in the middle are closer, but still gappy - there's plenty of space between a surgeon and a teacher.

However, get down to the bottom, and the rungs are very close together. I grew up in an armpit of a town in the North East. 'When I were a lad, all this were factories' and so on. None now of course, and that makes up part of this little tale. Where I grew up, the rungs were extremely close - my family were one up on the neighbours because mother worked nights - therefore we could buy clothes from a shop, rather than Mr Patel on the market. Chav wasn't a word then, but we had the people - nobody liked them, not even the real poor that lived off of charity shops and out-of-date food (before it was fashionable).

I remember going through a bit of a Red phase, in this working class area - "Fuck off, Russian-loving twat" was the general feeling. Black kids had a hard time at school. Sikhs were left alone because it was thought that they all carried swords, all of the time. What became the chav was ostracised by most, and used as a public service (kickings, theft, etc) by certain elements.

The Guardian image of this Edwardian jolly-old-peasants working class doesn't exist. It is a hard world at the bottom, people are damned prejudiced down there, about each other as much as anyone else, and the 'reforming' types never quite reach that far - their working class lives in Hampshire or Cheshire, and is all white and literate.

I watched too many costume dramas as a child - I wanted to join the stripy-tie brigade and get on in life. I worked hard, I did. I can't go back to that town (the factories are gone now by the way, thanks for nothing, New Labour) - the people wouldn't have me. I moved to a nice city full of people with jobs - I bought several second-hand suits, worked hard, and now make enough money to rent a flat and buy new shoes.

I've been on benefits - nobody called me a chav, because I wasn't, I'm not, and I won't be. I'll happily mutter it about those that spend all day buying awful things in Primark and smoking weed at my expense, however.



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