Monday, May 11, 2009

Dead Zebras and the British Class System

Early on Sunday morning as the plane eased through the clouds and good old patchy-green England was spreading beneath me, I tried to crystallise the various poetic and philosophical thoughts that emerge when one is afforded a God’s-eye view of tiny sleeping towns and miniature cars and cows and so forth, so that I could share them with you. Fortunately I then remembered that you should never attempt to crystallise and share the various poetic and philosophical thoughts that emerge when one is afforded a God’s-eye view of tiny sleeping towns and miniature cars and cows and so forth. They are so terribly lame.

However, some hours earlier than that I was lying stretched on a bench at a Turkish airport, pondering the issue of class. (The benches at the airport are made of many curved wooden slats designed to look nice and to press uncomfortable horizontal stripes into the backs of passengers attempting to recline on them, so my sleepy ponderings were interspersed with dreams about prison bars and dead zebras.)

I was thinking about class because at the resort where Mrs Brit and I were enjoying a last lazy holiday for a good while as a sprog-free couple (as David correctly identified), a high proportion of our fellow guests were thirty and forty-something Britons sporting football shirts, shaven heads, big red beer bellies and copious tattoos. And that’s just the women, ho ho. The usual package holiday mix of Bristolians, Brummies, Glaswegians, Mancs, Scousers, Welsh and Cockneys, indistinguishable except by their accents and home strip. Buggies and brats and cider and cigarettes. The flag of St George or the Welsh Dragon on everything with the space to print it. The Sun (Mirror for the Scousers), kids with earrings, big dirty laughs, women on the karaoke belting out Mustang Sally. In other words, we are talking about what used to be called the British working class.

Except of course in the quantum flux the old tripartite system of English class division is now so hopelessly outdated that the term ‘working class’, with its images of Trade Unions and factory floors, is quaintly archaic. We are all Thatcher’s children, one way or another. The tattooed skinheads soaking up the bargain-priced Turkish sun are, what, plasterers, builders, plumbers, engineers, drivers? Armed forces too, naturally, but mostly contractors and small business-owners. They live in new houses on satellite estates and drive big family cars. They have exceptionally boozy barbecues whenever the weak English sun pokes its head out.

Yet I know lots of builders, plumbers, engineers, contractors and small-business owners - I play football and go on horrible stag nights with them – and very few of them have shaven heads and copious tattoos. So what we are talking about here is not a financial class, but a tribe.

Tattoos across the back and shoulders look aggressive and thuggish but look closer and nine times out ten they’re the names of the thug’s children writ in some poncey script, a la Beckham. The ferociously patriotic but aspirational David Beckham is, I guess, the hero of this tribe. Other heroes include Ricky Hatton, Del Boy, Jordan, Cheryl Cole and though overwhelmingly white, the Tribe is not racist so throw in Ian Wright for the Cockneys and Amir Kahn for the Mancs. (Interesting that of all Beckham’s many iconic haircuts, the skinhead is the easiest to achieve for the average middle-aged bloke, so perhaps that too owes as much to him as to squaddies and 80s gangs.)

I’ve never gone in for tribes but I’m easy about it. The tribe that really hates the Beckham Tribe is the Educated Left. We’re all Thatcher’s children, but the irony is that we’re all also children of centre-left politics. Aspiration is only one half of it; the other is the many victories won on behalf of workers: minimum wage, health and safety, working time etc. For the Educated Left, it must be very frustrating to wait so long for the working class to stage a Marxist revolution and seize power, only to realise that the working class was quite happy to go on package holidays, audition for The X Factor, watch football, read Jade’s autobiography and, where appropriate, vote Tory.

So perhaps the Beckham Tribe is the key to explaining why the Left has so lost its moral compass in recent years (as detailed in Nick Cohen’s excellent book What’s Left?). The lowest British class, the baseball-capped chavs stalking hopelessly around no-go housing estates in ever-accelerating generations of welfare-dependence and despair, is of no interest to the Left, whose half-arsed solution to the cultural gulf created by benefits and wealth redistribution is merely to demand more benefits and wealth redistribution. And it can’t be bothered to address domestic issues because it has turned its attention to Palestinians and Islamic fascists and anything else going so long as it is anti-American. The Beckham Tribe dons uniform and fights racist, anti-Semitic, misogynistic terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Educated Left, because it hates the Beckham Tribe, especially when it teams up with America, opposes it and screams Not in My Name.

Well maybe that's part of the story, I don’t know. I was just musing in between dreams about dead zebras. But I do know that nobody seems to have a good grasp on what the British class system is or means any more, and that a tribal categorisation would make more sense. Perhaps we should just split Britain up along supermarket lines. The Beckham Tribe is Asda but the key vote would be the Tesco Mum. Leaders could be chosen by a simple meritocracy: the person with the most Nectar points wins.


will said...

good to have you back!

nice piece too. although one thing I really hate is categorization -especially along supermarket lines..

There are many articles in the Sunday Times or the Daily Mail that seriously bug the shit out of me, but none more so than ones where some idiot writes all about how brave and amazing they were to visit an Aldi or a Lidl. As if by entering the store, through their own fantastic intelligence, they managed to find the milk and cheese aisle, yet miraculously escaped turning into an 'untermensch' by osmosis

"Oh we don't go to Tesco, we're Waitrose people" (as said by a woman in my office last week)

Gaw said...

It still astonishes me how the veil of class obscures. The woman in the last post may have been a petty-minded snob. But what if she meant 'I'm the sort of person who cares about food quality rather than quantity and I make sacrifices to eat well. Oh, and I also care about animal welfare and like to support businesses that are co-operatively owned'. Only in Britain could buying nice food be given or taken as a sign of snobbery.

Certainly, Britain is tribally split as much as ever. I think people refer to 'chavs' for instance as if they're barely human, some sort of colonised aboriginal tribe. We need someone who can explain us to ourselves, so to speak. But no-one seems particularly interested in the white (un)working class, as you suggest, Brit.

Nige said...

Welcome back Brit - and a damn fine post!

Anonymous said...

If Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath today, the modern left would dismiss the Oakie protagonists as dangerous right-wing fundamentalsts and respond with critical reviews entiled: "What's the Matter With the Joads?"

Brit said...

Cheers chaps.

malty said...

So then, me old fruit, all two and three quarters of you are back safe and sound from a sojourn among the sceptred isles trailer park trash brigade in the land where muslimania meets christiansanity. One is so pleased that no mention was made in your dissertation of the Geordie branch of the chavite nation and jolly grateful I am for that.
Your post on the current state of the class divide is as ever sublime, as a plumbers son who was educated privately in the 1950s I could relate a tale or three about how it was, it for sure ain't like that now
Just one small point, the default occupation of yer average chav, apart that is from them on the dole, tends to be as a satellite dish fitter.

Hope the excess of centigrade didn't make Mrs Brit waddle a lot.

Did you take the opportunity to buy a Galataseri Panerai, an excellent investment, better than a Hong Kong Rolex.

Gaw said...

All this chav snobbery is pretty pathetic. It's a narrow, solipsistic and undifferentiating prejudice, which is directed against the only group of people left that a liberal can feel it's OK to mock and lord it over. We may feel threatened by the odd hoody but if you take an objective look at where power resides in this country, it's certainly not with them.

Brit said...

Yes we were told about the Turkish expertise at dodgy watches, Malty, but we both have an aversion to markets and haggling so we didn't get the chance to see them.

Nice underdeveloped beach on the Med, mountains surrounding.. but they're building huge hotels all around so give it a few years and there'll be tat-sellers and pool bars all over it.

Gaw - I wouldn't call these chaps 'chavs'. Just my definition but I think of chavs as the unemployed and unemployable, and yes, I agree that the class has been shockingly ignored by everyone but especially the Left.

Gaw said...

At the risk of seeming like a bleeding heart, I do think the use of the word 'chav' is unfair.

In my experience there are quite a few shaven-headed, tattooed, hooded, hoop earringed, scraped-back pony-tailed people out there - some of them without a job - who don't deserve to be dismissed and insulted as 'chavs'. (By the way, not all these features will be found in a single person).

Its use doesn't do much to encourage the betters to do anything to improve their lot, or indeed to persuade them to do much for themselves. After all, what can we expect from them, they're only chavs?

Brit said...

Admirable sensitivity, Gaw.