Sunday, 3 January 2016

The threat to working class culture is demonisation, denormalisation, temperance and prohibition not appropriation

Let's start this with the (I'm sure pretty unsurprising) fact that I'm not in the slightest bit 'working class'. It's important we start there because I like pubs, enjoy some of that fatty food, used to smoke and have been in my fair share of working men's clubs, pubs and bars. This isn't showing off but rather an observation about what we might understand by 'working class culture'. We might add greyhound racing, course fishing and pigeon racing to this list plus such delights as bingo, betting shops and seaside amusement arcades. Others might add things about taste in furniture, music, clothing and even styles of gardening.

Some don't seem to get this and, watching what we might call 'social worker chic', get all confused about what is and isn't working class. Just like those trendy middle-class social workers who dressed scruffy because they thought their working class clients would like it, we have a new generation of chippy (and probably middle class) sorts who think bars under railway arches with bare brick walls, uneven tables and unmatched seating are in some way a pastiche of working-class culture:

Visit any bar in the hip districts of Brixton, Dalston or Peckham and you will invariably end up in a warehouse, on the top floor of a car park or under a railway arch. Signage will be minimal and white bobbing faces will be crammed close, a Stockholm syndrome recreation of the twice-daily commute, enjoying their two hours of planned hedonism before the work/sleep cycle grinds back into gear.

Expect gritty, urban aesthetics. Railway sleepers grouped around fire pits, scuffed tables and chairs reclaimed from the last generation’s secondary schools and hastily erected toilets with clattering wooden doors and graffitied mixed sex washrooms. Notice the lack of anything meaningful. Anything with politics or soul.

Now I may be wrong here but the 'authentic' working class wouldn't ever have gone to these sort of places. The pubs and clubs they went to were smartly turned out places with neat upholstery, tidy copper-topped tables and well-polished bars. They had a juke-box, a one-armed bandit and a snug - the customers saw gritty urban aesthetics every day at work and really didn't want exposed girders or plain brickwork on a night out.

For me one difference between the middle and working classes - a practical one but real nonetheless - was shown when I lived in a bedsit in York. One of my fellow residents was a bin-man - every morning he crawled out from bed slung on work overalls and cleared up other people's trash while I (slightly later) headed off to an office all suited and booted. And when I was going out of an evening, I took off that suit to put on something more casual and comfortable. The bloke who emptied bins, on the other hand, bathed, groomed and dressed in the best clothes he owned to go out.

Anyway, to return to our middle-class whinge-bucket who thinks opening a bar with cheap decoration and expensive drinks is appropriating working class culture. The real problem isn't this at all - that some ever-so-hipster folk start food stalls in a traditional London street market helps sustain those places and reminds us they're places for everyone not just one or other class. And there are still plenty of greengrocers selling bowls of veg for a quid - at least in most London markets I've ever visited. The problem is that we disapprove of working class cultural choices.

Take drinks, for example. We're pretty cool about charging £8 for half-a-pint of over-hopped craft beer but when some lads buy a six pack of cheap lager to drink while having a kickabout in the park then it dreadful 'binge drinking' and the middle-classes cry for laws - minimum pricing - that price them out of drinking altogether. Rather like Titus Salt banning boozers in his 'perfect' village while serving fine wines to guests at his mansion, today's middle class fussbucket believes the working classes can't be trusted with drinking especially when that drink is lager, cider or cheap vodka.

Look again at that list of working class pursuits above - those same middle-class worrywarts think greyhound racing is cruel, fishing is barbaric and betting shops are filled with devices that are impossible for punters to resist (working class punters of course, they're too dumb to understand). All the pubs or at least the sort of pubs those working class blokes used to frequent, have gone - you occasionally see an older bloke in one of these trendy over-priced hipster bars looking like a bewildered alien visiting from another better planet. And, as well as those pubs, the smoking ban has decimated the bingo halls and working men's clubs - every community used to have at least one of each but now they're gone or else counting the sad days before brewery loans can't be covered by the handful of customers.

Even something like vaping, which should be a public health bonanza, is sneered at by these middle-class do gooders. Just like the cheap lager, these do gooders see the electronic cigarette as something naff used mostly by fat, unattractive working-class people. And we - the middle class public sector managers, councillors, MPs and MEPs who decide these things using crappy research from our middle class friends with sociology doctorates - know better. The working classes mustn't be allowed to make their own choices - mistaken or otherwise. And if we can't actually ban aspects of working class culture then we'll 'denormalise' it, turn it into something so marginalised that those who indulge can be safely treated as pariahs.

Drinking, smoking, vaping, one-armed bandits, betting shops, burgers, fried chicken, over the top Christmas lights, paved front gardens, outdoor drinking, fizzy drinks, chocolate treats in the kids' lunch boxes, sugar pourers on the cafe table, salt, cheap chicken, bacon sarnies, cream, best butter, standing outside for a fag...there seems to be no end to the disapproval - nearly always of working class things - from the nannying fussbuckets, greeny-greeny nutters and know-all 'experts'.

So no dear writers, it's not appropriation or gentrification that's the problem for working class culture it's bans, controls, taxes and an endless nannying chorus of disapproval. It is demonisation, denormalisation, temperance and prohibition that's the threat to working class culture not a load of well-paid Londoners getting ripped off at some craft bar in a railway arch.



Anonymous said...

Working-class culture was, of course, nothing to do with those behavioural aspects like drinking, smoking, betting etc., it was actually a state of mind.
It was based on hard, usually physical work, strong family values and morals, accompanied by an accepted impotence to affect or influence those people and things which controlled your daily life. It was about acknowledging the limits of your aspirations and getting on with what you could reasonably achieve, taking whatever simple pleasures were attainable and affordable, hence the superficial drinking, smoking, betting 'culture' view.
It was only from the mid-20th century that some fortunate folk started to ascend from that state in any numbers, aided by channels of education which helped to stretch the imagination of what was possible - channels which, despite Blair's "education, education, education" are now no longer avilable, replaced by an 'everyone wins prizes' approach which delivers little and satisfies less.

Chris Oakley said...

An interesting post Simon
I suppose that I am working class by birth, my granddads both worked in the Derbyshire coal field. Like many other people with my background I have a degree am reasonably well off if not rich and might now be considered middle class.

However, I have no desire to manipulate demonise or denormalise anyone and feel no affiliation with those who do. On the contrary, I dislike them intensely. However, I am even more contemptuous of those who sit on their hands and let them get away with it. I specifically include David Cameron in that category and question why the Conservative party has done nothing to curtail the bullying despite much of it emanating from political opponents in the public health racket.
Perhaps it is an outmoded reactionary belief in the hopelessly anachronistic establishment? For example, The Royal College of Physicians (RCP), an arrogant pressure group posing dishonestly as an expert body and currently busy coercing our feeble politicians into continuing to treat the population as children by issuing dumbed down guidance on alcohol that is likely to be even less credible than the current evidence free nonsense that is widely ignored by the majority including many health professionals.

We don’t need idiotic guidelines and limits. We need honest analysis of the available information and genuine risk assessment that allows people to make their own informed choices. Furthermore, we need it to be produced by objective sources that we can have at least some trust in and respect for. Those criteria would exclude partisan prohibitionist activists such as the RCP and the many “charities” that are effectively political lobbying groups.

Like many people from my background I am educated and I have almost instant access to enormous amounts of data and points of view. Why on earth should I respect a bunch of power crazy, dishonest obsessives whose only authority stems from passing a medical degree and oozing their way up a very greasy pole into a cushy well paid job? I don’t regard these people as my intellectual or moral equals let alone superiors so I am unlikely to respect any politician who promotes their policies.

Mr Cameron and his ilk really don’t seem to get it. The majority of us are too comfortable to rebel, we simply ignore and refuse to engage, which is no way to build a society. I have no affiliation to a political party and am unlikely to ever bother unless I see a commitment to end the bullying and infantilization that have characterised the last few decades. It is shameful divisive and apparently supported by “plain packs” Dave.

asquith said...

RES said...

Can I ask whether your assessment of working class culture in that post might be quite patronising?

The country could probably make much more useful comments on working class culture if we gave the working class enough of a voice to speak their own stories. That's where nannying, demonisation, denormalisation and the like comes from: the point where groups have minimal ability to effectively represent themselves. When they don't, other people will be inclined to make decisions for them. Let's not also forget those who think they have the right to tell the working classes what to do because the working classes use the social services their tax money largely pays for.

There are only slightly more MPs from working class backgrounds as there are MPs who attended Eton. The same sort of pattern can be viewed in the media, and most other influential professions such as medicine. When any section of the population is excluded from power and national discourse, what else is going to happen? It's the same reason Oliver Letwin said what he did about black communities in the 80s. They may as well have been in a different country for all he knew about them.

Who's going to give the working classes not just some vague freedom to do what they want without criticism, but real empowerment? I don't trust Labour will, but I know the Conservatives won't.