Our society is absolutely obsessed with assigning a value to somebody. It clicks with our innate Britishness that we have to organise everyone and everything into little boxes to be neatly categorised and stored away. We love to be summed up by archetypes, stereotypes and preconception as much as possible, seemingly so we can spend the rest of the day drinking tea, fox-hunting or getting fake tans without having an identity crisis.
In times gone by, one denoted one’s social status from the hats they wore. From the shiny topper to the pristine bowler, the upper class dominated, regardless of actual competency, with the trilby wearing middle sort doing their paperwork and accounts. It was down to those toiling in heavy industry to wear that most iconic of working class headgear, the flat cap. One would assume that there is something about the design of the flat cap that must protect the wearer from chemical spills, falling metal works or quarry collapses. For ladies too, the hats represented the practicalities of day to day living, with the broader the hat representing the less physical labour they had to do. The Working classes were left with a shawl or headsdcarf.
Even when I was growing up, (not that long ago may I point out) some people still wore these hats with pride. My Mum’s father was seldom without his flatcap, and her mother always had her headscarf, nor were their combined dozen or so surviving siblings and their spouses ashamed to bear their traditional headgear. There was pride in their working class roots. Those headscarves and flat caps proudly stated ‘I work for a living’. Being working class was something to be proud of, but then… it just wasn’t.
Having grown up in a Labour household, and identifying as a bleeding heart liberal, naturally I blame Thatcher. But not just Thatcher… Thatcherism… and Reganism and all this other yuppie friendly, worker toxic gumpf that the ’80s gave us. No longer was there dignity or satisfaction of doing a hard day’s work and putting bread on the table, the heroes of the age became those who did an hour’s work in the morning, covered the table in cocaine, spent a grand on a prostitute and still had enough money by the weekend to buy a yacht and more red braces.
Oh the rich have always been ostentatious and the middle classes insecure about their place as the filling in the social sandwich, but this was different. Before the second half of the twentieth century the class lines were immovable; set in stone, ordained by God and enforced by people with lots of money and military backing. Two World Wars changed that, and led to a period of increased social mobility. Apparently dying together in the name of freedom changes one’s view of the world (at least SOMETHING good can come out of it). Unfortunately this gave rise to the ‘Yuppie’, and these Yuppies came largely from working class backgrounds. They looked back at their roots and thought ‘working ten hours a day for pittance… how stupid is that?’ and so they took over the financial industry and the media, and set about distancing themselves from where they came from. They sacrificed their own heritage to shmooze with the upper crust, and turned their media companies and newspapers against the working classes.
I must at this point state that I am all for social mobility. I do not believe that anyone’s fate should be set by accident of birth. It is why I am not a Monarchist. When you have a system that grants someone the position of ‘head of state’ based on who their ancestors murdered, usurped or shagged, then you send a message to everyone, that some people are just born better than others. It does not matter how ceremonial the position of Monarch is, the statement is the same. When the next world war comes, there will always be someone entitled to push in front of you in the queue for the nuclear bunker.
Now, I grew up in a working class family. It was a family that valued education, manners, politeness and eating together at the dining room table without the telly on. My Dad worked 12 hours most days, on shifts, sometimes for 6 days a week. He worked on the railways which were, for the first 18 years of his career, a nationalised industry. My Mum worked in a nursery, and then took over running a pre-school. They voted Labour, drove second hand cars and sent their children to a comprehensive school. We never heard of polenta, hummus, ciabatta or panninis. We holidayed in Cromer or Cornwall, not Corfu. I wouldn’t say I missed out on too much. Even as my Dad’s income grew and we were able to afford nice things, we never lost sight of where we came from as a family. I may not speak with the same accent as the rest of my family (My great aunt always describes me as the posh one) but there are other reasons for that. Although I identify myself as more a classless bohemian, my working class background is something to take pride in, and I do.
This of course is why I get angry at the idea of class. I am not so naive as to think that we can all be white-collar accountant, solicitors, office managers or what-have-you. People need to make stuff, move stuff, shunt stuff, prepare stuff, teach stuff, clean stuff and wipe stuff and we risk a lot of social unrest when we devalue those who do the most important work in keeping society running.
And yes, right now my clinical depression and anxiety are so severe that they make steady, regular work almost impossible, and I currently rely on benefits (which some seem to think dis-entitles me to any opinion or right of commentary) but I work hard as a writer and have had several successes of late which will pay off in the next few months. I still cling to the notion of hard work, even if it is with a pen and keyboard, and I am determined not to rely on the benefits system for long, despite public perceptions of people who rely on the government for support.
and this brings me to the ‘C’ word.
As a teenager, especially as one who was a bit of a Goth, with alternative hair and a leather trenchcoat, I found myself clashing with a more mainstream culture. From a historical point of view, the Goths/Grebs vs Townies/Chavs, was just a reiteration of the Mods and Rockers conflicts of the ’60s, but the punches were real, the insults were many and the gang intimidation was rife. However, the aggression seemed largely one-sided. Huge gangs of track-suited teenagers would hang round wherever people congregated and swore, smoked, spat and spoke in some kind of cockney/patois hybrid. They harassed anyone and seemed to use any excuse to start a fight with someone who dared walk past them on their own, in some attempt at showing off their masculinity.
They were called Townies because (imaginatively) they often hung around the town centres, and this later evovled into the label ‘Chav’ due to the high density of Gypsy and Traveller communities in the part of the country where I grew up. The Romany word ‘Chavi’ basically just means ‘child’ but had entered the home counties vernacular and was used as a term to label these unruly, anti-social teenagers that made people’s shopping experiences unpleasant. There were no class implications, despite the fact that these kids were mainly, but not exclusively, of working class backgrounds. It was just a contempoarary word analagous with thug, or yob.
But then the press got their hands on it.
That same yuppie run, toff owned institution that doesn’t like ‘oiks’ like us… we who haven’t the decency to be born into affluent families… grabbed that word. They added more venom and vitriol. They charged it with hate, holding up youth crime figures and blurred photos of track-suited kids spitting on elderly people. They latched on to reality TV stars who fitted the stereotype and gave faces to this dire, degenerate uncouthness, and then, when they had a great big sticky pot of hate and resentment, they smeared it over the rest of us. Every person on benefits, every person who was unemployed, every single mother, every comprehensive school kid, everyone wearing a hoodie, everyone in social housing or inner city estates all became ‘Chav scum’. Suddenly the misdeeds of a few wayward, unruly kids outside Maccy-D’s or in the recreation ground or hanging around outside a night club, were the crimes of a whole ‘lost generation’.
But it didn’t stop there. Now all one has to do is speak with a regional accent, attend a school without a tie in the uniform code or miss out your gap year, and suddenly you belong to this great swirling mass of vice, violence and filth that the press convince us is happening.
But the absolute worst part is this. Those kids who spit on elderly people, beat up other kids, mug people, shoplift, vandalise property… they’re still there. But now that’s been integrated into our society. Everyone who can’t afford a private pension is now a ‘Chav’ and no better than those kids and their disgusting behaviour. Just like the rules of our society tell us that the inbred royals at the top are superior by right of birth, they also tell us that what were the working classes are stupid, violent, criminal scum… presented as immutable, undeniable fact, set in stone, ordained by God and enforced by people with lots of money and military backing…
I used to use the word, until the sneaky elitist press decided to change, not its meaning, but its applicability. I am a ‘Chav’ according to them, and unless you have at least 6 figures in your saving account, you are too.