06 October 2006
Class and its usages
Every now and again an article is published which leaves the reader not just angry, but wondering how on Earth any editor could think of paying out good brass for such a load of old wank? The article in question is by one Gillian Evans who, for reasons that are unclear, found herself living for 13 years on the Bermondsey estate in London.
She claims that she came away with a better understanding of the working class, and expresses amazement that the people of Bermondsey are, collectively speaking, a bit like a "tribe". Just to show how different they are, she rather sweetly mimics their speech patterns in her article. Yes, well, we can all do that, but mocking the elongated vowels of received pronunciation speech is boring and a bit too easy a target. Let's leave tricks like that to middle class types, shall we?
First things first, a middle class person is never going to become working class just because they don't have any money. Class is cultural: we self-identify ourselves as belonging to one class or another, but this sense of identity is bolstered by the way other people react to us. In other words our self definition is reinforced by other people's acceptance of it.
Secondly, the authoress has an irritating habit of treating the working class as just one tribe, when it isn't quite as simple as that. Rather it is a tribe that is divided into many clans. The great division used to be between skilled and unskilled workers, but Thatcher pretty much put paid to that nonsense.
However, another division still exists; that between the relatively small number of people in every district who are or were members of the Labour Party, the local trades' council, old tankies and community group activists. They form a kind of intellectual coterie which usually meets up in one or other of the main pubs to put the world to rights and get collectively smashed out of their heads.
Between these local activists and the bulk of the population who are disengaged from political life there is an enormous chasm. However, there is also an understanding between them that is based on a common culture and tradition. It is this commonality that is lacking between this writer and Gillian Evans.
To take education as a case in point. Gillian Evans believes that it has failed working class children, but we know that it succeeds in its aims perfectly. The education industry, like the social work and race relations industries, is about providing jobs for middle class types. The teachers, obviously, but also the whole gang of truant officers, administrators and general pen-pushers. The industries overlap: thus a teacher may have to go on some "race awareness" course which is run and administered by a seperate, but interlinked, gang. If education was about educating children, then half this lot would be out of work. They aren't because it isn't.
Secondly, working class people also know that even if they do manage to get to university, the chances of them getting a tasty job at the end of it are slim to say the least. It isn't just the working class who form a tribe: the middle class do as well, and that middle class tribe has no intention of seeing the proles taking jobs that are reserved for types. So go to Ruskin College, Oxford, if you want to: the dole office awaits your return.
Gillian Evans is now employed at the University of Manchester. As a type she would have known which telephone to call, which person to write to and which mutual old friend to refer to. Good for her: the system is her system. It exists to aid her and her breed. We understand this perfectly: when types do as well, then they will understand us. Until that happy days dawns we shall have to put up with patronising drivel like this.