Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Classes by Owen Jones

2016eclecticreader_bookdout2016 Nonfiction Challenge

Genre: Journalism, politics

Narrative Style: Academic

Rating: 5/5unknown-1

Format:paperback

Published: 2011

Synopsis: Jones investigates where our current image of the working classes as layabout, trouble making chavs has come from. He analyses political decisions made by Thatcher, New Labour and the current Tories as well as analysing newspaper headlines and shows such as Little Britain.

Reading Challenges: Non-Fiction Challenge, Eclectic Reader Challenge – Genre Investigative Journalism

When it comes up in conversation, I tend to say that I come from a working class background rather than I am working class. There are two reasons for this. First of all, I now have a lot of the trappings of a middle class life. I’m a teacher, I live in suburbia, I read the Guardian and have a veg box delivered and people are keen to point that out. I don’t really believe that class is something that you shrug off the minute that you start to earn more money. Just like if you are upper class and you lose all your money, you are still upper class, you just have no money. It makes more sense when you think about it that way round but it is just as true of working class people who have climbed up the ladder a little bit.

The other reason is less pleasant. I want to disassociate myself from the popular image of the working class chav. I want to say I’m working class like it was perceived 30 years ago when I was growing up rather than working class as it is perceived now. Having read Owen Jones’ book, I feel more than a little ashamed of myself.

It’s not that the things that Jones discusses were news  to me and it’s not like I’m supportive of measures to cut benefits but it is easy to forget that there are genuine reasons and real people behind the stereotypes.

Jones outlines the systematic destruction of working class culture by first, Thatcherism, then New Labour and finally, the Tories again. It is easy to see how this program of cultural demolition has pushed many of the working classes into the open arms of the far right. The role that Labour used to play in many working class communities has left the ideal space for the BNP and UKIP. Cleverly, the BNP have started to play a community role in some of these areas, organising events and dealing with problems.

As Jones points out, the demonisation of the working classes has allowed this Government the most almighty get out clause. It has allowed them to avoid dealing with tax evasion, instead focusing the public’s eye on the much smaller problem of benefit fraud. It paints working class people as lazy and shiftless rather than deal with the fact that there aren’t enough jobs and a lot of the jobs there are are insecure. Focusing working class minds on the problem of immigration has allowed them to avoid putting in place legislation which would stop businesses being able to pay lower wages to immigrants. The list goes on, each item more deplorable than the last.

It is very easy to see why immigration is seen as such a big problem in working class communities. Of course, it would be easy to dismiss this as racism but as Jones points out, this is a far more complex problem than that. Immigrants who are willing to work for a low wage – but probably higher than they were earning at home – drag the entire job market down. Similarly, immigrants are less concerned about having permanent contracts so jobs become more insecure. It is in this atmosphere that parties such as the BNP and UKIP thrive, playing ruthlessly as they do on these insecurities.

Jones describes an experience he had while knocking on doors during the run up to the 2010 election. He describes what seems like a normal working class conversation about immigration except that the woman was Asian. I had a similar experience more recently in the run up to the Brexit referendum. Pupils were very keen to share their opinions (or their parents’ opinions, I suppose.) One Asian pupil was particularly vocal about how we should leave so we could get rid of all the immigrants. There was no point in saying that at some point, somewhere in his family history, they must have emigrated to this country. At the time, I was annoyed with him, I must admit. It seemed unfair that he should wish to stop the very process that had at some stage brought his family to this country. Having read, Jones’ book, I feel like I understand a little more. It is to do with feeling threatened and insecure and that is the motivating factor for the working classes and the issue of immigration, not racism.

After reading this, it is easy to see why so many working class people voted for Brexit. At the mercy of right wing politicians who made promises they could not keep and abandoned by mainstream politics, it is little wonder so many voted to leave. It is the logical result of the systematic ruin of working class communities.

Jones is rightly angry and after reading this book, you will be too. It is frustrating to think that things are only going to get worse when we eventually leave Europe. Brexit will compound problems in working class communities without actually doing any of the things that it promised to do about immigration.

One thing is for sure, this idea that we are all middle class now or that class no longer exists is a big lie. It is unlikely to be challenged any time soon, as it is so helpful to the Government. I’m not sure what the answer to all this is. A stronger Labour party who were genuinely concerned about working class issues would be a start but until they can stop all the in-fighting, that doesn’t seem all that likely.

Books Read in 2014 – 60. High-Rise – J. G. Ballard

Genre: Dystopia, anti-heroes

Narrative Style: Third person three different perspectivesUnknown

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1975

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Robert Laing quickly spots the careful class demarcations when he moves into the high-rise. Whilst ostensibly for the rich, it quickly becomes apparent that some are not as rich as others. These demarcations follow the floors with the lowest on floors one to ten and so on. When the electric start to fail, panic and violence quickly ensue. Before long, everyone has returned to a savage state and society has completely broken down. 

This has what is perhaps my favourite opening line ever – “Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.” This raised my expectations quite highly. The plot then moves through those three months. Unfortunately they don’t quite live up to this powerful opening line.

The story is told from the perspective of three men – one from the lowest ranks, Wilder; one from the middle, Laing; and one from the top, Royal who is one of the architects of the high-rise. Before civilisation starts to break down, there are already petty jealousies and rivalries about who can use which swimming pool and which lift. This seemed realistic enough and it was easy to see how such grudges might escalate into something bigger.

However, I wasn’t convinced by the triggers for the escalation. Very quickly, it seemed, people were no longer leaving the high-rise and hunting in packs for people from the other floors. Once that had happened, there were very few places for the narrative to go. Nothing else really happened and it felt like events levelled out. They didn’t really get any worse and there was clearly no way for them to get better.

That wasn’t the only problem. I couldn’t really decide what point Ballard was trying to make. I suppose that the high-rise was meant to represent a microcosm of society with the three levels representing upper, middle and working class but because these were all from the same class, the point didn’t quite work. At the end. only Laing is left eating his barbecued dog suggesting perhaps that the middle classes are the ones that will survive and then because they wait it out passively. I’m not sure what sort of moral lesson that is supposed to be.

This is as much about masculinity as it is about class and the three men show different ways of being male. Wilder, as his name might suggest, is very much ruled by his sexuality, Laing is more refined, preferring to wait and see what happens and finally Royal is a leader, at least for a while, by virtue of his money and his penthouse apartment. This also relates to stereotypical versions of masculinity and class e.g. the beastlike working class male. The women in this novel are underdeveloped, there to largely be raped or rescued depending on the man in question. That also was disappointing.

Ultimately this was an interesting idea which was well-written but just didn’t quite work for me. This is the second Ballard I’ve read lately that has left me a little cold but I’m sure I will be tempted again as the initial ideas just sound so interesting. They have made a film of this, to be released next year and it maybe that it will work a little better as a film. I’d certainly be keen to see what they do with the material.

Books Read in 2014 – 56. Barracuda – Christos Tsiolkas

Genre: Australian Fiction, Sport, GLBTbarracuda

Narrative Style: First person moving back through events, third person moving forward through events. 

Rating: 5/5

Published: 2013

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Danny Kelly has one desire – to win olympic gold. His whole life is focused around swimming, racing and training. When he loses for the first time, he feels the world come crashing down on his head. He almost doesn’t recover. 

At the beginning of the novel, the grown up, present day Danny Kelly is clearly in a bad place in his life. He is out of place – both literally and metaphorically – and unclear where his life is going. You know something has gone badly wrong for him. This is reinforced in the third person sections of the text which describe Danny starting a fee-paying school on a swimming scholarship and his many racing successes. The reader is immediately drawn in. What on earth could have gone wrong?

Clues are slowly revealed such as the fact that Danny has been in prison. The first person narrative moves back in time and presents such a startling contrast to the third person that at times it is hard to believe that this is the same Danny Kelly. The two narratives converge on the same moments in time in roughly the middle of the novel. It was nerve-wracking reading up to this point as it becomes more and more apparent what is going to happen. I wished so hard to be able to stop the inevitable but Danny could not be stopped from hitting the very bottom.

After this, the pace changes, the first person narrative is now the one that is filled with the joy of swimming as it relives Danny’s early years and the third person narrative shows Danny slowly becoming a new person after his spell in prison. There is still a contrast between the two narratives but it is less jarring than in the first half of the book and I began to hope that Danny would find some sort of contentment.

One of the reviews that I read of this book suggested that it was ridiculous that Danny would fall apart after just one race but I think that actually Tsiolkas describes his downfall well. It is all tied up with the fact that Danny is working class in an essentially middle/upper class environment. When he fails, it is only the inevitable catching up with him. Even his father seemed to believe that failure was just there waiting for him. There is no sense in trying again as he there would only be more of the inevitable. Tsiolkas offers a strong commentary on class and the meaning of success in this novel. I particularly enjoyed his critique of the Sydney Olympics which was close to how I felt in 2012.

Danny is gay but this is just an accepted fact and causes him no problems. The problem for Danny is his class not his sexuality. It was very pleasing to read a novel where sexuality was just taken as a given, not as an issue in and of itself. Definitely one of my reads of the year.

 

The perfect implications of an imperfect world.

The recent edit of Choose Yr Future has seen some chapters disappear, some change and some needing to be written. When I first started writing some of the details of my future world weren’t as clear as they are now so obviously there have been some pretty big changes. For me, this is the one enjoyable thing to come out of editing. Until you read through the whole of your work, you don’t always realise you have been sidetracked. Sometimes the sidetrack becomes the main road. Sometimes you have to find a way back to the path you actually want to follow. But at the end, the destination should be clear.

One of the things that became clear to me was that while I was concerned about gender and sexuality issues, I hadn’t realised that I was writing about class so much. My future society is very much a class based world with no social mobility at all, apart from the lucky ones who get to win talent shows of one type or another. The sort of thing that gives the impression of mobility when in fact the majority of people are stuck with in the same place as they ever were; the same place where their parents were stuck; the same place their children will be stuck.

Of course, a lot of people believe that class divisions no longer matter and that social mobility is easier than it has ever been. And maybe that is true to an extent. After all, in my suburban house, with my job in education, I’d have a nerve to still call myself working class (although there is no doubt that I still do). If I had children, they would be born into a middle class world. But when a recent study showed that elite surnames still dominate in universities such as Oxford and Cambridge and that underlying social status is more strongly inherited than height, there may be not as much cause to celebrate as you might think. Maybe there is more movement in the middle but as soon as you start to move to the extreme of either end, it becomes more and more difficult to move upwards at one end, less and less likely that you will lose your privilege at the other.

As I have mentioned in an earlier blog, I am currently reading Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds. She discusses her own dystopian world and also the way that she feels that dystopia and utopia are not really the opposites we take them as but ever present within each other. I hadn’t thought about it before but it makes sense that if you create a perfect world then there must be the implication of an imperfect one and vice versa. What about the perfect world implied in my dystopic one? My future humans are caught up with voting on everything, they have no spare time as the government controls their every waking hour with work, exercise, recreation, and so on. They have health plans that they must keep to, they have roles that are chosen for them. They have a place in which they must stay, a time to get married, a time to have children. So I suppose my ideal world would be one where people were able and allowed to think for themselves, where they were given the freedom to be themselves and where you could actually choose your future.