To chav or to chav not

12 April 2006

John Harris, in The Guardian, March 31st on football and music:

But who really believes that New Order’s 1990 smash World in Motion was great art? Not me: when it comes to the summer of that year, I only have memories of student indie discos suddenly being invaded by oafs, and true believers scuttling back to their rooms
[...]
Most importantly, now is perhaps an opportune time to reflect that rock and football simply do not mix. A long time ago, this was a given: footballers enthused about their love of pariah genres like jazz-funk (George Benson, as I recall, was a dependable favourite), World Cup records were works of oompah-oompah easy listening, and at the nation’s schools, the aesthete/athlete divide held firm. By the time you were 15, it was clear which way you had jumped: was it a matter of liking tie-pins, shiny trousers and Glenn Hoddle? Or were you now more fond of going halves on 10 Bensons, having excited conversations about Keith Richards and reading Romantic poetry?

There you have it. Football fans are oafs; they cannot possibly appreciate the finer artistic things in life, unlike the far more erudite Mr Harris. They will never be able to appreciate tragedy, comedy, triumph or any the expression of any other strong emotion. They just like to watch muscly men kicking a ball about. Poor, poor philistines, in their separate world from us sensitive artistic aesthetes.

Zip forward a fortnight or so. John Harris in the Guardian, yesterday, on social attitudes towards “chavs”:

Yesterday’s Sun gleefully recounted how the heir to the throne “joined in the fun as his platoon donned chav-themed fancy dress to mark the completion of their first term”. [...] The snobby tone of the coverage, in fact, was much like the underlying spirit of the episode itself. An episode in which the Eton-educated heir to the throne – along with some aristocratic mates – has a right old laugh dressing up as a member of the working class surely provided conclusive proof of the blatant, shameless return of snobbery.

From football-hating music snob to self-proclaimed working-class hero in twelve days! What a turn-around!

Hypocrisy aside, Harris’ second article is rather confused (as opposed to the first, which is execrable sub-NME “I’m writing this to show off how cool I really am” music journalism at its very worst). Harris writes that the chav stereotype targets the “working class”, when as anyone remotely familiar with the likes of chavscum.co.uk will know that one of the essential parts of the chav stereotype is that they don’t work; they are portrayed as either scrounging dole claimants or petty criminals. The stereotype is not about the “working class” with all the fuzzy right-on connotations of the labour movement, the miners fighting against Maggie, etc. that it carries. It’s about the poor, a word Harris seems less happy using; the only times the word “poor” appears in the article are when he’s quoting someone else.

The article goes off on all sorts of bizarre tangents; attacking Harry Enfield’s Wayne and Waynetta Slob characters, even though Enfield poked fun at all classes; bizarrely, The Office, a satirical depiction of middle-class drudgery, is cited as part of the anti-chav onslaught. Even with a sitting duck like Little Britain (which I am no fan of), Harris picks the wrong sketch, and ends up being totally contradictory:

…somewhere in the characterisation of Lou and Andy, the hapless carer and his wheelchair-using charge, there surely lurks the whiff not only of welfare fraud, but the idea that people so obviously at society’s bottom end are so stupid that they probably deserve their fate.

So is Andy, the wheelchair user who isn’t actually disabled, being depicted as a cunning fraudster or as a helpless wretch condemned to his fate? He can’t be both. And so the article goes on; for someone who was originally a music journalist, Harris’ pop culture references are hopelessly skewed and misguided.

Harris doesn’t like acknowledging that “chavs” (or, more precisely, people who are labelled as “chavs”) exist, something which can easily be proved with a trip to the local shopping centre or bus station. After quoting (at great length) a web discussion forum about someone’s experience of the “chav” locals in their area, rather than write on how and why a significant minority of the population have ended up in this situation, he skirts the issue entirely and insteads targets the Big Nasty Public School-educated ?lite for mocking them. For someone who supposedly condemns picking on stereotypes, he picks one of the easiest stereotypes of all.

(You might point out that of course I would say that, as a public-school educated Oxbridge graduate. But I was brought up in a working-class household in one of the poorest boroughs in London. I am also a big football fan but think “World In Motion” isn’t one of New Order’s better songs. Basically, I don’t really fit in to many of Harris’ stereotypes and categories, which maybe suggests he hasn’t got the right angle here)

Of course, to actually acknowledge there is a swathe of society stricken by poverty and who actually live up to some of the stereotype’s traits would open a whole new can of worms. The “chav” stereotype doesn’t merely entail being poor and dressing in fake Burberry (conversely, not all poor people are labelled as “chavs”) it encompasses a whole range of socially undesirable behaviours – aggressiveness, foul language, fighting, drug and alcohol abuse, petty crime, teenage pregnancy. All of which are real, tangible problems, at least to some of us. To ask how we have ended up here means reconsidering and challenging a large part of post-war social policy; the chav stereotype might only be around for a few years but the underlying social issues have been around for decades.

Harris doesn’t bother trying to tackle these; “working class” (i.e. poor) people are alternately demonised, pitied or ignored as irrelevant by the ruling classes according to him, but he proposes no alternative, apart from society should stop being “snobs”. Does this mean remaining in the status quo and just let them live their lives, maybe even celebrating or commemorating their lifestyle? To do so would imply that poverty is a choice, and if it’s a choice, then what’s wrong with mocking it?

Alternatively, we could stop mocking “chavs” and actively help them; do our utmost to improve their lot, to focus on wealth redistribution. But this comes dangerously close to moralising and judging that the chav lifestyle is “bad” and needs to be fixed. Obsessed by “snobbery” and not wishing to make moral judgements, Harris strenuously avoids this. Instead, the only other proposal he makes is a national conversation about the relevancy of the working class in multicultural Britain. Ironically enough, sounds dangerously close to what the New Labour politicians whom he continually condemns would say as a smokescreen. In his attempts to be right-on and class-conscious he ends up being just as vacuous as they are.


4 Responses

Have you wondered over to Comment is Free to give Harris a good kicking there? I’m really quite enjoying watching some of the Guardian’s less talented writers getting torn apart in the comments these days. It’s like a blood sport, but for effete middle-class urban liberals.

Anyone who feels sorry for Chavs should spend a week in my Mother’s flat in Langley. Not only will they see these turds-in-human-form at their worst, but will also meet working class people who know and hate them for what they are: the ultimate class traitors.

The only criterion for having yourself labelled a chav these days is the wearing of a hoodie. I know a few ‘chavs’ – none, as far as I know, are “welfare scroungers”, nor do any indulge in joy riding, petty crime, or anything else the stereotype implies. Indeed, most have to do shitty menial jobs in order to supplement their parents’ income.

The tabloids’ usage of it is a form of reverse class warfare – it sits in the Tory lexicon as a young person’s variant of “ghastly little man”. I get very irritated when I hear people for whom the term was basically intended, and certain Guardian readers who ought to know what is meant by it, talk like this. However, this may actually be not a bad thing. The vicious sting has to some extent been taken out of the term by the way in which it has entered popular usage as a method of mocking someone’s fashion sense.

Hoodie ? Chav. Hoodie = Asbo. Burberry = Chav.

Subtle differences.