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To Their Manor Born

Before the Thames-side inner London boroughs became places of lattes and loft apartments, they were the ancestral domain of the white working class. But as ‘The Likes of Us: a history of the white working class’ points out, it’s not fashionable to acknowledge that.

By Mark Simpson

(Independent on Sunday, 25 July 2004)

Southwark, the deprived south London Borough that gazes across the Thames at the bright lights and easy money of the City and the West End, has a long and proud “previous” when it comes to producing ruffians. The word “hooligan” itself has its origins there: an unruly teenager by the name of Patrick Hooligan killed a policeman in the 1890s and began a media panic about the scrappy working classes that shows no signs of abating. In the post-war period there were the Teds who, with their Edwardian frock coats, DAs, pocket-watches and knuckle-dusters were possibly invented there, and what the press dubbed the “cosh-boys”, who by the 1970s had become “muggers”.

Now Southwark has produced a new kind of hooligan, one swinging his laptop like a bicycle chain around his head, if you are to believe the scandalised notices in some of the broadsheets. South-east London-born writer Michael Collins has provoked a major breach of the peace. The Independent decried his “low blows” and a guest on Start the Week denounced him as an “intellectual outrider for the BNP”. A statement which is as despicable as it is laughable and one clearly designed to bring about the transportation of the author to Siberia or Australia. Or Essex.

What was Collins’s terrible crime? How did he épater les bourgeois d’Islington? Well, he has written a book called The Likes of Us: a biography of the white working class. The subtitle alone is enough of an outrage. “White” and “working class” are, after all, expletives these days, of a kind that even a Gordon Ramsay would think twice about using. Throw in the unstated but implicit word “English” and you have the metropolitan middle classes calling for smelling salts and making for Sainsbury’s continental deli counter. “White working class” summons up everything the metropolitan middle classes loathe and fear: patriotism, community, vulgarity, insularity, pride, sentimentality, plain-talking, violence and compassion. Or as Collins puts it: “They love Gucci and hate the Euro.”

The white working class is not supposed to exist any more, except as a social problem caused by over-exposure to tabloid newspapers, sportswear and satellite TV. It invokes the ancestral guilt of the British middle classes – real, criminal, uneasy guilt, rather than the kind of pseudo public self-flagellation they like to go in for over asylum-seekers, foxes and greenhouse gases.

In the capital, it also invokes the spectre of the people to whom London belonged for generations – they owned nothing except their community – but who have been driven out to Kent and Essex by post-war “redevelopment”, mass immigration (which arrives, strangely, in places like Southwark, never Richmond) and, in recent years, gentrification, making London safe for media types, property-developers and financiers, the global super-rich and the global super-poor. London is booming, but London is also dying – a virtual, rootless city that has no room for its real, lived history as it gets in the way of what everyone is here to do now: make a splash and plenty of cash. Today’s “Londoners” were born anywhere but London, and many live in properties that are worth a king’s ransom, but whine that they can’t get their milk or mail delivered, or their leaking bidets fixed for love nor ready money.

This is probably the reason why middle class people in London are often so discomfited by the appearance of the Cross of St George on taxis and builders’ vans during international football tournaments: it reminds them that the English working classes still exist and are still sentimental and passionate about place, and are only an hour’s drive from central London.

Open Collins’s book, and you find a courageously clear-headed indictment of the press riot that was the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry at the Elephant and Castle. The country as one bayed for the blood of the “murdering racists”, the white working class – or, as they were frequently described in the “quality” press, “white trash” – south London hooligans whom everyone had apparently decided were responsible for the death of Stephen Lawrence (and perhaps for all racism everywhere, including our own). This despite their acquittal in a court of law – everyone was angry with the police not just for bungling their investigation (Macpherson notwithstanding, this is a service they will generally provide to you regardless of your race), but because they didn’t do what they used to do in the good old days – fit ’em up. As Collin dryly notes: “Paradoxically, those notorious for making their feelings known about false convictions had shifted the focus to false acquittals. But for one case only.”

He draws a parallel with the panics about “hooligans” in South London from the past, arguing persuasively that in the aftermath of the inquiry, reports on racism had segued into a more general demonisation of the white working class. Historically, the right harboured desires to keep the white working class below stairs. “There they could use the wrong knives and drop their aitches to their hearts’ content, until trenches needed manning and flags waving in the name of patriotism.” Now, middle-class progressives “who had traditionally come out fighting these underdogs’ corner, or reporting their condition as missionaries or journalists, were keen to silence them, or bury them without an obituary… They were racist, xenophobic, thick, illiterate, parochial. They survived on the distant memory of winning one World Cup and two world wars… All they represent and hold dear was reportedly redundant in modern, multicultural Britain.”

Perhaps you can understand now why it is was necessary to call the author a crypto-fascist on Radio Four.

The Likes of Us is part personal memoir, part family history, part sociology, part class defence, part coshing of the do-gooding middle classes: a slightly confused mixture but one that on the whole works rather well. Collins’s family had lived in Southwark for generations until they were displaced to Welling and Eltham by the post-war apocalypses that turned it first into a windswept gyratory system overlooked by Stalinist barracks-blocks, then a clearing house for mass immigration and now a place of lattes and loft apartments for media types.

The Likes of Us is also an exercise in nostalgia. But why not? Why should the working classes be denied the drug that the middle classes inhale deeply every time they watch Inspector Morse? Some of the best passages here are sharply evocative of what has been lost, what has been erased, both culturally and personally for the author, describing a world of working-class thrift and dignity: “Antimacassars kept the chair-backs clean, rent money was kept in the teapot… and stair treads held down a strip of linoleum so used, so old, so polished, its pattern had faded into the blur of a bruise.”

However, some warts are allowed into this reverie of communal loveliness. Collins and his family were greeted by one of their new neighbours after moving in the 1960s to make way for the tower blocks: “A dishevelled nest of hair badly underpinned by kirby grips, and an apron worn like armour. She announced to my mum: ‘I’m telling you now, before you start, if any of your kids lay a finger on mine, I’ll be over here. Mark my words.'” (She had seven kids and they terrorised the street for years.)

At the risk of sounding like a chippy northerner, I must point out that this is not really “a biography of the white working class”, but of a south London working-class community. Collins, in keeping with Londoners of whatever class or ethnicity, assumes that London is the centre of everything and betrays something of a snobbish attitude towards the other end of the country, the actual home of the vast majority of the working class. In one of the rare mentions of its existence, writing about the early part of the last century, he writes of the “sooty little towns of the north”. The great industrial cities of Manchester, Newcastle, Glasgow, Birmingham and Leeds were sooty certainly, but hardly “little towns”.

Collins is at his best when he’s doing what south Londoners have been doing so well for centuries: taunting the middle classes. He tells a story of the woman at a party in the early 1990s who had just moved to Elephant and Castle (one of the advance party of gentrifiers from north of the river) who complained that she couldn’t find any aubergines in the local markets, and that this was a symptom of the “fear of diversity”, declaring finally that the root of the problem was that “the street is very white.” Of course, she meant white working class: “Her multiculturalism made her colourless; her class made her superior.”

Not to worry, as the area has changed beyond recognition in the last 10 years, aubergines and halal meat are readily available and most of the white people around there under 65 are middle class.

Collins recounts an old timer perusing a glossy brochure extolling the Elephant’s attractions to outsiders. It listed the various immigrants over the centuries, including Germans, the Dutch, the Flemish, Irish, Afro-Caribbeans, West Africans, Chinese, Cypriots, Vietnamese, Somalians, Ethiopians, Bosnians and Croats, and boasted that “over 100 languages are spoken by our children”. The old fella remarks: “They don’t mention us English. You wouldn’t think we’d ever existed would ya?”

A spokesman for a 1997 New Labour-commissioned survey on race is quoted in the book: “I feel ‘multicultural’ wrongly meant non-white culture. Anybody who tried to assert white culture was automatically a member of the BNP. That was wrong. We’re going to have to look at people being proud of being British and white without them necessarily being the enemy.”

Shame no one listened to him.

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2 thoughts on “To Their Manor Born”

  1. Mark, I was raised in a decidedly middle-class home, with a mother who was from a working-class background. My mother would rail against the kind of fetishisation of the working-class you have displayed in this piece. To quote my mum, “There’s no glamour in not having enough money to feed the family AND pay the electricity bill”.

  2. I watched Michael Collin’s documentary on television last year. It was the first time i’ve ever felt proud to be working class. I’ve spent the vast majority of my life feeling ashamed, hiding my roots, changing my habits and feeling very uncomftable in the presence of very middle class people incase they sense my working classness, or label me a chav, racist, xenophobe, vulgar and all the other accusations that the white working class are labelled these days.

    In a way, i’ve never felt quite human, my working classness is a primitive other that I must tame and supress.
    Catherine warner

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