Andrew Billen - Common problem

Television - Julie Burchill stumbles on an age-old working-class dispute. By Andrew Billen


Now I have truly seen it all: Julie Burchill ticking off another columnist for being outspoken. On Sky 1's thorough and thoroughly entertaining documentary Chavs (21 February, 9pm), she and Vanessa Feltz got into a row over Lizzie Bardsley, the work-shy chav who achieved a perverse, Heat-level celebrity by admitting on Channel 4's Wife Swap that the state funded her bulging family. Feltz felt that, as a taxpayer, it was not her purpose in life to support the indolent. Burchill disagreed, suggesting (to the surprise, surely, of anyone who has ever been on the sharp end of her pen) that the purpose of life is to "spread the love around". "How much love has Lizzie Bardsley spread around?" asked Feltz. Burchill replied: "She's got eight kids - she's spread it around lots." To which Feltz, with rapier wit, countered: "She's spread her legs a lot." Burchill blanched and flapped a hand at her: "That's bad!"

Burchill's defence of Bardsley made me regret that she and Auberon Waugh never debated class on television. But then, class has not been a subject that television has been prepared to discuss full-frontally for decades. The blanket of silence will have descended after the Second World War, when the classes were supposed to be working together to build the new Britain. By the Sixties, when I was growing up, "common" was a taboo word we middle classes were teaching ourselves not to use. But just by eradicating a term, you do not abolish the thing that it describes. In the mid-1980s, vocabulary found a regional loophole and invented Essex Man and Essex Girl. Then, a year or so ago, I noticed the words "pikey" and "chav" were being used as synonyms for "common". My heart leapt: it was OK to make remarks about class again.

Except, said Burchill, it is not OK. You have to admire Sky 1, even as it attempts to crawl upmarket, for confronting the image of its mainstay audience. And you have to admire Burchill - or, more likely, her director and producer, Caz Gorham - for finding the right interviewees and film footage to illustrate the arguments that Burchill delivered in the back of a limo to her acolyte Jackie Clune (she who plays the great woman on stage).

Although there was a bit of supporting history and sociology, Burchill's case was buttressed mainly by her personal and, perhaps, sexual preferences. Her argument was not always easy to discern: as in print, brilliant writer though she is, Burchill's sentences are stronger than her paragraphs and her paragraphs stronger than her columns. In the end, her argument seemed to boil down to this: she liked chavs and chav values and it was all right for her to say this. It was not, however, all right for the middle classes to identify chavs and dislike their values, because that was being unfair.

Logic suggests a few problems with this. Pointing to heroes from Jordan to Kelly Holmes, Burchill proclaimed the chavs effortlessly superior to other classes: they were feistier, had more fun, fewer hang-ups, a greater sense of style and fewer hypocrisies than the colourless bourgeoisie. The middle classes hated chavs because they envied them their riotous sex lives, their disregard for the work ethic and their panache. But if this was the case - if chavs are the superior race - then she had no cause to say to the Daily Mail's David Thomas: "I believe that when you piss-take people below you, it is not humour, it is bullying." Yet according to her, a chav is not "below" an Old Etonian such as Thomas. Ergo his dislike cannot be bullying.

In trying to shame Thomas and Feltz (who ballsed up her case by conceding that chavs - like Rottweilers, presumably - can be "really good companions"), Burchill was aiming at the wrong target. The middle classes are not the prime chav-bashers, but slow and apologetic latecomers to the sport. Vicky Pollard may be the star turn on the BBC's Little Britain, but she was preceded by some years by Tasha Slappa in Viz, the working classes' Private Eye. Websites such as ChavScum do not look like the product of public-school-boy imaginations to me. Nor do I believe that Thomas and Feltz are posting abuse on Lady Sovereign's website.

What Burchill has stumbled upon is an age-old internecine dispute within the working classes - the battle between the respectable and irresponsible wings. My proof is the word's etymology: "chav" is how labourers and Romanies have described themselves for generations within their own neighbourhoods, and the word has only now escaped its locale.

There is, however, a genuine culture clash here, and Burchill has every right to side with irresponsibility and hedonism if she wishes. Even the Calvinist J K Galbraith defends the feckless poor on the grounds that the feckless rich have been getting away with worse for centuries. Burchill is also correct in saying that the stately homes of England boast as many slappers as any council estate (read Rebecca Tyrrel's biography of Camilla Parker Bowles and you'll know what I mean). This is why we in the middle classes are simultaneously snobs and inverted snobs, equally appalled by the arrogant sloth of those "above" and "below" us. If, as Burchill claims, we are riddled with self-hatred, it is only because we are ashamed of this, our equal-opportunity snobbery.

Andrew Billen is a feature writer on the Times

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 28 February 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Can free trade be fair trade?