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31 October 2017

Know Your Place is a revelatory self-portrait of the working class

There’s a pleasing, utterly unself-pitying sense of anger in this collection of essays.

By Julie Burchill

Has there ever been a more interesting time to be working class, to employ the old Chinese curse? Once, you knew exactly why you had shuffled on this mortal coil – to toil for those richer than you and then to drop down dead after producing a new generation of toil-fodder. The party that came along in the first year of the 20th century to represent you was called Labour, because that was all you were ever likely to do.

Gradually, the extraordinary notion grew that those born poor should have just as much right to enjoy life and fulfil their potential as those born rich – and that respect should be earned by, rather than given as a due to, one’s “betters”. By 1945 this feeling had built to such a level of excited expectation that it was strong enough to evict the sainted war leader Winston Churchill in favour of a quiet little man who promised fair shares for all. The Welfare State, the Swinging Sixties, the power of the trade unions in the Seventies, the Thatcherism of the Eighties (“More Estonians than Etonians in that cabinet” some snob sniffed of the self-made Jews she favoured) – all in their very different ways advanced the feeling that class was increasingly unimportant.

And then somehow, it stopped.

Now the Labour Party is led by a man called Jeremy and has ministers who openly mock the working class – see Emily “Lady Nugee” Thornberry and her Lady Muck-like contempt for White Van Man. “Diversity” when used by employers such as the BBC merely means middle-class young women and ethnic minorities get a leg-up while the working class can go rot. And I have long detailed the progress of the SADs – the Sons and Daughters of the rich and famous who have colonised the few jobs in which a bright prole kid could make good money for cushy work, from journalism to modelling.

Brexit was a cry of anger against this rotten state of regression, which is why Labour heartlands such as Wales and the north of England voted so enthusiastically for it. Similarly outsiderish, this book started out on Twitter and was funded on Kickstarter – obviously mainstream publishers are suspicious of the working class unless they have a Guardian journalist standing safely in between in case they turn feral. And what a refreshing revelation it is, after so many years of hearing Owen Jones testily explain the proletariat and their funny little ways in his highly irritating haemorrhoidal supply-teacher manner!

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I liked Laura Waddell on the joy of fast food (“Yellowing posters about nutrition flap dog-eared from the walls of local surgery waiting rooms… I don’t want to eat these apples, clinically dissected into units of health, peeled of enjoyment”), Yvonne Singh on the seaside (“We were the only brown faces on the beach but we didn’t experience any racism… the seaside instilled in me a hope, a hope that things could be better”), Kit de Waal on being a reader from the “wrong” side of the tracks (“Even Jane Eyre, a ‘poor’ orphan, spoke French, played the piano, ultimately and conveniently becoming a rich heiress”) and Kath McKay on vulgarity (“When did it become a pejorative term?… it silences people, and causes a huge waste of talent”).

There are a couple of duds: essays about benefits cuts and “sexuality” – why not just call it sex? But it’s Dominic Grace’s piece “The Death of a Pub” that takes this book into another class (while staying resolutely working, of course). Playful, poignant, perfectly judged, it’s the antithesis of a Ken Loach film, and on the subject of reflecting working-class culture I really cannot think of higher praise.

There’s a pleasing, utterly unself-pitying sense of anger here, directed not just at the people who Guardianistas would have their model, biddable proletariat be angry – the Tories and the bankers – but also at the Great and the Good turned grating and goody-goody. Stuck-up liberal southern comedians, middle-class university students, organisers of literary festivals, the BBC and the Guardian itself (yay!) who appear to find the working class so unspeakably vulgar that they seem to wish it could, like Cybermen, be melted down and remodelled as transsexual Islamists or something equally exotic.

This may be because the working class reminds liberals from other classes how their position is built on the opportunity-robbing of contemporaries just as able as themselves, which may contribute to the recent favouring of identity politics over class politics: it’s easy to champion minorities, because there aren’t very many of them, but in order for the working class to be given their due, millions of middle-class liberals would have to lose what they take for granted.

Carol Ann Duffy’s recent Brexit play My Country: A Work In Progress was composed largely of the real words of real people interviewed in the wake of the referendum result. But you would never have guessed it, as clichéd and hackneyed as it was; as the respected liberal elite theatre critic Susannah Clapp wrote:

Verbatim drama can excite the imagination as much as any fiery fiction. But to do so it must bring us voices we haven’t heard before – or make us hear familiar voices in a new way. There are too many antique stereotypes here: the whisky-swigging Scot, the singing Welshman… it is old hat.

Know Your Place will not drown out the well-bred clamour of those who see the working class as straw men to be fashioned into handy vent dolls, but it’s a smashing start. 

Know Your Place: Essays on the Working Class by the Working Class
Edited by Nathan Connolly
Dead Ink Books, 180pp, £15.99​

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This article appears in the 25 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Poor Britannia