A working-class hero is something to be. But only if you like the working class and much of the time I don’t. I grew up in a class where people made themselves deliberately stupid; they became narrow-minded, closed down and hemmed in. I cannot romanticise the working class and, even if I wanted to, there are few role models. If I were male and northern, maybe I could see myself in a Ken Loach movie or Coronation Street or even glimpse something of myself in the contorted exclamations of John Prescott; but I am female and from the south. I have never lived in Victoria Wood-land nor am I one of the Scots, the new carriers of authentic working-class identity.
Anyway, I have moved class. Accidentally, grudgingly perhaps, but undeniably. I got an education and a job in the media. How much more upwardly mobile do you want? I don’t work in Boots, which would have been my mother’s aspiration for me. Yet I am not comfortable with being middle class because, if there is anything worse than the working classes, it is the middle classes, and any prolonged encounter with a middle-class person reminds me that I am not one of them. I just do not have the sense of entitlement, nor the capacity for worry.
Strangely enough, I managed to avoid the full horror of the bourgeoisie, even though I studied a lot of Marxist theory at college. An interesting theory, I thought lumpenly at the time, but nothing to do with my life. It was only when I was asked to read books called things like Working-Class Culture that I started to feel uncomfortable. My culture, I argued now that I was finally aware that I was in possession of one, should not be an object of anthropological study. “Who walks around with books called Middle-Class Culture?” I demanded. It wasn’t till I worked at the Guardian that I fully realised what it meant to be middle class. Not just middle class . . . but concerned. Anger may be an energy, as Johnny Rotten may have sung, but anger is a working-class energy. To be middle class, I realised, was to be permanently indignant but never full of the kind of righteous and bloody-minded anger that makes you know you are alive. It also means, as far as I can tell, never really enjoying yourself.
Yet we still talk of the petty demarcations of class as though they are entirely external, as though they reside in consumer choices rather than in a mindset. We still tolerate clearly ridiculous statements like “the classless society”. We still say that class doesn’t matter. Well, it matters to me more and more. It continues to shape my life in ways that I am increasingly resentful of and at the same time grateful for. I am, as they say in California, “conflicted”. So was John Lennon when he wrote “Working-Class Hero”. It is the nature of the beast. That is why working-class heroes fall from grace so easily.
Look at Gazza. Look at Noel and Liam. Once we cheered their “attitude”. Now they are just rich and boorish instead of poor and thick. They went from shoplifting outlaws to shopaholics in just one album. Witness every punch-drunk boxer, every cheating celebrity hairdresser, every footballer coked out of his brain beating up his girlfriend in a nightclub, and ask yourself: what kind of heroes are they? Or take homeboy John Major, who could have been a contender, a class warrior worth celebrating but became . . . John Major.
No, the working-class hero these days represents no one except himself. And then not for long. He is little more than some nostalgic throwback. The decline of industry and the entrance of women into the workforce make a mockery of traditional notions of working-class life. No one really wants working-class men any more. Advertisers ignore them. Tabloid newspapers salivate, not at the thought of the man in the street, but at the young, aspirational woman worker.
The working-class hero, now a member of the long-term unemployed, exists only as fiction and even then he is hardly heroic. He is in the books of Irvine Welsh, in the dirty realism of Richard Billingham’s art, in the emotionally deformed Mitchell brothers of EastEnders. He is bowed. He is tearing himself apart. He is no longer sure of who he is. More often than not, working-class masculinity these days is portrayed as simply unlivable. The working-class hero does not disrupt the class system, he does not even challenge it, he simply destroys himself with drink and drugs, sex and violence. His self-annihilation is performed right under Tony’s grinning shadow and new Labour’s talk of social exclusion. He has been superseded by working-class wannabees, “lads” of all ages and all classes who have co-opted working-class pastimes to pass them off as their own. For the middle class, class identity has always been something of a pick ‘n’ mix affair. Remember Blair’s descent into Essex man on the Des O’Connor show.
Cultural slumming is sanctified in the worlds of art and literature in the pursuit of all that is “real”: the monotony of poverty, the deadly boredom, the routine self-oppression. Working-class life may be freeze-framed, but not understood. Instead, we talk a kind of code: inner city, sink estates, crime, heroin epidemics, single mothers, ethnic minorities, teenage pregnancies. What are these things if not a way of talking about working-class life? Why pretend otherwise?
Every so often, something comes along which tells it like it is and we are repulsed. Nick Davies’s book Dark Heart revealed, as the subtitle put it, “the shocking truth about hidden Britain”, but we didn’t really want to know. Gordon Burn’s book Happy Like Murderers was condemned because its subject matter – the lives of Fred and Rosemary West – revealed a way of life we do not want to know is lived alongside our own. Gary Oldman’s stunning Nil by Mouth showed us victims victimising each other. There was no moral uplift to be found here, and the film was better for it.
Such grim representatives of working-class existence may not be positive role models, but it is too late in the day because positive inequality is increasing. We know that. We are mostly happy to live with its consequences. We do not like seeing teenagers huddled in sleeping-bags, but we hope our own houses hold their value, what with the recession and everything. This is not hypocrisy; this is human.
Policies that attempt to include the excluded are only popular as long as they don’t affect the already included. The middle-class retreat from state education is a case in point. Far from being a classless society, it is now possible for many to live as new Victorians with a form of class apartheid. The only members of the working class that some people meet are their cleaners, drivers and prostitutes. Realists know that there is more division between women of different classes than there is between men and women, yet the charade of class denial goes largely unchallenged.
Meanwhile, I sit and watch The Royle Family, a depiction of working-class life, in all its farting glory, a culture of catalogues, chain-smoking, singalongs and endless telly and wonder at the genius of Caroline Aherne, whose suicide attempt I read of in the papers. Or I watch the work of that underrated actress Patsy Palmer, another troubled soul, who plays the wonderful Bianca in EastEnders. I marvel at the continuing brilliance of Kathy Burke in whatever she does.
And I think that the working-class hero has taken his redundancy payment. Whereas the working-class heroine, difficult, feisty, never at ease with herself, must be out there somewhere.
The writer is a columnist with the “Mail on Sunday”