The making of London’s ‘white trash’

Michael Collins' chronicle of South-East London looks for the roots of today's chav-bashing.

Ed Barrett

Topics Books

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The Likes of Us: A Biography of the White Working Class, Michael Collins, Granta Books, 2004.

South-East London has never enjoyed a good press. Guidebooks treat it as an afterthought, an appendix to the real business elsewhere in the capital. Historical Greenwich is mentioned, of course, and a handful of other tourist-friendly sights, but that’s your lot. The days when the South Bank theatres were surrounded by syphilitic brothels and murderous backstreets are long gone, yet the stigma persists. This corner of the capital remains a world apart.

In modern times, this imaginative distance was reinforced by the way the area was cut off, not just by the Thames, but also from the Tube system. Public transport long consisted of unreliable trains and buses, and even taxis were famously reluctant to venture ‘south of the river’. The prevailing attitude among other Londoners was ‘ignore it, it might go away’.

But there was a corollary: if South-East London hadn’t existed, then someone would have had to invent it as a symbol of everything the cosmopolitan metropolis across the river was not. And in a way, that is exactly what did happen. Over the years, a caricature of this hinterland emerged, summed up in the phrase ‘Sarf London’ – a phonetic stab that fittingly bears no resemblance to the local pronunciation. The bottom right-hand corner of the London map became the modern equivalent of ‘here be dragons’.

This negative image was periodically confirmed on the rare occasions that the area hit the headlines: Teds and cosh boys in the fifties; the Richardson gang and the dockers’ march for Enoch in the sixties; the Lewisham riot and the Panorama programme on Millwall hooligans in the seventies; and so on. Even a good-news story like the Millennium Dome ended up as a PR disaster.

Then, in 1993, South-East London’s outlaw image was crystallised in the biggest bad-news story of all: the murder of Stephen Lawrence. After the collapse of the prosecution, and the ensuing public debate, the case took on a symbolic significance. Lawrence was by no means the first young black man to be murdered in the borough of Greenwich, but his respectability made him a media-friendly victim. The racist suspects, meanwhile, were perfect public enemies from the traditionally white working-class enclave of Eltham.

After the official prosecution, the suspects underwent trial by media – especially by journalists who were more accustomed to highlighting faulty prosecutions than complaining about acquittals. At the same time, attention turned to the inhabitants of Eltham, who were implicated by association. It was a turning point in attitudes to the white working class, which was already being redefined as the ‘underclass’ – a repository of polite society’s fears and prejudices. The masses were beginning to be seen as a modern-day version of ‘the mob’, albeit a disorganised one more likely to torch cars in their own neighbourhood or hound paedophiles and asylum-seekers than lay siege to parliament. Even liberals who would once have patronised working people as victims of the system now regarded them as out of step with modern metropolitan values. They were vulgar, ignorant, rude, violent, and, worst of all, an obstacle to the creation of a multicultural society.

Michael Collins was disturbed by the media reaction to the Stephen Lawrence case, and the way in which the white working class was casually dismissed as a tribe of racist throwbacks. His anger inspired him to write about these much-maligned people and put their side of the story. The Likes of Us is the result.

Collins decided to focus on Southwark, the area where his family had lived for the past two centuries. His book aspires to be a polemic, a social history, a personal memoir and a family history all rolled into one. Unsurprisingly, given the ambitious scale of the book, the results are uneven.

In telling his family’s tale, Collins was faced with predictable problems. His nineteenth-century material is restricted to official records, while the first half of the twentieth century relies heavily on the reminiscences of his grandmother, the redoubtable Nell Hall. Things pick up with the postwar era, especially Collins’ own first-person account of growing up around the Elephant and Castle in the sixties and seventies, which is highly evocative of time and place, and is written with a lightness of touch that is sometimes lacking elsewhere.

Faced with only sketchy details about his ancestors, Collins has decided to fill the gaps by interweaving their individual stories into the larger story of the area. Many of his family were costermongers and cabbies, so he writes a lot about their particular trades. However, he tends to focus on them at the expense of the rest of the population, which undermines the book’s wider claim to be a history of Southwark’s working class.

As well as presenting a partial demographic perspective, Collins shies away from the broader political and economic developments that shaped his people’s experience. He takes the view that politics (including its one-time working-class manifestation, socialism) was an alien phenomenon brought in by outsiders, and never had much influence locally. If true, this surely makes it unique among working-class neighbourhoods.

He is also largely unconcerned with trade union activity, which is understandable, given his focus on the self-employed, but a striking omission nonetheless. There are references to a dispute at Pink’s jam factory but not to bigger events such as the General Strike, when local people fought with police and black-legs in the Old Kent Road. And there is little mention of those who made their living on the docks, which were for many years the economic backbone of South-East London. Only the Powell protest and the lowering of the cranes during Winston Churchill’s funeral procession warrant a mention.

One wouldn’t expect Collins to devote dozens of pages to the ‘docker’s tanner’ or other ancient industrial disputes. However, given his chosen theme of the changing face of Southwark and the marginalisation of the white working class, he has surely missed a trick. Even a cursory examination of the running down of the docks would have helped to explain the changing nature of the area. The era in which Collins grew up saw large numbers of men take severance deals, and many local families moved out to places like Eltham and beyond.

Collins’ blind spots have consequences for his own project. He is conscious of a shift in attitudes, resulting in the ‘salt of the earth’ becoming the ‘scum of the earth’, but he cannot really answer the question of why this change occurred. A political perspective would have helped explain the cultural issues that interest him.

Forty years ago, the working class appeared to have both political clout and cultural cachet. The trade unions had taken their place at the top table, and governments consulted closely with them. Consensus politics ruled, people from working-class backgrounds were making inroads into all aspects of public life, and the ‘classless society’ was widely believed to be round the corner. (There were dissenters and snobs of the Evelyn Waugh school, of course, but they were viewed as an eccentric and old-fashioned minority.)

Yet by the end of the 1960s the political consensus was already beginning to break down, leading to the turbulence of the seventies. The unions were crushed in the eighties, and by the time Labour came to power 1997, Tony Blair could afford to ignore his party’s traditional voters and focus on the preoccupations of the middle classes.

Today, the white working class has neither political power nor cultural cachet. One consequence of this is that the rest of society sees no reason to hide its distaste when discussing it. In these politically correct times poor whites are just about the only section of society that it is permissible to insult. The council estate, once a symbol of progress (albeit of a bureaucratic penny-pinching variety), is now regarded as the British equivalent of the American trailer park, and its inhabitants, once the harbingers of a coming classless age, are derided as ‘white trash’.

Such prejudices loom large in The Likes of Us, often to amusing effect. Collins tells the story of how a woman at a media party complained that she had moved to the Elephant and Castle and couldn’t buy aubergines locally. The area was ‘very white’, she explained. The fact that she and her friends were all white didn’t strike her as a problem – they were clearly not the sort of whites she had in mind. ‘Her multiculturalism made her colourless; her class made her superior’, says Collins (1). Since the book was written, a more blatant manifestation of this prejudice has arisen: the fashion for mocking the baseball-cap-wearing ‘chavs’, who are pilloried for their accents, clothes, eating habits, ignorance and general lack of taste. The popularity of this pleb-baiting can be seen in the success of the relentlessly misanthropic ChavScum website, which has already spawned a cottage industry of spin-off books – buy one for someone you really hate (2).

One irony of this unedifying chav-baiting is that the mockers themselves are hardly standard-bearers for civilised values. The tabloid mentality is by no means the exclusive preserve of the poor and uneducated – ‘dumbing down’ is, after all, a phrase coined to describe the decline of cultural standards among the upper reaches of society, not those at the bottom. Why, then, are people queuing up to heap derision upon the hapless chavs?

There is a paradox in society today. The middle classes are enjoying a period of dominance in public life, but it is a hollow ascendancy. They are uncertain and anxious: they no longer have a highbrow culture to aspire to, and social status can be bought by anyone who can afford the price of admission. These days, Jack is as good as his Mastercard, and there is no going back to the days when deference was taken for granted.

Social and cultural boundaries might have become blurred, but the urge to enforce them remains. When one’s sense of superiority is fragile, it is reassuring to have someone else to look down upon, and despising the chavs is thus an easy form of middle-class self-flattery (3).

On the face of it, this contempt is nothing new. Early twentieth-century writers such as Virginia Woolf and EM Forster also poured scorn on the masses for their supposed fecklessness, sentimentality, mawkishness, credulity, vulgarity, and lack of discrimination (then, as now, associated with mass-produced goods and processed foods) (4). Yet there is one major difference between their snobbery and that of today, and it casts a revealing light on the state of the modern middle class.

In the past, the middle classes copied the upper class and repudiated the lower orders. They aspired to highbrow culture and an education featuring dead languages, classical music and literary greats. True, this culture was fully appreciated only by a minority, and there was never a shortage of philistines. Nevertheless, erudition – or a public-school education, at least – could be worn as a badge of honour, and this shared culture helped to cement a sense of common purpose. (It also helped to keep the lower orders in their place: autodidacts were often despised just as much, if not more, than the uneducated masses.) (5) Today, by contrast, the middle class has no serious cultural aspirations and no strong sense of identity.

Although the lower orders were kept at arm’s length wherever possible, there was also a well-established tradition of intervention in their affairs. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, a section of the working class believed that it had both the power and motive to transform society, and began to organise accordingly. In response, politicians and missionaries of all sorts sought in their different ways to reconcile the more passive elements to the existing system. One-nation Tories tried to appeal to the patriotism, respectability and traditional values of the most conservative among them, and the archetypal ‘working-class Tory’ was born. The Fabians espoused their moralistic brand of watered-down socialism. The Christians tended to their inner-city flocks with scriptural blandishments, charity and soap.

Later, there were the artists, writers, and sympathisers who celebrated working-class culture as a source of ‘authenticity’ and ‘honesty’, in a twentieth-century version of nostalgie de la boue. Some were guilty about their own privileged backgrounds, some were sentimentalists, and some were bohemians who self-consciously rejected buttoned-up ‘bourgeois’ mores.

The Likes of Us describes vividly how reformers, do-gooders and slummers all beat a path to Southwark. Some sought to save souls and bring civilisation to the dark heart of London. Some sought salacious stories from the demi-monde, and some sought novelty and illicit thrills. Collins shows himself to be an astute and amusing writer, as he recounts these frequently preposterous stories, and his wry tone is admirably suited to the material. The chapter on ‘slum fiction’ – which highlights the shameless voyeurism and sensationalism that existed alongside the romanticisation of and condescension towards the working class – is a particular delight.

Collins quotes the author GK Chesterton on the relative merits of these various types of middle-class intruder, and concurs with his verdict that the man of letters is the worst of the lot:

‘The religious teacher is at least supposed to be interested in the costermonger because he is a man; the politician is in some dim and perverted sense interested in the costermonger because he is a citizen; it is only the wretched writer who is interested in the costermonger merely because he is a costermonger….’ (6)

This is an ironic choice of quote because, although Collins agrees with Chesterton’s conclusion, it is a criticism that can also be levelled against him. For, having dismissed religion and politics as essentially alien to the costermonger, he then asks us to see the costermonger in a positive light for the same reason as any other ‘wretched writer’. Collins might not look down on the costermonger, but ultimately he is still asking us to be interested in him ‘merely because he is a costermonger’.

Collins’ own version of costermonger culture proves to be indistinguishable from the version peddled by the generations of slummers that he berates. It boils down to a slightly queasy cocktail of sentimentality, superstition, patriotism, passion and pride, with an astringent dash of self-reliance thrown in. This immediately raises the question of whether this is a true representation of costermongers, let alone the broader working class. But even if one accepts that it is true, it raises another question: is this a ‘culture’ worth celebrating?

There is a longstanding tradition within the working class of aspiring to the highest forms of cultural advancement – hence the enthusiasm for self-improvement and auto-didacticism (7). Even those who preferred music hall and dog-racing to Beethoven and Homer would not have thought of their chosen pastimes as a ‘culture’. It is only relatively recently, with the elevation of ‘lifestyle’ to its present lofty position, that this sort of thing began to be seen as an important part of the national heritage.

Of course, this repackaging of the past is a subjective business, with some pasts being elevated above others, in line with current political priorities. White working-class customs have their place of course, from pearly kings to serious exhibitions at the London Museum. However, it is the history of ethnic minorities that currently occupies a pre-eminent position, because cultural ‘diversity’ is central to the modern multicultural agenda.

Collins talks to old people in Southwark who feel that their story – the working-class world of yesteryear – has been airbrushed out of history. One of them shows him a promotional brochure presenting Southwark to outsiders. It stresses the cosmopolitan nature of the borough, and talks of the immigrant groups that have lived in the area for centuries. It boasts that a third of the present population is from an ethnic minority and that more than a hundred languages are spoken in the area. ‘They don’t mention us English’, says the pensioner. ‘You wouldn’t think we’d ever existed, would ya?’

It would be easy to point out that two-thirds of the population is not from an ethnic minority, and that it is unnecessary to draw any special attention to them. But the pensioner has a point. The authorities are uneasy about white working-class people, and sometimes give the impression that they would rather they didn’t exist. The old working class doesn’t fit the multicultural agenda – too many uncomfortable echoes of ‘rights for whites’.

Even an issue as innocuous as recognising St George’s day is a hot potato for most councils, who shun it not because of its irrelevance, but because they see the small band of campaigners for its celebration as the equivalents of fifth columnists for fascism. And it goes without saying that whenever fascism is invoked, there is an unspoken assumption that the white working class is involved. ‘They were racist, xenophobic, thick, illiterate, parochial’, says Collins, summing up the prevailing view. ‘They survived on distant memories of winning one World Cup and two world wars…. All they represent and hold dear was reportedly redundant in modern multicultural Britain.’

Collins is on to something here. Multiculturalism, for all its talk of respect and tolerance, is nevertheless a divisive philosophy, which alienates significant numbers of white people. Yet Collins doesn’t take on the arguments. Instead, by default, he adopts a position of ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’. His main objection to multiculturalism seems to be that it is a middle-class folly that excludes whites, and his implied solution is to rectify this oversight by celebrating their culture.

Collins is no fool, and he is aware of the problems inherent in his approach. A nostalgic Cockney history along the lines of Noel Coward’s ‘London Pride’ might appeal to bewildered Bermondsey pensioners watching their world disappear, but it is unlikely to appeal to their grandchildren. Though Collins is keen to promote white working-class culture, he knows that this is easier said than done. ‘The white working class have never needed to define themselves or be defined before’, he remarks, and he is right. For a start, who are they? A large number don’t regard themselves as ‘English’ as such, and their culture is not necessarily ‘white’. As Collins points out, for all the middle-class concerns about racism, the working class is far more racially mixed, and has much more social contact with other ethnic groups, than any other section of society.

Nevertheless, Collins is on a mission to define the common traits of his ‘tribe’. Referring to the diaspora of former Southwark folk who now live in the suburbs and satellite towns, he observes that there is a contemporary twist to Disraeli’s two nations. Now you have:

‘….the urban, edgy, multicultural city dwellers and their burden – the culturally impoverished, hickish whites everywhere else. It was once the cockney’s ignorance of the country that made him the subject for middle-class mockery; now it was the fact that he didn’t live in the modern inner city.’

Colins sets off to meet with this much-derided diaspora in the hinterlands of Welling and Bexleyheath. He hangs out, and muses upon the characteristics that he considers to be typical of the white tribe. ‘They love Gucci and hate the euro’, he says at one point, and this is typical of his approach, because this hatred of the euro is presented not as a political opinion, but as a primal form of self-expression. Collins believes this apolitical patriotism to be fundamental to working-class identity, and exists as ‘an extension of their attachment to a street or neighbourhood’. Elsewhere, he notes that people are concerned about issues such as crime, asylum-seekers, petrol prices and the London congestion charge. So much for politics, then. When it comes to culture, the main elements he identifies are a taste for designer gear and a love of the England football team.

The most striking thing is that there is nothing uniquely white or working-class about any of this. Collins’ tribe comes across as not much different from anyone else. After all, Gucci appeals to all classes and ethnic groups, and if the England football team commands support in Welling, it also attracts the likes of Prince Harry and the prime minister. As for the political issues, those topping the list in Bexleyheath are the same ones that concern voters in wealthier London boroughs like Chelsea and Wandsworth.

The other notable characteristic of these traits is their superficiality. If they constitute an ‘identity’ then it is a feeble one, which is unlikely to inspire much loyalty or passion. In this sense it is no different to the broader discussion about British identity, which always ends up as a ragbag of pastimes such as eating curry and uncontroversial values like ‘tolerance’. This is not surprising. The days are gone when the national identity was built on big ideas like Empire, and later, the Second World War. Neither is there any kind of working-class identity based on industrial communities, class solidarity, political aspirations, or anything else. In this respect, the working class is the same as any other section of society: it is no more than the sum of its parts – the aggregate of its ‘consumer behaviours’ and ‘lifestyle choices’.

In one sense, this confirms Collins’ entirely justified argument that his people aren’t the bigoted troglodytes of the media’s imagination, and don’t deserve to be dismissed as such. The problem is that rather than leave it at that, he presses on, extolling their supposed virtues and attempting to summon up a positive identity. He argues that his people are patriotic and proud, in contrast to the self-loathing middle classes, ashamed of their country. The overall effect is distinctly underwhelming. Sure, self-respect is better than self-loathing, but pride has no value unless there is something to be proud of. There’s a world of difference between not being ashamed of being English, white and working-class, and being proud simply because you are. This once again begs the question: what exactly are we supposed to be celebrating?

The penultimate chapter, entitled ‘Populism: A Manifesto’, appears to promise an answer to this. But it isn’t really a manifesto at all. Collins calls for the problem of white disaffection to be addressed, and criticises the ‘McCarthyite’ aspects of the implementation of anti-racist policies. However, he offers no suggestions about what should be done. It’s half-hearted, defensive stuff (8).

This is a shame. Collins set out to deliver a broadside against the new anti-working class mood, and he lands some solid blows along the way. Had he quit while he was ahead, his book would have stood as a timely indictment of snobbery and condescension. But the final part leaves us wondering what exactly he is defending, and why. It is a disappointing and frustrating end to an interesting and worthwhile project.

Ed Barrett is a journalist. Email

Buy The Likes of Us: A Biography of the White Working Class by Michael Collins from Amazon (UK).

(1) Collins also has a justified swipe at liberal pundits such as Jeremy Hardy and Mark Steel for their self-conscious championing of minorities – as he points out, the determinedly positive images they invoke are cliches of exotica. This is really just the right-on flip side of the old bigoted stereotypes.

(2) Chav! A User’s Guide to Britain’s New Ruling Class, Mia Wallace and Clint Spanner, Bantam, 2004; The Little Book of Chavs: The Branded Guide to Britain’s New Elite and The Little Book of Chav Speak (both Lee Bok, Crombie Jardine Publishing, 2004)

(3) See ‘Chavs and chav-nots’, Mick Hume, The Times (London), 7 February 2004. Of course, being middle class might be comfortable, but it’s not cool. It’s noticeable that the mocking of the chavs at times borders on celebration, and the ‘chav’ has been co-opted by the fashion business and music industry. Aping the ‘Burberry apes’, like the ‘new lad’ trend of the nineties, is a way of vicariously experiencing the low life from a safe distance. See ‘Growing pains of the new lad fad’, Ed Barrett, Punch, 18-24 January 1997

(4) For an excellent account, see The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1800-1939, John Carey, Faber and Faber, 1992

(5) See, for example, EM Forster’s Howards End, 1910.

(6) GK Chesterton, ‘Slum Novelists and the Slums’ in Heretics, 1905

(7) See the fascinating and inspiring study The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, Jonathan Rose, Yale University Press, 2001

(8) Elsewhere, he addresses another populist theme – the cult of grief that achieved its ‘glasnost’ (as he memorably describes it) with the mass mourning of Diana. Collins sees this as part of the working-class tradition of extravagant, emotional funerals. The love of a good send-off, and the rituals of large-scale public displays of respect are two recurring themes throughout the book, and he appears to regard them as positive examples of compassion and community. But private funerals and local displays of respect are surely a world away from the emotional incontinence of the Diana hysteria. It is hard to see why the latter should be regarded as a positive example for society.

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