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Doffing the Burberry cap to nihilism

The photo of Prince William done up like a chav shows how mainstream slumming it (and slating working-class youth) has become.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

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Four years ago, I penned an article bemoaning middle-class twentysomethings’ slumming habits in London’s ‘trendy’ Hoxton (see Doffing the cap to nihilism). In it I noted how the penchant for wearing flat caps, demob suit jackets and drinking in ‘boozers that stink like a piss-stained tramp’ symbolised a lashing out against social aspiration. By recycling totems of both old working-class identity and contemporary council estate ‘chic’ (namely sportswear-and-jewellery), it signified to the nouveau-riche working classes that they should know their place once more.

Four years later, this marginal display of degradation has become very mainstream indeed. Whether it’s ‘chav baiting’ greetings cards found in local newsagents, the tabloids’ demonisation of National Lottery winner Michael Carroll, or the BBC’s award-winning comedy Little Britain, everyone appears to be fascinated with Britain’s real and imagined underbelly. As a sign of how ubiquitous this national pastime has become, the Sun published a photo of Prince William kitted out in a Burberry cap, sweat top and gold chains. ‘King of the Chavs’, the headline said (1).

Of course, it’s risible and slappable that highly privileged aristocrats should be mocking the apparent mores of the ‘lower orders’. But why should anyone be surprised? From time to time the royal family has let slip its disdain and derision for the masses. That Prince William and his layabout mates felt so confident hosting ‘chav nights’ indicates that old-fashioned snobbery no longer has to be kept behind closed doors. More pertinently, the fact that a tabloid synonymous with the working classes joins in with the ‘hi jinx’ suggests there is more going on here than class snobbery alone.

When I first half-glanced at the Sun’s picture of Prince William, I actually thought it was an old picture of the Beastie Boys from, say, 1987. In many ways, this fleeting misunderstanding is actually about right. It’s long forgotten now that the initial trend for lionising and thus popularising street clobber was by well-to-do middle-class types like the Beastie Boys. Indeed, the Welsh comedy-rap group Goldie Lookin’ Chain might appear to be part of this chav-baiting trend, but their subtle target is actually the white middle-class ‘B-boys’ who started it all. When Oasis’ Noel Gallagher first moved down to London from Manchester he was taken aback by the fashionista’s hierarchy. ‘In Manchester everybody dresses up when going out’, he said. ‘But in London everybody has to be “street”, even at the poshest dos.’ He was right. In 1998, TV viewers were taken aback at the sight of an unshaven Chris Evans wearing a lurid tracksuit at the Brit Awards.

The penchant for sports wear among middle-class youth resided on an almost voyeuristic fascination with American hip-hop subcultures. For marginalised black Americans, wearing what is ostensibly leisurewear became a symbol of exclusion from the labour market. Thus the rather innocuous tracksuit and baseball cap became recast as defiantly ‘uncouth’ because they denoted a life outside of workplace restrictions. All of which begs the question: why should it appeal to British middle-class whites such as the dj Tim Westwood?

In one respect, mimicking the oppressed’s cultural expressions and behaviour is a form of middle-class self-loathing. It’s a rejection not only of their social position but an abdication of the leadership responsibilities that go with it. Identifying with the oppressed is also meant as a snub to the masses, who they deem as conservative and complicit in the maintenance of political inequalities. Recently, for instance, the championing of Ang Lee’s film Brokeback Mountain by film critics suggested that they, unlike most people, have ‘no problems with homosexuality’ (see the Sermon on the mountain, by Brendan O’Neill).

There is a bigger conceit here, too – that the working classes are far too wrapped up in bourgeois notions of respectability to appreciate risqué lifestyles. In the 1970s this was the rather aggressive message of films like John Walters’ Pink Flamingos and the truly wretched Rocky Horror Picture Show. Little Britain is part of this camp and ironic tradition, which John Walters, quite rightly, now identifies as ‘completely mainstream’. As with Pink Flamingos, it is the wanton use of bad taste in Little Britain, rather than flaunting high culture, that’s designed to ‘expose’ the masses and their ‘narrow minds’. It’s conveniently ignored, however, that the discipline required for the labour market imposes far greater restrictions on the working classes than any other section in society. So it’s a bit rich for public school boys to complain and then snigger at, say, bin men or teachers for not dressing up as transvestites.

It’s in this double-edged, ironic context that the cartoon chav monster looms large. While it’s often wrongly associated with the working classes, as a signifier it actually denotes a marginalised and possibly sub-criminal section of society. For the 15million or so people who make up Britain’s workforce, a lot of whom have credit cards and mortgages, cracking open cans of lager at 11am and then nicking car stereos is not part of their daily schedule. Thus the Hoxtonites, David Walliams and Prince William may flaunt such a look to take the piss out of delinquent youths, but they also mock ordinary people’s quest for normality in the process. Flirting with ‘shock horror’ degeneracy is a code for saying that ‘straight society’ is only for bores that ‘don’t get it’.

Such irksome peccadilloes, however, have often gone beyond mere fancy dress. In Britain there’s a long-documented liaison between the upper middle-classes and the criminal underbelly, such as London’s high society and the acceptance of EastEnd gangsters, the Kray twins. The films of public school boy Guy Ritchie are only the more recent example of such a queasy alliance. Aside from the bizarre frisson the elites enjoy from mixing it with roughnecks, there’s also a common bond in seeing lowly workers as ‘mugs’. In America the mafia has been known to provide the muscle for strike-breaking employers. In periods of grave social crisis, the middle classes and the marginalised can forge a dangerously reactionary current.

Today it does appear that mainstream culture is out to lampoon the down-at-heel ends of society (2). And while this does have overspill on more serious discussions on, say, ‘junk’ food and binge-drinking, the bigger and more pertinent target is actually the well-off working classes. For many, these people are no laughing matter at all. Not only do they shop ‘unethically’ at Tesco, they clog up narrow streets with 4×4 cars and fly regularly abroad on holiday – don’t they have any shame?

Even the most traditional left-wing commentator, who might feel uneasy with the current ‘chav-baiting’, often finds the aspirant working classes problematic. If there’s one thing the old left can’t stand it’s the nouveau riche and their rejection of Old Labour’s cobble-street nostalgia. For one journalist ‘the gargoyles that decorated the edifice of the declining traditional working-class…were the people who turned their back on Labour and thought that by buying their own houses in a new neighbourhood…they could take over the country for themselves.’ (3)

The photo of Prince William dressed up in hip-hop street gear reveals how mainstream bohemian slumming habits have become. While it’s true that the imaginary council estate yob is a target, the real mockery is aimed at the respectable conventions that the middle classes adhered to and the working classes aspired to. That the William photograph was celebrated in the Sun is not as surprising as it seems. The obsession with gossip culture and Pete Doherty’s smack habit shows that even this once pugnaciously moralistic newspaper can’t hold the line. For ethically-obsessed liberals today, however, those who really cross an unacceptable line are the aspirant working classes. Unlike Wayne and Waynetta Slob, these people just don’t know their place.

Neil Davenport is a politics and sociology lecturer and freelance writer.

(1) Sun, 10 April 2006

(2) ‘The New Snobbery’, John Harris, Guardian, 11 April 2006

(3) ‘You are what you own’, Simon Fanshawe, Guardian, 19 June 2002

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Topics Politics

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