Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Coming out of my shellsuit

Bit brighter, thank you all. This may prove unpopular as it is a bit of a is this just me?

I generally stay away from discussions around class, mostly because they oversimplify a very complex and subtle subject. Plus, nobody wants me in their camp; I’m too far up my own arse to be working-class and far too poor - and far too free with the word arse - to be middle-class. Should I claim to be one or the other, I am duly disowned. During one discussion, some friends and concluded that the three of us made up the Impoverished Intelligentsia. But alas, that doesn’t really stick – the other two were plebs, quite frankly.

Anyway, I have just about had enough of the word chav. It is one of those words and phrases that, like political correctness, have slipped into our language, starting out as a joke and quickly becoming something otherwise sensible people talk about in a serious way.

For readers outside the UK, chav is a slang word which has sprung from nowhere in the last few years. It’s definition probably comes close to what US Americans call White Trash, although as far as I know, colour doesn’t come into it. The etymology is probably from the Romany words chavi or chavo (male and female child), but others have said it is an acronym for Council-Housed And Violent or Council-House Associated Vermin.

In other words, poor people. Or perhaps, in fairness, poor and unpleasant people. But one gets the distinct impression that poverty is more important than unpleasantness.

There have always been slang words for what the speaker regards as the dregs of society; pikies, neds, townies, scallies or, where I come from, the lumpenproletariat. However, the popularity of chav seems particular sinister because it has become so universally accepted as a concept and used in all manner of contexts, by all manner of speakers who would not otherwise use this kind of word.
“But it isn’t a class thing,” I am told. “A chav has tastes vulgar tastes. They wear bling, loads of cheap bulky gold-imitation jewellery, baseball caps and designer sportswear. They listen to R&B music, are obsessed with celebrity, eat fast food and drive those silly modified cars with the lowered chassis and holes drilled into the exhaust pipe.”
So it isn’t about money, just aesthetic snobbery? Okay, aesthetic snobbery I can do. I personally despair of those poor wretches, those six and a half billion or so, who don’t share my sophisticated tastes in music, films and books. To say nothing of those hapless fools who don’t dress with nearly so much style, panache and crushed velvet as I do, only there are rather a lot of them. Yet I don't think that's quite it.

I know plenty of well-educated and high-earning people who listen to R&B music, eat fast food and drive cars which can hardly be described as sensible for their needs. Whether they hide behind irony or not. And lots of determinedly middle-class people are completely obsessed with celebrity – or more, completely obsessed with observing how other less sophisticated people are completely obsessed with celebrity, before analysing the celebrities in question and demonstrating remarkable expertise on the subject they are so enthusiastically disinterested in.

But that’s fine. Different folks, different strokes. I am told,
“You’ve missed the point entirely! A chav is a thug, a yob, a person who gets hideously drunk, starts fights and has unprotected sex; the women have many children, all by different men, none of them work, they all live off benefits which they supplement with the proceeds of petty crime. And they’re taking over the country!”
You can tell all that from a tracksuit and a sovereign ring? Wow.

I am not that na├»ve. I instinctively feel that if I’m going to be mugged by anyone, they are more likely to be wearing a tracksuit than a dinner jacket. There is undoubtedly a relationship between socio-economic status and certain sorts of crime, anti-social behaviour and other social problems. However, if we want to talk seriously about social issues, we cannot place people in tribes and dismiss an entire tribe as being responsible for the downfall of society, muddling cultural, aesthetic and intellectual differences with criminality and sweeping social trends. Any society that begins to profile its parasites, however informally, is making a big mistake. And if our society is in downfall, then all of us, as members of said society, have both some responsibility for what is happening and the power to intervene.

Frankly, we should all read more George Bernard Shaw, about the undeserving poor and all that. However, I shall end on an entirely different literary note with the most powerful poem I know about the complex class system in the United Kingdom, by Mr John Hegley.

A Poem About The Town Of My Upbringing And The Conflict Between My Working Class Origins And The Middle Class Status Conferred Upon Me By A University Education.

I remember Luton
As I'm swallowing my crouton.


the whales said...

Ah! First, am I?

Great post. As someone who has just become a teacher I'm constantly having to catch new terms and insults before they cause disruption - chav is a good example of one that sprung out of nowhere. (Along with the apparently innocuous "Yer mum...").

And I can only remember two poems:- A gibson poem about war (o level English...) and the Hegley one you've got there. Great!

Timbo said...

I don't like John Hegley one little bit, but that's pretty funny.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if I can contribute usefully to this topic, but I'll try!

I was never confident about how chavs are defined. I was watching a documentary (some time ago) which left me with the impression there was a connection between the term 'chavs' and fakes - especially fake Burberry.

It could be that there's no connection and it's only part of a general perception - e.g. "chavs wear cheap fakes from market stalls! They'll never take ME in with that."

I remember reading in a Scotsman Online discussion (comments section): a commenter's view that most intelligent people left Scotland long ago. The only ones left here are the politicians and the impoverished 'neds'. In a backlash, he and others who left Scotland were shot down in flames for abandoning the old country; taking their business and skills elsewhere... but still being interested enough to read The Scotsman and make remarks.

But that's another subject entirely - it's just that, every time somebody talks about 'neds', I think about that discussion. Maybe if I go to New Zealand, I'll automatically stop being the ned that I am for living here.

Anonymous said...

In our house when I was a child, the term was "Council House" even though for some of the time we lived in one.

Council House people were too feckless to get a steady job or a mortgage, bummed every conceivable concession off the rates and then didn't pay their rent, had badly disciplined children and pets, played loud music on radiograms, had the TV on all day (ITV, of course!) and had no books in the house but plenty of beer, that is when they weren't creating affrays outside the estate pubs.

In later life my parents never got over the discovery that just the same behaviour emanated from Executive Estates inside locked gates.

Sally said...

Bump to Mum Sally: "Remind me to never again go into Blany on a weekend, its full of f...... chavs. And they've all got more money to spend than I have."

And big black 4x4s parked on the front garden, satellite dishes vying for space with the left over Christmas inflatable reindeer on the outside of their ex-council houses that they have done up with plastic railings round the kids' trampoline, where the little chavs sit to avoid the dog mess.

Mary said...

If, of your own free will, you use loads of eyeliner, dye your hair black, wear Doc Martens and stripy tights and lots of silver jewellery, you can't be surprised when people call you a Goth and make various assumptions about you.

If, of your own free will, you plait flowers in your long, untrimmed hair, wear floaty skirts, wander around with no shoes on and smell distinctly of cannabis, you shouldn't be amazed if people call you a Hippy and make certain assumptions.

Similarly, if, of your own free will, you wear a burberry baseball cap, a tracksuit, loads of "bling" jewellery and accessorise with a can of Stella, you must be prepared for people calling you a chav.

All of these groups have a certain image. And while the "Goth" might think Courtney Love is a moron, the "Hippy" might be perfectly happy eating steak, and the "chav" might have five A levels and a degree, they still know, in advance, the assumptions that will be made of them if they go out and about while purposely and voluntarily looking like a member of that group.

It's not a grouping like "foreign" or "disabled" or "intelligent" or "redheaded" or "black". It's not what you happen to be, through no decision of your own. "Chav" is something you decide to actively identify as, and go to some effort to look the part.

Sorry for the long post.

The Goldfish said...

Thanks everyone,

Some interesting issues raised here, but I want to go away and think about them for a bit. Hmm...

Fee Lock said...

If you're looking for a label, try 'shabby gentility' for a while.

Incidentally (dons anorak), Hegley's motivation was for the shortest poem with the longest title.

Fee x