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Damned either way

As someone who was born ‘the other side of the tracks’, I really wanted to like Owen Jones’s book, which sets out to expose how in recent years the working classes have become ‘objects of fear and ridicule’.

2 July 2011

12:00 AM

2 July 2011

12:00 AM

Chavs Owen Jones

Verso, pp.304, 14.99

The Bogan Delusion David Nichols

Affirm Press, pp.224, Aus $22.95

As someone who was born ‘the other side of the tracks’, I really wanted to like Owen Jones’s book, which sets out to expose how in recent years the working classes have become ‘objects of fear and ridicule’. It’s true; they have. The problem is, however, that he implores us to pity them rather than fear them. And as the proverb goes: ‘Friends help; others pity.’

Jones catalogues media and political assaults on ‘chavs’ — those fake-Burberry-clad no-marks covered in bling, who hang around street corners with scary-looking dogs and bottles of alcopops. They are now wearily familiar symbols in the Daily Mail and on Channel 4 of all that is decadent about modern England.

We are told of the travel firm that offers middle-class trekkers ‘chav-free holidays’; of the London gym that provides ‘chav-fighting classes’ for bankers, who are taught to box the ears off those feckless youths who ‘tend to breed by the age of 15, and spend most of their days trying to score super-skunk’, as the gym manager puts it. And we scarcely need reminding of most politicians’ disdain for teenage mums and leery lads and other council-estate bogeymen.

Yet Jones himself, a former researcher for a Labour MP, has a patronising way of referring to working-class communities as ‘the poor’, and as ‘victims of social problems’. Sadly, he says, there is ‘no sympathy’ for these ‘vulnerable groups’, who ‘lack many of the things others take for granted: toys, days out, holidays, good food’.

Jesus wept! I know plenty of working-class people and I can inform Owen Jones that they do manage to scrape together enough pennies to buy their soot-covered kids toys and days out. In fact, working-class families tend to have many more toys than middle-class ones, since they don’t bother to veto ‘violent’ or ‘sexist’ ones.

In fretting about the self-esteem of the vulnerable, Jones shows that he is as out of touch with the working classes as any chav-fearing hack. Even worse, he frequently expresses that most obnoxious Old Labour sentiment: disappointment. He seems vexed that some of them want big houses, nice cars and cushy lives. He quotes favourably the Labour MP Jon Cruddas bemoaning the fact that so many now ‘aspire to own more material things’, and he calls for a ‘total redefinition of aspiration’. Workers should be re-educated to be more community minded, he thinks.

Jones may fancy himself as a new George Orwell, but in fact he resembles the very people The Road to Wigan Pier has a pop at: those ‘parties of society dames’ who had the ‘damned impertinence’ to advise working-class families how to spend their money.

The Bogan Delusion, by the Australian David Nichols, is a far better book. Down Under, they have ‘bogans’, who are slightly different to chavs. Where the term ‘chav’ refers to Britain’s less well-off, more youthful working class, ‘bogan’ is attached to Oz’s comfortable, home-owning equivalent. These people are likely to have large, air-conditioned homes in Australia’s suburbs. Contrast Kath and Kim, the Australian sitcom mum and daughter who wile away the hours driving their 4×4 to shiny shopping malls with the penniless scallies of Channel 4’s Shameless and you’ll get an idea of the difference. Yet where in Britain chavs are sneered at for being poor and useless, Down Under bogans are booed for having too much. The working classes can’t win.

With sociological precision — if that’s not a contradiction in terms — Nichols exposes how the term ‘bogan’, like ‘chav’, is not an accurate description of a real group of people, but rather a reflection of the cut-off liberal classes’ own sweaty nightmares about an imaginary vulgar and cultureless horde ‘out there’. ‘Bogan’ simply refers to anyone who is ‘not one of us’ in the eyes of the lefties who haunt Sydney’s and Melbourne’s eco-friendly cafés; bogans are that mysterious and vast ‘army of amoebic plebs’.

Nichols’s book reveals something completely missed by Jones: that today’s liberal assault on material aspiration is itself an expression of snobbery. The relentless criticism in Australia of suburban ‘aspirationals’, who hanker after mansions, plasma screens and large cars, Nichols concludes, is another way of dismissing the working classes as soulless. His more thorough critique of this phenomenon makes the anti-materialist treatise of Chavs seem conservative — and, ironically, snobbish — by comparison.

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