Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Layer 124 The Working Classes

It’s obviously a zeitgeisty thing, but Radio 4 started a series on the working class today.

Class consciousness is definitely making a comeback in Britain. It’s surely impossible NOT to think about Us and Them when most people are feeling fucked over by the bankers and the financiers, and have become acutely aware of the fact that there’s a whole group or class of people who manage to avoid paying their fair share of taxes whilst simultaneously paying themselves phenomenal amounts of money in salaries, profits and ‘bonuses’.

No doubt many of those people work hard, but it’s not necessarily ‘work’ as we know it, Jim. And many of them only work because they feel driven to get seriously rich - like, mega rich. Many of them don’t work at all, of course, and this is also becoming clearer to many - that there’s a rentier or property-owning class who have become richer and richer on the basis of their families having bequeathed to them property and share portfolios which they pay other people to manage, whilst they themselves swan around the place and live the life of Reilly.

Not that anyone would seriously want adopt their useless and pathetic lifestyles, their parasitical and trivial existences. As someone said in the programme, even if he won the lottery he’d still want to live near his family and mates, use the same pub, and go to football at weekends.

But this is something the footloose and aspirational middle classes have difficulty understanding - ‘up there’ in the midlands and the north there are people living happy and fulfilled lives who are not driven by a restless quest for life behind suburban walls, behind electric gates, thinking that’s where happiness and contentment lie.

You can’t buy community, you can’t buy lifelong friends and a loyal extended family. Money doesn’t bring happiness, especially if it’s used in ways that cut you off from those who bring joy and friendship into your life.

Of course we’d all like a year’s sabbatical and enough money to go traveling - but ultimately there has to be more to life than being idle. Prince Siddharta found meaning in life, and ultimately enlightenment, by becoming a bodhisatva and striving to serve people in need.

According to the programme:

More people now identify themselves as working class than they did 40 years ago

Engles was shocked by the conditions of the working classes in Manchester.

For many years it’s been ‘unfashionable’ to talk about class

Who now speaks for the working class? (Certainly not NuLabour)

Unfortunately they interviewed Hazel bleeding Blears, “one of the few senior politicians from a working class background”, blathering on about having a string permanently around her neck as a child. It turns out the string held a latch key. There’s quite a few of us who’d like to see the string back round her neck.

So how do people define their class? Is it about attitudes?

“There’s only one way to get money, and that’s to work,” said somebody. But that’s so not true. There are now thousands of people who live off inherited wealth. Trustafarians abound in the wealthier parts of London, for instance.

So is a working class person someone who works for a living, or someone who HAS to work for a living, because they have no choice?

There’s also the issue of identity - identification with a section of society, such as the working class, plus whether you need to work for a living.

The programme made the point that in Australia & the USA it’s different - since people there usually have a sense of being able to (and wanting to) reinvent themselves. Invariably as better off and more aspirational beings. Nobody in those places apparently wants to consider themselves as working class, let alone feels any pride in it.

The programme then focused on how change comes about in society - how working class people can fight back against poverty and exploitation. Pressure from below? Mass movements agitating for social change?

Thomas Paine - England’s greatest radical - was mentioned. "These are the times that try men's souls," declared Thomas, in his pamphlet The Crisis - and indeed they are. Are we also on the brink of a revolution? Not necessarily a revolutionary war, as such, but certainly a revolution in consciousness and political sophistication, leading to the radical economic and social changes the world desperately needs. Perhaps. Who knows where the current turmoil will lead? (see also the bits on Cameron and Chavez below)

Ewan McColl was name-checked by the programme, as was Anthony Burgess - a working class lad who grew up in Manchester and also went to university there.
Interesting that there’s such a good section on Ewan on Peggy Seeger’s website, and a coincidence that Pete Seeger’s reputation has been boosted lately by the man himself performing at Obama’s inauguration concert (see below), and by Springsteen’s brilliant “Seeger Sessions Band”. The Boss, as we know, has always been the champion of blue collar folk, in both senses of the words - champion and folk.

(And to digress even further - there was a superb documentary on Seasick Steve on BBC4, or Sky Arts, last week - his life and times. Plus 30 minutes of him playing the blues at the Reading Festival and the Albert Hall - literally rags to riches. Go out and buy Dog House Music if you don‘t already have it.)

- great video of Steve performing Dog House Blues on 3-string bottleneck guitar on Jules Holland’s prog. Play loud. (great camera work, by the way. Respect to the ‘Later’ team.)

Another coincidence for me was rooting around on my bookshelves last night and coming across Anthony Burgess’s ‘Earthly Powers’, which I bought second-hand for £1.30 several years ago and never got round to reading. It was written in the year of my son’s birth, and has written inside the front cover: “Dear Daddy, Happy Birthday 19/11/81 lots of love Helen xxxxxxxxxx”.

I wonder what Helen and her dad are doing now, and whether he managed to read the book. (see below)

The programme concluded with some thoughts about working class people getting by in life, helping one another out when times are hard, having a sense of community

Whereas middle class & comfortably off people can afford to let things stay the same, and can seemingly live anti-socially, in isolated nuclear units.

Right at the end there was a reference to John Cooper Clark, the Bard of Salford, whose dad worked in car factory. “Working on the midnight shift”, no doubt. Coincidentally John’s about to go back on the road, and had a gig reviewed in the Guardian this week.

Looking ahead to the next programme the presenter asked: Is it just what we earn, who we identify with, whether we feel a part of a community, and which newspaper we read? Is it in fact a question of values and culture?

Stay tuned.


There’s a brilliant advert on TV at the moment for the Co-operative movement, showing dandelion seeds floating on their parachutes to a soundtrack of Dylan’s ‘Blowing In the Wind’, letting the lyrics speak their message - “How many roads must a walk down? . . . “How many times must a man look up? . . .“

The message of the voice-over right at the end is simply about the Co-ops’ community projects, sharing profits, fair trade, etc. Excellent.


1) A Cat Among the Pigeons

David Cameron set a cat amongst pigeons with an article in yesterday’s Guardian, “A Radical Power Shift: Our future depends on putting more political responsibility in the hands of local people.”

Tony Benn once spoke about wanting a fundamental shift of power and wealth to working people. I too want that fundamental shift - to local people and local institutions. Over the last century Britain has become one of the most centralised countries in the developed world as power has been sucked to Westminster. Some might wonder why this matters. After all, isn't politics just about what works? But there is a deep connection between where decisions are made and what works.

When one-size-fits-all solutions are dispensed from the centre, it's not surprising they so often fail local communities. When people experience a yawning gap between the changes they want to see and those they can directly affect, it is inevitable that demoralisation and democratic disengagement follow.

225 responses in CIF so far. Worth a read.


2) A catamite among the pigeons.

So I started reading Earthly Powers, and was immediately grabbed by it. How many books do you come across that have a word in the very first sentence that you need to look up in a dictionary, or Wikipedia?

A catamite is the younger partner in a pederastic relationship between two males, which was a popular arrangement in many areas of the ancient world.

Kings and Emperors in some ancient cultures had not only concubines but also catamites (male concubines), in addition to their many wives.

The word is also used to describe the practice in early Japan, where monks would have sexual relationships with younger monks[citation needed]; samurai with pages; and noblemen with younger members of the aristocracy.

The word catamite is derived from the Latin catamitus, itself borrowed from the Etruscan catmite, a corruption of the Greek Ganymedes, the boy who was seduced by Zeus and became his beloved and cup-bearer in Greek mythology.

So there. And then we discover that Burgess is having a laugh -

“I have lost none of my old cunning in the contrivance of what is known as an arresting opening.”

A novelist is having a siesta on his 81st birthday. An archbishop comes to visit and the novelist asks his manservant to take him into the bar and pour him a drink.

“The bar was across the hall, to the right, between the wreck of an office where Geoffrey neglected his secretarial work and my own fussily neat study. On the wall between the bar and the study was the Georges Rouault - a scrawled ugly ballerina, impatient thick black strokes and bitter washes. In Paris that time Maynard Keynes had hotly recommended that I buy it. He had known all about markets.”

600 pages to go.


Hugo Chavez has won his referendum to entitle him to keep on putting himself up for reelection in Venezuela. Say what you like about him, and his methods, but the man’s got a head, a heart and balls. After all that the USA did to the proletariat in South America, after all the killings and torture inspired by the Shock Doctrine, the revenge of the neo-cons and the Chicago Boys against leftists and progressives, it takes guts to stand up to the USA when it’s in the control of Bush and his ilk and is determined to get rid of you, and considers you a threat to its ‘national security’.


Obama’s Inauguration

Last night on TV there was a broadcast of the ‘concert’ that preceded Obama’s inauguration. A dog’s breakfast of an event, but very stirring in parts. Some naff speeches, but how fantastic to see so many black people taking leading roles in their country’s affairs. Some truly awful music and songs, but some wonderful stuff from the likes of Springsteen and gospel choirs.

After the truly hideous years of the neo-con ascendancy how incredible it all seems - the possibility that the affairs of a great nation are at last being coordinated and supervised by people with intelligence and credibility.


  1. I like this. Read mine:

    Nicole S.

  2. Many thanks for your comment, Nicole. I enjoyed your post on the use of the word 'common' when referring to the working classes.


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