Saturday, 22 November 2014

Men Like Joe

Life's rarely fair. Take the case of Mr. Daniel Ware: picked out of nowhere because a passerby shared a picture of his chez res on social media and before the ink is dry on his contract with The Sun he's standing in front of the media as the representative of an entire class. He hadn't asked to be judged and it would be wrong of anybody to try to understand his soul simply by looking at him.  So, let's not make this about Mr. Daniel Ware who, according to his neighbours, is simply a 'gentle giant'. I really don't want to talk about Mr. Ware. I really don't care about Mr. Ware.

Instead, let's talk about people who look like Mr. Ware. I'm sure you won't have to look very far.

In the early hours of yesterday, Emily Thornberry resigned from the shadow cabinet (or, according to some reports, she was sacked) because she had been resorting to stereotypes about the working classes. How dare she judge a man by the flag he waves... Or so the argument begins. There's nothing wrong with people who are proud of their country and, if a man (not Mr. Ware, just a man who looks like Mr. Ware) just happens to drive a white van, then he's one of many tens of thousands who take to our roads every day in vans painted white. Maybe they represent the national average in some obscure but meaningful way. Maybe, if you wanted to take a snapshot of Britain on the 21st November, 2014, you would come away with a portrait of a man who looks very much like Mr. Ware but, obviously, isn't Mr. Ware. Let's call this lookalike Joe Anybody. Joe looks just like Mr Ware and, lucky for us, has a very similar biography.

For example, Joe just happens to sport a skinhead and have that fold of flesh at the back of his head that always makes me think of Grossberger in Stir Crazy. It makes me think of violence and warehouses late at night. Unlike Grossberger, Joe also sports a few tattoos. But there are probably thousands of men who are like Joe: heavily tattooed and also supporters of West Ham United. And just because Joe supports West Ham and has a skin head, it would be wrong to mention that English football hooliganism began with West Ham's 'Bovver Boys' of the 1960s or that they were sympathisers of the National Front and characterised by their tattoos and skin heads.

Joe also reads The Sun but so do lots of men. They enjoy looking at the women with the big tits but lots of men enjoy looking at women with big tits. He deals in cars which is a legitimate business and great for the economy. The nation thrives because of wheeler dealers. And if he happens to enjoy climbing into a cage and beating other men up, he's not breaking any laws. He simply needs to relax after a head day's wheeling and dealing.

Critics of Emily Thornberry would say that none of this matters. And they're right because clearly, none of this has anything to do with the real person Mr. Daniel Ware. Her tweet about him was reductive and crude.

However, had Emily Thornberry tweeted a picture of the house belonging to our entirely imaginary friend Joe, would we think that her stereotype was at all inaccurate?

Maybe the very worst thing you can say about Joe is that if you were casting a role for a brutish modern thug with far right sympathies, he would land the role on £120 quid a day and everything he can eat from catering. Perhaps if you were interested in modern British culture, you might also say that Joe is an example of a current and deeply troubling phenomenon. Men like Joe are the epitome of the new moronic Britain. They are the stuff of our most moronic TV, usually hosted by our favourite Joe lookalike, Ross Kemp, and with titles involving the words 'hardest', 'meanest', and 'most dangerous'. They are familiar because they're loutish and loud, muscle bound and steroid thick. They are the cretins who smash bottles on our high streets on a Friday night. You want to indulge in cheap stereotypes, then how about muscle vests, medallions, sovereign rings, ethnic tattoos, names of their numerous kids trailing up their vein-thick necks. How about pitbulls and rottweilers, broken noses, gold teeth, four by fours, road rage, gang culture, drug wars, English nationalism, football terraces, racism, hatred, violence, lad culture, pornography, rape...

Or perhaps there's another story here. Perhaps we should be more worried at the way the media rushes to appoint a skin-head tattooed West Ham supporter who happens to be a cage fighter as the sole representative of the working classes.

Is this what we've come to as a nation?

The media are cowardly stepping around the story. We live in an age when it's so easy to cause offence. Yet nobody asks if it's right to cause offence. Maybe we need to go on the offensive against men like Joe because, if you met a man like Joe in the flesh, what would you really think?

And yet in asking this, I know I could be accused of being elitist and sneering towards the working classes. Perhaps I am but I think I have the right because I am pure bred working class. Men like Joe and Mr Ware are standing as proxy for me.

But let me be clear. I don't mean that I'm working class in some kind of exotic way. I don't 'identify' with the working classes because that's a cool thing to do. I'm pretty well educated but I don't have a middle class upbringing. I'm not suddenly finding a kitsch appeal in the working classes. I see myself as working class because I am working class. I am born of working class parents. My grandparents were all working class and one of them was a Lithuanian (or possibly Russian, there remains some confusion) immigrant whose parents fled the Bolshevik revolution. I live in a working class town, surrounded by working class people and everybody I meet each and every day is working class. And what might sound strange is that not all of them are inarticulate or lazy or socialist or angry or loud or violent or tasteless or dumb or any of the stereotypes that are routinely thrown our way. Not all of us keep the brown sauce on the dining room table or wear slippers to the corner shop or eat fish and chips every night before taking our teeth out in order to suck on a bottle of Newkie Brown. Not all of us have tattoos or skinheads or gold chains or enjoy cage fighting. Of course, there are some that do a few of these things and there are people I see every day who obviously do a great many of these things. However, the majority of the people I know would simply look at Joe and give the sniff we all give to men of that type. They're the type we know only so well because the rarely whispered secret is that nobody hates the working classes more than the working classes. We know our ranks. We know our archetypes. We know the bad types.

They're found in every neighbourhood and in every neighbourhood they express the same thoughts and feelings and communicate in the very same loud boorish ways. You don't need a degree in sociology to identify them and you don't need extensive research to reach the conclusion that the type is neither typical nor average. I live next door to a fine example of the breed. I hear the anger, the shouting, the arguments that spill out into the street. I see the money they have, the success they find in a world that rewards their type. There's another up the road who looks the same, walks the same, and has exactly the same political outlook, the same hugely expensive 4x4. I could walk you to the homes of a dozen of their type and never lose sight of my own doorstep. In fact, from where I write this, I look out over a gym that is a second home to dozens upon dozens of men who all look like Joe. The town is filled with men who look like that. But are they typical? Can they represent us in any meaningful way?

This is what ultimately galls me about the coverage this story has been given this morning in the media. The most insulting part of this story isn't the shadow minister's tweet. It's the Labour leadership and, in turn, the newspapers who would defend men like Joe and hold him up as something good and noble. The insult to the working classes is to say that we're all somehow like that. And how bloody dare anybody equate me to a bald tattooed West Ham supporting white van driving cage fighter who drapes himself in the flag of St George.

Maybe -- just maybe -- Emily Thornberry's tweet was succinct and meaningful. Maybe stereotypes exist not because they're a lazy way of thinking about the world but because they're a handy way to spot the modern archetypes that exist in the real world. Maybe Emily Thornberry's tweet said something profound about England on the 21st November, 2014, a nation that abandoned boxing because it was simply too tame and took up cage fighting which is as repellent as it is bloody and brutal. The ultimate insult to the working classes is that we're not having a debate about tattoos, and muscles, and the culture of macho violence and, ultimately, the kind of men who wave the flag. What does it say about British politics when a political party is happy to damage itself and disown its own over a slightly misguided tweet, simply in order to reach out to that kind of man?

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