Tuesday, 14 April 2015

What Classless Society?

I've had a few emails in the past few days from people asking about my accent. At least two thought that I'm from Yorkshire.

I didn't think much about it until I read this morning an excellent interview with the actor Christopher Ecclestone who hails from Salford just down the East Lancs from here. He talks about class in the UK and I liked particular the way Ecclestone talked about himself. 'I was a skinny, awkward-looking bugger with an accent, as I still am,' he said, in words I've probably used a few times to describe myself. 'Bugger' is a word I find myself using quite a lot. It's distinctly part of the vocabulary of the North West of England.

Yet it's what Ecclestone went on to say that is more significant. 'British society has always been based on inequality, particularly culturally,' he explained. 'I’ve lived with it, but it’s much more pronounced now, and it would be difficult for someone like me to come through.'

I lingered on this paragraph because just the other day I was discussing with a friend if we really live in a so called 'classless' society. I have never been an advocate of 'Class War' and my politics have never been so far to the left that I'd ever consider myself 'left wing'. Yet I maintain that the past five years has seen class divisions grow even deeper. I'm even more aware of my own alienation from British culture where a privileged elite enjoy the arts and the rest of us scrape around looking for greater meaning amid the closed libraries and non-existent gallery space. I write a lot of essays, books and poems, draw my bad cartoons whilst pretending I'm not attempting to be 'arty', and I study culture through multiple sources. I have so many qualifications I've made myself largely unemployable. You could argue that I'm deeply cultured except I don't exist in that world where such things are cherished. I live in a deeply working class town where I'm very much the oddball, the outcast, and clearly unwanted. It's the rich BT engineers who rule the town. They have the money. They dictate our culture or lack thereof.

Yet I digress slightly. I've read a few times in the past twelve months of some London-based social critics proclaiming that we're now living in an age without class. I suppose to David Cameron, the UK does look classless. I imagine it looks amazingly homogenous if you surround yourself with friends from Eton.  Yet that's not my perception of the UK. Nor, it would seem, is it the perception of one of our best actors.

It goes back to the problem of people not recognising my dialect. It would never have occurred to me that anybody would confuse the Lancashire and Yorkshire accents, any more than somebody would mistake a Newcastle accent for the accent of Cornwall or Birmingham. Yet perhaps the confusion is actually not that surprising given than the accents on the TV tend to be of a very narrow range. There are little bits of the Welsh accent, quite a lot of Scottish, occasional Geordie or Brummie, and once or twice you might hear a Scouse twang. Yet really the rest is just that same flat English of the estuaries or what Ecclestone calls the 'milky, anodyne culture'.

At a tangent slightly: on The Daily Politics a couple of mornings ago, Andrew Neil made passing reference to the Labour Party's manifesto launch taking place in Manchester. Neil suggested that Labour were only doing so to avoid scrutiny from the press. This led to a big family debate and I found myself on an unusual side of the argument.

Normally, I defend Neil to the hilt. There's no journalist I admire more. Yet on this small matter I thought he was wrong. My argument ran: 'Why shouldn't Labour launch their manifesto from Manchester? Labour are strong in the north and we're as much a part of the electorate as anybody in London'.

I was being naive, of course, and Neil was right. All the main political journalists are based in London and though they could travel easily to Manchester, there were possibly fewer of them up north to ask questions of the Labour leader. Yet if Andrew Neil was right in fact, he was wrong in spirit. And that's what I'm trying to argue here today.

I never think of myself as having much of an accent. I don't really think much about accent. I watch a lot of TV news. I enjoy debates and newspaper reviews. I enjoy the Neil triumvirate: the Daily Politics, the Sunday Politics, and This Week. I watch Question Time and the new show hosted by Tom Bradbury on ITV whose title escapes me. I watch the Daily Show and Bill Maher's weekly panel talk show. I don't consciously think accent. Yet when people think I'm from Yorkshire, it makes me realise how little my Lancashire accent is really heard on TV. When it is, it's usually the twisted perversion of an accent coming from the mouth of Johnny Vegas. (Incidentally: I really like Vegas but I hate how he represents our area. It feels like he plays the stereotype that confirms people's worst prejudices about a boorish uneducated North West.)

This might be a trivial point but I'm not entirely sure that it is. Individuals don't form opinions. Opinions are formed as if in a collective consciousness, as good points are repeated and carried forward by people engaged into the community debate. So, for example, I might watch the news and see Kevin McGuire on Sky News say something I agree with. I hear somebody repeat that on the Daily Politics and the idea hardens into a personal opinion that I might repeat. It enters into the public debate at multiple points and the arguments circulate around it, help develop and refine it, and then the whole mass of ideas moves on as new opinions are generated.

Yet what I notice is how many of the people engaged in that debate live in a closed intellectual biome. Even those like McGuire who speak with an accent do so from a somewhat privileged position. For example, you rarely hear from somebody from Eccles talking about their experiences living in Eccles. Newspaper reviews have the same London suburbanites speaking from a very limited worldview.  The news agenda is incestuous; set by people whose outlook is formed by living a few miles around Westminster, or, more broadly, within driving distance to the main TV studios. It means that their perceptions of culture are different to the rest of the country. They view public transport differently to how people might view it if they live in a poor town in Yorkshire or in the Scottish borders. They are the people who think, for example, that to enjoy culture, those of us in the North can simply hop on a train and visit London. Logically, they might make sense but they lack the practical experience of trying to do that which would demonstrate why it's impossible. They wouldn't know, to further my example, that trains into London in the morning are prohibitively expensive, whilst trains to the North in the morning are astonishingly cheap. Trains out of London are prohibitively expensive late in the day, whilst trains into London late in the day are cheap. It makes it easy to travel out of London in the morning and home at night. It's nearly impossible to do it the other way around. People in London can explore the rest of the country cheaply but those of us in the north are economically restricted from accessing our capital city. You have to travel on a late afternoon train, travel home in the morning, paying for a hotel overnight. It's hardly a 'day out'.

This is just one example of many I could use. My point is: as I've noted before, it's remarkable and deeply depressing how politics and political debate is largely confined to people with London identities. I was no fan of either men but, unlike the 1980s, there are no figures like Derek Hatton or Arthur Scargill to provide a different view of reality. Why do none of our big cities such as Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, and Newcastle have people who are recognisably part of the city like Boris Johnson represents London? Where are the social critics giving the point of view of the North West or Manchester or Warrington? There simply are none.

Classless society? I suppose it is if you completely ignore nine tenths of that society and act like the poor buggers don't exist.

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