Class and Contemporary British Culture


Class and Contemporary British Culture
By Anita Biressi and Heather Nunn
Palgrave Macmillan – £50.00

‘’Overall, class in Britain has become part of the architecture of self-evaluation and social judgement since at least the nineteenth century and shows little promise of entirely crumbling away. Indeed, if anything, the last few years, and especially those following the global financial crisis, have seen social class, in all of its guises, return to the centre of cultural, political and media agendas.’’

So write the authors Anita Biressi and Heather Nunn in the Introduction of this truly exceptional analysis of class in contemporary Britain; words, that if nothing else, substantiate so much of what is currently wrong within British society. Reason being, the entire class structure in Britain has always been fraught with a fascination that, if nothing else, has proved more fractious than it has ever been worth. Its only value has always and without fail, played right into the very hands of those who readily espouse social demarcation with both a vengeance and a capital D.

This explains why the British class system enables the nonces at the so-called top of the pack, to look down on the so-called riff-raff underclass. While it gives voice (as well as increasingly bad accent) to nigh everyone else – that either don’t or unwillingly fail – to fall within the sphere of the so-called gentrified and accepted gentry. Naturally, it’s all bollocks, because even though the twain never fundamentally meet; the (normally) lower-class, uneducated, ignorant, right-wing tossers, will continue to adore the Queen, while their Oxbridge brethren will continue to know better.

Over the last thirty or so years, basically since Margaret Thatcher and the advent of social electronic social networking, the lines of class demarcation have become ever increasingly blurred – a prime facet which this admirably analytical and at times provocative book, Class and Contemporary British Culture makes abundantly clear.

One of my favourite sections of the book (and there are many) is ‘The discovery of Essex Man in the chapter ‘Essex: Class, Aspiration and Social Mobility’ wherein the authors write of one of the all time great, singer/songwriters, Ian Dury: ‘’In the late 1970s, on the cusp of the Thatcher era, the rock/punk singer Ian Dury introduced his comic-strip character Billericay Dickie (1977). In what became his trademark spiv, cockney-punk style he recounted the first-person tale of Dickie […] ‘so you ask Joyce and Vivki/who’s their favourite brickie/I’m not a common thicky/I’m Billericay Dickie/and I’m doing very well […]. As such, Dickie delivered a vaudeville wink at both female sexual availability and middle-class pretensions, as well as bonding with other Essex working lads. But, while Dury played with class stereotypes in his own persona and also sent them up in his cockney-geezer characters […] he also walked the risky line between cheeky in-joke and the reproduction of crude stereotypes […]. He anticipated the crudely drawn but nonetheless culturally rich figures of Essex Man, Loadsamoney and Essex Girl.’’

All the above may well have been on the cusp of the Thatcher era, but have since given questionable rise to numerous Essex-centric, popular factual programming such as Family Confidential: Basildon Boobs (C5 1999), Essex Wives (ITV 2002) and of course, The Only Way Is Essex (ITV 2010-). Not to mention f-a-r too many superfluous/spurious (disposable) Essex Girl personas such as Denise Van Outen, Jessica Wallace, Jade Goody and the deplorable Jodie Marsh. The tiresome accumulation of which/whom, reflect a rather spot-on, yet subliminal representation of Britain today: ‘’Essex, where there’s mobile phones galore and in every dream home a rottweiler, where you find the likes of Norman Tebbit [prominent Thatcherite and an Essex MP] go, where page three girls [tabloid models] buy their mum a bungalow. If you think it’s posh to drink Malibu, if you need a calculator to count to two, if you think the stories in the Sunday Sport are true, then you’re an Essex Man.’’

Following on from the current replica of the above, might it not be said that ‘’you’re not only an Essex Man/Girl,’’ but you’re the living, breathing manifestation of the lower class throughout the entire nation. Be it London or Manchester, Bristol or Liverpool. The one and only difference being that, many young white males now want to talk like Jimmy Cliff: ‘’what has happened is that a substantial section of chavs… have become black.’’

Either which way one looks at it, it was the British who invented the class system, and who are still vehemently promoting it today. Is it any wonder there’s an ever-increasing price to pay, which, in relation to the riots of August 2012, the authors make crystal clear in the following (‘The Revolting Underclass’): ‘’News reports generally presented the riots as a sign of contemporary urban anomie in which getting-without-paying and shopping with violence seemed to be the order of the day. The term underclass was reinvigorated as a sign of spiritual rather than material impoverishment, in which a paucity of individual ambition and a collapse of self-discipline resulted in a newly dangerous violent cycle of expectation on the part of those excluded (or self-excluded) from gainful employment, family and civic responsibility.’’

Class and Contemporary British Culture makes for imperative reading. It’s a superb book, one I’d highly recommend to anyone remotely interested in (what’s horribly wrong with) contemporary Britain.

David Marx


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