Saturday, 29 October 2011

Chavs: the demonization of the working class

Why did the chav cross the road?
To start on the chicken for no apparent reason

What does a chav get for Christmas?
Your bike

What day of the year does a chav find most confusing?
Fathers day

Admit it, did you smile?

After reading Owen Jones’s book, Chavs: the demonization of the working class, I think I might be a Chav. Chav – a word that can be used as an acronym for “Council Housed and Violent”. Well, I was raised on a council estate and for most of my life raised by a single parent mother who worked as a domestic cleaner. I went to a comprehensive school. I presently earn less than the national median wage of £21,000. By all accounts, I’m ticking a good number of those chav, underclass boxes. Yet, I’ve never been tempted to wear a baseball cap (and certainly not one with Burberry tartan) or a hoodie. I’m not violent. I have no police record. I went to university and, even got a degree. I’m more likely to be watching some arty-farty stuff on BBC 4, than Jeremy Kyle and his baiting of dysfunctional families. I’m a Catholic priest and, therefore, might be described as part of “the establishment”. Confusing. Maybe, I’m not a chav after all.

Whether I am a chav or not, we all know they are out there – that “feral underclass” of people who are portrayed as “Thick. Violent. Criminal.” There are websites such as “ChavScum” which show these people to be feckless, sponging and immoral proles with no aspirations to better themselves and become middle class. But you don’t need to go on the internet to find them, we can laugh at them from our sofas as we watch Little Britain, Wife Swap, Shameless or slip in the DVD of the horror film Eden Lake, where an affluent couple are tortured to death by some local, dog-owning teenagers. Richard Hilton, the chief executive of Gym Box, provides an articulate, contemptuous description of the chav:

They tend to live in England but would probably pronounce it “Engerland”. They have trouble articulating themselves and have little ability to spell or write. They love their pit bull dogs as well as their blades. And would happily “shank” you if you accidently brush past them or look at them in the wrong way. They tend to breed by the age of fifteen and spend most of their days trying to score “super-skunk” or whatever “gear” they can get their sweaty teenage hands on. If they are not institutionalized by twenty-one they are considered pillars of strength in the community or get “much respect” for being lucky.

Owen Jones’s indignant and persuasively argued book, Chavs, challenges these caricatures of the working class and exposes them as barely disguised forms of class prejudice. He believes the historic roots of this are found in the Thatcherism of the 1980’s:

In only a decade or so, Thatcherism had completely changed how class was seen. The wealthy were adulated. All were now encouraged to scramble up the social ladder, and be defined by how much they owned. Those who were poor or unemployed had no one to blame but themselves. The traditional pillars of working-class Britain had been smashed to the ground. To be working class was no longer something to be proud of , never mind celebrate. Old working-class values, like solidarity, were replaced with dog-eat-dog individualism.

The role of the Labour Party under the leadership of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown also comes under scrutiny and criticism:

In New Labour’s eyes, being aspirational working class meant embracing individualism and selfishness. It meant fighting to be part of Brown’s “bigger middle class than ever.”...New Labour politicians frequently diagnose a “poverty of aspiration” in working-class kids to explain things like poor school results or why poverty is transmitted from generation to generation. For example, former New Labour education secretary Alan Johnson once railed against a “corrosive poverty of aspiration which is becoming particularly prevalent amongst today’s generation of working-class boys.” It is not the lack of jobs and apprenticeships following the collapse of industry that is to blame, but rather the attitudes of working-class children.

Chav-hate, he believes, distracts us from the real issues of widespread inequality within society. Focusing on the “moral attitude” of the working class distorts the debate and diverts attention away from structural issues, such as, employment, housing and just wages. Considering the town of Ashington, seventeen miles north of Newcastle, Jones interviews the local Catholic Parish priest, Fr Ian Jackson, who observes:

For a lot of the younger people, you feel that most of them want to move on and move out, to get out of town really, because there’s nothing for them here! The main industry, I would probably say – you’re looking at the big Asda that’s just been built, and the hospital...I think the young people would say: “What is there for me apart from working in a shop?”

Chavs is a thought-provoking, challenging read. Jones cogently argues that there has been a tendency to view social issues through the prisms of race, gender and human rights. But this ignores the question of class. It is this issue that Owen Jones wants to put back into the heart of the political and cultural debate. Chavs is his provocative attempt to do so.

Chavs: the demonization of the working class, Owen Jones, Verso, 2011

Thursday, 27 October 2011

And the winner is...Kevin

The London Film Festival has given the best film award to We Need to Talk About Kevin. It is a bold - if flawed - piece of film-making, that lingers in the memory long after you have seen it. The image of a desolate Tilda Swinton vainly trying to drown out her baby's screams by standing in front of workmen with pneumatic drills still has the power to chill the blood. After you see this film, you will never romanticise parenthood again.

Below, Lynne Ramsay and the radiantly beautiful (and just a little bit androgynous), Tilda Swinton, talking about the film:

Saturday, 22 October 2011

We Need To Talk About Kevin

We Need to Talk About Kevin opens with a scene that is visually beautiful and visceral -an aerial shot of a huge, semi-naked crowd covered in thick, menstrual sludge. A young woman, Eva (Tilda Swinton), fixed in a cruciform position, is passed above the heads of the crowd. And, then, as you are trying to make sense of the image you, suddenly, find its context: a Spanish Tomato festival. It’s a brilliant prologue, a perfectly crafted visual image used to maximum impact but without any whiff of sensationalism. In this image, all the major themes of We Need to Talk About Kevin are contained: the relationship between the crowd and Eva, the crucifixion of that woman due to the unspeakable crime of her teenage son and the effects of that bloodbath.

Based on Lionel Shriver’s popular and acclaimed novel, We Need to Talk about Kevin is the account of a mother’s disintegrating relationship with her sociopathic son. When Kevin goes on a killing spree in his High School, his mother is blamed for his behaviour and becomes one of the most reviled figures in America.

Each scene in Lynne Ramsay’s film has a jagged edged ferocity. Using a fragmented narrative that time travels between Kevin as a baby, a child and a teenager, Ramsay makes the audience work hard at piecing together the images so that they form a cohesive narrative. A lesser director would build scene upon scene in a conventional narrative manner, leading us to the final carnage in the school gymnasium. Ramsay takes a sledgehammer to this approach and, instead, drip feeds our minds with images and scenes throughout the film so that our imaginations automatically create the final horror without any aid. This is brave and bravura filmmaking.

The performances are also exceptional. Tilda Swinton is all fearful, brittle emotion and dead-eyed despair for her son and, in the end, for her own tragic fate. One scene has her prepare an omelette made from the eggs a neighbour has vindictively smashed. In an act of self-punishment for her son’s crime, she mechanically spits out the shards of eggshell from every mouthful. Jasper Newell as the young Kevin shows how children can use their affections and intelligence to manipulate and pit one parent against another. Ezra Millar, as the teenage Kevin, is both charismatic and terrifying, all teenage cool but with something toxic and hateful beneath the surface. This is a young man who has lost all sense of what might be described as “personhood”.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is chilling – visually and psychologically. If you are looking for a popcorn, Saturday night gore-fest then this is not it. We Need to Talk About Kevin requires that you fill in the gaps, make connections, question assumptions. I don’t think that this is a film that you could love but it is a film so clinically rendered that it is impossible to ignore. It reminded me of Andy Warhol’s car crash paintings (and there is a blatant visual reference to Warhol in the film) – horrible, but mesmerising and desperately sad. As much as you may not want to, you just can’t look away.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

And the winner...

...of the Man Booker Prize is The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. A worthy winner. It's a tremendous read. A short novel but with subtle and profound insights into the human condition. I read it in a day and have blogged about it already - click on the link above.

Friday, 14 October 2011

John McEnroe, Catholicism and God

Just finished reading John McEnroe’s autobiography, Serious...

p.214: My parents were churchgoing Catholics. My brothers and I had all been baptized and confirmed, and I had gone to Mass every week until I was eighteen. Even though I had decided for myself that organized religion was a sham, and that God, if He exists, must be deaf, dumb and blind – Catholic guilt doesn’t go away easily.

p.309 (on being inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, 1999): I even mentioned God. “If you believe in someone up above,” I said, “that person, for whatever reason, wanted me to play tennis...Believe it or not, I think God had an enjoyable time watching my tantrums...I think my emotions were on my sleeve. I think that my drive and intensity were on display. But ultimately, I don’t think people would have given a hill of beans if I hadn’t been able to play.”

Muddled theological thinking? The post-modern response to God and religion? The intuition that we need something that transcends corporeal reality and gives our lives meaning?

Serious, John McEnrow with James Kaplan, Sphere, 2002

Wednesday, 12 October 2011


Tyrannosaur is the actor, Paddy Considine’s first film as a director. As a novice, he handles his raw, confrontational material with considerable visual assurance and sensitivity. For example, Considine shows considerable editorial confidence when moving the action from manicured housing closes with expensive cars guarding each door to the decay of the estate, where staffys strain and snarl at the lead. Each location is highly realised and successfully mirrors the psychological territory of the characters. “It’s not social realism, whatever that means,” Considine has admitted in a recent interview, “but I think it dares to be quite truthful in its own version of what truth is, if that makes sense.”

Joseph (Peter Mullan) is an aggressive, violent alcoholic from a decaying Leeds council estate who seeks refuge in a charity shop run by a married, Christian woman called Hannah (Olivia Colman). A relationship is established based on their unspoken understanding of each other’s woundedness. This understanding will lead to tragic consequences.

Using the familiar narrative device of the chance meeting of two people from opposing social classes releases questions of surprising depth and rigour: are the glib assumptions that we make about others an attempt to shore up our own prejudices? Should the sadist be forgiven and, if so, what would that forgiveness look like? Why do anger and violence lurk in the hinterlands of masculinity? In a demoralised environment, does prayer still retain some resonance? Are there people who by their actions place themselves beyond redemption? Why is man’s desire for affection and love so resilient? How do you explain the mystery of goodness in a world so prone to evil?

Considine is more interested in the questions than the answers. But there are answers and these are channelled through the two central performances that capture the change of an emotional key with the slightest shift of an expression. Peter Mullan’s performance embodies all the impotent rage peculiar to some men than can erupt in acts of gratuitous violence. But, beneath the machismo, baseball bat wielding posturing , Mullan’s rounded interpretation reveals Joseph to be a man who is looking for some sort of gentleness and acceptance in a world where doors are continually slammed in his face. This gentleness he encounters in Hannah played with intense, raw power by Olivia Colman. But her facade of sing-song cheerfulness masks the fact that she is on the receiving end of male violence. She is looking for a sanctuary where her own wounds may heal. I predict Colman will win awards for this brave, unflinchingly honest performance.

Tyrannosaur is not without flaws, but these are imperfections in what is, otherwise, a little gem of rare authenticity. On this auspicious form, I can’t wait to see what Considine produces in the future.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Erotic Capital and the Male Sex Deficit

The central idea of Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital appears uncontroversial. Catherine Hakim, a Senior Research Fellow of Sociology at the London School of Economics, claims that beautiful people get noticed, get on and, above all, they get paid. Beauty is an asset and gives someone “Erotic Capital”, a lifetime of benefits in the private and public arenas of life which the plain and ugly are less likely to achieve. She writes:

Attractive people draw others to them, as friends, lovers, colleagues, customers, clients, fans, followers and supporters and sponsors. This works for men as well as women. Indeed, the “beauty premium” seems to be larger for men than for women in public life, most notably in the workforce, where it can add 20 per cent to earnings.

Beauty, she argues, should not be dismissed as some shallow vanity in comparison to intelligence, education and moral integrity but that it has a power of its own. This is an interesting idea and Hakim uncovers dozens of examples to support her case. But then her argument takes a different direction. The way for women to improve their standing in society is to get out the makeup, show their curves and use their sexuality. This is the true feminist response and it works because of what she labels “the universal male sexual deficit.” She writes:

Men generally want a lot more sex than they get, at all ages. So men spend much of their lives being sexually frustrated to some degree...Male sexual desire declines only slowly with age, if at all. Women’s desire often falls rapidly after the age of thirty, typically due to motherhood. The male sex deficit grows steadily over the life cycle...The laws of supply and demand determine the value of everything, in sexuality as in other areas. Male sexuality is worthless, because of excess supply at zeros cost.

Attractiveness then is a bargaining commodity, women using men’s sexual appetites for their own purposes and financial gain. Men are there to be exploited and this is to be achieved by women using their sexual appeal, rather than erasing it. Hakim wants women to act as objects of sexual desire because in this way they can control the market place of private relationships and public commerce. “The male sex deficit allows women to leverage the exchange value of women’s erotic capital to a higher level,” writes Hakim. In other words, Angelina Jolie would not be paid as much as she does if she was plain looking.

Western radical feminism, she believes, has restricted women’s potential to use their erotic capital and in doing so plays into the hands of patriarchy. In Hakim’s thinking the stripper, the lap-dancer and the prostitute are simply using their erotic capital to gain appropriate financial rewards. Women in every sphere of life should do the same in order to gain financial and personal benefits that are presently denied them.

This has happened because, in order to maintain their patriarchal dominance, men have chosen to portray beautiful women as “bimbos” and beauty as only "skin deep.” Hakim reiterates the cliched criticism of Christianity as reinforcing “the Madonna/whore dichotomy of the two Marys – the virginal mother of Christ and Mary Magdalene, the beautiful courtesan and repentant sinner. Pleasure, beauty and sensuality were presented as invitations to sin, transgression, iniquity.”

This is one of the most depressing books I have read for a long time. Life devalued to a series of financial transactions or power games. Men are little more than slaves to their genitals and passions. Women forced to recreate themselves as pornographic fantasies in order to capitalise on the base longings of men. Relationships between men and women, such as marriage, are just bargaining enterprises, where a woman can withhold sexual favours in order to get what she wants. Lipgloss is to be preferred to learning - the fake sun tan to the dignity of womanhood. The idea of love is relegated to some romantic ideal with no currency in the contemporary market place. We cannot rise above our sexual and economic impulses. Money and sex make us who we are.

The problem with this sexonomics vision of men and women is that it does not correspond with reality where the desire for authentic, self-giving and life-giving love motivates us. This reality is concerned with that which lies beyond surface appearances and is the place where the loving heart of who we are is revealed. Here, beauty and truth are related. To live this reality is, I am convinced, what truly liberates men and women.

Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital, by Catherine Hakim, Allen Lane, 2011