Monday, 25 July 2011

I don't know whether to laugh

Regular readers will understand that this is my england is not the place to come for a fix of either mockery or bile directed towards the British working class. I daresay that this could have been inferred from a number of earlier bits of writing, but yesterday's review of Owen Jones's book (Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class) must have really rammed the point home.

I am, then, not somebody who gets his jollies by visiting the odious Chav Towns website, which I notice has now added Jones's name to its tagline. This now reads "What Estate Agents, Local Councillors, Polly Toynbee, Owen Jones & The BBC don't want you to know." That Jones is not a fan of the site is something which is made pretty clear in his book.

Intended, I gather, to be amusing, the site features a collection of highly unflattering descriptions of Britain's population centres. These descriptions routinely cover features such as unattractive buildings, poor town planning, lack of amenities and limited entertainment options in the places profiled. Also, no Chav Towns profile is complete without a sustained and generalised attack on the character of the residents of the location in question.

Some recent examples:
  • Ilkeston, Derbyshire: "Teenagers and even the adults seem shameless and I would even go as far as to call most of them a devolved sub human species." 
  • Selby, N. Yorks: "God, what can one say, it is a culture shock, to anyone from Wiltshire or somewhere decent. This is probably the biggest shit hole on the planet. The knuckle scrapers are in the majority, and thick as doggy doo..."
  • Ossett, W. Yorks: "These people are so stupid they think that they probably think [sic] that Descartes is an I phone [sic] application. The place has more thick Northern cliches per square mile, than one could wish to meet."
  • Goldthorpe, S. Yorks: "If you are 13 years old and still not a parent then you are not the sort of person fit to live in Goldthorpe, its [sic] important as a young parent that you teach your ratboy or ratgirl the basics of survival."
One view I've heard expressed is that the coverage of the derogatory term 'chav' is actually quite narrow - that it continues to be used only to describe certain kinds of working class people, namely the most aggressive and vulgar ones, or those exhibiting certain behaviours such as chaotic, and dysfunctional family lives or a lack of engagement with education and employment. So I daresay some proponents of that argument would take a swipe at Owen Jones and accuse him of conflating scorn for very particular sorts of people with a more general vilification of all working class people. Some might suggest that  he is doing that to serve his unashamedly left-of-centre political agenda.

I have to say, while I was pleased to conclude yesterday's review with a recommendation to purchase Jones's book, I do think his case might have been improved by taking more time to dig into the origins of the word 'chav'. He could then have presented a larger body of linguistic evidence to support the contention that the widening of this nasty little word's meaning has been indicative of a growing and more general class hatred.

None of this prevented Jones's book speaking very directly to me, however. 

I felt particularly in tune with Jones when reading his accounts of how the feckless chav has become a mainstream figure of fun in the entertainment world. Examples he raises are  Lauren, Catherine Tate's surly schoolgirl character, and Matt Lucas's Vicky Pollard. Call me a miserable sod if you like, but I didn't find either of these very funny for very long.

So, what are we to make of two skillfully created video mashups  and music pieces that I stumbled upon this week? A fully paid up member of the PC brigade like this is your england needs to know whether it's acceptable to enjoy them or not. Much depends on who is being mocked, and why.

Of the two videos, one is much easier to analyse than the other. Here it is:

This is the work of Alex Ross, a producer based in the southwest of England. The rather beautiful and quite mournful music seems to go well with the blighted lives of the Jeremy Kyle Show guests into which we glimpse during this short piece.

Kyle, it may not surprise you to learn, is another target for the ire of Owen Jones, who is not the first to round on the chatshow host for offering up the experiences of particularly unfortunate people as sources of entertainment.

So, while I can enjoy the Melodyne and composing skills of Alex Ross, my full enjoyment of this piece rather depends on whether the joke is on Kyle or on Kyle's victims. Perhaps this is a case of it being better not to know, given that my gut response as a music lover is to find the work very satisfying.

The second Alex Ross piece requires even more by way of mental gymnastics if you intend  to be sure precisely where the joke is aimed, other than the very obvious target of the confused young man whose interview is rendered into song.

Here, Alex Ross has reworked a notoriously incoherent interview with a member of the English Defence League, a far-right protest group that has attracted far more publicity over the last couple of years than you might think possible for a mob which probably has fewer than a couple of thousand active members.

The EDL organises marches against what it perceives to be the real threat of Islamic extremism spreading in England and the idea that the country may some day come under the influence of Sharia law. The group seems set to be the subject of a lot more publicity in the coming days, given that the lunatic who committed Friday's atrocities in Norway has alleged he has links with the EDL.

In Jones's book, there is mention of liberal middle class Brits characterising chavs/the 'white' working  class (make your choice - see the conflation-of-terms argument above) as racists fearful of immigration, difference and change. The existence of the EDL, visibly made up of working class men, would seem to be emblematic of that idea. But these are just a couple of thousand blokes, remember. Can they said to be representative of millions of people?

Another idea, that EDL members are representative of a particularly unintelligent class of people is certainly given a boost by the interview performance of the young man featured in Alex Ross's musical piece. Should you be in any doubt of just how inarticulate this interviewee really is, and should you suspect that Ross's editing job turns a previously more coherent argument into a confused mess, consider the original clip that Ross was working with:

On one level, of course, it can be useful to laugh at extremists and trouble-makers. To take them seriously is to risk adding to the little credibility they may be able to build up. So it's easy enough to join in with the mocking of the person in this clip and the ideas he fails to explain properly.

But is it a cheap trick? Are we really to believe that of all the people that could have been interviewed, this visibly confused individual is truly representative of the crowd in terms of their ability to express themselves? I am minded to suspect that the interviewer spoke with a number of people and selected the least articulate and least convincing speaker as the one whose response would be used in a TV broadcast.

This actually seems quite obviously true to me, given the identity of the channel which carried the interview, namely Press TV, the English language global news network funded by the government of Iran. It's rather striking that the mouthpiece of a state founded and run by Islamic fundamentalists manged to stumble upon the most pathetic interviewee imaginable when covering this EDL march.

So when you laugh at the guy stumbling over his words and his barmy ideas, keep in mind that the gag was set up by the lackeys of that well-known liberal and all-round good guy Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Complicated, isn't it? Rest assured that any readers who want to accuse me of thinking too much (instead of just having a laugh) will not be the first to do so.

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