The Likes of Us by Michael Collins

Low blows of a class warrior
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The Independent Culture


Back in the days when Time Out still had radical pretensions, Mick Jagger told an interviewer that he never bought the listings magazine. Why not? "I don't like having to walk through a picket line to find out what's on at the pictures."

A rather similar sentiment is initially generated by this "biography of the white working class". It's a surprise to encounter a quiet, reasonable authorial voice after all the shrill noises of class war generated by the blurbs. Michael Collins, we are told, is here to knock the living daylights out of all those middle-class people who have, over the past two centuries, spent their time patronising and demonising the good old white working class. "He will make thousands of the allegedly 'educated' hang their heads in shame," promises Julie Burchill.

It would be nice to believe that Collins was being crudely exploited by this publicity, and that he was a sensitive lad forced into the ring by an unscrupulous promoter. Unfortunately, a little more reading generates enough evidence to suggest that he himself wants to have it both ways. No sooner has he completed a sensitive chapter on the elements of working-class culture than he's putting up his fists and looking around for someone to clout. Collins is a sort of poetic hooligan, uneasily caught between a burning desire to show the true meaning of working-class life and a restless urge to beat up anyone with bourgeois connections who may disagree with his account.

He has good reasons to be passionate. His own childhood in south London and his careful research into the generations of his family who grew up in Walworth bring him face to face with a profound injustice. The rich culture that sustained him and his family for so many years has hardly ever received its proper due. Novelists and social workers who deigned to visit have too frequently concentrated on the most degraded or exotic aspects. They have, as Collins puts it with gentle irony, failed to appreciate that some "inhabitants of the neighbourhood might have interludes of happiness".

Such neglect might be remedied if the "natives" could only speak on their own behalf. But that is the persistent paradox once captured by Arthur Dooley, the Liverpool sculptor. Dooley had been taking part in a radio discussion about a plan for the city centre. The architect first explained that his wonderful new scheme would simultaneously speed up traffic flow and separate pedestrians from cars.

That's all very well, said Dooley, but your scheme will also mean the destruction of a traditional working-class area. "No problem," said the architect; they carried out an extensive survey and "there was hardly any opposition at all from the people who were going to be affected."

"Ah," said Dooley, with Scouse disregard for grammar, "there's no one as likely to give up their culture as them as don't know they have one."

It was a concern about this "unknowingness" that prompted The Uses of Literacy, Richard Hoggart's encyclopedic survey of the working class in Hunslet, a book warmly described by Collins as "the most accurate detailed audit of working-class culture" in the 20th century. But Hoggart was writing at a time when that which he loved and respected was only being threatened with extinction. Collins arrives when the game is all but over, with almost nothing left standing of the snug streets and comforting customs which once enclosed his family.

The developers took their toll back in the Sixties when "shops, tenements, houses and streets would be removed crudely and rapidly, in the willy-nilly manner in which the older generation had teeth extracted". Not long afterwards, the people themselves began to move in a veritable diaspora to the suburbs of Eltham, Welling and Bexleyheath.

Collins can now only catch glimpses of that traditional culture when the doors of elderly ladies who got left behind in Walworth are left ajar in summer. "Here they kept the aspidistra flying. Antimacassars kept the chair-backs clean, rent money was kept in the teapot, and insurance policies hidden on top of pelmets in the spare room... Fuzzy sepia prints captured the memories of distant holidays... Beyond the front door, a dark, heavy curtain was sometimes suspended midway along the passage, and stair-treads held down a strip of linoleum so used, so old, so polished, its pattern had faded into the blur of a bruise."

What really arouses Collins, and leads him to abandon this kind of reflective observation and come racing out of the corner with both fists flying, is not just the perverse misunderstanding of that culture but the manner in which the former residents of Walworth have been pursued to their new homes in the suburbs and denounced anew for their lower-middle-class pretensions, for their loadsamoney, Beaujolais-in-the-fridge lack of taste. "They had done the unthinkable: moved to the suburbs but failed to become traditionally middle-class."

An even worse crime, though, is laid at their door by the middle-class "lattes and lofts" multiculturalists. These transplanted members of the white working class are also guilty of racism. In the words of one commentator they are the sort of "white trash" that was responsible for the death of Stephen Lawrence.

Collins races to their defence in one of the book's more disquieting passages. How dare the middle class preach to the working class about racism? The "modern-day white working class had a more varied, more honest, more intimate experience, having known non-whites as lovers, muggers, husbands, killers, wives, victims, neighbours, rapists, friends, foes, attackers, carers. For decades, the urban white working class had largely been educated in multiracial schools, worked in multiracial environments, and lived in multiracial neighbourhoods. Many may not have wanted this, and many escaped it in the form of 'white flight' but many more accepted it - or at least didn't manifest their opposition by rioting or carrying out racist attacks".

This is certainly not enough to justify Paul Gilroy's recent reference to Collins on Start the Week as "an intellectual outrider for the BNP": there is, after all, a good argument to be made abut the working class bearing the principal impact of immigration of all kinds. But its implicit reference to the forbearance of the working class in not carrying out "racist attacks" does show how crass Collins can be when he stops thinking and starts swinging.

Of course, sins have been committed against the working class by do-gooders, sentimental novelists, megalomaniac planners, idealistic multi-culturalists and plain snobs. But when Collins chooses to make this into a crusade against a single class, he not only betrays the subtlety of the rest of his book but compounds a nonsense. He ends up creating a world in which there is no room for anyone in the despised middle class to be anything other than a cultural violator, and no room for his beloved working class to be anything other than heroic victims.

Laurie Taylor presents 'Thinking Allowed' on Radio 4

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