Tom Sutcliffe: Working-class culture... that's so middle class

Share
Related Topics

"It pains me that working-class culture is sneered at and ridiculed. Fifty years ago it was seen as noble and dignified." This is Jon Cruddas, in yesterday's paper, answering a reader's question as to whether he thinks of himself as a class warrior. It was a remark that the sub-editor responsible thought sufficiently striking to pick out in large, red type as a pull-quote... and it struck me, for two reasons. First, I wondered who was supposed to be doing the sneering and then, more to the point, I found myself asking what would count as "working-class culture", both now and 50 years ago.

It surely isn't very easy to answer that question in 2009. What would qualify? The X-Factor and Strictly Come Dancing? They can certainly muster the popular support – and it would be hard to argue that they are ineligible as culture. But even to offer those as possibilities would seem to put you in the frame as a potential sneerer, and I'm guessing that it's not what Cruddas had in mind. His answer implied a continuity, something that was recognised and honoured 50 years ago but is now the subject of callow contempt. And I just can't think what this might be.

One possibility would be those elements of working-class culture that have, over the years, been the subject of jocular condescension and television sketches. Things such as dog-racing, say, or pigeon-fancying or leek-growing: those bodies of specialised knowledge and specialised devotion which crystallise around fixed communities. They would surely qualify as working-class culture, but at a time when we're fretful about the dissolution of traditional patterns of behaviour, who would ridicule them?

And if Mr Cruddas means things like brass bands or choral societies, he's surely on thin ice, too. If these figure at all in popular middle-class culture, they are treated with great respect; sentimentalised precisely as dignified and noble... and endangered by binge-drinking, Asbo-ignoring, broken Britain.

Indeed, one can't help feeling that the notion of "working-class culture" is, in itself, an irredeemably middle-class way of looking at things. It carries with it a whiff of that benign condescension that Lee Hall captures so well in his play The Pitmen Painters, about a group of Ashington miners who arranged an art appreciation class for themselves and then took up painting themselves. There's a tussle in the play – both comic and serious – between tutors who want to preserve the raw "authenticity" of the miners' responses and men who don't want to be merely authentic pets.

It was, intriguingly, echoed by Channel 4's recent exercise in public art consultation, The Big Art Project, in which ordinary people were involved in the process of commissioning a piece of public art. One heartening sequence of the resulting series showed a panel of ex-miners reacting, with entirely justifiable disappointment, to a Spanish sculptor's proposal to erect a giant miner's lamp on their chosen site. He'd dumbed down to please them and they spotted it.

In fact, the defence of working-class culture, as something unique to one group of people is, more often than not, maintenance work carried out on an imaginary fence. I could be wrong about this and Jon Cruddas may be able to point to activities – noble or dignified – that are the sole preserve of working-class communities. But I doubt it, and if he's essentially saying that we shouldn't sneer at mediocre art or ridicule popular entertainments when they are ridiculous, he's flat out wrong. Culture (or even hobbies for that matter) shouldn't have a social class at all.

Is the subject of evolution really too hot to handle?

I confess I was a little sceptical when I first read of Jeremy Thomas's claim that Creation – a film about Darwin's development of the theory of evolution – has been unable to find an American distributor because its subject matter is too contentious.

There are other reasons, after all, why a British costume drama of ideas might not find a multiplex buyer ( Variety's review faintly praised it as "likely to earn just respectable critical support ... a medium specialty performer"). Other reasons, too, why a savvy producer looking for a deal might drum up the "too hot to handle" angle.

On the other hand, Creation does feature an Oscar-winning actress as Darwin's devout wife (Jennifer Connelly) and it has sold well in other markets. Even if the subject matter was particle physics, you can't help feeling, American distributors wouldn't have been quite as reluctant. And it's certainly true that 150 years on from the publication of On the Origin of Species many Americans remain depressingly resistant to its central revelation.

A 2006 survey found that only 14 per cent of adults thought evolution was "definitely true" while around a third rejected it. A Gallup poll a few years earlier reported that 45 per cent of respondents accepted a Biblical account of creation. The meagre silver lining is a modest increase in the numbers of those who now accept evolution, but believe that God is working it from behind the scenes. Do we have to wait another 150 years for a majority to catch on?

Heinz beans, fake fags and the Rover's Return

If the Government does eventually lift the ban on product placement on television – as Ben Bradshaw, the Culture Secretary, has hinted it might – it will be great fun to see how it works its way into drama. Reality shows will be an absolute welter of logoed products, I would have thought, with participants ostentatiously climbing into branded cars and sipping from cans carefully angled towards the camera. But drama, particularly soaps, are likely to proceed more cautiously.

How long will it be, though, before the simple benefit of having your beer on tap at the Rover's Return fades and a bit of extra cash is offered for a helpful line of dialogue ("By! That were just what I needed!"). And will there be special exemptions from the rule? Characters on Coronation Street still smoke regularly, and one imagines a cigarette company would pay handsomely to squeeze a pack-shot in.

So, will it be Heinz beans but faked fags? And if the BMA get their wish and introduce much tighter controls on alcohol advertising, does everyone congregate around a pint of Coca-Cola instead, or do we then see the return of Newton and Ridleys?

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Labour leader Ed Miliband unveils Labour's pledges carved into a stone plinth in Hastings  

Election 2015: Smash two-party system! Smash the voting system!

Armando Iannucci
Tactical voting is a necessary evil of the current first-past-the-post system, where voters vote against what they do not want rather than in favour of what they do  

Election 2015: Voting tactically has become more fraught in the new political order

Michael Ashcroft
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power