DJ Taylor: Class war, Chav-aliers and Roundheads

Generalisations about society no longer work, boundaries are blurred on morals too, and what about A C Grayling's hair?

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The most fascinating broadsheet debate of the week was sparked by the publication of Owen Jones's Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class.

In an article written to promote it, Mr Jones suggested that "chav-bashing by those from pampered backgrounds is a continuing national scandal and must be opposed", and that the real working class "has been all but airbrushed from existence".

Each of these propositions doubtless has something to be said for it. But a glance at the wider social and historical contexts emphasises some of the difficulties involved in generalising about class here in the early 21st century. First there is that verb "demonise", which The Shorter Oxford defines as "to make into, or like, a demon". Certainly, right-wing pundits of the Peter Hitchens school are sometimes prone to excoriate the feckless unemployed, but for a genuine "demonisation" of a social type you have to go back to Labour class-warriors such as Aneurin Bevan with their Attlee-era complaints about upper-class "vermin".

Then there is the suggestion that the comfortably off middle-classes shouldn't make jokes about chavs. An excellent idea, but what do you do about the chavs who make jokes about chavs, or the undeniable fact that England's post-Industrial Age social life has always consisted of a series of distinctions (and discriminations) so subtle that it sometimes takes a novelist rather than a sociologist to pin them down?

Finally, there are those 16 million members of Mr Jones's genuine working class, at least half of whom, in these aspirational times, would be horrified to be described as such. "We all need to remember ... that there is no such person as 'the common man'" Richard Hoggart wrote as long ago as 1957. Half a century later class distinctions are even less clear-cut. Mr Jones is absolutely right that the "national debate on class" needs reopening. What it also needs is an entirely different framework.

***

A terrible air of predictability hung over many of the reactions to the government-sponsored inquiry into the premature sexualisation of children. Several popular newspapers not known for their dislike of salacity and smut were warmly in favour of its proposals. Libertarians were understandably distressed, and there were even one or two suggestions – Larry Flint's line whenever people complained about Hustler's juxaposition of masturbating lovelies with carnage from Vietnam – that the right to freedom of expression was being violated. Left-liberals took a finely-judged and lofty position: indeed, nobody wants shops peddling provocative underwear to 10-year-olds, but the problem can only be solved by better parenting rather than recourse to statute.

In one respect, this diagnosis is correct. The only reason that "Porn star in training" T-shirts are ever displayed in shops is that there is a market for them: it is impossible to legislate against neglect, vacancy and moral nullity. On the other hand, when something that is obviously a bad idea raises its head above the societal parapet, a high moral line from those in authority is nearly always an improvement on simple laissez-faire. In much the same way, this week saw the British Board of Film Censors throw out an item called Human Centipede II, on the grounds that it might cause serious harm to its audience, provoking the usual anxious debate about freedom of speech. One doesn't need to be told that this was essentially a futile gesture, and that within a week the thing will have gone viral. The sight of people expressing moral disapproval is seldom an edifying one. On the other hand there are certain situations in which moral disapproval ought to be expressed. These seemed to be two of them.

***

Quite the most heartening cultural news of the week came in The Daily Telegraph's report on the completion of a lexicographical project at the University of Chicago. Here, no more than 90 years since the scheme was first conceived, a team of academics has put the finishing touches to a 20-volume dictionary of the dead Semitic language Akkadian. To utilitarians, nothing could be more pointless than producing a dictionary for a language that nobody speaks: one remembers the desiccated Miss Cornelia Blimber in Dombey and Son (inset left) who is "dry and sandy from digging in the graves of deceased languages". And yet to read the report was to experience a thrill of satisfaction at the discovery that, even now in an age when most qualifications are merely a stepping stone to employment, the idea of pure, disinterested scholarship – the thought that study is valuable for its own sake, that familiarity with an ancient civilisation is more mentally enriching than, say, a Law degree – is still going strong.

It was difficult not to be reminded of the scene at the end of Evelyn Waugh's novella Scott-King's Modern Europe, in which Scott-King, senior classicist at an ancient public school, is warned by the headmaster that classics is on the way out and it would be good if he could teach something like economic history. Scott-King declares that he intends to stay as long as any boy wants to read Latin and Greek, adding "I think it would be very wicked indeed to do anything to fit a boy for the modern world". Told this is "short-sighted" he politely demurs. "With all respect ... I think it is the most long-sighted view it is possible to take." It is one of Waugh's more prophetic remarks.

***

Amid all the fuss about London's new private university, I was interested to note the degree of media attention attracted by its founding principal A C Grayling's hairstyle. Indeed, to several commentators this adornment seemed quite as newsworthy as the smoke-bomb-evading professor himself.

My view is that it is essentially a Roundhead hair-style, whose owner would not look out of place lurking in the background of the Victorian artist WF Yeames's celebrated Civil War painting And When Did You Last See Your Father? The tendency of distinguished public figures to resemble archetypes which their intellectual selves would seriously deprecate is not often enough remarked upon. Had he flourished 350 years ago, Professor Grayling would undoubtedly have been the most zealous of Puritan divines, sniffing out Catholics from their priests' holes with the same rigour that he now brings to believers in general.

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