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Don't mock the chav

It's not big or clever to make fun of disadvantaged teenagers, it's just plain old class-based snobbery, writes Matthew Holehouse.

Chavs! They're everywhere! High streets and shopping centres are being swamped. Sporting Burberry caps, tracksuits, shaven heads and white trainers, smoking, spitting and looking shifty, hordes of youths coalesce outside McDonald's and in parks across the country to drink cheap cider and listen to Eminem. No town, it seems, is safe from the chavalanche .

And how we laugh at them. Last Christmas you could buy chav joke books, which were essentially rehashed Irish and dumb blonde gags. Little Britain's Vicky Pollard has been hailed as a work of genius. Wayne Rooney won fame for brilliant football, and sustains it for having a chav name and a leopard-print chav girlfriend.

More sinisterly, websites have sprung up, inviting visitors to send in pictures of the local "chav scum" and buy "hilarious" anti-chav wristbands.

They've become synonymous, rather unjustly, with muggings, vandalism and yobbery. When Tony Blair talks about a "culture of respect" in Britain, and newspapers demand action against the "gangs of feral youths", we all know whom they mean. Chav-bashing is a national hobby, and, sadly, it's now OK for us to loathe our contemporaries.

Hang on a second. Being a chav, I think, stems from more than simple choice. John Prescott might claim that "we're all middle class now", but chavs are essentially working-class white kids who dare to appear in public. They don't aspire to be accountants and they don't live in suburbia. They have the temerity to buy fake designer labels, not because they can't tell the difference from the genuine article, but because they don't have hundreds of pounds spare to buy it. One newspaper article smugly referred to them as a "peasant underclass". In a way they're probably more right than they intended.

Mocking the way disadvantaged teenagers live isn't biting social satire, so much as old-fashioned, class-based snobbery. It's not the association with anti-social behaviour that makes them a legitimate target for public ridicule, but their social faux pas. Chavs aren't criminal, just frightful.

In a sense the way they express themselves is immaterial; it's just the fact that they're, well, there. Remember the Victorian idea of the "undeserving poor"? They're alive and well and shopping at JJB Sports.

I recently stayed in a private boarding school for a schools' seminar. On the dorm corridors they had framed pictures of their chav-themed Christmas disco, with tall, rosy-cheeked, foppish Year 9s in Nike tracksuits and gold chains, pulling unconvincing rapper poses. It was an admirable effort: sovereign rings must be quite hard to come by in rural Shropshire. If you're 14 and missing the world outside of school it would, I suppose, have been fun.

But swapping blazer and jeans for tracksuit and bling is basically class tourism; privileged kids having a good time by pretending to be people living on sink estates who, chances are, they've never even met. It's a Black and White Minstrel Show for our generation (only with worse dancing).

If schools are meant to instil some sense of equality and respect, rather than confirming schoolboy prejudices about people from other backgrounds, then this sort of thing has to go. Teachers ought to play a part in discouraging such hostility. Otherwise, we're just asking to have our phones nicked. Innit.

Matthew Holehouse has just finished Year 12 at Harrogate grammar school.

His column is running throughout the summer

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