Beyond the pale cliche

30th July 2004 at 01:00
Stereotypes are nowhere to be seen in this illuminating social history, says Tom Deveson

The Likes of Us: a biography of the white working class By Michael Collins Granta pound;12

This book is both a celebration and an obituary. Beginning with the enquiry into Stephen Lawrence's murder, Michael Collins observes how the wickedness of the act and the vicious bearing of the suspects released in some right-thinking commentators and sanctimonious editors a flood of collective condemnation. "White trash" was one generalised slur among many, suggesting that these sneering, callous young men were somehow representative not just of their families but of their neighbourhood, their class, their entire tribe. The author offers a powerfully felt and forcefully argued alternative.

He provides one "biography" among many. The setting might have been Tyneside, the Welsh valleys or the West Riding, but Collins naturally writes about where he grew up, the district around the Elephant and Castle and Walworth Road in south London.

Much of what he writes is of more extensive application. Chartism and cholera, and the growth of schools and missions mark the course of the 19th century. The 20th is defined in familiar stages, like the arrival of postwar affluence (with Coronation Street and Carnaby Street each playing a role) and the spread of new housing estates.

So far, so commonplace. But Collins's account is enlivened by the telling local detail. He deals with intriguing matters such as the opposition between the South London Music Hall (home of the "coster comics" with classic songs such as "Knocked 'em in the Old Kent Road") and the vast Spurgeon's Tabernacle, whose imposing posters still evangelise anyone waiting for the number 176 bus.

He links broader details throughout to his own family history. His forebears were rope-makers, manglers and market traders; we hear a lot - sometimes rather too much - about their marriages and homes. His grandmother lived for nearly 100 years, and her recorded memories provide many vivid details of work and family life.

The author was born in 1961 - "after the bombs brought people together and before the bulldozers pushed them apart". Not all his autobiographical touches are as sharply observed as the snapshot of old women on first-floor window sentry duty wearing "bottle-thick spectacles in which their tiny eyes appeared like sediment".

Collins is understandably irritated by the way ordinary south Londoners have, over many years, been treated as objects of patronage and mockery.

His persuasive argument is that there exists an insidious continuity here that many people choose to ignore. Zealous well-wishers came in earlier ages from "over the water" (the significant local phrase means "across the Thames") with the intention of imposing temperance, hygiene or education on their beneficiaries.

Writers of "slum fiction" found a thrill in writing about squalor, hooligans and gang warfare. The book gives a fair summary of this slice of history. It then shows how such condescending attitudes persist.

Collins lines up some high-profile targets - Jeremy Hardy, Mark Steel, Polly Toynbee and David Hare among them - and splatters them with well-deserved irony. He might also have mentioned the "Wayne and Waynetta" sketches on television or the websites devoted to mockery of "chavs". He tellingly quotes Chesterton's stinging description of the journalist "who comes to tell other people how different the poor man is from everybody else".

In the latter part of the book, as Collins gets into his polemical stride, he makes some forceful points of his own. He observes that what is sometimes called "white flight" - the move from Southwark to outer areas such as Bexley, Erith or Welling, hasn't diminished the traditional sport of educated Cockney-bashing.

The people who used to be mocked for their townies' ignorance of the country are now derided for their inability to observe the groovy etiquette of the inner city. A 1999 Guardian piece on youths in Eltham High Street reads as though written by an "old-school Tory" fulminating against teenagers in the 1950s.

Collins claims that soundbites have been used in TV documentaries to portray bewildered white old people as simple-minded racists, whereas more complex motives lie behind their remarks about "feeling like foreigners now". He mentions the "insularity and attachment to a place" that is "born of a lack of opportunity".

He also cites research statistics which suggest that, if opposition to inter-racial marriage is an index of racism, working class white and Afro-Caribbean Britons have the fewest hang-ups. A visit to a local nursery class or a saunter through East Street market suggests this is probably true.

There are several traditions Collins ignores: the literary and scientific heritage commemorated in the names of neighbouring schools such as Robert Browning and Michael Faraday, for instance. Nor does he really take account of the strain of crass cockiness - the Jim Davidson factor - that locals can also find offensive. However, when he commends a brave multi-racial organisation such as Southwark Mothers Against Guns for representing the "modern face of urban activism", he is surely right. Perhaps this is not an obituary after all.

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