Set to do a disappearing act

15th March 1996 at 00:00
TALKING WORK: AN ORAL HISTORY Trevor Blackwell and Jeremy Seabrook Faber and Faber Pounds 15.99

Has the working-class become "the class that dare not speak its name", as Trevor Blackwell and Jeremy Seabrook conclude? This seems surprising when one considers the assiduity with which politicians - among others - play up their humble origins. Labour MPMichael Meacher was so incensed by a newspaper's suggestion that his background was middle not working-class that he took it to court for libel.

Blackwell and Seabrook suggest that those who do not admit - or insist - that they are working-class, are using the label as a reference point, a measure of the distance they have travelled.

Elsewhere (in The Politics of Hope) they explore their own mix of guilt and relief as they "took the journey out of our class". In Talking Work they give others space to reflect on the importance of work to their view of themselves, and on the relevance of class to their view of society. "Everyone knows who the working-class used to be. The troubling question is, who are they now?"

All the older workers chosen by Blackwell and Seabrook lived, worked and died within their communities.

A steel-worker mourns, not the destruction of his workplace, but the 20 rows of houses serving it. "We were what I call real peopleIThe spirit was there. I was used to that all my life. No one went shortI" The message is clear - solidarity, community, collective values. That was what made the working-class special. Younger narrators include the Europe-trotting lorry-driver, the London print-shop assistant who tried life in Australia, the unemployed of Middlesbrough ready to go anywhere in the world. Ah! the reader may thinkIgrowth of individualism, fragmentation. No wonder today's working-class has lost its identity.

But other oral history collections which have not been constructed to support a wider argument show that migrancyitinerancy has long been an option for working people. Has this picture of the older working-class been over-simplified?

There is another problem with the methodology of Talking Work. Is it valid to put the opinions of 80-year-olds who have finished their working lives alongside 40-year-olds who are in the thick of it, as well as youngsters who can have little idea what is in store - and then make inferences about changing attitudes? Memories of oneself aged 15 are subtly different from the feelings of actual 15-year-olds. Perhaps today's young workers seem worried and directionless partly because they are young.

Talking Work is a stimulating book. Trevor Blackwell and Jeremy Seabrook bring passion and commitment to their analysis. When their turn comes to answer the question "who is today's working-class?", they are prodigal with ideas; bought-off by consumerism, gone to the Third World, "evicted from history".

Yet for Clare Hickey, in her early 20s and not an image-conscious politician but a telephone salesperson in Harlow, the decision to describe herself as working-class is real and it matters.

"They all think that because there's been Maggie for so long and now John Major, they really don't remember anything different. Everybody just thinks this is the way it is, and nothing's going to changeIThey've just accepted it. But I haven't."

I'll stick with her.

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