After Irish President Mary McAleese made a somewhat undiplomatic remark about comparing Protestants to Nazis a few years ago, the protests which accompanied her visit to a school in a loyalist area of Coleraine were not totally unexpected.
There was the inevitable lively debate on Slugger O’Toole which inevitably turned into another “them ‘uns is worse than us ‘uns” style sectarian bun fight, but what struck me were the semi-humorous comments directed at the socio-economic background of the protesting parents – a selection of which I’ve reproduced below:
Another urged them to “get their fat arses off their sofas and away from the eejits lantern and they’ll get a chance to breathe in some fresh air instead of the usual diet of tobacco smoke and stale pub air.”
Other commenters (most of whom I think it’s fair to assume are well-educated and from middle class backgrounds) referred to the protestors as “gutter runners”, “chavs” and “ugly trampy women”. While such comments were made half-seriously and half in jest and I did find myself amused by some, they do make an important statement on how a certain section of society is perceived. The social sub-class to which the protestors apparently belong, is not of course confined to the Protestant/loyalist community. Simply swap the Rangers shirts and the union flags which were on display for Celtic shirts and tricolours (but retain the fake tans, fake designer sportswear, cigarettes, prominent tattoos and the inexpensive jewellery known as “Argos bling”) and you have the mirror image from the other side. One only has to think of the Republican Sinn Féin idiot protesting outside Croke Park holding up a placard saying “No to foreign games” totally oblivious to the irony that he’s wearing a Celtic shirt.
It’s easy to indulge in snobbery and elitism where chavery is concerned – something which I, myself in all my smug middle class complacency, am guilty of to an extent. It’s also difficult to write about the subject without coming across as patronising, but there’s no point in pretending we have a classless society, when we quite blantly do.
Chavs, spides, skangers, trailer trash – ubiquitous throughout the English-speaking western world. Stereotypes mix with reality in a confusing mish-mash amidst the council estates of South London, Liverpool, Glasgow, Dublin, Limerick and many other large cities, dreary provincial towns and downmarket seaside resorts across these isles. It’s not hard to conjure up the negative images – rows of rundown houses, each one sprouting a satellite dish, the almost compulsory burnt mattress in the garden, heavily tattooed muscular midle-aged men in the mould of Johnny Adair sporting chunky gold jewellery and sportswear walking pit bull terriers or rottweilers on leads, overweight young mothers, Sporty Spice lookalikes, wearing low-necklined top revealing huge rose or butterfly tattoo on the upper breast area, wheeling pushchairs, the child inside often of mixed race (cf Kathy Burke’s Waynetta Slob character “I want a braaaahhhnnn bybie!”), large gangs of hooded youths drinking cheap cider, abandoned pubs boarded up with wooden planks, or in certain parts of Dublin, scrawny tracksuited boys astride half-starved, malnourished horses.
Such characters enjoy their fair share of representation in popular culture, partcularly as objects of comic derison. On television think Little Britain’s Vicky “Yeah, but no but” Pollard, Catherine Tate’s Lauren “I ain’t bovvered” character, Harry Enfield and Kathy Burke as “the Slobs”, the dysfunctional Battersby family in Coronation Street, Cletus, the trailer park-dwelling redneck in The Simpsons and the exploited guests who appear on the human zoos disguised as trashy daytime shows like Oprah Winfrey or the odious Jeremy Kyle. In the pages of Viz comic we have the Bacon family, the fat slags and Tasha Slapper and in contemporary literature the novels of Irvine Welsh and Roddy Doyle pull no punches when it comes to the depiction of disaffected working class communities.
This section of our society is all too easy to mock and ridicule – like the proverbial shooting fish in a barrel. Chav-baiting has almost become fashionable. Ironically the members of this sub-group within so-called “working class” allegedly don’t work and are branded by the reactionery right wing press such as the Daily Mail in the UK and the Sunday Independent in Ireland as dole-ite welfare scroungers and chain-smoking, beer-guzzling couch potato layabouts who have no intention of earning an honest day’s crust. Ethnic minorities, homosexuals and the disabled are all protected by political correctness, but the indigenous underclass is supposedly fair game for satire and ridicule. Racism, sexism, ageism are all banned by a militantly PC society, but classism is still very much alive.
Is it all about income and financial status though? Not neccessarily. The emergence of the “celebrity chav” as popularised by Wayne Rooney and Colleen Mc Loughlin, Katie Price and Peter Andre and former Big Brother contestant Jade Goody indicates that money doesn’t automatically convey respectability or acceptance.
Michael Collins in his excellent book The Likes of us, a history of the white British working class with a healthy sprinkling of humour provides a succinct summary of the situation:
“Traditionally, the white working class would take to the street only for the end of a war or the beginning of a sale, with the exception of the death of a princess. Naturally there were other exceptional occasions: Jarrow marchers, the dockers responding to the Powell furore, and in the 1980s, in Southwark, there was rumour of revolt when the call went out for the muzzling of Staffordshire bull terriers. But more recently within the working class, there were those women taking to the streets against paedophiles. There were the taxi-drivers protesting during the petrol price debacle, and the Billingsgate porters’ bid to reclaim the streets when they marched to oppose London’s congestion charge. Those who champion democracy, direct action and single-issue pressure groups were suddenly referring to many of these protesters as “mobs”, and even suggesting that the police be sent in to form a thin blue line. Then there was the more pressing concern of a growing support for the British National Party. In Slade Green a BNP member beat the Tory candidate to second place in a by-election. Behind this “protest” vote – as it has been described in the press – are working-class whites in poor areas who believe they have been neglected and ghettoised, their views ignored.”