August 10, 2011
It’s an experience everyone in England has. You’re among a group of friends or acquaintances when suddenly someone says something that shocks you: an aside or a flippant comment made in poor taste. But the most disquieting part isn’t the remark itself. It’s the fact that no one else seems the slightest bit taken aback. You look around in vain, hoping for even a flicker of concern or the hint of a cringe. I had one of those moments at a friend’s dinner in a gentrified part of East London one winter evening. The blackcurrant cheesecake was being carefully sliced and the conversation had drifted to the topic of the moment, the credit crunch. Suddenly, one of the hosts tried to raise the mood by throwing in a light-hearted joke. “It’s sad that Woolworth’s is closing. Where will all the chavs buy their Christmas presents?” Now, he was not someone who would ever consider himself to be a bigot. Neither would anyone else present: for, after all, they were all educated and open-minded professionals. Sitting around the table were people from more than one ethnic group. The gender split was fifty-fifty and not everyone was straight. All would have placed themselves somewhere left-of-center politically. They would have bristled at being labeled a snob. If a stranger had attended that evening and disgraced him or herself by bandying around a word like “Paki” or “poof,” they would have found themselves swiftly ejected from the flat.
But no one flinched at a joke about chavs shopping in Woolies. To the contrary: everybody laughed. I doubt that many would have known that this derogatory term originates from the Romany word for child, “chavi.” Neither were they likely to have been among the 100,000 readers of The Little Book of Chavs , an enlightened tome that describes “chavs” as “the burgeoning peasant underclass.” If they had picked it up from a bookshop counter for a quick browse, they would have learned that chavs tend to work as supermarket checkout cashiers, fast-food restaurant workers and cleaners. Yet deep down, everyone must have known that “chav” is an insulting word exclusively directed against people who are working class. The “joke” could easily have been rephrased as: “It’s sad that Woolworth’s is closing. Where will the ghastly lower classes buy their Christmas presents?”
Yet it wasn’t even what was said that disturbed me the most. It was who said it, and who shared in the laughter. Everyone sitting around that table had a well-paid, professional job. Whether they admitted it or not, they owed their success, above all, to their backgrounds. All grew up in comfortable middle-class homes, generally out in the leafy suburbs. Some were educated in expensive private schools. Most had studied at universities like Oxford, LSE or Bristol. The chances of someone from a working-class background ending up like them were, to say the least, remote. Here I was, witnessing a phenomenon that goes back hundreds of years: the wealthy mocking the less well-off. And it got me thinking. How has hatred of working-class people become so socially acceptable? Privately educated, multi-millionaire comedians dress up as chavs for our amusement in popular sitcoms such as Little Britain . Our newspapers eagerly hunt down horror stories about “life among the chavs” and pass them off as representative of working-class communities. Internet sites such as “ChavScum” brim with venom directed at the chav caricature. It seems as though working-class people are the one group in society that you can say practically anything about.
You would be hard pushed to find someone in Britain who hates chavs as much as Richard Hilton. Mr. Hilton is the chief executive of Gymbox, one of the trendier additions to London’s flourishing fitness scene. Known for its creatively titled gym classes, Gymbox is unashamedly aimed at fitness freaks with deep pockets, demanding a steep £175 joining fee on top of £72 a month for membership. As Mr. Hilton himself explains, Gymbox was launched to tap into the insecurities of its predominantly white-collar professional clientele. “Members were asking for self-defence classes, as they were scared living in London,” he says.
In spring 2009, Gymbox unveiled a new addition to its already eclectic range of classes (including Boob Aerobics, Pole Dancing and Bitch Boxing): Chav Fighting. “Don’t give moody grunting Chavs an ASBO,” its website urged, “give them a kicking.” The rest of the promotional spiel did not pull its punches either, in the voice of a vigilante with a good grasp of PR. “Forget stealing candy from a baby. We’ll teach you how to take a Bacardi off a hoodie and turn a grunt into a whine. Welcome to Chav Fighting, a place where the punch bags gather dust and the world is put to rights.” The leaflets were even more candid. “Why hone your skills on punch bags and planks of wood when you can deck some Chavs…a world where Bacardi Breezers are your sword and ASBOs are your trophy.” There were some who felt that glorifying beating people up might be overstepping the mark. When the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) was called in, Gymbox responded with technicalities. It was not offensive, they claimed, because “nobody in society would admit to being a Chav; it was not a group to which people wanted to belong.” Amazingly, the ASA cleared Gymbox on the basis that chav-fighting classes “would be unlikely to condone or incite violence against particular social groups …” You would have to speak to Richard Hilton to appreciate the depths of hatred that inspired the class. Defining “chavs” as “young Burberry-clad street kids,” he went on to explain:
It is easy to gasp at Hilton’s unembarrassed hatred, but the crude image of the working-class teenager he has painted is actually widespread among the middle-class. Thick. Violent. Criminal. “Breeding” like animals. And, of course, these chavs are not isolated elements: they are, after all, regarded as “pillars of strength in the community.”
Gymbox isn’t the only British company to have exploited middle-class horror of large swathes of working-class Britain. Activities Abroad is a travel firm offering exotic adventure holidays with price tags often upwards of £2,000: husky safaris in the Canadian wilderness, Finnish log cabin holidays, that sort of thing. Oh, but chavs need not apply. In January 2009, the company sent a promotional email to the 24,000 people on its database, quoting a Daily Mail article from 2005 showing that children with “middle-class” names were eight times more likely to pass their GCSEs than those with names like “Wayne and Dwayne.” The findings had led them to wonder what sort of names were likely to be found on an Activities Abroad trip. So, the team had a trawl through their database and came up with two lists: one of names you were “likely to encounter” on one of their holidays, and one of those you were not. Alice, Joseph and Charles featured on the first list, but ActivitiesAbroad excursions were a Britney, Chantelle and Dazza-free zone. They concluded that they could legitimately promise “Chav-Free Activity Holidays.” Again, not everyone was amused—but the company was unrepentant. “I simply feel it is time the middle classes stood up for themselves,” declared managing director Alistair McLean. “regardless of whether it’s class warfare or not, I make no apology for proclaiming myself to be middle class.”
When I spoke to Barry Nolan, one of the company’s directors, he was equally defiant. “The great indignation came from Guardian readers who were showing false indignation because they don’t live near them,” he said. “It resonated with the sort of people who were likely to be booking holidays with us. It proved to be an overwhelming success with our client base.” Apparently, the business enjoyed a 44 per cent increase in sales in the aftermath of the furor.
Gymbox and Activities Abroad had taken slightly different angles. Gymbox were tapping into middle-class fears that their social inferiors were a violent mob, waiting to knife them to death in some dark alley. Activities Abroad exploited resentment against the cheap flights which allowed working-class people to “invade” the middle-class space of the foreign holiday. “You can’t even flee abroad to escape them these days”—that sort of sentiment. But both of them were evidence of just how mainstream middle-class hatred of working-class people is in modern Britain.
Chav-bashing has become a way of making money because it strikes a chord. This becomes still more obvious when an unrepresentative story in the headlines is used as a convenient hook to “prove” the anti-chav narrative. When ex-convict Raoul Moat went on the run after shooting dead his ex-lover’s partner in July 2010, he became an anti-hero for a minority of some of the country’s most marginalized working-class people. One criminologist, Professor David Wilkinson, argued he was “tapping” into that dispossessed, white-working-class, masculine mentality, whereby they can’t make their way into the world legitimately so behaving the way that Moat has behaved, as this kind of anti-hero, has, I think, touched a nerve.” White working-class men had, at a stroke, been reduced to knuckle-dragging thugs lacking legitimate aspirations. The internet hosted a vitriolic free-for-all. Take this comment on the Daily Mail site:
This is the model of society as seen through Heffer’s eyes. Nice, middle-class people on one side; an unredeemable detritus on the other (the “underclass” who represent “that section of the working class that not only has no ambition, it has no aspiration”); and nothing in between. It bears no relation to how society is actually structured—but then why would it? After all the journalists producing this stuff have little, if any, contact with the people they disparage. Heffer has a thoroughly middle-class background, lives in the country, and sends his kids to Eton. At one point, he admits: “I don’t know a great deal about the underclass” - a fact that has not deterred him from repeatedly slagging them off.