Wednesday, October 05, 2011

The Likes of Us

I have just finished reading Michael Collins' The Likes of Us: a Biography of the White Working Class.
I lived in Southwark for 13 years, as a Housing Association tenant (a middle class one, which I gather from the subtext in Collins' book he rather dislikes).
The early pages were fascinating. The most poignant part of this was reading that all of those young men who died in the First World War were not even eligible to vote. Following the rights of women throughout history, I had neglected to realise the lack of rights of poor people and the working class.
Collins appears to be very angry with most of the historians that documented early London working-class life, with the possible exception of G.K. Chesterton. As one reads through the book, this provides a tension with his own subjectivity. The book is described as a 'history/memoir' and this is accurate. Unfortunately  there are passages that assume that the reader is male: for instance, his description of Vic Brown in Barstow's A Kind of Loving: 'ultimately trapped by his circumstances when his girlfriend falls pregnant' (148).
So how did his girlfriend get pregnant then?
Stork bring a baby?
The descriptions of the drama of light and shade and poverty are evocative, and in some of the later parts I began to wonder if our paths have crossed.
I read the book because I felt that it was an important subject and a very interesting one. By the end, I felt a little cheated. For instance, the reports of the lack of white on black violence in the 1960s and 1970s could be because black people under-reported what was happening to a police force that they perceived as being racist. I don't know this for sure, but I worked with a young black guy for a while who described being beaten up by white kids every single morning on the way to school, which is why he eventually started carrying a weapon.
Its good that the book exists, especially the sections where he compares the way different writers, from social theorists through journalists to playwrights and novelists, responded in writing to the way the working class live and lived in Southwark. But I started off wanting to recommend it to my kids to read (who were brought up until they were six and three respectively on Camberwell New Road until the murders got out of hand), and ended up thinking they would become infuriated by the later chapters. Being of the next generation, I think they might actually find some of the assumptions in the book racist.  There is a list of possible ways a white working-class person might know a non-white person, as 'lovers, muggers, husbands, killers, wives, victims, neighbours, rapists, friends, foes, attackers, carers' (223). Even my ex-mother in law, born and raised in Southwark and later moved to Welling, had praise for her black doctor. Why not mention the professions in this list? Teachers, lawyers and medical professionals are very important people in the community.
What a can of worms you can open; I am well aware of the shortcomings of the autobiographical parts of The Lost Women of Rock Music. You could say that as a member of the middle class, I am resentful of the strong identity of the upper and working classes in the UK. Us do-gooding snobs have no fixed identity, observing those 'above and below' with fear and awe and a patronising gaze (we are often told).
Overall, a book like this is a good contribution to history and would be a good addition to a personal library; however, I feel that it needs a reply, another person or people in the room to make the later chapters not only more gracious but also more detailed.
By introducing us to one elephant in the room, the author blocks out a whole series of elephantlets, which is probably an inevitable result of pioneering writing.
Ironic, given its location centred on the Elephant and Castle.

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