- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 21, 2004

Racial slurs, thank goodness, are no longer acceptable in polite company. Gone are the days when terms like “nig-nog” or “Paki” were casually tossed around in British sitcoms. (American readers may find it hard to believe that a blackface minstrel show ruled the BBC’s prime-time schedules until well into the 1970s. Strange, but all too true.)

There is one phrase, though, that is still permissible, almost fashionable even, and that happens to be an American import: “white trash.” Columnists in broadsheet newspapers use it to refer to the people who live in unfashionable suburbs east of London and sing karaoke on their home stereos. Commentators casually use the phrase in articles about pasty-faced young men who wear designer sweaters, fancy jeans and white socks.

In effect, “white trash” has become a crude synonym for “working class,” a reminder that class remains a potent force in daily life.

Soccer, once the preserve of the workers, has become a bourgeois obsession; affluent TV viewers eavesdrop on the blue-collar characters in the perennially popular soap opera “East Enders.” Yet for the most part, the mores and rituals of the so-called lower orders belong to another country.

Media professionals and left-leaning journalists may be obsessed with questions of street credibility, yet I can’t help noticing that in the 20 years I have been in the business, the number of colleagues I have encountered who actually come from a working-class background remains minimal.

Almost half a century after Richard Hoggart published his pioneering insider’s account of working-class culture, “The Uses of Literacy,” the number of books giving a realistic view of life on the other side of the great divide is still depressingly small. (The truest fictional treatments I can think of are be found in Roddy Doyle’s magnificent Barrytown Trilogy, but since the settings are Irish — or “Oirish,” as cynics might say — they do not really count.)

Better late than never, Mr. Hoggart has found an heir of sorts in Michael Collins, the author of a compelling new study, “The Likes of Us.” A self-styled “biography of the white working class,” the book combines a generational history of Mr. Collins’ family with a broader sketch of a community rooted for decades in the narrow streets of Southwark, a short walk from Shakespeare’s Globe.

Born in 1961, Mr. Collins left school with no qualifications and trained as a tailor before making the leap to journalism and TV production work. “The Likes of Us” delivers a sharp-eyed and unsentimental vision of how a tight-knit urban group has coped with poverty and the upheavals caused by immigration and de-industrialization, not to mention the blight inflicted by utopian local government planners.

This is not a romanticized lament for a lost world. Mr. Collins simply sets out the minutiae of family life without trying to shoehorn events into an all-purpose political ideology. Wary of well-meaning outsiders, he has little time for interlopers such as the left’s favorite aristo, Jessica Mitford, who in the 1930s temporarily moved into the neighborhood with the intention of playing at being working-class.

Sixty years later, he finds himself at a fashionable North London dinner party, listening to a well-to-do guest discussing her plans to move to Southwark and complaining that “some of the neighbourhood is very white.”

The racial theme has, inevitably, landed Mr. Collins in trouble. As he ruefully explained to me when we met close to his home turf, he has achieved the dubious honor of being castigated as “an intellectual outrider” for the racist British National Party (BNP).

The idea that he is somehow racist is complete nonsense, I have to point out. The fact that the BNP jibe came from Yale’s expatriate race-relations pundit, Paul Gilroy, says much more about Mr. Gilroy’s grip on reality than it does about any hidden agenda in the book.

Mr. Collins’ real intention, in the sections devoted to race, was to describe, as honestly as he could, how working-class people respond to the arrival of strangers in their midst.

Prejudice and distrust were one inevitable response: “Enoch was right” became a blue-collar mantra after the renegade Tory MP Enoch Powell made his infamous “rivers of blood” speech on immigration in 1968. Powell and some elements of the right tried to exploit racist sentiment in the inner cities, while the left never forgave the workers for not signing up to the brotherhood of man.

Mr. Collins sensibly demonstrates how racial tensions arose at just the moment when long-established communities were fragmented by heroically misguided urban redevelopment schemes, which destroyed neighborhoods and put shopping malls and tower blocks in their place.

True, he sometimes tries too hard to play down the role of racism: His attempt to depict the furor over the racist murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993 as a manifestation of bien pensant contempt for white working-class youth doesn’t quite ring true.

Elsewhere, though, his plain speaking reminds me of Norman Podhoretz’s celebrated confessional about growing up in multi-racial Brooklyn, “My Negro Problem — and Ours.” The old man of Commentary still takes flak for that stunningly unsentimental essay, so Mr. Collins can expect to be a marked man for a while just yet.

He seems sanguine about the prospect of being derided by Mr. Gilroy and other members of the radical chic tendency. For one thing, he does not believe that race, in the conventional sense, plays a major role in the lives of the people he has written about. Pressures remain, but he believes that society has matured and evolved.

For all the upheavals in recent years, he remains optimistic about South London’s future. Thanks to projects such as the Millennium Bridge and the painfully trendy Tate Modern, he sees new life being transfused into the backwaters south of the Thames. There are even plans to clear up the concrete monstrosity around the Elephant & Castle, a classic example of Sixties architectural megalomania.

It comes as a surprise, then, to discover that he no longer lives in the area. Instead he decamped to leafier Blackheath, a fair distance further out from town. The surge in crime and antisocial behavior, he says, played a major part in his decision.

Although the scourge of drugs is touched on in a powerful vignette in the book, another problem is that the population in the area is increasingly itinerant. Students come and go in huge numbers; council flats are increasingly sub-let to tenants with no long-term stake in the community.

One of the most elegiac of his childhood memories in “The Likes of Us” describes how, in the summer months, elderly women, relaxing after cleaning their homes, would watch over the children in the street.

In his mind’s eye he sees them as “attendants in [the neighborhood’s] museum, ensuring that everything remained as it should, as far as it could, for as long as it could. They harboured a knowledge of the history of its paving stones, bricks and windows that was encyclopaedic.

“They remembered the accidents, fights, funerals and marriage break-ups that were played out before these walls, doorways, windows, kerbs and drains. It was a secret history, an oral history of the London that almost nobody knows.”

That version of the capital has all but disappeared. In the shadow of Southwark Bridge, pavement cafes are taking the place of the old communities. Many things have changed for the better, of course, but it will be some time before we know how much we have lost.

Clive Davis writes for the Times of London.


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