Class and bookishness: a rant on the uses of literacy

Probably the last useful thing that Julie Burchill ever wrote, in respect of her working-class provincial origins, was this:

If you don’t read books, you really have been fucked over in a major way… To read, voluntarily, is the first step to asserting the fact that you know there is somewhere else.

Read, or you’ll get fucked over. Growing up, I read like fuck. I read out of boredom, I read to escape my surroundings and to understand my surroundings, through history and politics and music and literature and whatever there was left over. I also read because I wanted to write. And a thread that ran throughout my reading was, indeed, the sense that not to read was to, somehow, allow yourself to get fucked over.

Furthermore, once I began to read, finding stuff to read wasn’t a struggle. I read at school, on and off the curriculum – ‘comprehensive’ might mean cash-strapped and struggling, but it needn’t mean incapable of giving you a good education in spite of your circumstances, and it needn’t mean not having books. My town had a single bookshop, but it also had a library. I went on expeditions to larger towns further afield and, along with music, I brought back books. A huge amount of secondhand books, old books, books that no one other than me was likely to read in the twentieth century, okay – but new books, too, weren’t beyond my purchasing power. I read books, I read newspapers, I read journals, I read samizdat Riot Grrl and Manicsfan zines. I just read. Reading is, in no small measure, how I got to where and who and what I am today. I read in order to combat alienation, boredom and despair; in order to learn what existed beyond my horizons and what I might be capable of; in order to succeed academically; in order to live and study in places beyond my socioeconomic imaginings; and, ultimately, I read in order to construct an independent life for myself virtually from scratch. I read voraciously, avidly and eclectically, which is why I now know so many big words – a fact not unrelated to my subsequent social mobility, but a cause of it, not an effect.

So you’ll imagine how aggrieved I was to read the following:

“The bookshelfie and shelfie alike are ways not just to geek out with fellow book fiends, but also to send a signal about your cultural, social, and class position. Owning large quantities of books, being familiar with them, frequently referring to them, working in an industry where books are valued, these are all markers of upper middle class status, reflecting education, purchasing power, and social privilege.”

Now the publication ‘xoJane’, as far as I can tell, is what would happen if Nathan Barley edited Jezebel. So I’m sure the writer of that piece is well aware of what they’re doing – ie, churning out deliberately controversial, easily contradicted, falsely absolutist, neat shiny parcels of clickbait bullshit in which, as the esteemed James Ivens remarked, the tone manages to be both superior and anti-intellectual at the same time. I’m sure they don’t actually believe what they write.

Not that it matters. What S E Smith has written in that piece reflects and reinforces a damaging discourse whereby education, intellectual capacity, wit, thought, learning or finer feelings are held to be the preserve of the better-off, while what used to be called the working class are held to be mired in mental ignorance and incapacity. I’m aware of differing ideas and definitions of class in the US and UK, but this idea – certainly not new, in fact yet another neo-Victorian reanimation of old spectres – is cropping up everywhere, in left and right-wing perspectives, like a particularly unedifying game of Whack-a-Mole. At its most egregious and asinine, it fuels Boris Johnson’s pronouncement in which the poor are held accountable for their own misfortune because they aren’t clever enough to be rich.

As actual representatives of the non-elite have vanished from politics, media and the arts, so representations of the non-elite have grown increasingly lurid and grotesque, with observers nevertheless meant to be fawningly grateful for whatever unlikely examples we manage to get. This is why Caitlin Moran’s recent caprice Raised By Wolves could be hailed as ‘a genuine first’ – as though ‘council-estate intellectuals’ were a novelty previously wholly unheard-of. (Oh, Rab C Nesbitt – not to mention Working Mens’ Institutes and Miners’ Libraries and Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams – we hardly knew you!) Like Russell Brand’s Newsnight intervention, Raised By Wolves is a perfectly acceptable and obvious offering that looks more revolutionary than it is because everything surrounding it is so dull and disingenuous and uninspired.

To be boringly political about things: what has taken place over the past decade or so – in the vanishing of the tradition of working-class autodidacticism; in the enforced closure of libraries and adult education classes; in the narrowing of access to the arts, media, politics and journalism to those able to afford internships; in the privatisation and pricing-up of higher education; in the continued neglect of areas economically devastated in the 1980s and the ignoring or denial of the after-effects of this – is the rolling back of social, cultural and political gains made by the post-war working class. This development has been given the dodgy and diverting gloss that we are somehow a post-class society, that working-class status in particular no longer holds currency – and then, with the continued existence of socio-economic division becoming impossible to deny, the idea that there is still no actual working class but only ‘the poor’, a lumpen rump distinguished by their supposed lack of fitness for anything better or greater than their current lot.

Similarly, that xoJane article’s fundamental crime is to crassly conflate ‘education’ – which to me has always indicated general learning, consciousness and enlightenment – with the institutional process of ‘getting an education’. And while tuition fees, loans, and the rising cost of living may be making the latter an increasingly distant prospect for ‘the poor’, it does not automatically follow that the former is also beyond their intellectual reach. (And if students become defined as all middle-class, of course, then their concerns – whether over heavy-handed policing of demos, or the private outsourcing of university facilities, or the closing of ‘non-economically viable’ Humanities departments – can be dismissed as elitist and bourgeois issues, self-indulgent and out of touch with the real world, with the material concerns of ‘ordinary people’. And so can the very idea of pursuing education for its own, horizon-expanding but non-economic sake, as opposed to for the sake of ‘adding value’ to yourself as a future economic unit.)

My more personal response to the xoJane article, in particular the line: ‘… working in an industry where books are valued [is a marker] of upper middle class status’, was to question when the writer last stepped inside a bookshop. If their idea of the model for book retail is Amazon-centric, then I guess I can understand their perception of an industry split between literate cash-frittering shelfie-taking consumers sitting detached behind an ordering screen, and warehouse-bound overworked drones whose preoccupation – presumably – is with shifting the merchandise rather than entertaining any finer feelings towards it. This bizarre kind of Morlock/Eloi conception of society isn’t far from the absolutist idea which paints the modern working class as ignorant and education-hostile ‘chavs’, an underclass unable to be conceptualised as readers or thinkers, whose lot of worsening deprivation can therefore be presented as entirely expected and logical for ones so wretched and with so little capacity for improvement.

Outside Amazon’s fastness – and very probably inside it – things are rather more shades of grey. I have spent most of the past decade working either part-time or full-time in high-street book retail, and in this environment I have never felt my background and my no-man’s-land class identity to be inexplicable or unique to me. I have worked with other similar products of post-industrial small towns and comprehensive schools which nonetheless granted us a good enough education to get us into higher education. (From which point, our paths led us to London and into precarious just-about-bill-paying jobs through which we currently fund our artistic, creative, academic, political and other pursuits – because, in the absence of independent wealth or access to internships, that’s what you do. The same is true, in my experience, of a whole host of low-paid workers – but that’s a whole other, if not unrelated, rant.)

Such escapist, often class-transcending trajectories are almost always fuelled, in part or in whole, by a love of learning, words and language, and by books and the possible worlds contained in them. To disingenuously reduce centuries of self-improvement, aspiration, and just basic comfort, entertainment and enjoyment, to the narrow and solipsistic horizons of the studied and curated ‘shelfie’ is smug and unhelpful enough. To further suggest that the ability to access and appreciate books is automatically beyond the intellectual grasp of an entire socioeconomic sector, and to do this in a way that contributes to pernicious and damaging ideas of class on both sides of the Atlantic? Let me stress, with the full weight of my book-learnt and comprehensive-schooled vocabulary, how much I fucking hate that shit.

Things that shouldn’t need saying, slight return.

Here is Dawn Foster’s excellent piece on the idiocy of insisting that feminism must be dumbed down for the supposed benefit of its potential adherents among the working – for which read ‘thick and theoryless’ – classes. Something implicit in Foster’s argument, which would benefit from being more frequently and explicitly stated in wider debate, is the corrective it provides to current presentations of class vs identity politics as a zero-sum game.

As I wrote the last time Coslett and co. trotted out this line, a) being ‘ordinary’ doesn’t mean being stupid, and b) the problems of the ‘ordinary’ working class are inherently intersectional. As Foster describes, grassroots organisations and actions, from Women Against Pit Closures to Southall Black Sisters, are informed by awareness of how gender and/or race impacts on class, and how class impacts on race and/or gender. This is intersectionality experienced and practiced as a day-to-day reality, enforced by existing structures of power – not a distant and alien theory into which one chooses to opt. It offers a real-life, instinctive and logical practical application of the ideas and concepts that, apparently, are so complex as to be beyond the intellectual grasp of The Likes Of Them. This shit isn’t difficult, and it shouldn’t be presented as such.

On Brand.

Here we go again. Yes, the performance on primetime of fierce and unapologetic left-wing populism is both a relief and a cause for celebration (more because the media as well as politics itself has grown so defanged, timid and prone to paranoid self-policing over the past few decades, with those who vocally deviate from helpless/complacent acceptance or active reinforcement of a neoliberal consensus becoming such a rarity, than because Brand was all that small-r revolutionary in and of himself). No, the conversation doesn’t and shouldn’t end there.

It is not moralistic, irrelevant, or distracting to bring up Brand’s – to understate – frustrating attitude to women when evaluating his political intervention. It is in fact far more unhelpful to insist, in response to this criticism, that Brand’s class identity somehow gives him a pass on this stuff, as though attention to issues of liberation other than the economic is just too much to ask or expect of a working-class male, even one so clearly capable as Brand of holding more than one thought in his head at the same time. Yet again, well-meaning but paternalistic and patronizing ideas are pushed of what it is to be ‘working class’ – in this case, the idea that working-class men cannot be expected to recognise or interrogate their own chauvinism or that of others, or that their doing so is somehow unnecessary.

Moreover, to caricature any discomfort with Brand’s sexual politics as the preserve of joyless derailing middle-class Puritans, who simply cannot handle all this earthy proletarian jouissance, is to implicitly erase even the concept of women as part of the working class, let alone any concerns they may wish to raise. Much current backlash against identity politics is too often suffused with an unedifying and regressive glee at throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and does no one any favours. Equally, surely it’s common sense that oppression on the grounds of gender, race, disability or sexuality is fundamentally exacerbated or ameliorated by material inequality. These identities are mutually reinforcing and cumulative, not zero-sum.

I mean, we’ve been here only recently, and we’ve been here repeatedly before that. Expressing unease at an aspect of Brand’s politics shouldn’t be about imposing some absolutist hierarchy of oppressions – it is merely an obvious and necessary balancing act, a demand for more than the absolute basics from those lauded as representatives of the left, and a resistance to the imposition of restrictive ideas about class.

Is that the end of the conversation? No. What the conversation should have been about in the first place is resistance to the fact that we are being asked to accept, as ‘recovery’ and ‘return to normal’, an austerity-driven strategy of enforced impoverishment – stagnant wages that fail to keep pace with exorbitant costs of living, an explosion in the use of food banks and a breathtaking rolling back of employment rights. Opposing this does mean concentrating on material issues and class politics. Let’s just not be dicks about it.

Things I’ve written elsewhere:

  • For the Wales Arts Review, What Riot Grrrl Did and Didn’t Do For Me: on female artistic expression, theory vs practice, post-punk, class and feminism, the 90s, adolescence, and Courtney Love, I think that’s everything.

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The Manics’ Next Step

We cannot get rid of employers and slave-driving in the mining industry, until all other industries have organized for, and progressed towards the same objective. Their rate of progress conditions ours, all we can do is set an example and the pace.

- The Miners’ Next Step (1912)

Nicky Wire in the Quietus reviews (previews?) Rewind The Film.

Of course, having put away excitement and belief and other childish things, I no longer await a new Manic Street Preachers album with the same starry-eyed avidity I once did. (Do you?)

On the title track and its accompanying video, I liked what Lost Communication had to say:

While I don’t doubt that the video portrays places, issues and themes that the Manics hold dear to them (as do I), I fear they have fallen into the trap of adding a romanticism to the ‘noble decline’ of the industrial heartland of Wales. There should be nothing romantic in portraying how working class communities have feebly clung on to life after being chewed up and spat out by a succession of neoliberal governments.

… and I’d add only that the swampland that lies between mawkishness and sentimentality is a thoroughly Welsh place to get stuck. On at least one of the tracks discussed in the Quietus interview, though, ‘30 Year War’, the band seem to succeed in side-stepping the rose-tinted ‘noble decline’ trap:

“It’s not about Thatcher, it’s definitely about Thatcherism, about the establishment across the last 30 years, and it doesn’t matter what government is around, we always love to portray ourselves as this holier than thou country, and yet we have scandal after scandal uncovered, right to the root of power, government, Murdoch, the police, Hillsborough, this stupification of the class I grew up in, which I think all stems from Thatcherism really. The idea that if you break down any power that we had we’re going to be fucked forever…

I find that elitist, ‘We know what’s better’ is so all pervading, from the monarchy to fucking Cameron to Mumford and Sons. We’re just told… what did one of Mumford and Sons say the other day? ‘Either ignore it or celebrate it.’ What a fucking futile attitude. Don’t say anything bad, just ignore it or celebrate it. So what about fascism then? We don’t like it, we’ll just ignore it. It does feel like the last five years has been such a redress of monarchy and establishment and public school through all points of our culture. I feel a bit helpless about it.”

Bang on, of course, as is everyone else who appears to be waking up and wondering what went wrong after the Old Weird Nineties (that Mumfordian ‘ignore or celebrate’ ultimatum is straight outta Cool Britannia, although much of that era was more notable for its ability to do both at once).

I’m glad that bullish bullshit detector of his endures to an extent. It’s encouraging that the disingenuous and damaging nature of both austerity and austerity chic is being increasingly noted, but the lack of analysis and alternatives are still too glaring for this to be any more deeply gratifying. Not that analysis or alternatives have ever been the preserve or the responsibility of rock stars.