Saturday, November 13, 2010

A few months ago a friend of mine, Richard, met Danny Dyer.

Richard works in television and he was shocked to discover that Danny Dyer is just the same off camera as he is when he’s on it, an unmitigated and unashamed Geezer. Richard expressed a mixture of incredulity and admiration at Dyers’ commitment: it must be tiring, he suggested, having to act the horrendous Cockney stereotype twenty four hours a day, seven days a week.

The assumption here, and I’ll venture that it’s a fairly common one, is that no-one‘s really like that. Maybe in this situation the assumption is partly militated by the fact that Danny Dyer is an actor. It’s plausible that after a day of playing East End wide-boys he wipes off the greasepaint , catches a cab to his gentleman’s club and spends the evening loudly declaiming into his brandy snifter on the sheer impossibility of getting an unexpurgated version of Shaw’s “Back to Methusula” up and running these days. But I think it also runs deeper than that.

There’s a tendency to view working class discourse as a kind of “performance” in a way that middle class discourse escapes. It’s hard to imagine anyone bumping into Hugh Grant or Keira Knightely and being astonished that they’re just as posh as they appear in their film roles.

This scepticism regarding the authenticity of working class mannerisms is partly a result of the explosion of “Mockney” around the time of Cool Brittania in 1994 and 95, along with the earlier advent of magazines like Loaded that set out to brand many aspects of working class culture and discourse as “cool” and market them to affluent middle-class consumers. In fact this accelerated repackaging of class as “lifestyle” around the early Nineties, and the increasing trend toward slumming it, as so famously dissected in Pulp’s anthemic “Common People”, has lead to a degree of middle-class scepticism about the authenticity of working class life. I hear it in the exasperation all around me in my own middle class milieu with regard to diet, clothing, attitude, speech: the assumption that the working classes could have or should have just chosen differently.

In a sense then over the past fifteen year s or so there has been a naturalization of middle-classness. There is of course a fairly long tradition in English culture of the middle classes trying to pick up on the style and manner of the proles, and from the late Fifties onward there is an increasing downplaying of upper and middle class conventions of speech and pronunciation toward more “democratic” and neutral forms. In this sense both Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher’s struggle to attain acceptable Establishment locution ran against the grain of the time. It’s hard to imagine our current ruling crop of old Etonions wanting to sound too much like Harold Macmillan. Tony Blair pointedly uses glottal stops in TV interviews. This move toward more neutral forms of speech has also served to mask a previously highly audible marker of class. In this great consumer middle-mass someone like Dyer seems faintly unbelievable: an actual working class cockney ? He must be pretending.

While it is certainly true that class can be performed, so too can classlessness. Go and ask David Cameron. The mistake would be to assume that therefore class doesn’t exist.


Michael said...

Interesting post as ever Carl. Are the middle classes not defined, by themselves as much anyone, by a kind of characterlessness? Or the right to be characterless? I remember someone I know bridling at hearing the expression 'impeccable working class credentials', a bogus concept but its hard to imagine anyone claiming someone had 'impeccable middle class credentials'.
by the way, I read your entire blog from start to finish recently, do I qualify for an Impostume tea towel or something?

carl said...

i know what you mean...there is a kind of determined, almost a steely blandness, isn't there...a kind of self-satisfied moderation in thought and expression...

entire blog eh? you're a brave man! the tea towel is in the post!

Anonymous said...

Choice seems to be the big thing for the middle class, the freedom to appropriate anything and everything with no apparent contradiction. A life shaped by necessity, including that of history- class markers like accent etc, must seem positively quaint, a throwback to pre classlessness, like quaint pastoral landscape prints hanging on the wall.
I enjoyed reading the blog, your piece on Sexy Beast is brilliant, one of the best things I've ever read on film.
Look forward to reading the book.