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The 'Daddy' of the Metrosexual, the Retrosexual, & spawner of the Spornosexual

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Category: working class

Sixth Form Boys Will Hug Boys

Someone simulating coitus behind you while you were potting a tricky black on the pool table was a popular part of the game. Grabbing one another’s lunchboxes as a form of greeting was another. Often this was accompanied with a loud John Inman/Dick Emery ‘OOOOH!!’ noise, which somehow proved that what you were doing was, in fact, totally and utterly straight.

Me in the Daily Telegraph contrasting my teenage school days with a new study showing how much ideas about masculinity have have changed amongst teenage boys today. And how masculinity isn’t in ‘crisis’, or ‘toxic’, or ‘hegemonic’, or ‘fragile’.

It’s turned out to be very flexible and adaptable – and likes a nice hug.

Read the piece in full here.

Edward Carpenter – The Utopian Uranian

Mark Simpson on the forgotten ‘English Whitman’

(Independent on Sunday, 5 October, 2008)

On his 80th birthday in 1924, five years before his death, the socialist Utopian poet, mystic, activist, homophile, environmentalist, feminist and nudist Edward Carpenter received an album signed by every member of Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour Cabinet. Glowing tributes appeared in the socialist papers as well as the Manchester Guardian, the Observer, the Evening Standard and even the Egyptian Gazette. He was hailed by the philosopher C.E.M. Joad as the harbinger, no less, of modernity itself: ‘Carpenter denounced the Victorians for hypocrisy, held up their conventions to ridicule, and called their civilisation a disease,’ he wrote. ‘He was like a man coming into a stuffy sitting room in a seaside boarding house, and opening the window to let in light and air…’.

In the early Twentieth Century Carpenter was a celebrity, a hero, a guru, a prophet, a confidant: an Edwardian Morrissey, Moses and Claire Raynor in one. Multitudes of men and women – but mostly young men – had beaten a path to his door in his idyllic rural retreat-cum-socialist-boarding-house in Millthorpe, near Sheffield to sit at his vegetarian, be-sandled feet, or take part in his morning sun-baths and sponge-downs in his back garden.

Soon after his death, however, his charismatic reputation faded faster than a Yorkshire tan. By the middle of the century he was the height of unfashionability, and regarded by many on the left as a crank. When that manly Eton-educated proletarian George Orwell decried the left’s habit of attracting ‘every fruit juice drinker, nudist, sandal wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, “Nature Cure” quack, pacifist and feminist in England’ everyone knew whom he was dissing.

Today very few would. Despite his extensive writings, despite – or perhaps because of – the way many of his causes and indeed much of his lifestyle have become mainstream, and despite the brief renaissance of his works with the gay left after the emergence of gay lib in the 60s and 70s – a movement which he appeared to predict – and a hefty, worthy and yet also fascinating new biography by the feminist historian Sheila Rowbotham (Edward Carpenter: A Life of Love and Liberty; Verso) notwithstanding, it sometimes seems as there’s almost nothing left of Ted, as his friends called him, save his beard and sandals (he seems to have introduced sandal-wearing to these shores). He’s become the Cheshire cat of fin de siècle English Utopianism. In fact, one could argue, and I will, that the thing that connects most of us with Carpenter today is EM Forster’s arse.

George Merrill, Carpenter’s uninhibited Sheffield working-class partner touched Forster’s repressed Cambridge backside during a visit to Milthorpe in 1912:

‘…gently and just above the buttocks. I believe he touched most peoples. The sensation was unusual and I still remember it, as I remember the position of a long-vanished tooth. It was as much psychological as physical. It seemed to go straight through the small of my back into my ideas, without involving any thought.’

Inspired by Merrill’s tykish directness, Forster, went home, sat down on his probably still-tingling buttocks and wrote the first ‘gay’ novel Maurice, which famously featuring a love-affair between Scudder the sunburnt and impetuous groundsman Alec and the uptight, middle-class Maurice. Though it wasn’t to be published until after terminally timid Forster’s death, DH Lawrence saw the manuscript and was himself touched: Lady Chatterley’s Lover is in many ways a heterosexualised Maurice. And of course, when Maurice was made into a film in the 1980s starring James Wilby and Rupert Graves succeeded in making millions of rumps, male and female, tingle at a time when homosexuality, as a result of Section 28 and Aids had become a major cultural battleground.

Before Merrill, Edward Carpenter’s buttocks had been touched by the American sage Walt Whitman and his passionately romantic poems about male comradeship, frequently involving working men and sailors, whom he travelled to the US to meet (though it is unclear whether here the touching was literal or metaphorical). Carpenter became a kind of English Whitman figure, though more outspoken on the subject of toleration of same-sex love than Whitman ever dared to be in the US – if not, alas, nearly as fine a poet (another reason why his work hasn’t endured).

Lytton Strachey decreed sniffily that Alec and Maurice’s relationship rested upon ‘lust and sentiment’ and would only last six weeks. Whatever Merrill and Edward Carpenter’s relationship was based on – and Robotham argues that it was rather complicated and not what it appeared to be – it lasted nearly 40 years, and was an inspiration to many.

Carpenter was nothing if not sentimental, when he wasn’t being just patronising. He described Merrill as his ‘dear son’, his ‘simple nature child’ his ‘rose in winter’ his ‘ruby embedded in marl and clay’ and delighted in Merrill’s lack of guilt about ‘the seamy side of life’. Raised in the Sheffield slums and without any formal education Merrill was almost untouched by Christianity. On hearing that Jesus had spent his last night on Gethsemane Merrill’s response was “who with?”

It was Merrill’s – and the innumerable other working class male lovers that Carpenter had both before and after meeting him – lack of ‘self-consciousness’, or perceived lack of it, that attracted Carpenter, who was born into an upright upper middle class family in Hove, Brighton (and it was his sizeable inheritance that financed his purchase of Milthorpe and his comradely life in the North). He was drawn to the working classes because he saw them as rescuing him from himself – as much as he was rescuing them.

‘Eros is a great leveller’, Carpenter wrote in The Intermediate Sex. ‘Perhaps the true democracy rests, more firmly than anywhere else, on a sentiment which easily passes the bounds of class and caste, and unites in the closest affection the most estranged ranks of society’. He observed that many ‘Uranians’ ‘of good position and breeding are drawn to rougher types, as of manual workers, and frequently very permanent alliances grow up in this way.’

It’s worth pointing out that even Wilde and Bosie’s relationship, which was to cause Forster and many other homosexuals at that time such grief, was based on their mutual enjoyment of rent boys. Carpenter disapproved of such exploitation, but it’s not impossible to imagine Wilde, or one of his characters, jesting that people like Carpenter were socialists only because they didn’t want to pay for their trade.

Robotham to her credit doesn’t shrink from pointing out the limits of Carpenter’s socialism: ‘Carpenter never queried his own tacit presumption that the lower classes and subordinated races were to be defended when vulnerable and abject but treated with contempt when they sought individual advancement.’ To this it could be added that if Carpenter succeeded in abolishing class, then with it would be abolished the interest in the working classes of men like Carpenter. Each man kills the thing he loves.

What though was working class youth’s interest in Carpenter? In a word: attention. It seems they were flattered to be singled out and treated with casual equality by a gent, and an attractive, charming one at that. One young lover wrote of Carpenter: ‘You feel inclined to get hold of him as a boy would his mate’ and talked of his ‘Handsome appearance – his erect, lithe body, trim and bearded face, penetrating eyes and beautiful voice.’ Carpenter was to continue attracting young working class men to his door well into silver-haired old age.

Carpenter had a contradictory view of homosexuality, seeing those exclusively attracted to their own sex as psychically androgynous ‘intermediates’ like himself who were ‘born that way’ – but also as harbingers of a new age, the cultural ‘advance guard’ of socialism in which a Utopian androgyny would be the norm. Not everyone shared his enthusiasm for a future world of Carpenters. George Bernard Shaw for one was enraged by the idea that ‘intermediacy’ should be recommended to ‘the normal’ as the desired way to be.

EM Forster described Carpenter’s mysticism as the usual contradiction of wanting ‘merge with the cosmos and retain identity’ at the same time. This in fact described pretty much everything, from Ted’s attitude towards comradeship and homosexuality, class and socialism, and even Millthorpe where he would write standing in a sentry box in he had built in his garden while his ‘retreat’ was overrun by guests.

His championing of androgyny and female emancipation also had contradictions. Robotham describes his horror and disgust at the androgyny of a Siva statue he witnessed on a mystical visit to India as being ‘akin to the disgust he had felt at seeing the female nudes in a French art gallery…’. For Carpenter, ‘acceptable femininity consisted of lithe gay men and supportive, tom-boyish sister figures.’

Carpenter’s works were taken up by the gay libbers and New Left in the 60s and 70s partly because of his rejection of male and female sex-roles and also because of his proto-gay-commune lifestyle in Millthorpe, with his open relationship with Merrill (and also several local married men). For Carpenter, the personal was political long before it became a lapel button.

But in the 1980s gay lib was replaced by gay consumerism, ‘intermediates’, particularly many working class ones keen to advance themselves, turned out to be the vanguard not of a back-to-basics socialist Utopia but of High Street Thatcherism. The mainstreaming of ‘lifestylism’ happened largely because it was divorced from politics – and Carpenter – and became about shopping. Which would have horrified Ted who had an upper middle class disdain for ‘trade’ (the shopkeeping kind).  Lord only knows what he would have made of the consumerist androgyny of the metrosexual.

Perhaps the most lasting and pertinent thing about his life is a question: How on Earth did the old bugger get away with it? How did he avoid a huge scandal? How did he end up so lionised in his old age? Especially when you consider what happened to Wilde?

The answer is probably the same reason for his lack of appeal today. His prose now seems often strangely precious and oblique and replete with coy, coded classical references. Worst of all for modern audiences, he necessarily downplayed the sexual aspect of same-sex love. His most influential work ‘Homogenic Love’, published in 1895, the first British book to deal with the subject of same-sex desire as something other than a medical or moral problem, rejects the word ‘homosexual’ ostensibly on the grounds that it was a ‘bastard’ word of Greek and Latin, but probably because the Latin part was too much to the point.

Class helped too: when the police threatened to prosecute some of his works as obscene he was able to scare them off with an impressively long list of Establishment supporters. Even his live-in relationship with Merrill was often seen as one of master and servant (and in fact that’s how Merrill, who was financially dependent on Carpenter, was legally described).

ESP Haynes suspected that Carpenter might not be as simple as he presented himself, that his mysticism ‘gave him a certain detachment which protected him against prosecution as a heretic’. To which Rowbotham drily remarks: ‘As for the non-mystical Merrill, he just tried out the idealistic admirers’. (Or as that other Northern prophet Morrissey was to sing many years later: ‘I recognise that mystical air/it means I’d like to seize your underwear.’)

Whatever Carpenter’s survival secret, it’s rather wonderful for us that he did, and although his haziness may be part of the reason he fades in and mostly out of consciousness today, as Robotham concludes her sympathetic yet clear-eyed study: ‘One thing is certain, this complicated, confusing, contradictory yet courageous man is not going to vanish entirely from view.’

Size Hero: How Steroids & Muscle Marys Conquered the World

Mark Simpson on how steroids got into our bloodstream and changed the shape of masculinity

(Guardian CIF, 6 Dec, 2007)

‘Roids may sound as Eighties as Cher’s black-lace bodice. But they’re baaak, even bigger and bustier than ever.

According to a series of recent reports, steroids, or ‘juice’ or ‘gear’ to the initiated, once an exotic drug of cheating athletes and freaky bodybuilders have entered the mainstream and have become just another lifestyle product for young men: some boys as young as 12 are reportedly taking the drug.

And this despite the frightening possible side-effects meticulously listed in these press reports, including liver, heart and kidney damage, atrophied testicles, erectile dysfunction, depression and raised aggression. (Though, arguably, you could also experience most of these simply by following Arsenal FC.)

The key to this mainstreaming of steroids is vanity. If you want to get into people’s bloodstream these days, promise to make them like what they see in the smoke-glass gym-mirror. According to the surveys, the large majority of young men using the gear are not doing so to be stronger or faster or scarier – all traditionally acceptable ‘masculine’ ambitions – but rather to look more attractive. To look shaggable. Or just make you look.

In other words, young men are taking steroids the way that many gay party boys have taken them for years: to look good on the beach or dance floor or webcam. ‘Muscle Marys’ – as they’re called by envious, less-muscular gays – are apparently no longer a strictly gay phenomenon. Muscle Marys are where masculinity is at, Mary.

It shouldn’t be so surprising. We don’t really need surveys to tell us this. It has, after all, happened right before our eyes. It’s the media that has mainlined steroids into the culture and our kids. Unlike, say, very skinny girls, very muscular boys are very popular. An anti ‘Size Hero’ campaign like that we’ve seen against Size Zero is somewhat unlikely. Steroids are an essential, prescribed even, part of the way that the male body has been farmed and packaged for our consumption since it was laid off at the factory and the shipyard in the 1980s.

A generation of young males have been reared on irresistibly – and frequently chemically – lean and muscular images of the male body in sport, advertising, magazines, movies and telly, even in the cartoons they watch and the computer games or toy dolls (or ‘action figures’) they play with. It seems all that’s left of masculinity in a post industrial, post paternal world, apart from a science-fiction-sized penis, or a right foot good enough to get you into the Premier League, is a hot bod. Men and women – but especially men – will give you kudos for that. So will people casting reality TV series.

Even Action Man (GI Joe in the US) is now a Muscle Mary. Perhaps because he’s only twelve inches tall, Action Man seems to have been hitting the ‘juice’ big time. He’s also got himself a nice deep all-over tan – to better show off his pumped muscles.

Since the 1960s his bicep measurements have more than doubled from a (scaled up) 12″ to 27″ and his chest from 44″ to 55″. His current ‘cut’ physique would be rather difficult to achieve just by eating corned-beef hash rations – especially since, as far as I’m aware, a portable plastic gym isn’t yet one of his basic accessories. In an example of life imitating art, or at least squaddies imitating dolls, steroid abuse by soldiers is increasingly common: US soldiers in Iraq have been caught ordering steroids online, and it was recently alleged that a sizeable proportion of Blackwater mercenaries are on ‘the gear’.

Muscle Marys aren’t just for Xmas – they’re also for High Office. Arnold ‘Commando’ Schwarzenegger, seven times Mr Olympia, who has admitted using industrial quantities of steroids since he was in his teens (though denies he takes them now) is today the walk-on-water Green Governator of California and Republican inspiration to David Cameron – after a successful Hollywood movie career playing an under-dressed heavily-muscled male masseur pretending to be an action hero. Quite an achievement when just walking without painful chafing must have been difficult.

Partly because of Arnie’s 80s ‘special effects’, Muscle Marys are de rigeur in the movies today – even in middle-age. The ageing star of a recent epic blockbuster whose career has largely been built on his six-pack was widely rumoured to have been on so much ‘gear’ trying to look ‘invincible’ that he frequently had to be stretchered off the set at the end of the day, poor love. Meanwhile ‘Comeback Kid’ Sylvester ‘Rocky’ Stallone (aged 60) was caught by Australian customs with several vials of his comeback secret earlier this year.

The ailing James Bond franchise successfully re-launched Bond and made him more attractive to younger viewers by reincarnating him in the pneumatic form of Daniel Craig – Bond became his own big-chested Bond Girl – and last year’s smash hit film ‘300′ featured ‘Spartans’ who looked less like ancient warriors than Muscle Marys at a Toga Party. Or the “juiced-up” professional wrestlers in Speedos that so many boys today have on their bedroom walls.

WWE wrestler Chris Benoit’s recent murder-suicide of his wife and child and intense media speculation about whether it was steroid-related (steroids were found at his house and his post mortem testosterone level was ten times normal) has caused a major scandal in the US. But it has been as obvious for many years that most of these guys were sprinkling more than sugar on their Cocoa Pops (and Benoit was actually relatively scrawny compared to some wrestlers).

That’s, after all, what people were looking at. What they were paying to see. Pro wrestling is showbusiness, and steroids are the business – at least when it comes to making spectacular bodies.

As a result of this and other recent steroid scandals in American football and baseball – including at High School level – a panic has emerged about the use of steroids by US athletes. But this has tended to obscure how mainstream steroids already are in the US and how, as in the UK, they’re principally (ab)used by non-athletes (only 6% of users played sports or considered themselves bodybuilders).

In the UK there have been calls to ban the sale of steroids online, crackdown harder on gyms selling them and educate young people about the dangers. Well, everyone is in favour of education, and no one is in favour of teens using steroids, but it’s unlikely that any of this will seriously reverse the Muscle Mary/Size Hero trend.

Steroids can’t be uninvented – or filtered out from the culture’s bloodstream. They’ve already changed the shape of masculinity. What’s more, unlike most if not all of the expensive supplements advertised in FHM, Men’s Health and Nuts as ‘muscle-builders’ and ‘fat-burners’, they actually work. And I know whereof I speak: I dabbled with the ‘juice’ myself as a callow youth. They certainly did what they said on the tin: I only stopped because they made me even spottier and angrier than I already was.

In an age when what’s authentically masculine is unclear, but what’s hot is as in-yer-face as a nice pair of pecs, injecting synthetic manliness, despite the possible risks to your actual man-bits, is not going out of fashion anytime soon. The only effective way to discourage their use will be to come up with a new generation of muscle-building drugs that work as well as steroids but have fewer side-effects. I’d certainly take them.

Steroids are the metrosexual hormone – they make men saleable and shaggable in an age that doesn’t have much idea what else to do with them.

This essay is collected in Metrosexy: A 21st Century Self-Love Story

The Return of the White Working Class

You may have seen the reports in the British press that large numbers of white working class voters are disillusioned with the mainstream parties and are considering voting for the (until now) lunatic fringe British National Party in this May’s Local Elections: ‘More people considering BNP protest vote‘ (The Times, April 17, 2006), and ‘White voters are deserting us for the BNP says Blair ally’ (Sunday Telegraph, April 16).

New Labour big hitter Margaret Hodge has admitted that eight out of ten white voters canvassed on their doorsteps in her own working class East London constituency for the May Local Elections have told her to her face and without any embarrassment that they are considering voting BNP.

To her credit – perhaps because she can see the writing on the wall – she doesn’t claim that they have been ‘brainwashed’ by the BNP, but instead acknowledges that this has happened for a very simple, very democratic reason: New Labour have not listened to the concerns of white working class voters, in particular they have refused to address their worries about the large numbers of immigrants arriving on their doorstep and its impact on their lives, communities, jobs and local resources. No one has, apart from the BNP.

In fact, none of the mainstream parties in the last ten years have even admitted the existence of the white working class. It is almost the defining feature of New Labour that it has turned its back on them. A smokescreen of multicultural sanctimoniousness has been used to make them invisible as New Labour got on with the business of moving up in the world and becoming cosmopolitan. Worse, subsidized mass immigration often looks like a deliberate plan to obliterate the white working class. Along with EU enlargement and the subsequent influx of millions of East Europeans (which happened after the below review was written) it’s helped destroy any chance of decent pay for unskilled or semi-skilled work.

By threatening to vote BNP the white working class has forced the political class – and the media – to acknowledge they actually still exist. That’s already a result.

Look what happened when Michael Collins tried to remind the world of their existence and their history in his important 2004 book The Likes of Us: A Biography of the White Working class (see review below). Amongst other things, he was accused on Radio Four of being an ‘intellectual outrider for the BNP’.

The reality of course is that all those do-gooding right-on middle class types were the real recruiting sergeants for the BNP. By telling the white working class that anyone or anything that acknowledged they even existed  was ‘racist’ they immunized them to the charge of ‘racism’ and pushed them into the hands of a straightforwardly racist party.

It’s the English middle classes who persuaded the English white working class to vote BNP.

 

To their manor born

Before the Thames-side inner London boroughs became places of lattes and loft apartments, they were the ancestral domain of the white working class. But as ‘The Likes of Us: a history of the white working class’ points out, it’s not fashionable to acknowledge that.

By Mark Simpson

(Independent on Sunday, 25 July 2004)

Southwark, the deprived south London Borough that gazes across the Thames at the bright lights and easy money of the City and the West End, has a long and proud “previous” when it comes to producing ruffians. The word “hooligan” itself has its origins there: an unruly teenager by the name of Patrick Hooligan killed a policeman in the 1890s and began a media panic about the scrappy working classes that shows no signs of abating. In the post-war period there were the Teds who, with their Edwardian frock coats, DAs, pocket-watches and knuckle-dusters were possibly invented there, and what the press dubbed the “cosh-boys”, who by the 1970s had become “muggers”.

Now Southwark has produced a new kind of hooligan, one swinging his laptop like a bicycle chain around his head, if you are to believe the scandalised notices in some of the broadsheets. South-east London-born writer Michael Collins has provoked a major breach of the peace. The Independent decried his “low blows” and a guest on Start the Week denounced him as an “intellectual outrider for the BNP”. A statement which is as despicable as it is laughable and one clearly designed to bring about the transportation of the author to Siberia or Australia. Or Essex.

What was Collins’s terrible crime? How did he épater les bourgeois d’Islington? Well, he has written a book called The Likes of Us: a biography of the white working class. The subtitle alone is enough of an outrage. “White” and “working class” are, after all, expletives these days, of a kind that even a Gordon Ramsay would think twice about using. Throw in the unstated but implicit word “English” and you have the metropolitan middle classes calling for smelling salts and making for Sainsbury’s continental deli counter. “White working class” summons up everything the metropolitan middle classes loathe and fear: patriotism, community, vulgarity, insularity, pride, sentimentality, plain-talking, violence and compassion. Or as Collins puts it: “They love Gucci and hate the Euro.”

The white working class is not supposed to exist any more, except as a social problem caused by over-exposure to tabloid newspapers, sportswear and satellite TV. It invokes the ancestral guilt of the British middle classes – real, criminal, uneasy guilt, rather than the kind of pseudo public self-flagellation they like to go in for over asylum-seekers, foxes and greenhouse gases.

In the capital, it also invokes the spectre of the people to whom London belonged for generations – they owned nothing except their community – but who have been driven out to Kent and Essex by post-war “redevelopment”, mass immigration (which arrives, strangely, in places like Southwark, never Richmond) and, in recent years, gentrification, making London safe for media types, property-developers and financiers, the global super-rich and the global super-poor. London is booming, but London is also dying – a virtual, rootless city that has no room for its real, lived history as it gets in the way of what everyone is here to do now: make a splash and plenty of cash. Today’s “Londoners” were born anywhere but London, and many live in properties that are worth a king’s ransom, but whine that they can’t get their milk or mail delivered, or their leaking bidets fixed for love nor ready money.

This is probably the reason why middle class people in London are often so discomfited by the appearance of the Cross of St George on taxis and builders’ vans during international football tournaments: it reminds them that the English working classes still exist and are still sentimental and passionate about place, and are only an hour’s drive from central London.

Open Collins’s book, and you find a courageously clear-headed indictment of the press riot that was the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry at the Elephant and Castle. The country as one bayed for the blood of the “murdering racists”, the white working class – or, as they were frequently described in the “quality” press, “white trash” – south London hooligans whom everyone had apparently decided were responsible for the death of Stephen Lawrence (and perhaps for all racism everywhere, including our own). This despite their acquittal in a court of law – everyone was angry with the police not just for bungling their investigation (Macpherson notwithstanding, this is a service they will generally provide to you regardless of your race), but because they didn’t do what they used to do in the good old days – fit ’em up. As Collin dryly notes: “Paradoxically, those notorious for making their feelings known about false convictions had shifted the focus to false acquittals. But for one case only.”

He draws a parallel with the panics about “hooligans” in South London from the past, arguing persuasively that in the aftermath of the inquiry, reports on racism had segued into a more general demonisation of the white working class. Historically, the right harboured desires to keep the white working class below stairs. “There they could use the wrong knives and drop their aitches to their hearts’ content, until trenches needed manning and flags waving in the name of patriotism.” Now, middle-class progressives “who had traditionally come out fighting these underdogs’ corner, or reporting their condition as missionaries or journalists, were keen to silence them, or bury them without an obituary… They were racist, xenophobic, thick, illiterate, parochial. They survived on the distant memory of winning one World Cup and two world wars… All they represent and hold dear was reportedly redundant in modern, multicultural Britain.”

Perhaps you can understand now why it is was necessary to call the author a crypto-fascist on Radio Four.

The Likes of Us is part personal memoir, part family history, part sociology, part class defence, part coshing of the do-gooding middle classes: a slightly confused mixture but one that on the whole works rather well. Collins’s family had lived in Southwark for generations until they were displaced to Welling and Eltham by the post-war apocalypses that turned it first into a windswept gyratory system overlooked by Stalinist barracks-blocks, then a clearing house for mass immigration and now a place of lattes and loft apartments for media types.

The Likes of Us is also an exercise in nostalgia. But why not? Why should the working classes be denied the drug that the middle classes inhale deeply every time they watch Inspector Morse? Some of the best passages here are sharply evocative of what has been lost, what has been erased, both culturally and personally for the author, describing a world of working-class thrift and dignity: “Antimacassars kept the chair-backs clean, rent money was kept in the teapot… and stair treads held down a strip of linoleum so used, so old, so polished, its pattern had faded into the blur of a bruise.”

However, some warts are allowed into this reverie of communal loveliness. Collins and his family were greeted by one of their new neighbours after moving in the 1960s to make way for the tower blocks: “A dishevelled nest of hair badly underpinned by kirby grips, and an apron worn like armour. She announced to my mum: ‘I’m telling you now, before you start, if any of your kids lay a finger on mine, I’ll be over here. Mark my words.'” (She had seven kids and they terrorised the street for years.)

At the risk of sounding like a chippy northerner, I must point out that this is not really “a biography of the white working class”, but of a south London working-class community. Collins, in keeping with Londoners of whatever class or ethnicity, assumes that London is the centre of everything and betrays something of a snobbish attitude towards the other end of the country, the actual home of the vast majority of the working class. In one of the rare mentions of its existence, writing about the early part of the last century, he writes of the “sooty little towns of the north”. The great industrial cities of Manchester, Newcastle, Glasgow, Birmingham and Leeds were sooty certainly, but hardly “little towns”.

Collins is at his best when he’s doing what south Londoners have been doing so well for centuries: taunting the middle classes. He tells a story of the woman at a party in the early 1990s who had just moved to Elephant and Castle (one of the advance party of gentrifiers from north of the river) who complained that she couldn’t find any aubergines in the local markets, and that this was a symptom of the “fear of diversity”, declaring finally that the root of the problem was that “the street is very white.” Of course, she meant white working class: “Her multiculturalism made her colourless; her class made her superior.”

Not to worry, as the area has changed beyond recognition in the last 10 years, aubergines and halal meat are readily available and most of the white people around there under 65 are middle class.

Collins recounts an old timer perusing a glossy brochure extolling the Elephant’s attractions to outsiders. It listed the various immigrants over the centuries, including Germans, the Dutch, the Flemish, Irish, Afro-Caribbeans, West Africans, Chinese, Cypriots, Vietnamese, Somalians, Ethiopians, Bosnians and Croats, and boasted that “over 100 languages are spoken by our children”. The old fella remarks: “They don’t mention us English. You wouldn’t think we’d ever existed would ya?”

A spokesman for a 1997 New Labour-commissioned survey on race is quoted in the book: “I feel ‘multicultural’ wrongly meant non-white culture. Anybody who tried to assert white culture was automatically a member of the BNP. That was wrong. We’re going to have to look at people being proud of being British and white without them necessarily being the enemy.”

Shame no one listened to him.

Copyright Mark Simpson 2004

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