I had the misfortune today of being sent a series of joke photos from a website called "Chavscum". Oh my God some of them would put you off your food. But this one was even worse. If ever there was an advertisement for contraception, this was it.
But it then sent me off thinking about the recent trend in jeering at the tacky and vulgar lapses of taste which the British working class have been descending to. Since the left-leaning years of the 1960s, its generally been cool to be working class. Even songs like Pulp's "Common People" have wonderfully evoked the hipness of the faux working class (or in Jamie Oliver's case "mockney"). Even the general greater London area accent has become "Estuary English", largely as a result of received pronounciation resulting from a large diet of children's TV presenters. This accent has basically diluted a slightly cockneyesque accent into the middle classes. (Having said that myself, I returned from London 3 years ago speaking a nice variation of estuary English, so I suppose we are all vulnerable to change). But the tables have turned with the "chav" phenomenon and its become almost a spectator sport t0 laugh at the sometimes dreadful taste shown by some working class folk.
I suppose the nearest we have to it in Ireland is boy racers. Tracksuited, shaved heads, pimply youths in old Honda Civics souped up with the somewhat dubious "best" in Lexus lights, body kits, grotesquely massive alloys and roaring induction kits. With an unfortunately almost equal inability to drive safely and basically, no taste. Its rather like the malignant spread of armchair racism in Ireland, but no matter how much the media pours scorn on this, it still seems to spread rampantly. At the same time, Ireland still has a folk-memory adoration for the "peasant" class - where thick ignorance, physical prowess, rural abandon and lawlessness is still considered a virtue. It will be interesting to see if Ireland starts to turn on the chav like the English have.
While many commentators repeatedly try to stress that chavs are actually middle class, the examples usually given are wholeheartedly working class: the residual unemployed (and often unemployable), the single parent, the urban dweller. Chavs are rarely portrayed as succesful or rich, except perhaps for the phenomenon of the plumber syndrome. (Three years ago it became apparent that the most in-demand occupation was in fact plumbers). Whereas in Ireland the popular peasant culture glorifies physical work (for example a virtually illiterate and relaitvely unskilled painter or builder can earn up to 3 times the average industrial wage, whereas a Third Secretary in the Civil Service only earns 25-37k) in the UK this kind of work has been repeatedly downgraded through a series of processes including obselecance, the ready availability of a cheap pool of migrant workers, and more recently the outsourcing phenomenon which makes it possible, at arms length, to engage workers on even lower wages. (Although a similar process has even happened in local authorities where even skilled professional work such as teaching and social work has suffered spiralling real wage cuts as the essential services follow the outsourced downgrades through budgetary squeezing. This is unique to the UK and in fact the exact opposite has happened in Ireland due to more centalised services). Like Michael Moore's hypothesis that much of the US's social problems are caused by the generation of a large underclass, in the UK this underclass has been distinguished into different groups - including the much hated "chavs".
What are "chavs" anyway? It would appears that the typical chav male is white, urban, dresses entirely in branded sportswear and gold jewellery. Depending on your sources, he has the intellectual capacity of a baboon, the manners of a pig and drinks "white lightning" (the chav critiques term for Belgian premium beer, Stella Artois). The female of the species is distinuished by garish clothing, often inappropriate, and is almost always seen as hideous. The specimen above is classic for 2 reasons - the excessive use of "bling" - cheap but rich-looking jewellery, and garishness. Of course taste is a personal thing and its difficult to distinguish objectively between good and bad taste.
The class distinction is a more contentious issue. While most observers insist that the chav is largely a middle class construct, it is impossible to see this. Most of the areas associated with chavs and the photos of supposed chavs are blatantly working class and inevitably poor. I think there is however, a special category - the celebrity chav. Classic examples of ridicule are the unfortunate attempt by the Beckhams to be "intellectual" - which unfortunately was recognised for the feeble attempt at social climbing that it was. The Beckhams are seen as the ultimate chavs - irredemably working class regardless of how much money they earn. Another classic example is the model Jordan. Possessing the vulgarity and ambition of a gutter snipe, alongside ridiculously poor taste (any woman who surgically expands any part of her body to a size normally associated with the grossly overweight surely is missing some vital point of taste), Jordan manages to be helplessly vulgar without even trying. There is an essential pathos in the celebrity chav as they attempt to be "posh" and utterly fail. Shameless self-promotion is the way of the celebrity chav.
However I do think there is a strong element of snobbery in the construction of the chav. And really, the entire construction is largely an expression of middle class disgust at the predictable and these days, almost factory standard sets of tastes and behaviours associated with the now growing underclass. I think the chav is a fraud, like Piltdown man.