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Toby Banks

Going for bloke

Every era has its symbols. Ten years ago we had Keith Joseph, Margaret Thatcher, pickets and council estates. Somewhere along the line they were replaced by John Major, Gary Lineker, Essex Man and starter homes. And, of course, the Sun man.

The Sun man stands in front of a variety of backdrops - holiday pool, dream kitchen - and shouts about Britain's top-selling daily paper. He is a media bloke, a breed specialising in no-nonsense endorsements of beers, safety locks and DIY. He looks like he's probably got a brother in the services, and in the golf club bar he likes to use the occasional military expression like 'SOHF' (sense of humour failure) or 'NFI' (not fucking interested). His vaguely southern accent could best be described as Policeman's English, and he likes to call people 'chaps'.

Like the Michelin man, he has evolved almost imperceptibly over the years. He has been refined. His rough edges have been redrawn. He shouts less. His leisurewear has become blander and his backdrops more suburban. Scrupulously nondescript, ever so classless. Neither common nor snobbish. Trustworthy and simple, like a dog. People are supposed to identify with him, although in real life he would be despised by the professional middle classes, and envied for his house and money by anyone in an inferior position. Certainly he would not inspire any great personal affinity. So for presentational purposes he must be drained of as many of his unappealing characteristics as possible.

For a while, being this kind of totem for the 'classless society' was a fairly easy job. For ordinary people, there was the promise of a better life. And the middle classes were prepared to pay a price for classless politics: mixing with barrow boys in suits and earrings was preferable to strikes and conflict.

By the nineties even the slowest public schoolboy had realised that the best career move was to go for bloke. They disguised their accents as best they could, said 'cheers' a lot and learned the names of footballers. Peregrine Worsthorne remarked that by the end of his time at the Daily Telegraph, it had become necessary to 'play down the public school aspect'. In the City, accents became 'more consumer-friendly'. A right-wing populism gained a footing, with Andrew Neil's Sunday Times railing against the 'snobocracy'.

The recession has pulled the rug from under the bloke. For real Romford boys the problem is straightforward: how to keep themselves in the style to which they are accustomed. The middle class versions are in a more complicated situation: for them, becoming a bloke was a hell of a compromise. Before the age of the white-collar bloke, people knew their place. Working class boys grew up fast, left school early and had a few enjoyable years bunging their mum a fiver a week and spending the rest on booze, birds, cars and holidays. Then they got married and settled down to a life of making ends meet. Middle class boys endured an extended childhood at boarding school, on the understanding that the good life comes to those who wait.

Now that 'popular capitalism' has become to Tories what 'team of the eighties' is to Crystal Palace supporters, the promise of the comfortable life seems like a rather cruel joke. The young middle classes are feeling uneasy and insecure. They are experiencing their own version of the identity crisis that has stricken their establishment elders. The fathers know who they are but don't know where they're going; the sons aren't even sure of who they are.

When people are scared of the future they take refuge in the past. Parents look back to the war. Young people look to their youth. But what if your youth was spent wearing sports jackets with elbow patches, swotting for exams, listening to Genesis albums and wondering what girls are like? What do you get nostalgic about?

For years the middle class twenty and thirtysomethings wallowed in their childhoods, chattering inanely about those 'rilly gud' bubble gum stickers you used to get, and how Scoobydoo was, like, amazing. Then the seventies revival gave them the chance to trade in their life of teenage sacrifice for a more exciting and socially acceptable version. Suddenly those days spent chasing muddy rugby balls and translating Latin are transformed into a montage of inner-city discos and parties, football terraces and scrapes with the Old Bill.

They are buying into working class culture in a big way. No proletarian stone is left unturned. Selected safety zones have become theme parks for an alternative heritage industry. Black cabs decant parties of well-heeled gals outside the Clapham Gala, where - after a quick drink in the quaint pub where 'everyone just watches television' (yah, they rilly do, honestly!)--it's eyes down for a night's bingo with the grannies and housewives. And it's perfectly splendid fun: 'The excitement when one has to cross off one more number is sometimes more than one can bear.'

If you think you can handle any more examples, you can cab it down to the Old Bull and Bush - sorry, old Ferret & Firkin. Roll out the barrel, the gang's all here: a real East End knees-up...with no cockneys...in Chelsea. It sounds simple, yet the reality is more complex. The old-time numbers initially receive a respectful hearing, and the Sloanes join in the bits they know ('Alive, alive-o-oh!'). It's the seventies pop that gets them going, though, and soon the pianist switches to his wedding reception routine, pounding out the Boney M numbers for an increasingly excitable crowd, which makes game attempts at 'disco dancing'.

However, as the night progresses, brains slip into something more comfortable. Ancient folk memories are stirred. A semi-circle of prop forwards assembles ominously and performs an enthusiastic frug to 'Yellow Submarine'. A young couple entertains their friends with an amusing re-enactment of a film in which a car drives in the wrong direction on a motorway. 'You're going the wrong way!' they scream at each other, again and again, getting redder and redder. I went to the toilet, got a drink and came back to find them still going strong.

By closing time the pianist has given up trying to be heard. 'You'll Never Walk Alone' is drowned out by a deafening rendition of 'Swing Low Sweet Chariot', with all the actions. For a few sweet minutes everything in their world is as it was meant to be.

All too soon they must step out into the night. A row of teenagers sitting on a wall starts an aggressive chorus: 'We are the famous CFC!'. Everyone hurries past.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 57, July 1993

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