Guest post by Robin Carmody:
In October 1984, early in the season that ended with Bradford and Heysel, there was a major fire at Norwich City football ground. You’ve almost certainly never heard of it, because it didn’t happen during a match and so nobody was killed. But it very easily could have done; football grounds had been allowed to decay, partially out of a Tory belief that the conditions in which working class people had to live didn’t matter, so badly that Bradford, like Hillsborough, could have happened to multiple other sets of fans at multiple other times. It is, in fact, a wonder that they didn’t.
But imagine if that fire had actually killed as many Norwich fans as Bradford or Liverpool fans were killed in the disasters that did happen. How would the Left’s response have differed? Could it – would it – have responded with as much empathy and fellow feeling for the dead and the bereaved? Might elements of it, even, have felt that those who died were en masse class traitors, unworthy of equal levels of support?
The unfortunate situation that continues to prevail on much of the English Left is that when many Leftists say that they support working class people who do not speak RP, and the right of those accents to be heard and not discriminated against and perceived as a badge of stupidity, they only mean working class people in areas, and the accents of those areas, which were largely made by the industrial revolution and have experienced heavy non-white settlement since 1945. When it comes to working-class people in areas, and especially the accents of those areas, which were largely unaffected by the industrial revolution and have not had such levels of immigration (other than, in a much more concentrated period the reaction to which has now had disastrous political consequences, from Eastern Europe), they are often capable of the most obscene levels of prejudice, discrimination and the treatment of entire forms of working class speech as badges of stupidity.
It hurts much more to hear this sort of thing from the left in the same way that, even after Maxwell had withered away the paper’s soul and got rid of everyone from Pilger to Waterhouse, it hurt much more to see the Daily Mirror run covertly racist and anti-Semitic lies about the Beastie Boys in 1987, or to equate modern Germans with Nazis in 1996, than if it had been The Sun; you simply expect better, and expect more, from those who portray themselves as against prejudice and discrimination. Portrayal of people with, say, Scouse accents as thick – a partial factor in the Hillsborough disaster (and over-compensated for by the constant tabloid references to “Jamie” Bulger, a name never used by his family, as if they could only counterbalance the years of dehumanisation with an equally insulting faux-chumminess) – comes pretty much entirely from people who do not deny their prejudice, but flaunt it, boast about it, wallow in it. You don’t expect anything else from them. Portrayal of people with West Country or East Anglian accents as thick, on the other hand, comes disproportionately from people who make a great point of how immune they are from prejudice, how even-handed and equal their treatment of others is (eg leftie comedians on Radio 4). But in this field they completely abandon those rules and are, quite often, guilty of some of the most obscene, incontinent and just plain unpleasant abuse and mockery of other people I have ever come across. It is, by those criteria, far more actively disappointing.
And what makes it worse is that the prophecy is self-fulfilling. While accents with left cred, such as that of Liverpool, have strengthened and enhanced, those without are in the process of withering and dying. Worse, leftists from regions such as south-west England have, in many cases, internalised such rhetoric and believe it applies accurately to themselves; in my direct personal experience, they frequently do not speak up against negative stereotyping of their regions and actively join in with it themselves.
Yes, of course, I know the historical reasons for this tendency on the left, so please don’t talk to me as if I don’t. I’m wholly aware of the history of greater yes-sir-no-sir, bow-and-scrape subservience among much (although by no means all) of the rural working class, the root cause of this double standard. I understand wholly and entirely where it comes from. I just don’t think it should apply to every stance the left takes now; the days when rural working-class accents were more acceptable on the BBC than other non-RP accents, because they were less associated with trade union militancy, have long since passed and now the boot is completely on the other foot. Moreover, it is again a self-fulfilling prophecy; if you tell people, over and over again, that they are traitors to the left’s cause, an inconvenience in its way, you cannot be surprised if they then vote in line with such suspicions. I am aware that many leftists will think this chicken-egg situation works the other way. But I simply do not think that leftists should joyfully welcome the eclipse of an entire working-class culture by the forces of global capitalism simply because it fits less cleanly and clearly into the Left’s dominant narrative and the role the working class is supposed to play in it. Engaging and connecting with the shires does not mean embracing feudalism; our – and their – history is far more complicated than that.
When I posted regularly in parts of the internet dominated by the right, I was hated far more passionately because I held the views I did while living in the part of the country I live in than I ever could have been had I lived in London or Birmingham and held such views. Had I lived in such a city, they would have felt that I came from contaminated territory anyway and so would have had no expectations for me to conform to their worldview; as it was, I was treated with particular aggression and venom because I had, in their eyes, abandoned my duty; their ideals for me were so high by their own racist criteria, and I had betrayed them. Surely, in such circumstances, leftists could be relied on to come to my aid?
Not necessarily. At the same time, I was condemned by elements of the left for virtually identical reasons – listening to music in an “inappropriate” location. As has so often happened, authenticists of both sides found common enemies. They both wanted the same place to be the same thing, and in the end it mattered little whether they were concerned with an Elgar- or Betjeman-esque ideal (even if it is, in fact, a misunderstanding of the complexities in both those people’s character and work) or with the “authenticity of street culture”. They were both offended by the same thing. The support I thought I could rely on was not forthcoming because the left had internalised a view that everyone in the shires was stupid, at best a feudalist and at worst a fascist, and that anything modern should be kept out of them. As with the Beeching axe, the worst elements of both sides played against each other. (At the same time, the more Thatcherite and less traditionalist elements on the right would tell me that shire conservatives would listen to the music I listened to, they just wouldn’t politicise its message, which is a different kind of wrong; I know how angry some leftists will also get if I say this, but I remain convinced that, at certain times and in certain places and over certain forms, casual consumption can be just as revolutionary and disruptive a force as active political use of music.)
Gratifyingly, the Bristol-born but Dorchester-raised Isaiah Dreads has not had his geographical background stand in the way of his credibility and status in the UK grime / hip-hop scene, and shows no sign of becoming a sort of inverse Oliver Skeete novelty figure – he gets a great deal of respect and admiration from people who cannot remember the days of regional demarcation within ITV, or the difficulty of accessing these forms of music if you lived outside major cities in the days when physical distribution of music was universal, where now it is only even dominant for Adele or Simon Cowell fodder (the only forms which have continued to sell impressively on CD) or the “new” (it’s 20 years since Blair got in now!)-establishment rock without which there wouldn’t be the alleged “vinyl revival”. His audience, gratifyingly, does not have the same hang-ups as those older elements on both Right and Left. But I would like to see him addressing further his politically subversive status; after all, he is – just as I was all those years ago – far more of a threat to the culture of white flight, which has internalised a vision of Dorset as an escape from all his music stands for – than any city-raised artist in his genre ever could be. It’s possible that he just doesn’t know how important he is (Mic Righteous does know it, but alas I cannot now endorse all his politics, even if I once could).
At any rate, he seems to represent a new era for the area in which I live, as great a reinvention as any of the iconic Blairite rock names once held for their home areas. Those on the left who cannot accept it as such really should think very, very carefully.