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19 September 2005

Black and White Town

Heygate Estate, Elephant & Castle

Boxer Prollboy

Just as I was about to leave London a new cultural phenomenon was rapidly taking hold, spawning in its wake what would become in my absence the latest addition to British youth subculture. The Chav had arrived and to my consternation he didn't look good at all. In actual fact he and his female version had been knocking around for quite a while before being even termed 'chavs' - apparently an old word dating back to the original Indo-European pool with equivalents all over the European linguistic family. Having lived on Islington's notorious Packington Square and witnessed the slow agony of the Marquess Estate down the road (a classic amongst Pevsner obsessives but sadly no longer with us) during which whole generations of proto-chavs seemingly vanished without trace - a chav culling secretly conducted by the council? - I'd become accustomed to the stylistic idiosyncrasies of what only beleaguered remnants of old white, working class communities in the midst of galloping gentrification could come up with. The teasing sight of ankles left uncovered by elasticated tracksuit-bottoms for boys and the obligatory, lonely stuck-to-the-forehead-kiss curl and supersize hoops for strangely boyish-looking girls, screaming their heads off late at night in the not-so-lovely-anymore streets of Islington to the music of the delightful Mike Skinner aka The Streets - had become a vague object of curiosity for me, something intrinsically English in its inward-lookingness, something from another age, the last of the working-class youth archetypes, as incongruous and endangered as their decrepit, asbestos-infested flats.

How they came to be fetishised by the media is not quite clear. All I know is the that The Sun started devoting whole spreads to the subject with Jordan crowned as the Über-Chav with a full hierarchy of lesser incarnations cascading all the way down to the most anonymous Romford pissheads. Then Julie Burchill, in a groundbreaking piece of writing for The Times, came to their defence and even claimed to be one herself. Thus a whole stratum of society became almost overnight the object of intense media scrutiny and in the process lost the little mystique it may have had in the first place. For the chav, unlike the first mods, skinheads or punks, who upon their sudden appearance startled and scared the nation senseless, is fundamentally a media construct and is therefore instantly absorbed and domesticated by them, and for all its disastrous social skills and poor hygiene credentials, turned into an almost cuddly creature. He is tame and helpless as he becomes the target of national ridicule, all smelly trainers, inarticulacy and promiscuous sex, which nicely ties in with previous discourses on the working class - above all the exclusive preserve of The Daily Mail: aberrant, monstrous sexuality with boys and girls alike relentlessly at it. It is actually interesting to put the figure of the chav into perspective with that of the skinhead, who started terrorising populations in 1969 and underwent a number of transformations and appropriations over the following decades. A cursory comparison of the two is indeed revealing of the way the perception of the working class has changed over the years, leading to its complete neutralisation and infantalisation. As the first skins emerged in East London the working class was still an awesome social force to be reckoned with and the docks were still in relative activity. Their appearance was otherworldly, like nothing else seen before, and their sense of elegance unmatched. Their alienness and ultra-violence took British society by surprise which saw in them the high level of danger and aggravation the working classes were still capable of.

A thatcho-blairite revolution and a few property boom-busts at Canary Wharf later and not much is left of them in that elusive, global pursuit of middle-class belonging. That's why I feel very sorry for chavs as far as their iconic status is concerned because on top of looking shoddy they have entirely been recuperated by the media and the construction of their image can now be only determined by its own rules - whereas the skinhead, in all his haughtiness, could still have enough defiance and charisma to evade all reductive representations of himself - he did at least lend itself to the wildest romanticising as the Richard Allen novels testify. No such thing with the chavs, whose horrendous tastes and low spending-power irremediably position them at the shabby end of the consumerist chain, as a debased descendant of older youth subcultures, the laughing stock of a nation hellbent on prole-bashing. However they seem to have found an sympathetic audience in some gay circles who, prone to eroticise all that is deemed authentic in the working class - as their ongoing flirtation with skinhead imagery has shown - have let out the chav in them and discovered a penchant for bling, dirty sneakers and smelly feet. Even a trendy gay porn production company has released an entire chav-themed collection. And just like with gay skins in the good old nineties, knives are out between those who ARE the genuine article from Bermondsey and those for whom it's just a weekend look to get cock. As I was staying in East London a couple of weeks ago I couldn't help fantasising about the exact whereabouts of the chavs, like some mythical territory that lay beyond my personal mapping of the city, just like it was a few years ago when men were roaming in the dark on Hoxton Square and the whole of London felt like an immense sexual magnetic field. That I could be magnetised by a Burberry-clad, weedy youth from Basildon might be pushing it a bit, though.

Prollboy asleep

Heygate Estate, Elephant & Castle


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