The Null Device

Smoke some fags and play some pool

Last night, Murdoch cable channel Sky One aired a programme titled Chavs, a documentary of sorts, written and presented by Julie Burchill, on chav culture. I tuned in to see if it was going to be interesting or insightful, shedding any light on this phenomenon. It turned out to be more an op-ed piece, with Burchill, ever the contrarian, proudly hoisting the Burberry flag, declaring herself to be a chav and accusing those who have a problem with chav to be classist snobs.

Burchill's arguments hinged on one assumption: that chav and working-class culture were synonymous. (A piece of background: Burchill is the most self-announcedly "working class" public figure since Damon Albarn.) By her reasoning, all cultural figures of note from Mozart to the Mods were chavs, and the anti-chav camp only had horsy aristocrats and the likes of Prince Harry among them. Oh, and wearing in-your-face quantities of gold jewellery bought on QVC, drinking cheap lager and smoking like a chimney are just wholesome working-class ways of enjoying life, and those who would begrudge them that are hateful snobs and/or resentful of those who made it without middle-class privilege.

The fatal flaw in Burchill's argument is in the definitions; she plays fast-and-loose with what she means by "chav", switching between it meaning any happily working-class person at any time in history and the loutish subculture it commonly denotes. She also whitewashes the meaning to fit her argument, not mentioning the pseudo-criminal posturing (i.e., the combination of baseball caps and hooded tops, initially worn by muggers to avoid identification by CCTV cameras, now part of inner-city youth uniform) that's part of chav (or, indeed, the recent finding that 1 in 4 teenage boys is a serious or habitual offender), and sweeping things like drunken violence and football hooliganism under the carpet. It's not surprising that chav can start to look defensible and even pluckily admirable when you airbrush out all the negative parts of it.

Chavs was more of a snappily-edited tabloid opinion piece than anything else, and was also light on analysis, preferring to stick to simple assertions and soundbites. For example, while it asserted that the Mods of the 1960s were chavs (that is, if one ignores the difference between sharply-tailored suits and tracksuit pants), it failed to point out the one deeper connection between the two movements, i.e., that both appropriated (images of) black American culture (the Mods with soul and the "White Negro" ideal, and the chavs with their adoption of bling-bling and thug posturing from commercial gangsta rap).

It was also interesting to note that The Sun now has a "Chav and Proud" logo on its pages. It looks like the anti-anti-chav-backlash-backlash is beginning.

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