Cheltenham Average

I read an article by Polly Toynbee in the Guardian yesterday, entitled ‘Chav: the vile word at the heart of fractured Britain’. Quite a dramatic title. The article received a huge amount of praise on twitter, presumably from middle-class Guardian readers who are far too right-on to use the word themselves, especially bearing in mind that its very use has led to Britain becoming ‘fractured’; this can’t be a good thing. I suspect that these folk subscribe to the Orwellian paradox in that they harbour a great respect for the working class, so long as they don’t have to spend any time with them in day to day life. To quote ‘Yes, Minister’, they are similar to Radio 3: no-one actually listens, but it’s vital to know that it’s there.

As with so much that is trotted out by ‘columnists’, it’s a complete non-story. Incidentally, the rise of columnists seems to have occurred simply because we’re all so busy that we don’t have time to read the news and formulate an opinion ourselves; it’s far better not to have to read the news, but to have a columnist that we like and trust to do the reading for us, before wrapping it up in a mass of neat soundbites for us to quote and pass off as our own. It’s a dangerous development, this translation of news by the chosen few, and the lapping up of ‘opinion as fact’ by a public whose mind is elsewhere; certainly far more dangerous than using the word ‘chav’ occasionally.

The problem with the word chav is two-fold. Firstly, it’s a relatively new word, in that I don’t believe that anyone was using it 15 years ago. As Toynbee points out, the words ‘oik’ and ‘prole’ have fallen into abeyance, and the word ‘chav’ is simply a reinvention of this term. The second is a question of definition. If you asked 100 people, family fortunes-style, to define the word ‘chav’, would you be confident that any two people would give the same answer? I’m pretty sure that the etymology of the word is not ‘Cheltenham Average’, as a former colleague of mine claimed, insisting that the girls at Cheltenham Ladies College had invented the term to describe the local females (he also insisted that the word was pronounced ‘sharve’, thus discrediting himelf further). Toynbee defines the word purely in class terms, in the same way that oik and prole were used in yesteryear; it is a word used by the prejudiced upper classes to describe those in the lower classes (at one point she even describes these lower classes as Wills and Harry’s ‘subjects’). She then goes on to define ‘class’ purely in terms of luck and money. In the age of social mobility and widening access for university entry, it’s surprising that people like Toynbee seem desperate to keep the class divide intact. We all have to earn a living.

I’m pretty sure that most people don’t see it this way. The word chav is synonymous with bad and antisocial behaviour, not with the working class. The word chav tends to be used to describe groups people playing ringtones loudly on the bus, or drinking and swearing on the tube, not groups of builders sat drinking tea on the site, or people chopping lettuce in McDonalds. The ‘posh chavs’ who colonise Polzeath each summer are hardly traditional working class, and yet the word neatly describes their behaviour, which fails to take the feeling of others into account.

Until one is satisfied with the definition of a word, there’s very little point entering an argument on whether the use of the term has led to Britain becoming fractured. I can’t imagine wanting to debate the atheist v agnostic viewpoint without being sure that the person with whom I was having the discussion was of the same mind as me regarding definitions.

I’m still left with a real ‘so what?’ feeling having re-read the article. By the luck and money argument, Wayne Rooney should be calling me a chav. He’s got far more money than I have, and he’s been far luckier than me, bearing in mind that his major talent is far more widely recognised than any of mine.

I was far more shocked and revolted by the article in the Guardian weekender magazine where the young children of the columnists were invited to take over their columns for the week. Cue much middle-class smug hilarity from the mini-Petrides and Hugheses. If there’s anything likely to start a class war, that was it.