Let’s start with a joke: “There’s a black fella, a Pakistani, and a Jew in a nightclub. What a fine example of an integrated community.” Here’s another one for ya, “Two homosexuals in the back of a van, having sex. They’re over twenty-one! What’s wrong with that?” These are the anti-stereotype jokes of ‘Bernard Righton’, a character acted by the comedian John Thompson in the Fast Show from the 1990s. The second joke in fact shows how far we have come as the age of same sex consent is now 16. Although progress has been made in challenging stereotypes, many still exist, and often they target the working class.
The latest to be challenged, is that of the Essex girl; Essex is a county in England, and the stereotype is that it is populated by bleach-blonde, high-heeled, promiscuous women of low intelligence. This has gone on for years and has been promulgated by such TV shows as Birds of a Feather and The Only Way is Essex (TOWIE). Although some people might argue that it’s only a laugh, for many women it is a real problem. Sadie Hasler is a playwright from Essex, who left acting because she was only offered roles that involved wearing cat suits, going topless and always being sexual. A number of initiatives are ongoing to challenge the Essex Girl tag; these include a petition, social media campaign, a walk (The Essex Way), and a charitable foundation, the Essex Women’s Advisory Group.
A recent article by the poet Andrew McMillan, with echoes of Richard Hoggart some fifty years ago, forcefully argued for the need to hear more stories of working class lives in order to counter the void filled by the far right: “There must be an urgency, now, to help disenfranchised communities of all different types express their identity, to celebrate their history, to see themselves as belonging to part of a bigger picture, and this must include a refocusing on the working classes.” Similarly, another article called for politicians to better understand the working class vote, getting away from the belief they are only white; “mixed-race is the fastest growing demographic category, and that the growth is largely among the working class.”
If this site does one thing, I hope it shows that the working class are not a one dimensional, culturally barren, single type of person. Poems from Kim Moore, Dean Atta, Jacob Sam-La Rose, and many more have debunked such stereotypes. Josephine Corcoran’s “Working Class Poem” strongly adds to that story, because “This poem went to a state school and a university. This poem left school at 16. There are no whippets in this poem. This poem isn’t going down a mine. This poem doesn’t buy The Sun.” Josephine wryly highlights the cultural stereotypes, “this poem doesn’t recognise itself in soap operas,” and debunks them with “This poem goes to art galleries, museums, poetry readings,” spelling it out succinctly, “There is no tick box for this poem.” But going back to our start, there is also humour in, “this poem is an embarrassment” and ending, “this poem doesn’t have a glottal stop.” There is no cultural coagulation that defines this large swathe of people; and this goes beyond a joke when such stereotypes are used by the powerful dictate the life chances of those they employ or represent.
Working Class Poem
This poem was born in a council house, rented flat, NHS hospital, caravan, servants’ quarters, bed and breakfast, children’s home, mortgaged house. This poem went to a state school and a university. This poem left school at 16. There are no whippets in this poem. This poem isn’t going down a mine. This poem doesn’t buy The Sun. This poem had free school dinners and uniform vouchers. This poem got into trouble. This poem went to night school. This poem had a social worker. This poem has no formal qualifications. This poem has a PhD. This poem was top of the class. This poem was a teenage parent. This poem is childless. Little is expected of this poem. This poem is framed on its parents’ living room wall. This poem works as a university lecturer, shop assistant, hairdresser, teacher, call centre worker, filing clerk, police officer, bricklayer, food scientist, teacher, software consultant, sales person. This poem hasn’t disclosed its occupation. This poem is unwaged. This poem likes films by Pasolini, Truffaut, Rohmer. This poem reads The Beano. This poem’s father was a gas fitter. Its mother washed other people’s floors. This poem watches live opera and ballet streamed to cinemas. This poem doesn’t play football. This poem drinks beer, wine, spirits, tea, cappuccinos, is teetotal. This poem has never eaten mushy peas. This poem does not recognise itself in soap operas. This poem goes to art galleries, museums, poetry readings. This poem is an embarrassment. This poem goes to the pub. There is no tick box for this poem. This poem grew up on benefits. This poem pays higher rate tax. This poem isn’t in an anthology. This poem doesn’t have a glottal stop.
(Working Class Poem was previously published in Under the Radar)