Chavs and the Classless Rural Upbringing

Apr 11th, 2011 | Filed under Politics

Growing up, I wasn’t really exposed to the realities of class in this country. Growing up in a village that has been used as a filming location for Midsomer Murders more than a few times, it’s a fairly homogenous environment. There was a dim awareness that some of the houses in the village were “council houses” (though without any understanding until much later of what that meant in any practical sense), and a general feeling that certain areas of the village were in some way “superior” to others.

But on the whole, certainly until the age of eleven, there weren’t rich people or poor people. I don’t think anybody got picked on at school for being poor – if they had, I would probably have noticed, on account of how it would probably have been me – not because I was, necessarily, but because my parents’ philosophical objections to paying for sweatshop-produced overpriced brands meant that I lacked the status symbols that might otherwise have marked me out as “not poor” to the primary school mind.

So I went through primary scohol without any real exposure to social inequality by virtue of “class”. Secondary school was similar – if you were at the school, you were either from one of the nearby villages, or lived in the market town where the school was based. None of these locations attracts a particularly diverse set of people.

That’s not to say there didn’t emerge a social hierarchy at school. In true Social Mobility style, a ruling class established itself consisting of people with attributes desirable to that class. Initially formed of poorly defined “popular” kids, people outside that group could gain acceptance through sporting ability, being attractive, or being willing to disrupt lessons for “respect”. This social mobility did nothing to help those who did not possess the attributes that the ruling class considered to be of value, and in that respect it’s a great primer for “real life”.

But none of it was based on class, at least not explicitly. That’s not to say that one person’s background was never compared against another’s, but it was very much at the micro- rather than macro- level. We didn’t have “poor kids” or “rich kids”.

I guess the point of that lengthy exposition is to establish that when the word “chav” entered the lexicon, for me there was no word for it to supplant. We didn’t have a word for the working classes, because where they existed, they were seemlessly integrated into the wider social fabric of school life. So we didn’t need a word for the working class, and as such, “chav” would have been a superfluous dictionary entry, if used strictly to define such a group.

So instead, it supplanted “townie”. This was a term largely based on observed behaviour rather than social background – one could choose to be a townie through their actions, or not. Primarily the word described people who weren’t from our area who visited, largely for the sake of getting drunk and making a nuisance of themselves. I guess “lout” would also be a fair synonym for our use of the word.

Whilst I would agree that on the whole, “townies” were more likely to come from large housing estates in Oxford or Aylesbury, and as such would probably have been more likely to be working class, I would still dispute the assertion that “townie” in itself was a means of describing that class. It was a rural area, in which everybody within a six mile radius attended the same school – it’s natural that out of that would arise an in-group/out-group dynamic, in which “outsiders” are labelled and mistrusted. It just happens that the only significant population of outsiders that would bother coming to our town came from less well-off backgrounds.

It was, though, a word intended to describe negative behaviours. Being drunk a little unfashionably early in the evening, hanging around on the streets being disruptive, and that perceived behaviour of deliberately travelling somewhere just for the purpose of getting drunk there.

And as such, the word “chav” has entered my vocabulary far less as an epithet for the working class, and more as a means of describing people who behave in a loutish way. People who aggressively drive cars with go-faster stripes and undercarriage lighting, for example. Yesterday, I mentally called somebody a chav for wandering around their garden shouting their side of a conversation into a mobile phone while littering it with unnecessary swear words. They’re probably not working class – they own a house in Surrey, if that’s typical “working class” then the phrase probably isn’t useful any more.

And actually, I think I’m a large part of the problem. It seems to me that one of the biggest problems with the word “chav” is the way in which clumsy use of the word conflates the working class with undesirable attributes. Every time I use “chav” to denote a person with no manners or consideration for others, somebody else uses it to describe a person from a working class background, and that gives rise to a convenient media narrative in which those things get correlated. “The working class are rude, they drink on the streets, they swear unnecessarily, they drive badly in modded cars”.

And that narrative takes two groups to fuel it – those who use a word to describe the working class, and those who use exactly the same word to describe “undesirables”. I’m coming to realise that it’s not good enough to say “But I don’t mean it like that!” when actually, it’s conflicting usage that makes it so easy to talk down the working classes. Best to avoid the word entirely, I think.

  1. Allison
    Apr 11th, 2011 at 07:35
    Reply | Quote | #1

    Excellent points! And like you I’ve struggled with its usage and now avoid it all together. Especially sickened to find CHAV apparently stands for Council House And Violent… that was on a TV programme about class. I am working class, but have a particular issue with people not taking responsibility for their lives (regardless of class). Not because I judge people on salary/car/house, but I’m afraid I do have an issue with people not respecting themselves and others. Very hard not to be critical when you see how some people behave. I’d not heard the term until recently, but it’s now part of the lexicon of our language and is a star turn for a lot of second-rate-commentators descriptions of huge swathes of people that ‘are not like them’. Allison (bessiesfight on Twitter)

  2. James
    Apr 11th, 2011 at 07:56
    Reply | Quote | #2

    I haven’t yet found a consistent explanation for the origin of the word “chav”, though I’m fairly sure that the “Council House and Violent” thing is just a backronym, invented as part of the use of “chav” as a tool in the anti-poor narrative.

    Happy to be corrected on that, if would be nice to have a definitive answer on where the word comes from, but I’m hesitant to believe that it carried its current connotations from the start.

    I think the “not like us” thing is really important – it shines a light on exactly what it is that society deems to be “unsavoury”. When I was younger, it was “people from urban areas” or just a more general “people who aren’t local”. The rise of chav as a universal insult combined with a catch-all description of the working class says a lot about the way in which society has turned on those people not fortunate enough to be born into better backgrounds.

  3. Liam James
    Apr 11th, 2011 at 13:19
    Reply | Quote | #3

    I’ve always been told (and apparently the Wikipedia massive agrees with me) that the word sprung up in towns around Chatham as a derogatory term for those in the area. There are a few backronyms floating around, but they’re all a bit awkward.

    • James
      Apr 11th, 2011 at 14:25
      Reply | Quote | #4

      I like to imagine that most words like “chav” start off without a deliberately spiteful meaning, and just take them on later.. The Chatham thing was something I’d heard too, though sadly the evolution of slang is poorly documented when said slang isn’t even recognised by those who document such things until quite some time later… :o)

  4. Owen Jones
    Apr 11th, 2011 at 20:36
    Reply | Quote | #5

    Fascinating post.

    I don’t know if people saw the recent ‘BritainThinks’ study on class, but it had a particularly revealing finding, I thought:
    “There was a strong feeling in the focus groups that the noble tradition of a respectable and diligent working class was over. For the first time, I saw the “working class” tag used as a slur, equated with other class-based insults such as “chav”. I asked focus group members to make collages using newspaper and magazine clippings to show what the working class was. Many chose deeply unattractive images: flashy excess, cosmetic surgery gone wrong, tacky designer clothes, booze, drugs and overeating. By contrast, being middle class is about being, well, a bit classy.”

    I think this interesting (and disturbing) idea has grown popular: that we’re all middle-class now, except for the old “chav” leftovers of the working-class. The idea of a “respectable working-class” – which was once mainstream, if rather patronising – has been all but airbrushed.

    I think rather than using “chav” in the contexts above you describe, people should think of bringing words like “thug” – they focus much more on the individual being described, rather than lumping a whole group of people together based on a caricature.

    Anyway, really interesting stuff!