I’ve been thinking lately about the tradition of the working class as entertainment, those fictional and cinematic ventures into the foreign world of the East End or Fountain Gate, where life is hard but people have hearts of gold and everyone has a good belly laugh at everyone else’s expense.
There’s nothing new about this, of course, and the idea of a different class as a foreign country filled with entertaining specimens of The Other is not confined to the downtrodden. You could argue that The Great Gatsby does exactly the same thing, casting an essentially middle-class gaze on the upper echelon, while Captains Courageous teaches a pampered boy rude lessons of life and death through friendship with a poor fisherman. On the long march through the snow Pierre finds the answers to the questions of life, the universe and everything in the form of an old Russian soldier and a little white dog. The Dorrit family and Arthur Clennam switch roles in life (at least economically) with comic and tragic consequences, and the face of conspicuous consumption, Mrs Merdle, learns to live with less (or perhaps not).
Little Dorrit at the gate of the Marshalsea
In all of those examples class conflict or difference is intrinsic to the story and its characters. You’d think we might be over that whole storyline by now, but no.
In Call the Midwife, a British TV series set in the East End in the 1950s, we see the world through the eyes of the middle-class Jenny Lee. There is great poverty, cockroaches and preventable illness in the tenements (unchanged from Dickens’ day), prostitution and violence, huge families living on nothing but love, washing lines everywhere, screaming babies, lessons for young Jenny at every turn. The show (and presumably the memoir by Jennifer Worth on which it is based, which I haven’t read) has an equal amount of fun at the expense of Chummy, the plummy hyphenated do-gooder who grew up in India and can ride a horse to hounds but not a bicycle. Jenny Lee learns about friendship, love, hardship, courage and loss from people she would normally never meet. She comes to see the women as “heroines” not “slatterns”. But she is essentially on a visit to another world.
Jenny Lee confronted with family life in the East End
Then there’s Downton Abbey, which I love, but which on one hand paints a world where immense privilege is only sustained by the hard work and moral fibre of those who pour the claret and polish the silver; and on the other hand tries to blur those class lines through dialogue and plot points which any real earl’s family would never have considered. Involve the housemaid in your affairs? Only as an accessory. Vice versa? Don’t be absurd.
In the revisionist world of Downton, we want to believe that the upstairs family members are so fundamentally good that they care deeply about the lives of those downstairs, that the household is enmeshed in one narrative, not two. Not even Tolstoy would have argued such a thing. Sure, no earl wants his daughter becoming a suffragette and running off with the chauffeur. But no earl would involve himself in the affairs of those below stairs, and nor would his family. They’d hardly have noticed the servants at all. Still, we can’t have that in Downton, can we?
Her Ladyship dancing with Carson the butler
Closer to home, in every way, is Kath and Kim, the comedy series now become a movie. This focuses on the lives of the second- and third-generation post-war working class: as if the babies born in Call the Midwife and their kids all migrated to suburban Melbourne and got a perm. Which is not unlikely.
I never laugh at Kath and Kim. I tried to watch it in the early days, because I enjoy the work of the three comediennes behind it. But many of the jokes at the expense of the characters simply aren’t funny to me: when I was growing up everyone pronounced film as fillum, after all, so what’s hilarious about that? I just don’t get the jokes because they are about my generation, the people who migrated from Port Melbourne (our local equivalent of the East End) to Springvale or Mitcham or Sunshine, and from there to Berwick or Deer Park or – yes, Fountain Gate.
This has been playing on my mind over the last few weeks, and this morning I read this from Nigel Bowen in The Age:
Over the last decade and a half, the educated have had to make the painful adjustment to living in a society where aspirationals often out-earn them and largely determine the political agenda. Like galled aristocrats confronted by a rising merchant class, their typical response has been to snigger at the tastelessness of the newly affluent. Kath & Kim does this more gently than much of the “cashed-up bogan” comedy but it still does it. The malapropisms, mispronunciations and mixed metaphors of the characters allow the university-educated to chuckle at those who don’t understand the hilarious implications of wanting to be effluent rather than affluent. Many of them would see Kim – bloated by junk food, addicted to tabloid media, bedazzled by hyper-consumerism, utterly self-absorbed – as a portrayal rather than a grotesque caricature.
Bowen divides us between educated and aspirational, and it makes sense now our class sensibilities are less finely-tuned than they were a generation ago. But the cultural division runs deeper than that, and many of the university-educated people of my age are only able to be so due to that one brief shining moment of free tertiary education that jump-started a generation of kids (like me and our Prime Minister) into the professional class. Those who went before us never had the chance to finish school. Those who came after are still paying off their HECS debts. (God knows what will happen to those wanting a TAFE or university education in the next few years.)
There is inherent goodwill in Little Dorrit and in Call the Midwife. The reader or viewer in a comfortable armchair can engage at a safe distance with the lives of such exotic creatures as East End warfies or the inmates of the Marshalsea Prison, just as you might watch Michael Palin visiting the Bedouin or a David Attenborough doco. There is warmth, understanding, respect and as much likelihood of tragedy as comedy. Even in the long-running British series Keeping Up Appearances, one character’s snobbery was comic but everyone else was relatively normal.
Is one of the issues with Kath and Kim that aspiration isn’t a joke unless you are looking down on it from above?
Remember that Pulp song?
Sing along with the common people,
sing along and it might just get you thru’
Laugh along with the common people
Laugh along even though they’re laughing at you
and the stupid things that you do.
Because you think that poor is cool.
Kath and Kim and conspicuous consumption
I see it through a slightly different lens. It’s a grand thing that my generation can watch Kath and Kim on their enormous plasma TVs in their McMansions in Cranbourne or Templestowe. Our grandparents would be so proud that all those hours in factories and on the wharf or on dusty Greek farms have meant that later generations can buy a house, have a car or two or three, a lawn to mow.
The conspicuous consumption lampooned in Kath and Kim is, in part, a way of staving off future fear, of saying “Look how far we’ve come – we made it into the lower-middle class!”, of celebrating the fruits of the labours of many generations. But clearly being lower-middle class isn’t good enough. It’s almost white trash, but with al fresco dining.
In a very silly book called How to be Inimitable, George Mikes wrote (in 1960):
The one class you do not belong to and are not proud of at all is the lower-middle class. No one ever describes himself as belonging to the lower-middle class. Working class, yes; upper-middle class: most certainly; lower-middle class: never! Lower-middle class is, indeed, per definitionem, the class to which the majority of the population belongs with the exception of the few thousand people you know.
(As an aside, lower-middle class is probably what the ALP means when it bangs on about working families. But the global financial crisis has meant that plenty of people who thought they had “risen” to be middle-class have found that their footing there is tenuous. That’s why Obama is readjusting the American Dream so that people aspire not to be Donald Trump but to be, more realistically, middle-class, as it was after the Depression and as it is now in countries such as India and China. That’s partly why the Republicans can’t quite figure out how to respond – they’re still stuck on the Trump narrative. And it’s unsettling for those of us whose youth was spent resisting becoming bourgeois.)
The characters in Kath and Kim aren’t on the bread line: they go to the mall and buy dreadful clothes and drink middling wine. Kath doesn’t have to take her father’s good pair of trousers down to the pawnbroker every second Friday to get a couple of shillings to see the family through to pay day. The telly can be bought from a store, rather than the local fence. Nobody need be in jail for running a bookie outfit on the side, or run from the coppers down the back lanes, or do a midnight flit because the rent’s due. That wasn’t true for their parents and grandparents.
The real Kaths of this world know what it was like, even if their kids don’t: they’ve been told the stories, perhaps lived the reality and they never want to be in that situation again. They don’t need to watch Call the Midwife to know how poverty looks. Many people in Australian suburbs know exactly how it feels – if only poverty had vanished along with the perm.
Sure, I’m as ridiculously susceptible to unrealistic nostalgia about the East End or Station Pier as the next person. One day I might even write about it. I loved the vaudeville singalongs of my childhood, and all the stories about uncles fighting bare knuckle bouts in someone’s front parlour, about the brawls at the cinema on Saturday nights, the black market deals, the SP bookies and two-up games in the alley behind our house. I love how my grandmother made everyone’s wedding dresses by hand and the women always tried to look like fillum stars when they were going out on the town.
But I also know that Uncle Phil lived on rabbits and little else up country in the Depression, that our family’s name was written in the pawn shop register every fortnight (‘one good tablecloth – linen’), that my grandfather had no proper boots until he went to work at 13.
I bet that was just hilarious.