They're All Middle-Class Now: People like the BBC Chairman Have Long Mocked Bourgeois Taste and Values. but We Have Bourgeois Radicals to Thank for Social Progress. (the NS Essay)

By Taylor, D. J. | New Statesman (1996), April 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

They're All Middle-Class Now: People like the BBC Chairman Have Long Mocked Bourgeois Taste and Values. but We Have Bourgeois Radicals to Thank for Social Progress. (the NS Essay)


Taylor, D. J., New Statesman (1996)


The letters columns of England

How resolute they stand

To show the middle classes

Still have the upper hand...

To watch a dissection of bourgeois culture performed by someone who is essentially middle-class is to be reminded one of those predatory insects that, in fits of absentmindedness, ends up eating apart of itself. There the target hangs -- green, succulent, enticing, mysteriously inert. The insect reconnoitres, dances forward and snaps shut its jaws, only to make the terrible discovery that, in its enthusiasm for the kill, it has bitten off its own leg. This, at any rate, was the impression I got from the BBC chairman Gavyn Davies's recent disparagement of the middle-class values of his increasingly disaffected core audience.

No doubt, from his point of view, it is all intensely irritating. There you are, trying to steer millions of pounds' worth of rubbish on to the screen by stealth, push arts coverage into the ghetto of BBC4 and appease the government watchdogs, bleating all the while about inclusiveness and cultural remits - and the fragment of your constituency that, quaintly, doesn't want BBC2 stuffed with gardening shows has the cheek to complain. Meanwhile, that (one suspects) largely mythical Asian teenager to whom Davies wants to reach out will go back to his West Midlands street corner.

This outburst is all too familiar. To a very large degree, cultural debate in this country has nearly always consisted of middle-class people going around complaining that "culture", whether represented by literature, music or the fine arts, is excessively middle-class. In the 1930s, for example, the average middle-class patron of the arts was constantly being shot at from both sides.

Some of these attacks came from below, from the kind of parlour socialist who spent his time writing books with titles such as Marxism and the Novel; but far more took the form of upper-brow snip-above. Ask yourself what aesthetic 1930s work of writers such as Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell and Cyril Connolly is trying to convey, and the answer is generally only a kind of jeering at conventional middle-class taste. There is a wonderfully funny scene towards the end of Powell's 1933 novel From a View to a Death, in which a girl, having left her mother on the sofa reading Axel Munthe's The Story of San Michele, bumps into her dim-witted suitor Jasper Forsdick. Jasper's idea of a come-on is to invite her to borrow a copy of J B Priestley's The Good Companions. The implication is clear: anyone who likes Priestley's solid, undemanding middle-brow novels is a sort of futile halfwit. The real action lies elsewhere, in Joyce, Proust and Firbank, areas where the middle-class mind could not be expected to penetrate.

The whole interwar attitude towards literature, you suspect, betrays this anti-middle-class bias. Novels either had to be "realistic" - set in Salford and featuring casts of out-of-work miners - or they had to be exercises in highbrow posturing such as Connolly's The Rock Pool (1936), in which bohemian idlers lie around on the beaches of the south of France sponging off each other. To write about middle-class people living middle-class lives was seen as a spiritual betrayal. Sixty years on, this strain in literary criticism, or rather non-literary criticism, endures. The serial assaults on all those quiet, genteel English novels in which books supplements in newspapers specialise-I cheerfully own up to having written a few of them myself over the years - are, more often than not, wholly disingenuous, damning Anita Brookner, or whoever, for her aesthetic failings when what is really being objected to is the middle-class subject matter.

There is nothing that any intellectual dislikes more than to be I described as "middle-class". Even now, in a world whose social taxonomies include most of the population under this banner, it still operates as a byword for the stuffy and the out-of-date. …

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