There is a joke that Charlie Brooker has been doing for around two years about how David Cameron is a lizard. It’s one of those jokes that sort of is funny, then annoying then funny again etc. At the same time, we see Ed Milliband being attacked in a similar reason by less able comedians and less interesting commentators. The leader of both major parties seem, to put it mildly, completely out of touch with the vast majority of people in this country. The kinds of public figures who it is possible to flatter with the descriptors “middle brow” and “utterly commercial”, find it really easy to engage in “satire” of these figures, because they seem so utterly alien to most people.
In a previous blog post I began the discussion about this notion of the “crisis of representation”, what it is and how I want to respond to it, that I have developed through writing and directing my last two plays. I’m aware that I did this through basically laying into one particular example of pretty racist TV, and that the concept I’m groping towards is something a bit rounder really. In this blog post I want to make more of an attempt to sketch out the contours of the idea. I’m going to do that by basically raising two problems that I think are related.
The fact that more and more spheres of public life, those spheres in which one can stand up and tell one’s own story are more and more cut off to people from everyone but those from the most privileged backgrounds is, for many, at its most obscene when we look at two properly old school examples of a route to a bit of access to the twin ambitions of a good life and a smidgen of power for talented working class people. Neither of them to do with theatre really. Making it in a band, or becoming a Labour MP. This was obviously tied to a whole host of social policies that came into being after the last war, like the introduction of the NHS, free universities, the welfare state and so on, that gave raise to the working class (white and male) lad done good, maybe with a grammar school education, maybe with a redbrick or Oxbridge degree to go with it.
To be fair, neither of these things were ever a realistic possibility for most working class people to get to have voice in society particularly, especially if they were a woman, ethnic minority or any combination thereof. Indeed, one could say (mainly because one should say) that the only realistic way for the marauding masses of non-posh, non-white and non-man artists/audiences/communities to get any real say in politics and culture, that a radical change will be needed to our political system.
Or, to be more old fashioned, that working class and other exploited sections of our society rise and fall together, and that the little bit of crumbs from the table shared around after the second world war was never really anymore than just that; a few crumbs, for a few lucky people.
Nevertheless, there is a palpable way in which the relationship of people from so-called “working class backgrounds” to the production of pop music and small p politics in this country has changed radically. Basically, we don’t get to really make it anymore. And the thing is, this does make a difference to the way people see themselves, because it draws those complex contours of confidence and ambition, that curve around lived reality and render what is possible, possible.
A recent article at the New Socialist Project, as well as in the Daily Mail, for some reason, showed how there has been a dramatic increase in pop musicians who come from public school and privately educated backgrounds, bands like Mumford and Sons, Coldplay and so on.
And the same is true of Labour MPs. Fifty years ago, over half of Labour MPs were people from working class bacgrounds who came up through the (very much imperfect) trade union movement, and had more in common in terms of experience with people who weren’t in parliament at all, in many cases, than those on the benches opposite. Now you can basically say that about Dennis Skinner and Dennis Skinner only.
Which is not to say that the Labour party is as rammed with public school boys as the Tory party is, but to make too much of that is a bit like letting Sting off for writing “Every Breath You Take”, because it was slightly less awful than Puff Daddy’s version.
So in politics and music, as well as in narrative art, large sections of society just don’t get a say. As more and more sections of the political and cultural industries demand more and more time on internship and placement, and the economic seituation gets worse, its going to be a smaller and smaller section of society that gets to shape the national conversation. In this way, the vast majority of society will only see themselves represented, insofar as they are re-presented by someone and something else. They, by which I mean we, are less and less able to present ourselves.