A Brief Thought On Class, and Critical Reaction to Jerusalem

I’m going to be posting a proper review of Jerusalem on Mindless Ones tomorrow, when I’ve had time to finish thinking about it, but my review will probably not be touching on one of the main issues of the book, which is class. For that reason I thought I’d better make a separate post in reaction to the Guardian review of it, which includes this telling paragraph:

The problems are still here, too, though: the chapter narrated by prostitute Marla, obsessed with Jack the Ripper and Princess Di, seems to confuse expletives with authenticity, including 32 f-words – to take one page, chosen at random – and five c-words. This is caricature, not characterisation.

I had two reactions to this. The first was to remember the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketch about critics: “A prick in the hands of Pinter is a punctuation point, a marvellous moment, an epithet, the end of an extremely witty line; whereas a prick in the hands of Cook and Moore is just a gratuitous prick… one feels it’s being abused.”

The second was to think about going to university, and for the first time having a social circle made up primarily of middle-class people. I remember when the TV series “The Royle Family” first came out, I was very impressed by it. But I talked to my sister, and she said “It’s boring. I don’t know why anyone would want to watch that programme. It’s just people acting normal. If I want to see people acting normal I can just see that anywhere.”

A week or so later I mentioned the series to a friend from an upper-middle-class background who was studying for an English degree. She said “Oh, I hate that programme. It’s so unrealistic. Nobody lives like that.”

The fact is that a lot of people really have no idea at all how other social groups live — how they talk, how they behave, what their concerns are. And for a Guardian arts columnist, the depiction of how a great chunk of real people talk — the people who don’t live in the major cities, who don’t have jobs in the media, academia, or politics, whose concerns revolve around survival and family rather than around the verbal gameplaying that makes up so much of culture — is so far from their experiences as to seem like caricature.

When I read that chapter, I heard the voice of the viewpoint character in my head. It wasn’t in the Northampton accent she would have — I’ve never been there, and know nothing about it — but it was a very real voice nonetheless. It was a voice just like those of some of the people in my own family — the ones who have succumbed to addiction or alcoholism, the ones who have been unemployed all their lives — and many of the other people who live in the small town they’re from, the people whose horizons are circumscribed by that area and who may never travel even as far as London in their lives. It’s the voice of the people I’ve worked with when I was working on a psych ward — the people whose idea of getting a good job and making something of themselves consisted of getting work filling potholes in roads. It’s not my voice — not any more — but it’s a voice that is, in truth, more familiar to me than the voice of Guardian leaders and arts journalism, the voice of privilege unearned that is also privilege so unseen that it seems perfectly normal.

And even to talk about working-class people in this way seems to condemn them — the very language we use when talking in an academic register, or the register of formal writing that I use for my blog posts, is full of contempt for people whose lives aren’t about having a “career”, or about what is called “the life of the mind”, as if people working in factories or on building sites or as sex workers or unable to find a job at all were in some way mindless.

Moore’s book doesn’t do that. It’s a deeply, deeply, humanistic book, and it treats the concerns of homeless people, sex workers, working-class mothers of six, in exactly the same way it treats the concerns of celebrated artists or of failed poets or of saints. Their lives matter because they’re people, and because people matter.

And people matter even if they have a vocabulary that’s smaller than that of someone who works for a broadsheet newspaper. Even if their vocabulary contains two words that are used by pretty much everyone.

The page the reviewer chose isn’t at random, incidentally. I can tell exactly which one it is. The page he’s thinking of is the one which contains the following paragraph:

It’s all just FUCKING SONGS and FUCKING BIRTHDAY CARDS, you cunt, you old cunt. DON’T YOU FUCKING TELL ME, RIGHT, don’t you fucking tell me because YOU, you’ve got NO fucking right, no fucking right. You sit there with your fucking SPLIFF, your fucking GAN-JAH, fucking smiling ’cause you’re monged and saying to chill out. YOU WHAT? You fucking WHAT? I’ll fucking chill YOU out, you old cunt. Fucking leave YOU with your face in stitches and your ribs all kicked in, see how YOU like it, you fucking, FUCKING…

That’s the only section with anything like the density of obscenity the review talks about, and it’s a short stream of consciousness section where a heroin-addicted sex worker who is descending into psychosis is shouting angrily at someone who isn’t there.

It may well be that the Guardian reviewer has truly never met anyone who talks like that, so to him it may well be confusing expletives with authenticity. It may well be that to him this reads like caricature, not characterisation.

But I know a lot of people — people who won’t read Jerusalem, because the idea of reading a book at all is an absurd one, let alone a 1500-page literary novel — whose reaction to that section would be, if they ever did read it, “It’s boring. I don’t know why anyone would want to read that. It’s just people talking normal. If I want to hear people talking normal I can just hear that anywhere.”

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4 Responses to A Brief Thought On Class, and Critical Reaction to Jerusalem

  1. philsandifer says:

    To offer a more succinct version of the point, I have a much easier time believing that Alan Moore, a lifelong resident of Northampton who has devoted a tremendous amount of time towards working with the residents of the Boroughs including programs that have brought him to talk in local prisons, and to school drop-outs, has met and spent time with a hell of a lot more people like the narrator of that chapter than pretty much any Guardian book columnist.

    • I feel you’re missing the point, Philip. That simply makes him a good anthropologist as opposed to a bad anthropologist, such as those who often write for the Guardian tend to be; which sort of reads like Alan Moore understands those jolly salt-of-the-earth working class fellows because he hangs out in caffs and is a good listener, which itself pertains to the received wisdom that no true working class person ever read or wrote a book, or did anything much beyond filling in the football pools. The map is not the territory.

      • Artur Nowrot says:

        Yeah, but Alan Moore is not an anthropologist (even a metaphorical one) studying a strange culture; he’s a man who grew up working class and arguably is still connected to it in a lot of ways (friends, family, place where he lives etc.)

  2. Simon BJ says:

    Having now read the first two books of Jerusalem, and being part way through the third, I can’t believe any reviewer has actually read the whole text, if that bit is their idea of a stumbling block. I’ve slowed to a crawl through the joycean sections of the third book. Enjoyable as they are. Injoysybll I should perhaps say.

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