Lynsey Hansley reviews Owen Jones's "indignant, well-argued debut" Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class which, she writes, "begins with a joke: 'It's sad that Woolworth's is closing. Where will all the chavs buy their Christmas presents?' This was uttered by the host of a dinner party attended by the author in "a gentrified part of east London", at which liberal views are taken as a given and, though everyone present has a professional job, not everyone is white, male or straight."
Jones, who is in his late 20s and has worked both as a trade-union lobbyist and as a parliamentary researcher for a Labour MP, doesn't say how he reacted to this mindless put-down at the time. Did he refuse to eat the blackcurrant cheesecake that was being "carefully sliced" as his host sought to fill an awkward silence? Did he storm out and call time on their friendship? Whatever he did on the night, its casual malice led him, indirectly, to write this book, which argues that class hatred is the last acceptable prejudice.
Chavs is persuasively argued, and packed full of good reporting and useful information. Jones singles out for opprobrium middle-class contempt towards working-class people, those regarded by rightwing commentators such as Simon Heffer as the "feral underclass". In this caricature, peddled by spittle-flecked websites such as chavscum.co.uk and tacitly endorsed by the mass media, "chav" means "underclass", which means working-class people who don't keep their noses clean or behave impeccably. The word's etymology is contested: some accounts associate its origin with chavi, a Romany word for "child" or "youth", which developed into "charva" – meaning scallywag – used for a long time in the northeast. Others treat it as an acronym for "Council Housed and Violent". Its wider use took off about 10 years ago. In early 2004 I worked briefly for a tabloid newspaper whose offices rang with its daily use (along with its bedmate, "pikey"), directed not towards the paper's readers, but towards those it was assumed would be too "thick" to read any newspaper at all. Chavs, Jones writes, are unremittingly portrayed as "Thick. Violent. Criminal." Travel brochures still apparently promise "Chav-Free Activity Holidays", while the London fitness chain Gymbox has felt free to advertise classes in "Chav Fighting" (more...)