Back in 2004 the journalist and television producer Michael Collins published a book. Collins had written for The Independent, The Guardian, The Observer, the Sunday Telegraph and the Sunday Times, and the book was published by the literary publisher Granta. Otherwise liberals like myself might have been alarmed by the book’s title The Likes of Us: a Biography of the White Working Class. Collins traces the the stories of working class people in London and their sense of alienation at a political system in which they had become invisible. Collins recounts a conversation with Sloppy Joe, a white working class Londoner, in which they discussed a brochure that had been produced to promote the borough of Southwark.
“You wouldn’t think us English had ever lived here if you look at this.’ He opens it and taps a page . . .
“Southwark is a highly cosmopolitan area with a rich mixture of communities going back centuries. The borough’s proximity to the River Thames led to strong links across the world and by the 15th century Southwark had one of the largest immigrant populations. German, Dutch and Flemish craftspeople excluded by the City of London settled in Southwark … immigrants from Ireland took up manual jobs … the labour shortage was eased by workers and their families invited from the Caribbean and West Africa … communities from China, Cyprus, Vietnam, Somalia, Ethiopia, Bosnia and Croatia … just under a third of our population is from an ethnic minority and over a hundred languages are spoken by our children”.
‘They don’t mention us English’, Joe says. ‘You wouldn’t think we’d ever existed would ya?’ Joe sees himself as part of a long established tribe that dominated the urban working class within this area from the beginning of the nineteenth century and earlier. It has been air brushed from the history of the area as reported in the brochure. But how would it be represented? The white working class have never needed to define themselves or be defined before.
Four years on from Collins book and the BBC begins its “White” season of programmes next Friday and it runs until March 14th. John Lloyd in today’s “Financial Times” examines the story behind the series (click here). Even without the programmes, Lloyd’s article compelling reading.