Another day, another “social cleansing” article from the Guardian, whose news and opinion sections appear to be entirely at the service of anyone out there who can scare up some new iteration of that fatuous concept. “A theatre company has been embroiled in a gentrification row after it announced a series of £55-a-head ‘immersive’ Cockney-themed [Christmas] dinner parties to be held in a traditionally working-class area”, declared the top line of a piece last week.
Where, oh where, to begin?
Let’s plump for The Independent, which kicked off this “row”. It seems to have begun not on the streets of the East London neighbourhood concerned but on Twitter, where Tom Armstrong – who publishes a subcultural music and style magazine with a strongly retro flavour and approvingly quotes the late Smiley Culture’s Cockney Translation – drew attention to a publicity photo he had been sent by Zebedee Productions, the theatre company soon to be pilloried.
Well, the epicurean thespians were rather asking for trouble: two white women wearing gobshite expressions and loud leisure tracksuits outside a ladies toilet, one of them in blue, pregnant and lighting up – the yob Virgin Mary character of the cast, it seems. Playing to the “chav” stereotype, perchance? One rather fears so, m’lud.
The intervention by Armstrong, whose Twitter banner mourns the passing of Walthamstow dog track, set a hare running (see what I did there?). Soon, the online argy bargy was everywhere. The Independent quoted a disapproving sociologist: “I don’t think you’d get any other group treated in such a derogatory way for entertainment.” Next on the scene was the Evening Standard, quoting another Twitter user denigrating the PR stills, which featured an array of familiar caricatures: “And we wonder why what was once the white working class (before the pits/factories shut) is so angry.”
And then came the Guardian, augmenting the previous coverage with comments from people described as having East London connections of various kinds: “We are not all benefit scrounging slobs going round saying ‘alright mate’ and talking in rhyming slang.” A lack of respect for “cockney culture” was denounced (did that include or exclude rhyming slang?). And, of course, someone obligingly opined that it was all “another symptom of the massive social cleansing going on in the area”.
Zebedee had already produced a response to their critics, apologising for “any offence caused” but protesting that the “Cockney’tivity concept”, which combines a three-course Christmas dinner and seasonal story performed by the actors, was seen by them as “a proper celebration of East London culture through theatre”. This was never going to cut much ice. Even so, the whole kerfuffle needs unravelling. The more you do it, the more tendentious its entire premise becomes.
You’ll have spotted how this whole thing was stacked up. The Cockney’tivity PR images and the price of the night out were framed in stark and shaming opposition to the affronted denizens of that “traditionally working-class area”, a fine and noble people now not only being “displaced” by gentrification, as the populist Grand Narrative has it, but also mocked by the agents of their oppression.
OK. How working-class and how “traditionally” so, are the people who inhabit the part of East London in question?
I know a bit about the area because I live a 12-minute walk from the pub, currently out of service, where the Cockney’tivity themed dinners are scheduled to be served as part of bringing it back to life. It is at 23-25 Homerton High Street, E9, on its junction with Furrow Lane (see photograph). A year ago, the premises re-opened as a new branch of craft beer operation Brewdog, but that plainly didn’t last (hipster brands don’t always carry all before them, even in these parts). For a few years from the back end of the 1980s I used to live even nearer the pub than I do now, on Roding Road. Two of my six children were born during that time and five of them were born in Homerton Hospital, which is closer to it still.
Demographic data for Homerton electoral ward, as extrapolated from the 2011 census, shows a very high percentage of social rented housing – nearly 57% – and a calculation for the Local Government Association placed Homerton among the top 2% of wards in London in terms of deprivation. However, the occupational profile told a fuller story of the Homerton population. Over 20% of working age residents in employment were in professional occupations in 2011 and 18% in “associate professional and technical” jobs.
So though it’s far from being a wealthy neighbourhood overall, there is a large middle-class minority which seems unlikely to be shrinking and has been there for quite a while. I wasn’t the only one of my kind there even 30 years ago. I’d wager that today quite a few “locals” could afford £55 for a meal and show combined. You’d pay much more elsewhere.
Now let’s ponder that word “traditionally” and what sort of people are thought of as “cockney”. In this context, we’re talking about working-class white people: all the actors pictured in the Zebedee PR images are white and some of the commentary quoted in the three press reports, including by the sociologist, refers explicitly to the “white working-class”. So “traditionally” seems to pretty much serve as a euphemism for “white” in these stories.
How white is Homerton? How cockney? Not particularly. In the 2011 census, less than 44% of Homerton ward residents described themselves as white, and less than 30% as white and as originating anywhere in the UK. Exclude from that category anyone Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish, from another part of England and anyone not working class, and you might find that Homerton contains quite a small number of people fitting even quite a broad definition of being cockney – say, a white, born-and-bred, working-class, not necessarily East Londoner, let alone born within earshot of Bow Bells, who speaks with the same sort of accent as Barbara Windsor or Len Goodman.
There certainly are people living in and around Homerton who match that description – I’ve known some of them for years. But if “cockney culture” is being sent up by the Zebedee players in any general way, those locals targeted don’t seem especially numerous (and daily observation bears this out). Neither can we assume they would feel ridiculed by Cockney’tivity. After all, unlike the characters depicted in the PR stills, none of those I know are ignorant loudmouths or petty crooks. Do they perceive Danny Dyer villains as personal slights?
Bear all that mind and the reality of the social landscape in Homerton, as in so many other parts of London that have changed fast in recent times, emerges as much more variegated than suggested in those media reports, in which salt-of-the-earth “locals” are held to be insulted by colonising blow-ins. In my experience, the gentrification of the east of Hackney prompts a range of responses from long-term residents of many types, all the way from derision to delight. I feel a mixture of them all every time I step out of my front door.
The conflict constructed between authenticity (those “traditional”, working-class folk) and exploitative shallowness (greedy, disrespectful middle-class outsiders) is simply glib. Is any one set of London residents more entitled than any other to pronounce on what the true and defining character of their neighbourhood is? Does the fact that I have a middle-class sort of job mean that my children, born, raised and schooled in my part of Hackney, are somehow less genuinely products of the place?
For some – well, some journalists looking for “a story” at any rate – maybe it does. Zebedee’s response to their accusers seemed to substantiate this, suggesting a defensive need to establish local, or local-ish, credentials for the troupe. “The whole cast is from the East End”, they insisted, albeit their designation of that territory appeared to extend far beyond the boundary of Tower Hamlets, widely accepted as core East End, perhaps even encompassing Wood Green.
Oh well, it was only a flammed up bit of class-and-style war nonsense. Good box office, as they say. Just the same, it exposed the bovine groupthink that passes for moral righteousness among so much of the London liberal intelligentsia these days. However guilty the Zebedee players might or might not prove to be of rudely parodying a particular group of fellow Londoners – and, remember, no one has actually seen their show yet – their media accusers stereotyped the people of Homerton far more comprehensively.
The underlying notion that the East End, indeed East London in general, is some timeless preserve of “cockneys” now threatened by alien insurgents destroying their way of life has more in common with the dim essentialism of UKIP than anything worthy of the word “progressive”. And if concerned left-wing journalists want to roll back the tide of gentrification in East London they could start by moving out of Dalston, Mile End and Walthamstow and heading for Sunderland.