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Wednesday, 24 March 2010


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The picture may not LITERALLY be a true depiction of class divide, but it does illustrate, nevertheless, an elemental truth about the class divide in Britain at that time.

I know something about this, as my mother grew up in Britain during that time, and as a member of "the working class," suffered from the disadvantages of that class divide...She had to start working at 14, given the way the English school system worked at that time...and was always ashamed of her lack of a higher education...

To steal a line, more or less, from Neal Kinnock:I was the first in a thousand generation of my mother's family to make it to a university....and I did it here.

So while there may be much to gripe and complain about in America today, I am very glad that this country never adopted the English class system, and that it's individual merit that counts here, not your accent, your bloodline, or your title....

Although we in the U.S. may not have the English class system we are moving toward ever more inequality in what really matters - wealth. Today the top ten percent of the population possess 80% of the financial wealth of our country. Starting with the Reagan tax cuts for the super rich inequality has continued to grow so that we are headed toward a society like that in the following picture.


Photographer: Tuca Vieira, Paraisópolis Favela in Sāo Paulo, Brazil 2005

"I am very glad that this country never adopted the English class system,"

As a Kennedy said to a Bush ;)

Very moving article.

The long version is definitely worth reading. As someone from a country with a far less defined class system (Netherlands) it strikes me how the three working class men, each in their own way, take the suggestion that they're toughs very seriously and, either by action or by word, deny that they're that. In other words the perceived divide between lower class (toughs) and lower middle class might be just as big as the one between upper and middle class.

It's significant that, of the 5 boys in the picture, the two who supposedly had an advantage over the others were less successful, in terms of happiness, long life, size of family/descendants, or wealth. Certainly there was no less stress on them, even if it was a different stress. Maybe the one message from all of this is that life isn't fair, at many levels.

Can you say, Weegee?

That's what immediately occurred to me. Of course, Weegee's "The Critic" was a setup to some degree.


Thank you for the great links. These articles are excellent items for teaching history and problems arising from the interpretation of source material.

I will use them in my class this spring term.


The key is whether you have upward mobility so that poor student of potential can do well (and has the aspiration and encouragement to do that). It seemed from my wife (who is a Brits) family, it is obviously UK has been much improved in this aspects. There is still, of course, difference for the school Prince William go to (Eton still) and your average Brits go to.

Going back to the photos, I noted they use tripod (in the long essay it mentioned it). It is not very Leica like then in 1930s. I thought they use 6x9 and do they use 4x5? Photojournalism is very different then.

Standing up (for once) for my fellow Btits, it's easy to overstate the contemporary class-divide. Economically, the gap between rich and poor is a disgrace(in the 1970s, the average executive earned c.10 times the salary of shop-floor staff; now, it's 100 times. Are execs 10 times better now than then? I don't think so). But I understand that it's the same in the US (and Ivy-Leaguers benefit just as much from where they went to 'school' as our own top-flight types). In contrast, self-conscious differentiation on social grounds is an increasingly quaint phenomenon here, like smoking. Some people do it, but quietly, as if ashamed to be caught. Thankfully, I - a 'working-class' boy - got a good, free education, went to university, did the BA, Masters and PhD, and have never experienced class-fed prejudice. Doesn't mean it doesn't exist; just that it's far less observable than in 1937.

The advances are harder to spot from elsewhere, because, of course, journalists look for the story (and, let's face it, Brits often play to it - we like to be thought of as Leslie Howard types, especially by Americans). But every race suffers from the enduring misconceptions of others. Right now, we in the UK are being entertained by the right to bear arms openly issue in the US, with the marvellous shot (sic) of the rather large gun-toting couple pushing their groceries around a suburban supermarket. But I suspect that this isn't at all an accurate depiction of The Way You Live Now.

It's a small world - I photographed Ian Jack just the other day, at an informal talk he gave at Newcastle University. The British class divide features heavily in much of his writing and was a feature of the talk too. Interesting writer and speaker.


Paraisópolis = Paradise City, in Portuguese.

I once sent that photograph to a friend of mine to rib him about his middle class upbringing. I took the liberty of placing a speech bubble over the middle boy on the right of the frame that was meant to be saying to first of the two boys, "Graham... it's me, Sean... Don't you recognise me, Graham?"

It is a great photograph and the story only makes it more so. But the class system is very much still alive it's in our DNA. I have had first hand experience of class prejudice on numerous occasions. Such prejudices can be seen on most days in papers like the Daily Mail. "Chav scum" "Benefit scroungers", Single mums, you name it. As a result of these experiences I have a prejudice of my own that's built over the years.

I didn't grow up with anybody that went on to university. Simple fact is that young people from working class areas are massively underrepresented in universities and always have been. Where you get a good free education is a bit of a lottery, if you're from a sink estate you've got a fight on your hands. Thatcher once said that "There's no such thing as society". For me, conservatives have a Darwinian idea of improving the quality of life. It's survival of the fittest. The idea that wealth trickles down also makes my teeth grind. It's not wealth that trickles down...

Victorian middle and upper classes believed that the poor being poor was gods will

From one of Britain's most loved hymns 'All Things Bright and Beautiful' (Original version)

The rich man in his castle;
the poor man at his gate
God made them, high and lowly;
and ordered their estate.

I passed the Houses Of Parliament with my wife last year and quoted James Russell Lowell

Have ye founded your thrones and altars, then,
On the bodies and souls of living men?
And think ye that building shall endure,
Which shelters the noble and crushes the poor?

Excellent piece on moreintelligentlife.com. Thanks for the pointer!

One of those that goes to truth in photography. Photographers intentions may or may not have been distinctly honest in that sense, but the interpretation has drifted. I'm sure there were some equally horrified at the misinterpretation of Harrovians (but of course Eton is a much better marker for privilege).

As to the merits of class distinction: we are but beasts of the field: naturally tribal and hierarchical. Doesn't matter how much civilised morals may dislike it, it's in our nature.

Thanks, Mike. That's the kind of "stuff" that makes me enjoy TOP.

One photo that tells a lovely truth about class and Britain is of the beggar chasing King George V's carriage at the Epson Derby.

The image belongs to Getty and so to see it, go to http://www.gettyimages.com/ and search for editorial photos.

I suggest you use the keywords

beggar carriage george (NB: without commas)

It does my heart good every time I see it.

The caption reads:

"King George V in a horse-drawn carriage at the Epsom Derby, being pursued by a beggar. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)"

Incidentally, the place Tim Dyson's father was posted and where Tim unfortunately passed away (Trimulgherry, Secunderabad) is where I've lived most of my life (and from where I'm typing out this comment.) What a small world indeed.

I'd be interested to know if Arjun would like to help with a little more of my research and try to discover Tim Dyson's grave in Trimulgherry. I suspect he may be buried in the cantonment cemetery, though that's just a hunch on my part.

Arjun: you can reach me at ian.jack@guardian.co.uk

Many thanks to everyone for their generous appreciation of the piece.

Ian Jack

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