Wazzocks, Walters and working class creativity (or how the full grant transformed Britain into an outsider’s paradise)

I’m in that obligatory gap between completing my latest book and it’s publication (in April). Yet the time’s filling up with newsy examples of what The Outside Edge is all about: the notion that outsiders are disadvantaged (ever more so) but that their unique viewpoint can support their success – with vision, the right mindset and lots of hard work.

Wazzockgate” is news item number one: James Blunt’s now infamous retaliation to Labour MP Chris Bryant’s suggestion that success in the arts has become the preserve of the privately-educated elite. In this case Bryant was the “wazzock” – according to Blunt – because Blunt’s success, he claims, was absolutely nothing to do with his posh education (at Harrow) or family contacts (his actually family name is the distinctly upper-class Blount). In fact, said Blount (sorry, Blunt), his background worked against him because he was expected to become an army officer or stockbroker, rather than follow his ragged and uncertain musical ambitions.

Why so apt for The Outside Edge? Because of Blunt’s obvious if unstated declaration of being an outsider – one rejecting his clan’s expectations in order to pursue highly-individualistic creativity. Perfect: except that Blunt’s no outsider. As I explain in the book, Blunt’s an example of what I call an eccentric insider.

One example I use in the book is George Orwell: son of Suffolk, literary giant and sometime tramp. As an Eton boy, Orwell was clearly an upper-class rebel: rejecting his privileged background to sleep under Waterloo Bridge or wash dishes in Paris, or even live the life of an itinerate northern salesman. Yet the guy next to him under the bridge wasn’t roughing it due to his need for authenticity. It was due to his ghastly and intractable circumstances. There was no book in the back of his mind, no creative cashing-in on his outsider status.

Hence my view that Orwell’s an eccentric insider – as is James Blunt I’m afraid. Both are rebels – battling their backgrounds. Yet rebels with a cause, aided by the very backgrounds they so detest. Not only do they have plenty of open doors to push at, they know that the doors exist, as well as where and how to push them – all of which makes them insiders. So, nice try James: but the wazzock’s right on this one.

News item number two came from Julie Walters. Being interviewed in the The Guardian, she bemoaned the lack of openings for working class actors compared to the 1960s and 70s. This Smethwick-born daughter of a decorator is something of a heroine of mine, not least for her portrayal of the eponymous Rita in the 1983 film Educating Rita. It told the story of a woman breaking free from her background through adult education. She infiltrated the effete elite sharing her course, though remained the outsider – always the observer, with their acceptance of her making her as uncomfortable as her previous fate as a working-class baby-factory.

The brilliance of that role provided me with one of my most telling examples of true outsidership, so I’m grateful (and to Willy Russell’s masterful screenplay). Yet last weekend Walters’ opinion on the state of modern drama provided me with even more food-for-thought.

Her ilk could no longer make it in acting, she claimed. Working class actors were being shut out – pointing, as the cause, to the death of the “full grant” to study at college. I too benefited from a full grant – as a mature student at Manchester University. Yet her words made me realise just what a vital ticket it was to my educational broadening, as well as my (eventual) individualistic fulfilment: one well away from the expectations of others.

Certainly, higher education is the salvation of many working or lower-middle class outsiders – often with a creative bent in one form or another. And Walters, like me and many others, relied on that grant. In fact, Walters came off the back of a post-war uprising in genuinely working class drama, much of it from the “angry young men”: playwrites and novelists such as Alan Stillitoe, Stan Barstow, John Osbourne, Harold Pinter and Rita’s creator Willy Russell. Many were individualists from poor backgrounds, yet able to afford college thanks to the government paying their tuition fees. After the 1962 Education Act – and the introduction of a means-tested maintenance element to the grant – their numbers exploded.

Of course, this wasn’t just in drama. Music too, many of Britain’s most famous pop-groups emerged from the proliferation of art colleges – including the Beatles, The Who, Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Ian Dury (and The Blockheads), Cat Stevens, Pink Floyd and Roxy Music. And it even impacted art itself, with the British variant of pop-art (called the Independent Group, prior to the Britart/YBA movement in the 1990s) being led by working class misfits such as Bradford-born David Hockney, school drop-out Richard Hamilton and immigrants’ son Eduardo Paolozzi (he of the Tottenham Court Road tube station murals).

They were outsiders all: rebelling against their tribal circumstances and limited cultural aspirations through creative pursuits. As a generation, they transformed Britain’s art scene into the world-beating soft-power behemoth it became. Thanks, in part, to the full grant.

Of course, the grant was abolished in 1999 – replaced by loans – meaning that true, disadvantaged, outsiders will not have the opportunities of Walters’ golden generation. Their fight will be all the harder, which is where my new book comes in.


Available on Amazon: The Outside Edge by Robert Kelsey

Comments 3

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