Chavs, Class, and Christ Church

It’s summer time in England.  I know it’s only April, but there are two weeks of decent weather a year on this island, and we’re currently burning through them.  The Thames River is particularly fantastic right now: there are adorable ducklings everywhere, all manner of flower is in bloom, and Christ Church tower looms crystal clear over the river.

When I’m rowing, though, I try to push all of this out of my mind and just focus.  Arms.  Back.  Legs.  When it’s cold and rainy—as it usually is—the rowers have the river to themselves.  The sun, however, has brought all manner of Oxonian out of the woodwork.  Our line through the water is interrupted by punters, canoes, and paddleboats steered by people in various states of intoxication careening up and down the banks.

And then there are the hecklers.  Usually, I can ignore them, but a comment today caught me off-guard.  Someone on the bank had been ribbing us, to no response, when he yelled out: “It’s okay, just ignore the peasants.”

The speaker was a “chav”.  I don’t really know what a chav is, but—thanks to time spent with British rowers on my crew—I know a chav when I see one.  They’re the people who hang around in public spaces all day, drinking cheap, no-label supermarket lager.  They sport garish tattoos and hoop earings, and dress in track suits and Adidas trainers.  Chavs are—supposedly—the unemployed detritus of Britain’s class system, the kind of people who use public benefits to buy satellite dishes for the council houses.  They definitely don’t go to Oxford.

I guess chavs are a bit like “white trash” meets “Jersey shore.”  Except that while, in America, the supposed “white trash” are confined to trailer parks and the state of West Virginia, in England, apparently, the chavs are everywhere—or, at the very least, they’re in Oxford, sharing the town with Britain’s poshest and most privileged.

The fact that so many chavs have taken their midday drinking to Christ Church Meadow is, I think, more than just chance.  Christ Church College has, after all, produced thirteen Prime Ministers—more than all the colleges of Cambridge combined.  And, on sunny days, the gates are open, and anyone and everyone can come down and drink on neatly manicured lawns, chucking insults and the occasional beer can at some rowers.

The result is that, to me, sometimes Christ Church meadows feels a bit like a battle ground.  Drinking irresponsibly and harassing passer-byes is not exactly an activity that only chavs engage in, but I can nonetheless see hackles go up anytime the British people on my crew walk past them.  And, I know that, whatever my pretensions to be an anti-elitist, there can be no question about where on the posh-chav divide I—a rower and an Oxford student—fall.

So when that chav made his comment about the “peasants”, I knew there was nothing—really, nothing—with which I could respond that would do anything but confirm the assumptions I’m sure he had about me.  And, perhaps because of my own discomfort at that inescapable truth, I would never actually go talk to him and dispel some of my own myths.  And so, somehow, I have become part of the English class system, without even knowing it.                                                  

A few minutes later, our rowing rhythm is once again thrown off—this time not by a heckler, but a floating plastic bag caught on the end of an oar.  “There sure is a lot of trash out on the Thames today”, our cox remarks.  From behind me, another rower responds, “Wait, is he talking about the bag or the people?”

Two years here, and I still don’t get the joke.

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