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Let’s talk about the class system.  In my Sociology ‘A’ Level class, I vaguely remember the teacher bemoaning the rigidity of the Hindu caste system in India, but presenting the British class system as something which you could transcend.  Apparently, there was such a thing as ‘social climbing’.  You could cast off the shackles of working class culture, blighted as it was by the politics of envy and massive ‘chips on shoulders’; it was Thatcher’s Britain and hard work was rewarded.

Is that true?  Well, perhaps not if you were a miner in the North of England, or a steelworker in the Black Country where I was aimlessly growing up, because there was no longer any work for you to do.  And If you were the son or daughter of a redundant miner, welder, or skilled manual labourer, your options had suddenly become even narrower.

I am prone to soap box ranting, but there is a reason for this introduction, I promise – I’ve just finished reading Bernard Hare’s memoir Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew.

Bernard is from Leeds, the son of a miner, a grammar school boy and an ex-Social Worker.  His ticket out was an education, followed by a career in London, but his criminal record and antipathy to the establishment (or ‘Babylon’ to use Shed Crew dialect) meant that he ended up back where he started.  I’m sure that he doesn’t regret it, and the reason that I can say this is that the care and respect he has for the people of ‘Ashtrayland’, dwellers of the Leeds underbelly, enriches every page he’s written.

I notice that some reviewers on Goodreads question his motives for throwing in his lot with a gang of drug-crazed, solvent abusing, promiscuous, car stealing adolescents, but I honestly believe that he saw some good in them and wanted to help. The Shed Crew were mostly abandoned to the system by their feckless, abusive parents; battle-scarred care home runaways with a deep mistrust of adults.  For them to accept Bernard into their fold says a lot – it means that they must have felt safe with him.

At first I saw Bernard as an anthropologist who had gone native, but later on, I realised that he was very much like those he was trying to help.  Perhaps that was part of his motivation? He could see himself in them.  He was struggling with his own drink and drug problems and wasn’t above twocking or grafting (stealing and shop lifting) when necessity dictated. However, the Shed Crew and most especially Bernard had a moral code, including a list of rules of behaviour, it’s just that these things are all relative.

Rule number ten had previously read, ‘No rapists or killers.’ It was a simple matter to amend rule number ten to read, ‘No nonces, rapists or killers,’ thus leaving the tenth spot free.  Rule number ten then became: ‘No keeping Joeys, slaves or muppets.’

One of the many things Bernard did, to try and help them, was to introduce them to art and literature (and in Urban’s case, teach him to read).  Such things sound like Victorian paternalism nowadays, but I’m a great believer in the edifying effects of learning and culture.  Reading can’t make you middle class if you were born working class.  In fact, even going to university can’t make you middle class.  But it transforms your life in ways that are immeasurable.

Did it work? Well, that depends on how you define ‘work’:

Urban to Bernard (Chop); “You’re the teacher, not me.  Look what you’ve taught all us lot.”

“What? Like how to play chess and take drugs and get locked up and get pregnant and get dragged off to the nut-house kicking and screaming? Stuff like that?”

“No. Like how to be friends and be decent with one another and chill out and not be fucking lunatics all the time.  Stuff like that.”

I won’t tell you what happens to Urban and the Shed Crew, because I would urge you to find out for yourself by reading the book.  It’s one of the best things I’ve read this year because it’s so honest and moving and well written.  It’s also hilarious in places.  The fight on a bouncy castle made me laugh out loud while reading it in Pret a Manger (and I try to avoid such things as a rule, as my laugh sounds like Sid James on helium).

If you liked this, you may also like to read:

A Hoxton Childhood, by A S Jasper.  Jasper’s memoir of living in dire poverty in the East End of London, during the First World War.

The Blue Queen of Ashtrayland, poem by Ian Duhig.  Inspired by Bernard Hare’s book.