Oiks and toffs

by Chris Bertram on March 24, 2010

If you are one of the people who hasn’t yet read Ian Jack’s piece on the photo that symbolizes the British class system then you should. (h/t The Online Photographer .)

{ 48 comments }

1

sg 03.24.10 at 11:38 pm

What does it say about the British approach to their own class system that for 70 years the working class kids in the shot have been portrayed as “toughs” or “oiks” when they’re just ordinary kids on a day out…?

2

Kieran Healy 03.24.10 at 11:44 pm

Very nice.

3

Stuart 03.25.10 at 12:32 am

sg – surely you are misrepresenting them as much as anyone portraying them as “toughs” or “oiks” is, the article tells us they were skipping school to make extra money as porters or whatever, which isn’t exactly ordinary kids on a day out I hope.

4

Raghav 03.25.10 at 12:48 am

Great piece — for some reason, it reminds me of the beautiful article by Joshua Wolf Shenk that tracks the lives of some of the Harvard students who’ve been the subjects of a longitudinal study since 1937.

5

sg 03.25.10 at 1:29 am

Stuart, I thought the article was saying that they’d been represented in the press as toughs, when they were just ordinary working class kids.

I don’t think it’s a misrepresentation to say that ordinary working class british kids skip school on the odd occasion…

6

nick s 03.25.10 at 1:54 am

I don’t think it’s a misrepresentation to say that ordinary working class british kids skip school on the odd occasion…

Or, in best mid-20th-century fashion, nab apples from trees.

Looking at that photo from 1937 and comparing it to ones of my dad and his older brothers a decade later, the non-Harrovians look nondescript, their clothes perhaps a little less worn at the knees and elbows. The matchstick legs stand out more than the garb. A great piece, though. A good friend of mine is/was a very unlikely Old Etonian, and reading about the two “toffs” reminded me a bit of him.

7

tomslee 03.25.10 at 1:59 am

Whatever would Alf Tupper say?

8

Kieran Healy 03.25.10 at 2:18 am

“Lumme”, I think.

9

kid bitzer 03.25.10 at 2:41 am

somewhat unfortunate that the later lives of the five turn out to be so unrepresentative of their socio-economic odds.

“see? inequality isn’t a problem at all–some rich lads die young, and many poor lads outlive them! why, there’s hardly any advantage to class privilege–especially with the extra responsibilities that the governing class are required to take on!”

10

Mrs Tilton 03.25.10 at 8:05 am

Kid @9 is correct; Comrade Zhdanov will not approve. The photographer should have ensured that the three proletarian boys were crushed to death the next day working a double shift at the coal mine owned by the two bourgeois boys’ fathers, while the young Harrovians themselves went on to long and frutiful careers cutting coupons, seducing and ruining innocent working-class girls, shooting grouse, gobbling cocaine and caviar off the bums of exotic dancers and generally twirling their moustaches and going mwa-ha-ha. His credentials are revoked, and he is to be re-educated.

11

maidhc 03.25.10 at 8:06 am

Photographs can be misleading in that they freeze people in a particular time that is not really representative of their life as a whole.

Dorothea Lange’s migrant worker camp photos are another example. They are very powerful photos, and maybe make some good points about what was going on in the Depression and the Dust Bowl.

However, if you go to trace those people who were in the photos, you see that what happened there was just one period in their lives, and they went on and did other things and had other experiences, so it is tricky to try to extract some kind of universal principle from these photos.

In this particular example it turns out that the oiks did OK and the toffs not so much. Partly due to the breakdown of the prewar class system, and partly luck of the draw.

I think it’s a good thing to be able to find out more about the background of the photo. Just like I’d like to find out more about the people who modelled for well-known paintings of the Renaissance …

12

Chris Bertram 03.25.10 at 8:14 am

_Photographs can be misleading in that they freeze people in a particular time that is not really representative of their life as a whole._

Or even, give the viewer the impression that one thing is happening at that moment when quite another thing is happening. On which, see Gordon Lewis (whose blog I recommend to anyone interested in photography):

http://shutterfinger.typepad.com/shutterfinger/2010/01/a-photograph-is-not-reality.html

13

Zamfir 03.25.10 at 10:59 am

But how is this particular picture misleading? The dressed-up boys are in fact children of the upper classes (and they are literally waiting for a chaffeured Rolls-Royce!), and the other three are in fact children of the working class.

What else is the picture implying?

14

Luke Silburn 03.25.10 at 11:18 am

I think the divergent and unexpected life paths of the people in that image says something interesting about British social history in the C20th. The four boys who made it into adulthood went on to spend their prime of life during the three decades when social inequality was being steadily eroded, so the fact that the three ‘toughs’ made a decent fist of their lives and ended up comfortably off is a testament to the opportunities provided to the working class by the post-war welfare settlement.

The fact that the picture is deemed iconic and relevant for present-day news stories and books about ‘divided Britain’ says more about what has been happening for the last 30 years of course.

Regards
Luke

15

ajay 03.25.10 at 11:24 am

But how is this particular picture misleading? The dressed-up boys are in fact children of the upper classes (and they are literally waiting for a chaffeured Rolls-Royce!), and the other three are in fact children of the working class

One of the Harrovians is actually the son of a Huddersfield-born army officer in a not-very-fashionable regiment, and is at the school on a scholarship. Not exactly upper class.

14 is a very good point.

16

Zamfir 03.25.10 at 12:43 pm

On the other hand, being a colonel is hardly a working-class job. It means you’re in charge of hundreds of people, and in those days it was a job mostly restricted to people from the right background. Money isn’t the only measure of social class.

17

Mrs Tilton 03.25.10 at 12:45 pm

Further to Ajay @15,

… and the other Harrovian is from a family that had plenty of money — lots more than the other boy’s, certainly — but for a number of reasons seems none the less to have been not quite top-drawer.

“Misleading” might be overstating things. To a first approximation, after all, “toffs & oiks” is what the photo shows. It’s true that, within a broad spectrum of privilege, there were significant and not always terribly subtle economic, social and other differences between the two public schoolboys the photo shows and between them and the other Harrovians and Etonians of their day. Still, it would be understandable if those differences were lost on the other three boys in the picture. Similarly, the situations of those three boys were not identical, and one could easily have found working class children who were better off, and others who were significantly worse off, than these three. And yet the two Harrovians are unlikely to have seen beyond the not-quite-right fitting, hand-me-down clothes.

“Unnuanced” might be nearer the mark than “misleading”. The photo packs a walloping message, and it’s a message that was certainly accurate and true in broad social terms. But the photo can’t easily convey the complexities of the early 20th c. British class system, still less the individual backgrounds and destinies of its five subjects. The article does that, and does it well. And, pace Kid Bitzer upthread, I see the article as enriching the experience of viewing the photo, not as deconstructing or falsifying the photo’s powerful statement.

And, oh yes, agreed about 14.

18

ajay 03.25.10 at 1:24 pm

17: Yes, agree that ‘misleading’ is an overstatement; also that neither of the Harrovians are quite top-drawer… A point that Jack hints at: 19th century immigrants from Germany, living in Hampstead, went to Harrow “where titles and Anglicanism were less important” – were the Wagners a Jewish family?

19

dsquared 03.25.10 at 1:52 pm

In my book, if you go out to a cricket game wearing a top hat and tails and carrying a cane, then if someone takes a picture of you and uses it to exemplify class distinction, then that’s not misleading. What is the point of wearing a top hat and a silk waistcoat, if not to symbolise a class distinction?

20

lemuel pitkin 03.25.10 at 1:56 pm

Mrs. T. and Ajay are right.

Of course it is possible to begin adult life by being handed a 500-acre farm and a job at “the family broking firm in the City”, and still die alone in a mental institution; or to be a foreman at a metal-working business and live a long and happy life. Still, if you look at the picture and say which group of boys includes the future broker, and which the future metalworker, there’ll be no doubt about the right answer. In that sense, it’s not misleading at all.

It is sad, I suppose, that while the British were busy ruling over various non-white people, their children sometimes got sick. But on the whole the impression created by the picture seems accurate enough to me — at least as much, anyway, as the Ian Jack piece, which has 1000 words on each of the Harrovians and only 500 on the three working-class boys together. The class system reproduces itself in all sorts of ways.

21

JJ 03.25.10 at 4:54 pm

Words? Forget about the words. Each sentence is led by an uppercase (capitalized) letter, and followed by a long progression of lowercase letters. Propertied nouns and names are capitalized. And, of course, the ego is distinguished with a capitalized “I”.

22

Mrs Tilton 03.25.10 at 4:56 pm

Ajay @18,

were the Wagners a Jewish family?

No earthly. However, while just about any Germanic surname can be borne by a Jewish family, I wouldn’t view “Wagner” as an especially strong candidate. There were a fair few non-Jewish German immigrants to Britain, too, including a family of Wagners one of whose descendants would ultimately achieve glory as Top Herald and a Sir. (Probably not related to the boy in the photo, though, as the escutcheon-emblazoning Wagners came over earlier.) There was also a family called, anglice, Goring, who opened a well-regarded London hotel. (Yes, those Görings.)

I suspect that if the Wagners were a rung or two lower in the pre-WWII Britain social ladder than their money would have suggested, it was because they worked for that money, and not in the traditionally acceptable professions of soldier, sailor, silk or shaman. Concededly, other monied people idly wondering whether the Wagners might be Jews probably wouldn’t have helped. But let’s not exaggerate things. Young Wagner wasn’t the Duke of Dorset, but to the three “oiks” in the photo, he might as well have been.

23

ajay 03.25.10 at 5:26 pm

It is sad, I suppose, that while the British were busy ruling over various non-white people, their children sometimes got sick.

That’s a pretty unpleasant thing to say. But I suppose it will serve to burnish your Spartist credentials, so there’s that. Death to the oppressors, brother! Right on!

24

Myles SG 03.25.10 at 6:12 pm

“somewhat unfortunate that the later lives of the five turn out to be so unrepresentative of their socio-economic odds.

“see? inequality isn’t a problem at all—some rich lads die young, and many poor lads outlive them! why, there’s hardly any advantage to class privilege—especially with the extra responsibilities that the governing class are required to take on!””

Stupefyingly tone-deaf.

“A point that Jack hints at: 19th century immigrants from Germany, living in Hampstead, went to Harrow “where titles and Anglicanism were less important” – were the Wagners a Jewish family?”

Unlikely, but not impossible. I personally know a good number of Anglo-German families of that class who were not Jewish. Continental immigration to the U.K. was a fairly common middle-class thing of that era, given the extensive trade links and the pre-war internationalization. And the sorts that immigrated to England tended not to be very religious. Of course, there’s a possibility that the Wagners were converts, who would have been uncomfortable with Anglicanism anyways.

25

Harry 03.25.10 at 6:23 pm

How do you two know Alf Tupper?

26

Kieran Healy 03.25.10 at 6:38 pm

Who among us does not know The Tough of the Track? Fish & Chips. Mmmm. Now I’m hungry.

27

kid bitzer 03.25.10 at 7:28 pm

i seem to have expressed myself more obscurely than usual, even, given the wild misconstructions being applied to my remarks. when i am failing so signally to make myself understood, i’m not sure i’ll succeed any better on a second effort.

but, please, at least note quotation-marks.

28

Mrs Tilton 03.25.10 at 8:07 pm

Kid @27,

please, at least note quotation-marks

Fair enough, I hadn’t realised you were quoting a passage of Ian Jack’s article that had escaped my notice.

Myles SG @24,

Of course, there’s a possibility that the Wagners were converts, who would have been uncomfortable with Anglicanism anyways

They were probably Canadian presbyterians.

29

alex 03.25.10 at 8:22 pm

Gosh, if only someone, anyone, had written a book on mid-twentieth century British social history, we wouldn’t be flailing around wildly displaying our ignorance here. Sometimes I wonder why the historical profession exists, when so many people are content to deal with an historical document on the basis of what they think it looks like.

30

novakant 03.25.10 at 8:23 pm

Speaking from a fashion point of view, I admire how stylish working class people in such photographs often look – you could sell that stuff at Armani or something. And it fills me with regret that nowadays it’s mostly trainers and tracksuits.

31

Chris A. Williams 03.25.10 at 9:36 pm

Be fair, alex – if most people _didn’t_ take historical material at face value, there would be very little need for people like me to rush from the wings every so often saying “History police! You are misinterpreting a primary source. Stand away from the document, please, while I tell you about History.” You’ll note, for example, that more easily- and hence widely-understood forms of written communication (road signs, for example) don’t need several thousand people employed in UK universities to explain them. It’s ignorance that is our raison d’etre: we fight it, but if ever we were to win, we’d be out of a job.

Me, I think that Jack’s article pointed out the irony rather nicely – when the picture was taken, class was pretty visible, but mobility possible. Now, it’s the other way round.

32

Bloix 03.25.10 at 9:43 pm

“But how is this particular picture misleading?”

1) The “toffs” appear to be haughty and disdainful, while in fact they are merely worried children because the adult who is to pick them up is late and a strange adult is taking their picture without their consent.
2) The “oiks” appear to be smirking at the toffs but they are actually mildly embarrassed because a strange adult has urged them to move close and encroach on their space in order to have a picture taken with them.

The picture has been posed to communicate a message that has been imposed by the mind and hand of the photographer. Its emotional content is entirely fraudulent.

33

Mrs Tilton 03.25.10 at 10:03 pm

If I didn’t know that the world and its social order in 1937 was as Our Lord intended it and it’s been all downhill from there, Bloix @32 would have had me until his final sentence, in which he reveals himself as a comedian of the first water.

34

Substance McGravitas 03.25.10 at 10:06 pm

A comedian who is CRYING INSIDE?

35

garymar 03.26.10 at 12:55 am

I think it was on this blog that someone mentioned The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy by David Cannadine, which prompted me to buy a copy and read it. According to Cannadine, starting in the 1870s, British society made a concerted effort to destroy the privileges of its hereditary aristocracy, and by the end of WWII pretty much succeeded.

What a revelation for someone like me, who grew up in middle-class America. Throughout my life, in which this process was more or less complete, I witnessed again and again a kind of mindless Anglophilia (Anglo-reverence, actually) by a certain breed of irritating social climber. These climbers or their parents had made a bundle of dough, or somehow or other clawed their way into the upper middle class (East Coast version), and now they pined to take tea with the aristocracy, as if nothing that Cannadine described had ever occurred.

36

Salient 03.26.10 at 1:16 am

…and by the end of WWII pretty much succeeded.

Some complications of that appear in Orwell’s WWII diary, if that interests you (read it recently and found it illuminating).

37

garymar 03.26.10 at 1:24 am

I’ll look that up, Salient, thanks. Haven’t read any Orwell in a long, long time.

38

JJ 03.26.10 at 1:35 am

And the collective (first person plural) is rarely capitalized, unless it leads the letters or refers itself to proper nouns, or the royal identity.

The private, corporate collective trumps the public collective every time.

39

Bloix 03.26.10 at 2:54 am

The “toffs” are boys who have been dressed up like monkeys for the pleasure of adults. They don’t know each other very well, they don’t particularly like each other, and they are standing on the street waiting for an adult who doesn’t show up. They are where they are because adults have told them to be there, not because they want to be there. They are bored, slightly worried, and well aware of their own ridiculous appearance. They have no power at all over their personal situation. Suddenly a stranger shows up, and starts talking – not to them, but to some other boys – “hey boys, move closer to those two so I can take your picture together.” It’s clear to them that the stranger views them as objects of ridicule. How do they react? Defensively, of course – they put on faces of complete blankness and assume positions of disdain that they have learned from their parents.

The oiks are boys out for a day on their own. These are not street urchins – they are clean, dressed in clean clothes, decently fed, and in school. They are making money, hanging out with other boys of their own choosing, in their own neighborhood, with complete freedom to come or go as they please. They are ignoring the toffs until a stranger starts to talk to them – not with any hostility to them, but with obvious hostility to the toffs. They move closer, grinning with embarrassment and pleasure at the transgressive nature of what they’re doing, but sanctioned by this strange adult.

I think this is actually a picture about the different relationship of adults to children in the different social classes. What we can see if we are willing to look beyond the clothing is the contrast between the firm control over childhood in the upper classes and the relative freedom of children in the working classes.

The story of these boys’ lives reminds me of the Up series of films by Michael Apted, which begin with a clear didactic purpose and, over the years, wind up showing lives that are quite a bit more interesting and complex than the director’s original intent .

40

Myles SG 03.26.10 at 3:09 am

“According to Cannadine, starting in the 1870s, British society made a concerted effort to destroy the privileges of its hereditary aristocracy, and by the end of WWII pretty much succeeded.”

It certainly helped that British society sent all of them off to die at the Somme and at Normandy and Ortona. You can’t exactly have privileges when half your crowd is dead, can you?

41

Bloix 03.26.10 at 3:15 am

PS – Mrs Tilton (#33) – if you read the link you’ll see that this is a posed picture that is pretending to capture a spontaneous moment. It is literally a fraud. It’s no different than a journalist making up quotes. And because we the viewers are intended not to know it’s posed, we read emotions into the faces of the individuals that are likely very different from the emotions that they felt. The emotions we read are the emotions that the photographer wants us to read, not the emotions that were likely there. So the image is an emotional fraud. I’m not saying anything new or startling here – this sort of manipulation has long been considered a sin among journalistic photographers.

42

Mrs Tilton 03.26.10 at 5:23 am

Bloix @41,

“Stand closer” != complete fraud. All five boys were there independent of the photographer, all wearing the clothes his photo shows. Had the five been wearing e.g. matching Stereolab tshirts only to be told by the photographer to put on the stuff he’d brought along in a bag, your highly interesting idea might be worth discussing in depth.

43

Chris A. Williams 03.26.10 at 8:16 am

I think that quite a lot of this debate just upthread about ‘fraud’ might be to do with the changing status of newspaper photography. Take, for example, _Picture Post_, which was in its heyday 1940-1955. The pictures were quite artificially posed in order to look good, and I imagine that the readers knew that they were posed. But nowadays, pictures in newspapers are (at least in theory) far less posed: so the story of The Photo from 1980 onwards is of a generation who think that the camera never lies, and that a picture taken on the street is not going to be posed, looking at a picture which was constructed according to different rules. Perhaps.

44

ajay 03.26.10 at 10:45 am

42: but they weren’t there, dressed like that, through their own choice, as Bloix pointed out.

I think 39 is an interesting take on things, actually.

45

Robert Hanks 03.26.10 at 10:51 am

#19: “What is the point of wearing a top hat and a silk waistcoat, if not to symbolise a class distinction?”

To be fair to the boys, that was school uniform, not something they chose to wear: so it’s not simply a question of how the photographer manipulated the scene, but of all the children having been manipulated one way or another. Bloix’s point at #39, about the different relationships between children and adults in different strata, is worth a ponder. I’ll sit in a corner and go “Hmm” for a while.

Lemuel Pitkin at #20: my first impression was the same – it’s the rich what gets the attention, it’s the poor what gets the quick couple of paragraphs at the end, it’s the same the ‘ole world over. But Jack does explain, very briefly, that he couldn’t find any traces of two of the “oiks”, and the third wouldn’t talk to him. So I’m not convinced that the point stands up.

“According to Cannadine, starting in the 1870s, British society made a concerted effort to destroy the privileges of its hereditary aristocracy, and by the end of WWII pretty much succeeded.”

Yes, I was making this point to the Duke of Westminster only yesterday. “I believe you’re right, guv’nor,” he croaked, and the discussion might have gone further if he hadn’t insisted that I buy a copy of The Big Issue to make it worth his while.

46

novakant 03.26.10 at 11:57 am

Incidentally the “couple kissing in a Paris street” Ian Jack refers to, i.e. Le Baiser de l’Hotel de Ville by Robert Doisneau, was staged using paid models. Doisneau’s explanation shows him as a man very much concerned with the impact his photography might have on the lives of his subjects:

“I would have never dared to photograph people like that. Lovers kissing in the street, those couples are rarely legitimate.” (link)

I think such concern is well warranted, since the power of photography and its potential to mislead people is immense. I can’t remember where exactly, but Errol Morris had a whole series of articles in the NYT discussing the ethics of the matter.

47

tomslee 03.26.10 at 1:09 pm

@25,26: That’s right. Anyone who follows the latest developments in sports medicine knows Alf Tupper was the first high-profile athlete to use carbohydrate loading.

48

Zamfir 03.26.10 at 1:32 pm

To be fair to the boys, that was school uniform, not something they chose to wear: so it’s not simply a question of how the photographer manipulated the scene, but of all the children having been manipulated one way or another.

But if the clothes (of both groups really) are a result of their position in society instead of free choice, doesn’t that make the picture a more accurate reflection of society, instead of less?

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