‘Last Orders’ was a documentary about the Wibsey Working Men’s Club in Bradford. Over three months, the documentary sought to capture the everyday trials and tribulations of what was described as an ’embattled group’, namely the Club’s white working class members.
The documentary was empathetic to its subject matter despite the Club being described as being like another world. But it wasn’t just the Club that felt like: it was the people also, the members for whom many seemed to struggle with the changes that had not only occurred in their Club but so too in the society where once they had felt so comfortable and settled. Throughout, the programme was both touching and excrutiating, not least in the fly on the wall recordings of the Club’s management meetings where disagreements and conflicts were played out over how long and how many electric lights were left on.
Three points however struck me as requiring further discussion. The first, was the funeral of the longstanding Club member, Derek. Whilst members mourned the death of Derek, the reality seemed to be that it was the death of another (better?) ‘way of life’ that was actually being mourned. From the references to a long forgotten age where national service was the norm through to the ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’ mentality of the vicar’s description of him always being well presented in a blazer and with polished shoes, the funeral seemed to take on a much wider relevance. Yes, Derek was being remembered but so too were the halcyon days of that bygone age. When the vicar ended the funeral service by reflecting on the joy of Derek’s simple way of life, he added that he couldn’t think of a finer tradition to keep going. As he enjoined the members, “keep it going”.
The second, was the voice of the member shown above (whose name I never picked up). At one stage he spoke about the “indigenous peoples” of Wibley, a phrase that is increasingly being used by those such as the BNP and others. For those who are unaware, for ‘indigenous’ read ‘white’. In another, and more tellingly, he said he wished that he “could be happy again”. When asked when it was that he was happy, he said when he was 21 or 22, enjoying music, attending college, and living with a girl in Germany. Nowadays however, he felt he had become, “a part of Wibsey Club…and that is all I am, a part…a minute particle…that is how much I am”. As with the funeral, it was the loss of something clear to hold onto, the loss of purpose, of meaning, and of an identity – both individually and communally – that seemed to be making him feel the way he did.
The final point was the voice of Eddie’s son, Paul. Sitting in front of a Union flag with a swastika painted in the centre, Paul – someone clearly differentiated from the older white working class that the Club members and his dad Eddie represented in the programme – aired his views about who was to blame for the problems he and others have to face. “It’s just changed so much…it’s their country now, they’ve took over it…there’s more of them than us now…”. He went on, “it’s so stupid, that’s why I want to be off, away from Bradford…it’s just Muslims I don’t like”. He conculded by saying that if he did vote, he would vote BNP because they were right: they told the truth. Whilst being opposed to his parent’s generation and their views, Paul was also opposed to how he saw Britain today. For those like Paul therefore, not only did they fail to have a sense of belonging in the here and now, but neither did they have a golden age to hold onto.
The programme seemed to highlight three clear issues about what it meant to be white, working class in today’s Britain. The first was that the white working classes and all that this entails were dead or were at least dying. The second was that being white British (or English) was a dying identity, rooted in a past, bygone era that far too many were seemingly desperately clinging onto. And finally, in the void left by a lack of identity and belonging both with the Britain of the past and the Britain of today, a sense of hatred and the blaming of others was evident: notably, those others that arrived here through mass migration.
Worryingly, at no time did any of the members or other white, working class actors look at themselves or indeed the white communities that they belonged to as having any role or responsibility for where they were today. Instead, from the Labour Party through to the smoking ban, from the ‘Pakis’ to Thatcher, the blame and responsibility was far from being their own (I hasten to add that whilst observing this, I’m making no comment on the attribution of blame or indeed who/what might be to blame).
What seemed to underpin the programme was the fact that life has changed and indeed will continue to do so in the future. The white working classes seemed ill prepared for this change and seemed to be reluctant to allow change to wrestle from their tight grip all that was familiar to them: familikar only through having one eye fixed firmly in the past. To paraphrase the narrator, as he observed just before the end credits began, the world doesn’t stand still and because of this, whether we like it or not, something is always lost. What it is that is lost is not always clear, but in terms of the white working classes and if ‘Last Orders’ is correct, it seems to be that a sense of belonging, value and worth both for the past and for the future are what many of the white working class popluation are increasingly finding it difficult to locate.