Book review: A Class Act, Life as a Working-Class Man in a Middle-Class World, by Rob Beckett. Published by: Harper Collins. Available: now.
Now in his mid-thirties, Rob Beckett is a comedy success story, a popular stand-up, podcaster and a familiar TV face from shows like Mock The Week, 8 Out of 10 Cats and Taskmaster. He is also something of a rarity on the British comedy circuit in that he hails from a genuinely working-class background. This is his story, not a straightforward autobiography but a look at how his life and career have been affected by his past.
Judging by his own (and, indeed, probably many people’s) criteria, Beckett passes what he himself calls, ‘the Working-Class Test’ (perhaps this should be renamed, ‘The Beckett List?) with flying colours. He grew up in south-east London. His father worked as a driver: first driving vans, then petrol tankers, then a London taxi cab, His mum is known as ‘Big Suze’. He spent his 16th birthday at Crayford dog-racing track. He didn’t eat an avocado until he was 31. On the other hand, there is a darker side to all this. At his first ever Parents’ Evening at school, his parents were told straight that “he’s never going to be a high achiever or a high flier.”
Despite this, these experiences have left him not so much angry as conflicted. The book’s cover which shows him smartly dressed and cheerfully enjoying an expensive drink while simultaneously clearly about to tuck into a plate of bangers and mash while seated in a greasy spoon café, comically reflect his mixed feelings. His background has clearly caused him no small measure of awkwardness in the past. After an early comedy success winning a trip to Adelaide after securing the Best Newcomer award at Edinburgh ten years ago, Beckett found himself stuck there with no money left to enjoy the city at all. In a later incident, after being invited to a swanky party hosted by Jimmy Carr he found himself mocked by other guests for arriving with a few cans of beers in a plastic bag. Although he gets on well with his warm and supportive family, he admits to having been occasionally been embarrassed by their behaviour. It’s true, one or two of his issues can be attributed to other things: he recognises he was self-conscious about his weight for many years. A few elements of his parents’ behaviour sound like they might be more to do with general eccentricity or old age than anything else. But he is right to recognise that most of these problems have been down to class.
Today, Rob Beckett recognises he is definitely middle-class himself. His wife is middle-class: for one thing, she had never eaten fried chicken before meeting him. He also recognises his daughters will grow up to be much posher than he is. Occasionally his insecurities return. Most dramatically, it took a near nervous breakdown shortly before lockdown to make him realise his continued success did not depend on him taking literally every job he was offered. Even as a successful comedian who had been commissioned to write this book, he admits it took him a while to realise he wasn’t being needlessly financially reckless to even consider buying himself a new laptop rather than awkwardly sharing the computer his wife was using to home school the children during lockdown.
He frequently seems amazed he is writing a book at all. And no wonder. His father didn’t even read a book until he was 43. The book in question was The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, in fact, written by Sue Townsend, a woman from a far poorer background than the Becketts.
Like her, Rob Beckett has come a very long way from where he started out from. But then, perhaps not so far, at the same time.
Geoff Norcott is that rarest of breeds: a popular and funny right-wing comedian.
Whereas, even only a few years ago, most people would have struggled to name even one living British comedian with conservative views (particularly when the list is shortened further to exclude those who are not openly racist), Norcott has risen to fame largely on the basis of his appearances as the ‘token right-winger’ on the BBC’s excellent topic comedy show, The Mash Report. The show was cancelled earlier this year, largely as a result of concerns by nervous BBC execs that, Norcott’s contribution aside, it was too left-wing.
Some would doubtless challenge me for even agreeing to review this book and thus provide the oxygen of publicity to someone who is not only a self-confessed Tory voter and a Brexiteer.
To these people I would point out first that Norcott clearly represents the more acceptable face of the Right. He is clearly not racist at all and in 2019 was appointed as a member of a BBC Diversity Panel with the aim of ensuring the corporation represents a broad cross section of the public’s views. He is also, it must be mentioned, deeply sceptical about the leadership skills of Boris Johnson. This is a definite point in his favour, even if his scepticism was not quite sufficient to prevent him from helping vote Johnson back into power in the December 2019 General Election.
Secondly, I would argue strongly that we shut out voices such as Norcott’s at our peril. Nobody’s life is perfectly typical of anything, but Norcott seems to be a textbook example of the sort of voter Labour could once, perhaps complacently rely on to support them as recently as the 1990s and 2000s but who they have since lost with fatal consequences. With much of Norcott’s assessment of Labour taking the form of critical advice rather than flagrant attacks, he is certainly worth listening to.
By coincidence, me and Geoff Norcott are almost exactly the same age. He was born six days earlier than me in December 1976. Like me, his first ever experience of voting in a General Election as a twenty-year-old was for New Labour in May 1997. He describes his feeling on leaving the voting booth:
“It was probably the first and last time I ever felt total conviction about the party I voted for,” I feel the same. It was a combination of the perhaps misplaced certainties of youth. But it was also, I think, something about the political mood of 1997.
Like me, he returned, perhaps slightly less enthusiastically to voting Labour in 2001. Thereafter, our paths diverge. I came very close to voting Lib Dem in 2005, largely because of my opposition to the war in Iraq (I eventually held my nose and voted for my local Labour candidate who was anti-war, but lost her seat anyway). Norcott doesn’t mention his views on the war, but did vote Lib Dem, partly because like me, he admired their then leader, the late Charles Kennedy, but also as part of a slow journey he was undergoing towards the Tories. In the last four General Elections held since 2010, he voted Conservative. He also voted Leave in 2016.
In truth, Geoff Norcott, although from a traditionally Labour family had been showing conservative instincts from a young age. He had an entirely different upbringing to me. Mine was comfortable and middle-class, his was marred by both poverty and parental divorce. He is sceptical about the welfare system based on his own family experiences and is less enthusiastic than most people are these days about the NHS. He felt endlessly patronised while at Goldsmith College, London in the mid-1990s and has come away with a lifelong scepticism about left-wing middle-class liberals, many of whom frequently serve as targets for his humour today, (for example, on the marches for a second ‘People’s Vote’ on Brexit: “The idea that loads of liberals having a day out in London with chopped kale power salads and terrible chants in some way spoke for the country was laughable”). He has had some tough battles on Twitter. Critics of his appearances on Question Time have variously attacked him for either being rich and self-interested or too common to be on TV. He now seems to be convinced Twitter is a hotbed of left-wing sentiment. I’m not sure it is.
The book takes us through his difficult early years, a brief stint in media sales, his work as a teacher, his time entertaining the troops overseas, a series of personal tragedies a few years ago through to his final success as a successful and reasonably well-known comedian and now author, settled with his family in Cambridgeshire.
Needless to say, I don’t agree with him on many things. He believes the Blair and Brown governments spent too much: I don’t think they did particularly, and even if they did, this certainly does not explain why the credit crunch happened. His main criticism of people like the Milibands and Keir Starmer seems to be largely based on the fact that they are middle-class and cannot claim any link to working-class people. In my view, this is true but is surely dwarfed by the facts that the their opponents men such as David Cameron and Boris Johnson were born into lives of such immense privilege to the extent that these leaders have no knowledge or interest in reducing poverty at all. I suspect, at root, like many right-wing people, Norcott thinks there is something hypocritical about anyone with money having a social conscience about anything, while his tolerance for rich leaders who openly don’t give a toss about society is much greater. This has never been my view. My horror at the Tory record on homelessness, unemployment and underfunding of the health service has always been sufficient to drive me away me from ever voting for them, particularly when combined with the frequent right-wing tendency (not shared by Norcott himself) to either be racist or to blame many of the weakest and poorest in the world for many of society’s ills.
Geoff Norcott is, of course, now successful enough to be considered middle-class himself and undoubtedly has many left-wing comics amongst his friendship circle. None of which should detract from this sometimes funny, enjoyable and often useful book which is packed with useful phrases such as ,”when you demonise a voter, you lose them forever” which many of us would do well to remember.
Book review: Where Did I Go Right?: How The Left Lost Me, by Geoff Norcott. Published by: Octopus. Available: now.