Sunday, 27 December 2009

The bland youth of Waitrose

I'm struck by the faces of the teenage workforce that helps in Waitrose on evenings and weekends. Or rather, I'm struck by how I'm not struck. The faces seem characterless, unformed, blank, untouched by experience.

Waitrose is generally a middle class supermarket; my branch certainly is, judging not least by the number of Daily Mails they sell. Their teenage help seems to be in the same mould; I'd guess they were students from suburban grammar school sixth forms or a sixth form college. ‘Nice kids, but a bit boring’ is the description that springs to mind.

The contrast is extreme with the cockney teenagers I taught in a central South London borough. Their faces (boys’ particularly) were full of character, Dickensian, mobile, expressive; they looked like clowns, rogues, happy chappies, shrewd geezers, bon viveurs. A caricaturist would have had no trouble with them. They were adult faces without the wear and tear.; they had, you felt, begun real life earlier. In dealing with them you knew where you were by their faces.

What accounts for the class difference in youthful faces? I don’t know but some possibilities occur to me. Is the density of social encounters higher in working class areas? does a person interact with more others in the course of the day? Middle class students certainly do more homework and spent less of their evenings and weekend outside the home (and the sporting venues, music lessons etc to which they’re ferried). Where they aren’t is on the street and in the pubs, shopping centres and arcades. As a working class kid perhaps the range of your encounters is wider: for instance, being out more you might meet more adults other than parents and teachers: uncles and other relatives (extended families) for a start, and then all the shopkeepers, security guards, bar staff, dealers, teenage gangs and police whose domain is public spaces. Perhaps you need a repertoire of facial expressions for the range of situations, along with a stock of verbal responses; you learn to make your face reinforce your words.

Is there something in Bernstein’s ‘restricted code’ idea? If some people’s words express their meaning only in a general and not very differentiated way -- if less of the meaning they want to convey is contained in the words -- they may need to rely more on other channels. These include tone of voice, gesture, stance and facial expression. So in all these you learn to be versatile and, literally, expressive.

Contrast your grammar school student who lives a rather monkish or nunnish existence, isolated for hours in a bedroom at home or head down in imposed silence in a classroom. The semiotic traffic of such a person is relatively less with other individuals and more with symbol systems: written texts, mathematical symbols, diagrams; and at the meaning level with facts and abstractions, concepts and ideas.

The level of sheer life of our bookish student -- the intensity of his or her experience -- may well be no lower than that of our kid on the streets but, involving little interaction with people, has no particular call to find expression in the face. Behind those bland, unformed faces will be a great many exciting young thinkers, dreaming and grappling and interpreting and theorising like mad as they restock the baked beans. Meanwhile the minds of which those animated working class faces seem to be an expression are often, I think -- again relatively -- uninteresting and unformed.


taj said...

Pete, reading Waitrose, I recalled these nineteen year old lines when my confidence exceeded my talent -


Scan my face
As you do my lines
See the future
You left behind

Your verses
Foretells my future
If I don't watch out
My teacher

All the best in 2010

Pete Medway said...

Yes, you've come on since then but that still packs a punch, Taj! You must have been an intimidating student.

A productive and happy New Year to you, too.