Fred Dibnah: A Study Of Working Class Light

RND// To consider a study of the Northern, Working Class light in much loved BBC TV series starring Fred Dibnah.

Pessimistic interpretations of the industrial revolution have led to the popular acceptance of what R.M. Hartwell terms the “theory of immiseration” – a belief that unrestrained capitalism was making the rich richer and the poor poorer during the industrial revolution (Hartwell, 1974.)
– How The Industrial Revolution Raised The Quality Of Life For Workers And Their Families (Foundation For Economic Education, American conservative libertarian economic think tank)

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Some ideological high-lights from the TV series. That is, light which illuminates not what is shown, but how we think – our often dubious internal models of the world. Consider Fred’s limited understanding of history as a irrational tautology, consisting of “All this mechanical stuff is precisely what put the ‘great’ in ‘Great Britain’.” That is, it’s great because it existed, and it existed because it was / is ‘great’. OK, great Fred – but then what? Where do we go from here?

“A credit to our illustrious ancestors.”

-Whose, exactly?

“An account of a serious riot.”

-That is, the secret unwritten history of Working Class resistance to their Capitalistic owners and masters, as neatly glossed over and whose wider social significance is distinctly underplayed by Fred, in direct conjunction with the BBC.

“All the collapsed buildings and the dereliction.”

-Welcome to Endland, aka Plague Island / Ukania.. because that’s all I see when I watch history programs like this. Not ‘glorious progress’.

“Laid the foundations for The Industrial Age.”

-Aye, on the sweat, blood and bones of poor, working class people.

“A grand example of Victorian civic pride. The success and prosperity that The Industrial Revolution brought to towns like this.”

-Brought success and prosperity to who exactly, Fred? Cos I don’t see much success in the slum towns which sprung up around the major industrial centers of the day.

“The great age of Victorian splendor.”

-Yes, it must of been pretty splendid for those who could afford it / who owned everything.

“When it was built in the 19th Century, it was a time when they had a great respect for the past, and they wanted their buildings to reflect the values of an earlier age.”

-When ‘a great respect for the past’ always really means ‘when the working class knew their place in The Great Order Of Dead (Industrial-Colonial) Things. doffs cap to passing gent

“At a time when Britain’s aristocracy felt threatened by the recent French Revolution, it [the building] sent a very clear message to the ordinary people round about. It said, ‘Remember who your masters are!'”

-A neat, entirely throwaway summary of the entire series, and Fred’s small part in it. The fact only a vanishingly small number of people truly know just how close England has ever come to a social revolution is in itself telling of the sheer order of control and ‘stability’ the ruling classes have over the citizenry of this astoundingly miserable backwater island.

“All of them are a credit to the people who’s vision and craft and sheer hard work have made Britain what it is today.”

-This feels far too much like the exact kind of pat-on-the-head condescending, willfully over-simplified view of brutal working class toil one would get at a history museum with reduced entry prices for single mothers and pensioners. As for ‘vision’, if given the real and remote opportunity, it’s doubtful in the extreme that the working class would build a world based entirely around dead white rich men (as the BBC series itself repeatedly displayed with pride and zero irony.)

“Many would have turned their backs on restoring something so daunting. But in Fred’s mind, can be seen the engine fully restored – with gleaming brass, bright paintwork – hissing and sighing as it moved backwards and forwards on well oiled bearings.”

-Though very little fault of his own, Fred Dibnah had basically as much insight into the truer nature and actual (deeper, wider) socio-political context of his infinitesimally minute roll in ‘The Industrial Revolution’ as a cog has in the midst of a vast machine belching smoke and death into the environment. He and his admirers beam with the same kind of bizarre, misplaced Pride™ that my grandmother did after a liberal weekly application of Brasso on her various shelf ornaments and knicknacks. Fred and his followers appear to have confused ‘mechanical skill’ with ‘meaningful labor’. Gleaming brass and bright paintwork may look impressive, but that’s hardly the real issue when entire generations of people have been forced by the treat of steady, life-long labor to stagger back home after a long day’s graft, only to get up and do it again – all for the lion’s share benefit of somebody else (ie. the bosses and owners and their horrible little world.) If it weren’t for the ‘well oiled societal bearings’ make possible via Beer, Tabs, and Tits – the holy trifecta of Revolutionary Displacement – the working class would have hissed and sighed at lot more (and a lot louder) than they did.

“Fred has reached the top of the chimney. What do you see, Fred Dibhah, as you dream? Do you see, days long past, when the landscape was scattered with mills and chimneys, the streets heaving and clattering as the mass mill population came to the end of their day, and drifted off, to their homes close by the mill?”

-Once again, someone from the BBC with soft hands, a soft boiled Cambridge University egg for a brain (and a condescending, de-radicalizing view of class and the meaningless of unceasing toil for white Capitalist assholes) conveniently mythologizes and romanticizes oppression and antagonism, ie. the oppression of being Working Class at all. In the BBC’s gleaming, polished and entirely sanitized worldview, ‘The North’ and ‘The Working Class’ are some kind of happy-go-lucky utopia of brass bands, flat caps, whippets, civic duty, Kensian economics, funny accents, rough hu-mor and glorious steam trains. It’s a place and a mind state where evidence of oil stains on one’s hands is somehow ‘honest’, proof of entry into salt-of-the-earth types, a ‘stasis symbol’. (But where exactly is this inherent honestly of dirt, toil and suffering located? “He may be poor as dirt, but he gives a hard day’s work for minimum wage.”) Where did the Industrial Revolution lead all of us, than down the royal road to ever more efficient environmental destruction in the name of profit? Did you know, when Fred got his MBE, Ze Queen reminded the butlers to put down old copies of the Telegraph on the carpets, and anywhere he might sit?

When I think of the word ‘pride’ in the context of the working class, I think not of ‘a good job done’ but of communal solidarity, shared goals for a better life, and the unbowed strength of human dignity in the face of all the bullshit; not letting the bastards grind you down. A union, not of mere workers, but of humanity. “The work is hard, the pay is small, so take your time and fuck ’em all.” Now that’s something worth raising a pint to. Why Aye, man!

// how to play big science