Is William Blake the girl from Pulp’s “Common People”?

by Thomas Phillips, oil on canvas, 1807

by Thomas Phillips, oil on canvas, 1807

Dumb question surely?  They are separated by such small matter as gender, and 200 years which include the work of Marx and Freud!

Until you think about it…

Lead singer, Jarvis Cocker, sings about the realities of average British late twentieth century life – in comparison to a romanticised view of the working class, typically held by middle-class socialist “Blairites” who were born of the New Labour victory in the late ’90s. 

And who better to epitomise the king of Romanticism? None other than William Blake, whose poetic “niche” lay in writing about the marginalised proletariat in what was a modernising Britain in the early stage of the first industrial revolution. Thus, on the back of the industrial revolution and the new urban working class or “proletariat” (the later Marxist term), Blake could find a market for his romantic literature.

It is the “wealthy” who take to pen and paper and write about how oppressed the people beneath them are. They are well educated.  They are hailed as the intelligentsia, the finest minds of their generation, for highlighting this oppression.

William Blake was actually some jumped-up middle class scholar who fancied himself the prophet of the marginalised working class. To Blake, the new industrial proletariat are voiceless, but perhaps if they had enjoyed a privileged childhood like he had, they too would have the time and disposable income to write poetry. 

What he failed to realise is that working conditions for the lower classes were worse prior to the industrial revolution: the life of peasants and the rural landless working poor really is ‘nasty, brutish and short. The industrial revolution saw the growth of factories, which in simplified terms, would provide jobs to the dispossessed rural labourers who were now needed as an industrial labour workforce. Thus, they moved to the burgeoning towns and cities: where over-crowding ensued as a result.

Simultaneously, this growth of factories saw the rise of a new middle class – the bourgeoisie – alongside the growing professions, the factory and small business owners, who benefitted and/or profited greatly from the industrial revolution. Among them was Blake’s father, a hosier. Arguably, the growth of the bourgeoisie allowed Blake to enjoy an education that, prior to the revolution, he would not have enjoyed.

Now, what does this all have in common with the 90’s hit, Common People, by Pulp?

Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker sings of a middle class girl who seduces the protagonist in order to “experience” working-class life. The girl is the “tourist” whom “everybody hates” – essentially, because she is only there temporarily; at any moment she can escape – simply by calling her “loaded” dad to get her out of poverty.  Similarly, Blake can return to the comfort of his study!

The problem is this: the girl states that she wants to “live with common people”, whilst Blake (or his narrator) “wanders through each chartered street”. 

But, neither of the two would in fact be willing to relinquish their lifestyle in favour of a working class one. How can they know what is best for ordinary people having never worked with them, or lived with them? 

As Jarvis Cocker so eloquently puts it, “you will never understand how it feels to live your life with no meaning or control”.

Both Blake and the girl in Common People are poverty tourists, “slumming” it for the experience but with an escape route built in any moment they like. The problem with poverty tourism is that it gives privileged students a rose-tinted view of the lives of common people – they think “poor is cool”, and do not believe in social mobility. 

Rather than championing grammar schools, which give the poorest children of society a chance to access an opportunity of finer education, equivalent to that a privileged child would enjoy, they deem them “divisive” and creating a “two tier society”. Therefore any hope of social mobility is abolished. 

Thus, the middle class remains exclusive to those born into wealth and those who condemn the working class experience from outside are the very same people who destroy the educational ladder out of it.   

Socialism has created the very inequality it complains about. The modern British Labour party are poverty tourists who wring their hands and cry over the inequality and suffering of the working classes – which their own policies have created.





Rosalie Ward: ‘Rosy’ is currently an intern with the EFDD group in the European Parliament.


  1. Just caught this out of the corner of my eye when you posted it.

    I think it’s an excellent piece, and an original angle to view it from. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it on my day off. Well done.

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