Friday, 29 July 2011

Travelling to meet Tweeters.

This Sunday they are having a garden party where I live. It’s a gated community of 23 mews houses which sit prettily and contentedly around a cobbled courtyard with a garden at the side. We pay for this bit together and due to the studious work undertaking by the Chairman and Treasurer of the community company there is enough left over each year for a garden party. I won’t be going of course – I never do. You see the people I live amongst intimidate me; they are middle class, educated, posh, smart, socially poised – all those things I’m not.

So I got to thinking, given that I don’t actually work anymore (I have enough money not to have to), wouldn’t it be fun to travel round England a bit and try to understand what it is about the middle classes that so terrorises me. So that is what I intend to do.

The middle classes and middle classness (I know that’s not a word but you get it, right?) has always fascinated me. I am working class so to me, those with assured educations courtesy of their parents and life values that shout certainty, worthiness and self sacrifice (usually for kids and/or career husbands) seem strangely intimidating to me. Of course there will be those amongst you who assert, like Jeremy Paxman before you, that there is no longer a working class, that we are all middle class these days. This, to my mind is a very middle class concept; you like to be in clubs, you like to get other people to join, you like to think your efforts better the lot of others.

But there is a still a working class out there. It now resides in the urban sprawls of London, Birmingham and Manchester and, of course, in my own home town of Bradford. It sits amongst middle class folk who live there because they choose to, working class people live there (wherever there is) because they have no other choice. Being working class means being pretty certain you won’t amount to much and being eternally surprised if you do, it’s not about work ethic or money usually, it’s actually about how you think.

But I digress, this blog will not turn into a treatise on the working classes; if you middle class folk want to learn about us then you need to get out of denial, get on your bikes and find out. This blog is to become my vehicle for exploring the middle classes; their belief systems, their delusions, their ambitions and their view of themselves. I will wallow in what I hear as ‘posh’ accents (I have always wanted to sound like Michael Parkinson the earthy Yorkshireman but actually sound more like Peter Kay) designer lifestyles and pretentious socialism (that’s one thing the educated middle classes do really well) and I will try to understand why you scare me so.

I have done quite well for myself, I was well educated, successful in work and live in nice surroundings. I am still, however, working class and therefore totally intimidated by middle class people who I see as my superiors. I intend to try and find out why that is.

In 1993John Major made his now famous ‘back to basics’ address at the Conservative Party Conference and cited a litany of icons of Englishness some lifted from The lion and the Unicorn written by that finest of socialist authors George Orwell. Orwell is one of the few middle class (upper class perhaps) authors who I can congratulate on their socialism – he worked hard, he immersed himself in the people and he got it – and this book is a socialist call to arms suggesting strongly that major had never read it and the references were put into the speech by some smart little researcher. Major talked of ‘old maids cycling to Holy Communion, long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs and dog lovers’; Majors misquoting has passed into Conservative Party legend, Orwell though, and this is telling, also cited (as icons of Englishness) ‘the clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the labour exchanges, the rattle of pin tables in Soho pubs’. None of which, perhaps understandably, Major thought would get the blue rinses and retired colonels dewy eyed and yearning for times lost. In many ways Major embodied Middle England and the middle classes even though he was the Brixton born son of a trapeze artist – he did after all have  a passionate illicit romance with Edwina Currie and it doesn’t get more middle class than that!

I decided, therefore, that to understand the middle classes I must learn to understand Middle England. Depending on how you see it Middle England can mean entirely different things. Said in some private members club frequented by media types in Soho it means stifling conservatism, the Daily Mail and bringing back hanging (oh and getting out of the EU although that’s suddenly fashionable for everybody). Said with a swell of pride and a raised glass of warm flat beer in a saloon bar in the Shires, it means tradition, dependability, decency, the swish of willow on leather - and getting out of the EU.

As I journey through this strange land that is the Cotsworlds, the Chilterns the Mendips and the Peak District, I will be asserting, and perhaps acknowledging, that Middle Englishness and middle class values which flow from these environs, are not so much about geography but represent a certain kind of Englishness; one that is , in Middle England, distilled to its essence providing the stark and simple underbelly of middle classness; comfortable, straight-laced, cosy, assured, purposeful. It’s always easier to study at the margins, the extremes where the contrasts are the greatest so that’s what I’ll do. So I don’t want those of you who acknowledge being middle class but cannot abide my Shires study subjects to get over excited; I am studying on the margins and I think you just might recognise some of yourself in them – the real worry is that I might recognise some of me in them!

When the Department of Media, Culture and Sport, in its restlessly upbeat, sandal wearing teachery sort of way asked us to nominate our “icons of Britishness” the top 10 were Stonehenge, Punch & Judy, Holbein’s portrait of Henry VIII, a cup of tea, the FA Cup, the Routemaster bus, the King James Bible, the Angel of the North, the Spitfire and Jerusalem (song not place). Journeying through the Shires I hope to add farmers markets, branch lines, country lanes, gift shops, gastropubs and of course those things which, to me, define middle class England – loft conversions, CCTV cameras, adverts for firms doing patio improvements, white towelling clad women in health spas, trampolines in gardens, garden centres and those yellow signs that say ‘cleaning in progress’, yummy mummies in 4x4’s, Polish chambermaids and sad little bunches of flowers taped to Pelican crossings. Did I insult everybody there?

I believe the middle classes are epitomised by Middle England, it’s ample well fed midriff rising and falling contentedly in a post Sunday lunch snooze. The place is iconic for their value systems, I would use a term like psycho-geography but then I would be falling under the spell of the foolish middle class intellectuals who fear the use of simple plain words might ‘find out’ the nonsense they spew. In middle England they call a spade a spade – unless its an edging iron or a Dutch Hoe.

Let the travels commence!

Thursday, 7 July 2011

On being a socialist who doesn't support Labour

I read an excellent article in the Independent yesterday by Christina Patterson ( in which she pointed out the pressures on all of us economically which lead us to conclude that we should turn our backs on those in the Horn of Africa who now face starvation. She laid out all the arguments for pulling up the ladder and shouting “Yup all ok up here Jack” and then she made an excellent statement that topped and tailed her argument – ‘we are the luckiest people on the planet. We think corruption is MP’s claiming for bath plugs and poverty is eating at McDonald’s. We’re lucky to have food, and water and shelter and a government we elect’ – her point was well made; we are way beyond the poverty of Africa and we must help those less fortunate who cannot help themselves; even when we have to also accept that corruption is so bad much of what we donate will never reach them and may well pay for guns. I read it, I didn’t agree with her but I truly wished I could see her argument and could support what is clearly a fine set of principles – much finer than mine. I have to simply accept she is a better person than me.

But the fact was, no matter how many times I read the article I would never agree with her; when we are driving people into poverty here (even if our definition of poverty is very different to that used in Africa) simply for ideological reasons I cannot agree with our government which, on the one hand tells us we have messed up our country, then starts playing the big men of the world spending our money in countries that do not agree with any of our ideological foundations.

I find myself thinking that as these countries are Muslim why don’t the worlds super rich Muslim countries help their brothers; the Arab countries provide virtually nothing in aid with Qatar (just as an example) giving less than 1% of the international aid we do. I hear the arguments that say we should rise above that but should we? Really?

I have had to accept lately that my self assessment of my own intellectual ability (and hence my philosophical stance and outlook) are not what I had hoped. I’m clearly not the developed, balanced sophisticated intellectual that I thought I was, as I simply cannot agree with the arguments propounded by the great and the good anymore.

Perhaps it’s because I don’t have the fancy job, expense account and ultimate security of earnings that Christina Patterson and folk like her have. Perhaps it’s because I regularly head back to my home town of Bradford in Yorkshire and see the poverty, social decay, racial tension and educational vacuum that typifies the north (ultimately the place I try to be proud of) but I just cannot think as these supporters of wider, purer thinking then mine propound.

And here’s the thing. For almost 40 years I have been a card carrying paid up member of the Labour Party. Earlier this year I cancelled my membership and after I had got very upset (incandescent I might say) at the fact that nobody from the Labour Party seemed to care I had quit, I sat back and tried to understand why my intellectual and ethical belief system that made me a ‘man of the left’ was now letting me down.

I found myself unable to support council workers who strike to protect their jobs and benefits, I lost my faith in the European experiment and its principles and I started to contemplate that a largely privatised NHS might actually provide decent healthcare unlike the system we have now. Had I turned Tory overnight! Well clearly I hadn’t, but the loss of blind faith in Labour that grew from the selection of the Trades Union man Ed Milliband as leader when nobody else in the Party’s electoral college wanted him, and the subsequent rallying behind a man who is neither tough enough nor savvy enough to handle the current situation had been the catalyst for my resignation. The decision by these weak and spineless characters to then rewrite history to distance themselves from Tony Blair (the finest labour leader there has ever been in my view) and become apologists for the modernisation that he achieved in the Labour Party finally led me to tear up the card. The thing that finally convinced me I was right to do it was the announcement this week that the election of cabinet members would be dropped so that ‘Ed’ could hand pick his brown nosers and finally put the Blairites to the sword; the horror being I now hope he suffers a massive electoral defeat and his brother is then allowed to pick up the pieces and put the party back where it should be – I have never in my life wished labour to fail but now I do.

And I know that this is not because I am no longer philosophically a Labourite, it is because I am also a strong man (like Tony Blair) and not an apologist. I fight my corner and I expect the party I support to do the same as it has throughout its history – I am not interested in the over analysis and tedious ponderings of the EM Labour movement; it is no longer my movement and it will fail as it will lose its core support.

So I now rationalise the fact that I don’t want us spending what little money we have on aid, I want us to spend it here, helping our own. I do not feel guilty and ‘anti-labour’ by thinking that way, I don’t feel like I’ve lost my socialist mojo.

I also don’t feel guilty that I cannot support the actions of our council workers who I believe have had it too good for too long. I believe there is massive over employment in the public sector and now the lie has been exposed that they must protect their pensions because they earn less (it turns out they earn more than those in the private sector like for like jobs) I want to see them grown up and swallow their medicine like the rest of us are having to.

So the autumn is going to be interesting for me I guess. For the first time in my life I have no political party to lean on, no politicians who I admire whose words will guide me, I am going to have to think for myself! And that process leads me to understand that defining myself by political definitions is wrong (as politicians are power hungry so glibly change the definitions to suit the mood) – I like honesty and everybody to pull together, council workers don’t care about the rest of us they are looking after themselves and they are hiding behind false statements to try and get our support, it won’t work with me anymore.

The message here is clear. Be fair and carry your own can and I will support you. Try to hang onto your cushy number where there are at least two people for every job and too many invented jobs that don’t need doing and I lose interest. And finally if you want to spend my money in Africa instead of at home I will oppose you as you are delusional.

I also want to see us out of the joke that is the EU, get our jobs back in the hands of Brits and stop giving £1.4billion contracts to Germans but then maybe that’s just too much to expect.