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!