Like many British people, I was brought up to be obsessed with class by class obsessed parents, though I am trying hard not to pass on this obsession down to my children.
Though inevitably I will.
This week we were told that the old fashioned divisions of upper class, middle class and working class have been replaced by seven new classes – with the elite at the top, who have lots of money and own everything, and the precariat at the bottom who live hand to mouth and own very little.
I’m not really sure where I fit into this. I had a fancy education and own property, but have very little ready cash. I may have cultural capital and a wide and varied acquaintance, but I am still down in Morrison’s checking out the special offers and worrying about the cost of Christmas. Like most people I am constantly trying to cut corners.
I am also not sure I really take this analysis very seriously; surely the reality is that there are rich people, who don’t have to worry about money. And then there is everyone else.
I also find the analysis of class put forward by Professor Mike Savage and his team at the LSE rather dry and tedious. It lacks the colour – or should we say panache – of an earlier study from the late 1970s.
Class was written by self styled member of the ‘upper middle class’ Jilly Cooper and rather than presenting dull socio-economic categories, brings social class alive by creating grotesque and hilarious characters. We were invited to mock working class Dave Definitely Disgusting and sneer at ‘lower middle class’ Jen Teale and her husband Brian (the Teales were definitely the villains of the piece). The Surrey dwelling Nouveau Richards were not treated much better, though metropolitan Samantha and Gideon Upward (upper middle class) and the properly posh Stow-crats with their country pile and black labrador faired a little better.
I remember the first time I read the book. I was barely adolescent and it was lurking in some holiday cottage my parents had rented. Yet it made perfect sense – the rules of class had already been drilled into my impressionable head. I found it funny – it is extremely entertaining – though on reflection, it is a rather nasty book with its mock horror at Jen Teale’s ‘bad’ taste in furnishings or Dave Definitely Disgusting’s penchant for string vests. Like Nancy Mitford’s U and Non U before it, it makes a massive deal over language – it is ‘loo’ or ‘lavatory’, not ‘toilet’ (Jen Teale) or the working class ‘bog’.
As an adult in the 21st century I really find it hard to care, though I have friends who get terribly upset if their offspring use the wrong word. Which in itself seems utterly pointless, because at the end of the day, class is really all about money. I know the British pretend otherwise, claiming it is about ‘taste’ or ‘culture’, but you can’t buy antiques or designer Scandinavian furniture or shop at Waitrose or use private schools unless you have money. You can’t go skiing or visit the opera or dress your kids head to toe in Boden unless you have money.
To put it crudely, money talks and bullshit walks.
I think in some ways this is a very 21st century phenomenon. Until relatively recently, you could be posh and poor, festering in some crumbling pile, wearing tweeds and selling the family silver or eeking out a trust fund to send Henry and Araminta to private school. But I think those days are long gone; you have to have big money to play those games. If you have 2 children, you need to earn at least £100k a year – just to pay the school fees. So maybe Professor Savage’s category of ‘elite’ is not so wide of the mark.
I explore the subject of class in my book through the character of Piers Browne, a bumbling upper middle class twit. He is unhappily married to Francesca and lives in Fulham, up to his eyeballs in debt. The only way Piers can provide the lifestyle Sloaney (to use an 80s expression) Francesca was brought up to expect, is to do the bidding of a venal property developer. Capital is global and the ‘gentlemanly’ mores that Piers grew up with are now mere window dressing.
Piers started off as an incidental character, but is probably the hero of The Flats, as he is the person who changes most. I grew to love Piers – he really had a life of his own.
We first encounter him as he comes to address the tenants of the Fleet Estate:
Sunday afternoon and the tenants’ hall was buzzing. Normally a slightly desolate space that had once housed a play group until the council withdrew funding, it was packed to the rafters. Everyone was there: Lizzie, Jordan and Trev, Terry and Sally, Kev, Dave, Bill, Weasel, all the Krasniqis, plus many, many more. Lucinda was there looking immaculate in sparkling white yoga pants – largely because she had seen on Twitter that Blake Lovelace might be joining them. I was there with the boys, who had run off to play with the other kids from the flats – luckily Edona had offered to keep an eye on them. Also in attendance were Cllr James Davenport, our local councillor, and a representative from Cotswold Estates plc, the developers planning the regeneration.
I knew Cllr Davenport from the local Labour party. I went through a phase of being incredibly active, but soon discovered that I was not really compliant enough for local politics. The odd ill-chosen post on Facebook was met with instant opprobrium, while I didn’t really fancy the poison pen from the local paper pouring over my private life. Most importantly, I felt it would take me away from the boys. My time with them is precious – yes, I may enjoy recreational sex when they are out of the house – but they come first. I think most mothers would say the same.
James Davenport oozed ambition from the tips of his pointy fingers to the ends of his pointy shoes. He was 28, Oxford educated and worked for a think tank. His parents were both academics at the LSE and had sent him to Holland Park Comprehensive. James was quietly gay but in reality married to the Labour Party. He didn’t look especially pleased to see me; we had already had quite a few run-ins over what I (and many local people) saw to be his over familiar relationships with developers. We had our eye on James.
Standing next to James was a pink faced rather chubby chap in chinos and a slightly too tight polo shirt – definitely a chap, whereas most of the men in the flats were either blokes or geezers. Lucinda recognized him immediately and shot him a filthy stare. It was fat Francesca’s ghastly husband Piers. She didn’t like the idea of someone from her world – her real world – seeing her here. What if he told them all how posh she was? Or told Weasel that she used to go hunting?
Piers just looked uncomfortable. Lower class people always frightened him – ever since some village children pulled his pants down when he was walking back from church and threw him in the duck pond. Lower class people in London were even worse that their country cousins; they talked back for a start. Cockneys weren’t deferrent like the yokels near his father’s estate – they took the piss and called him a ‘bleedin’ plum’. Then there were all these foreign types that now seemed to be taking over the capital. They just laughed at English people for being lazy idiots who ate bad food. Piers didn’t think he was especially lazy – how could he be when his Israeli boss Ari Arvatz was on his case 247365 – but the foreigners were right about the food. He grimaced when he thought of Francesca’s endless shepherd’s pies, stagnant stews and watery bowls of sprouts. Thank goodness they’d got an au pair – great tits and at last a decent meal in the evening. He was getting a bit fat but at least he wasn’t hungry all the time.
Cllr Davenport cleared his throat and began speaking in his rather high, reedy voice:
“Good afternoon tenants and leaseholders. I am aware that some of you may have heard rumours about council plans to regenerate this estate. I can confirm that these rumours are indeed true, but would like to reassure you that the council will be working in partnership with Cotswold Estates to ensure that there is maximum value added to the local community. We will bring your estate into the 21st century; welcome to the future.”
The room erupted into a cacophony of jeering and catcalls. “Shut it you little poofter!” bellowed Terry and Kev. “Wasteman!!!!” yelled Jordan and the Krasniqi brothers. Mr Krasniqi cursed in Albanian, while Lizzie began to cry. This wasn’t the reaction that Cllr Davenport had hoped for; he naively believed that the people in the flats would be grateful. Didn’t they want architect design and solar panels? Or a communal kitchen offering to educate them about wholesome vegetarian cooking? Obviously the estate would be a pile of rubble for months while the additional housing for young professionals was being constructed and existing tenants were being encouraged to look into swapping their flats for equivalents on the Kent coast and the outskirts of Leicester. It was the logical thing to do in an era of population growth and increasing land values; Cllr Davenport was currently completing a Masters in Housing Policy at UCL so obviously he knew best.
Piers felt even more terrified. The rabble was coming for him. It was like the duck pond incident only worse as these plebs looked jolly big.
“Steady on, chaps,” he bleated. “I’m sure we can work something out”. Ari Arvatz had already sent him an encouraging text during the meeting – “fuck this up and your (sic) dead meat, fatboy”.
“Ha, ha. Listen to the plum, boys and girls,” shouted Terry. “Yeah, posh boy, we can indeed work sumfink aht. You can fuck off. Take yer boyfriend with you and fuck off back to Eton. We don’t want the likes of you here, you cunt. These flats is our home. Now piss orf, before I gives you a bloody good ‘iding.”
Piers looked up and caught Lucinda’s eye. She was smirking. And worse still she was filming him! What on earth was she doing in this ghastly place – must be another of those funny chaps she liked knocking about with. He had to get out of this place. Fuck Ari, fuck the mortgage, fuck the school fees, fuck the nanny, fuck Francesca’s out of control Boden habit. There must be other ways to earn a living.
But nobody was looking at Piers or little Cllr Davenport any more. A visitor from Planet Celebrity had descended into the unlikely setting of the Tenants’ Hall.
Blake Lovelace had arrived.