A nation obsessed

Great Britain really is a great place. It’s difficult to think that, from a tourist perspective, it wouldn’t be at the very top of places you were keen to visit. Maybe we are a little London-focussed, but we’ve got it all. Culture, History, architecture, food and drink, the Olympics, diversity, rural beauty and even a warm welcome. Just don’t stand on the left on the tube.

We love to stereotype others. Italians are chaotic lovers (mutually exclusive terms you understand), the French are arrogant culinary maestros, the Germans are efficient automatons and the Irish are pasty canal-building tayto-eaters. We’re keen to stereotype ourselves too, though the two most prevalent versions are pretty much total opposites, with the replica footbll shirt wearing yob being placed alongside the stiff-upper lipped bowler-hatted gent. Do these exist in a greater quantity that any other Britisher? Probably not, but it’s clearly fun to pretend that they do.

We have great national obsessions, such as the weather and organised queuing. The weather isn’t so surprising, bearing in mind how variable it can be in Britain, and when one considers how overcrowded London is, it’s pretty important to have developed a heightened sense of the queuing system. It’s all about politeness too, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing. We are a polite bunch after all; where else would a pub confrontation be accompanied by the phrase ‘f*ck off,mate’? The addition of the word ‘mate’ changes a very offensive line into something with at least a degree of politeness. The addition of ‘pal’ does very much the same job.

Many of our national obsessions can be rationalised, and even the quaint ones provide us with a sense of community. The one that it’s difficult to find any positives from is our continual revisiting of the notion of ‘class’. It’s difficult to watch TV, listen to the radio or read the papers without some mention of it, and it doesn’t seem to do much good for anyone. It’s often the privately-educated upper-middle classes that come in for the majority of criticism (I’ve left the true upper-classes out of this, as there really aren’t very many of them, and like badgers, most people never come across one in real life).

One of the two things that grated with me recently was Zadie Smith’s labour party policital on radio 4 last week, where she accused the coalition of wanting to shut down libraries simply because they had been to posh school, and therefore couldn’t understand why poorer people needed access to books for free. The second was Katy Guest’s ‘rant’ in the Independent yesterday, where she claimed that only people who went to ‘posh £28,000-a-year boarding Schools seemed unable to determine what class they were’, as if it was vital that we should all be aware of what socio-economic class we should be sub-divided into.

The Zadie Smith piece has received enough negative press in the last week, but her argument is so basic as to demand instant dismissal. He idea that you have lost all ability to empathise because you have been exposed to the rarified atmosphere of the English public School system is just a lazy class stereotype, used in such a sense as to avoid criticism by coming across as the voice of the underpriviliged masses. Such stereotyping the other way around would be rightly criticised, but this kind of classism is generally accepted, which is disappointing.

Katy Guest’s argument was even more bizarre, but I’m pleased that she’s such a happy person that this was the most irksome thing she could find to rant about. Her point was that only the moneyed posh are unaware of this class system that still exists, and their place within this system. Why are Guest and Smith so keen to keep this notion of class at the top of the agenda? What purpose is served by knowing what class you belong to? Why must we label everyone as members of one particular class in society?

The American Dream may be a slightly cheesy concept, but it’s tricky to argue with the sentiment that anyone, irrespective of background, can achieve greatness. The current President is conclusive proof that it’s possible. Our obsession with class acts as a ball and chain for ambition and social mobility. If you believe Smith and Guest then it’s possible to pigeonhole everyone from birth; our path through life is pre-determined by our social class. This argument runs as follows:

1. You are born working class, that is what you shall remain. The chances are that you will live in the North. Your interests shall remain those of the proletariat, such as greyhound racing and football. You will marry young, and have a large family. Your diet will be poor. You will watch X factor and documentaries involving Peter and Katie. You will eat takaway from KFC’s ‘Mum’s night-off bucket’ range. You will go on holiday to Spain (Benidorm). You will call your male friends ‘geezers’. You will claim to be happy to be working class, but will always resent those of the classes that lie above you.

2. You are born as part of the educated middle classes, and that it what you shall remian. You will go to university, and will join a drinking society, but only in an ironic sense. You will like rugby, and when you live in Fulham you will attend England matches in the pub and will claim that some of the players were at uni with you. You will shout ‘quick ball’ a lot. You like football, but only on TV. You will marry later, and have just one or two children. You will watch David Attenborough programmes. You will eat takeaway from Basilico, and have truffle oil on your pizza. You will go on holiday to Spain (Barcelona). You will call your male friends ‘mates or lads’, and will have ‘banter’. You are happy to be the class you are, and will pity those of the working class, whilst having no understanding of how they exist.

Do you think these are lazy stereotypes? Do you think that to hamstring people by continutally making them consider their class is wrong? Let’s just forget class shall we?

Truffle oil for all I say.

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