Cheltenham Average

I read an article by Polly Toynbee in the Guardian yesterday, entitled ‘Chav: the vile word at the heart of fractured Britain’. Quite a dramatic title. The article received a huge amount of praise on twitter, presumably from middle-class Guardian readers who are far too right-on to use the word themselves, especially bearing in mind that its very use has led to Britain becoming ‘fractured’; this can’t be a good thing. I suspect that these folk subscribe to the Orwellian paradox in that they harbour a great respect for the working class, so long as they don’t have to spend any time with them in day to day life. To quote ‘Yes, Minister’, they are similar to Radio 3: no-one actually listens, but it’s vital to know that it’s there.

As with so much that is trotted out by ‘columnists’, it’s a complete non-story. Incidentally, the rise of columnists seems to have occurred simply because we’re all so busy that we don’t have time to read the news and formulate an opinion ourselves; it’s far better not to have to read the news, but to have a columnist that we like and trust to do the reading for us, before wrapping it up in a mass of neat soundbites for us to quote and pass off as our own. It’s a dangerous development, this translation of news by the chosen few, and the lapping up of ‘opinion as fact’ by a public whose mind is elsewhere; certainly far more dangerous than using the word ‘chav’ occasionally.

The problem with the word chav is two-fold. Firstly, it’s a relatively new word, in that I don’t believe that anyone was using it 15 years ago. As Toynbee points out, the words ‘oik’ and ‘prole’ have fallen into abeyance, and the word ‘chav’ is simply a reinvention of this term. The second is a question of definition. If you asked 100 people, family fortunes-style, to define the word ‘chav’, would you be confident that any two people would give the same answer? I’m pretty sure that the etymology of the word is not ‘Cheltenham Average’, as a former colleague of mine claimed, insisting that the girls at Cheltenham Ladies College had invented the term to describe the local females (he also insisted that the word was pronounced ‘sharve’, thus discrediting himelf further). Toynbee defines the word purely in class terms, in the same way that oik and prole were used in yesteryear; it is a word used by the prejudiced upper classes to describe those in the lower classes (at one point she even describes these lower classes as Wills and Harry’s ‘subjects’). She then goes on to define ‘class’ purely in terms of luck and money. In the age of social mobility and widening access for university entry, it’s surprising that people like Toynbee seem desperate to keep the class divide intact. We all have to earn a living.

I’m pretty sure that most people don’t see it this way. The word chav is synonymous with bad and antisocial behaviour, not with the working class. The word chav tends to be used to describe groups people playing ringtones loudly on the bus, or drinking and swearing on the tube, not groups of builders sat drinking tea on the site, or people chopping lettuce in McDonalds. The ‘posh chavs’ who colonise Polzeath each summer are hardly traditional working class, and yet the word neatly describes their behaviour, which fails to take the feeling of others into account.

Until one is satisfied with the definition of a word, there’s very little point entering an argument on whether the use of the term has led to Britain becoming fractured. I can’t imagine wanting to debate the atheist v agnostic viewpoint without being sure that the person with whom I was having the discussion was of the same mind as me regarding definitions.

I’m still left with a real ‘so what?’ feeling having re-read the article. By the luck and money argument, Wayne Rooney should be calling me a chav. He’s got far more money than I have, and he’s been far luckier than me, bearing in mind that his major talent is far more widely recognised than any of mine.

I was far more shocked and revolted by the article in the Guardian weekender magazine where the young children of the columnists were invited to take over their columns for the week. Cue much middle-class smug hilarity from the mini-Petrides and Hugheses. If there’s anything likely to start a class war, that was it.

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The land of the free

I’ve just spent the past two weeks in the States. I love America. So much so, Victoria and I were even discussing yesterday how we might go and live there some day. All of my London friends seem to be decamping to Australia, but much as I love Oz, it doesn’t hold the same fascination for me as the ‘greatest Goddamn democracy in the world, boy…’. America is much more a different Country to the UK than Australia, and Oz still feels almost colonial in places. The American language is totally different from English (or even Aussie English), and they do seem to like the Brits far more than the Aussies do (the lack of sporting rivalry and a greater propensity to forget the colonial past might have something to do with this). Anyway, here’s a few reasons I like it so much:

1. Friendliness: American people are so much more friendly than any other Country I’ve been to. We’ve stayed for free on 89th and Park with the family of a friend (when I’ve never met any of the family before, and said friend was away at the time); we were then invited to stay with members of said family in Baku, Azerbaijan. I’ve been bought drinks all night by a chap I’d met five minutes earlier, ended up as the only non-Mexican people at a Mexican film premiere in Texas, sung karaoke with some chap from a Houston Astros game, been welcomed into an invite-only bar opening night in San Francisco, and been welcomed into a private booth for some Canadian chap’s stag-night in Vegas (and Mike Tyson was in the booth next to ours, I kid you not).

2. Lack of Chavs: I’m sure there is an American equivalent to the English ‘chav’ or the Aussie ‘bogun’, but I’ve yet to locate it, or even to find a term for it. This was emphasised for me this week: I’d met only genuinely nice people for two weeks across the pond, but when it came to the flight back, I found myself sandwiched on the flight between four English Craig David lookalikes, who all sported the same nasty pencil beard and said ‘man’ and ‘innit’ a lot, and three tattooed Northeners, one of which carried a boxing bag, and whose girlfriend sported a rather meaty looking black eye.

3. Food: tricky one this. There are certainly pros and cons to the American love of food, but I think the Country just about comes out on top. Admittedly, just about all the advertising of food comes under the ‘look how much MSG you can stuff in your face for $1.99’, but whether it’s high end or low end you’re after, you can find something to satisfy anywhere. Uchi in Austin, Picasso in Vegas, Salt House in San Francisco, Etais Unis in NYC, Cochon in New Orleans, Artisan in Paso Robles all leave a pretty good high-end taste in the mouth. The peanut butter and bacon burger at ‘Yo Momma’s’ was pretty memorable too, as is the 504 Ferrari pizza in RI. Sadly I can’t remember the name of the Asian fusion place on 82nd street in NY where the conversation made me realise just how much in love I was. We’ll go back there someday. Food, and the memories associated, are a large part of why I like the US.

4. It’s a continent: And in saying this, I mean that there’s something there for everyone. Much as you don’t really need to go outside of France to find any style of wine you want, you don’t have to go outside the US to find pretty much any holiday you want. Whether it’s scenic, hedonistic, cultural or a mixture of all three or beyond, the fun is all there to be found.

5. Bigness: I like the fact that I can order one appetiser, and still the pair of us won’t be able to finish it. One appetiser in Boston ran to four chicken breasts. That’s supposed to be a starter for one person, incidentally. Nothing makes you feel as virtuous greed-wise as watching Americans eat their breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner, supper, snack etc. All burgers are half-pound as standard, and the record on the ‘big-boy’ wall at Chunky’s burgers in San Antonio is twelve of these half pound monsters (that’s putting on half a stone in one sitting…). The cars are ridiculous: we drove a 5 litre Mustang last week, and still felt pretty pee-wee on the roads. The people in Texas look like they’ve been gone at pretty hard with a bicycle pump, and then have been melted into their clothes. But hey, if it makes you feel good about your weight, I’m all for it.

So where next? New York, of course, Chicago, Washington, NW Coast and my beloved Green Bay, to see the Packers.