A touch of class

The author Joan Didion commented that ‘I write to know what I think’. A great quote, and one that I use in lessons every so often. I write probably because I’ve never done much writing, and I’m pretty sure that I’ll get better if I write more; there’s some quality output in me somewhere, I’m sure of it. Maybe there’s a novel? I’m always surprised to hear abou the percentage of novels that get rejected. Who’s writing them all? I think I move in pretty intelligent circles, and textbooks aside, I hardly know anyone who’s submitted a book to a publisher. My TV career (one appearance on ‘eggheads’) didn’t really take off, so maybe it’s as a writer of pithy modern blogs that I’ll finally find my true vocation. I also write becasue it gives me a sense of achievement in the evening, and a night spent in front of the TV is generally a night wasted, unless I’m trundling through a disc full of ‘Mad Men’. George Orwell had a pretty good idea of why he wrote, so much so in fact he wrote rather a famous essay on the very subject.

I don’t even know what I’m going to write about now, but BBC2 seems to be running some kind of a ‘class war’ season, so that’s inspiration enough. It can’t be in doubt that we have a class system in this country, from the genuinely very posh at the top, and the very very poor at the bottom. The middle-classes are intriguing, but only in the sense that virtually everyone thinks they are in the middle-classes. Does lower-middle really move seamlessly into upper-working, like some sort of pyramidal feudal system from yesteryear? Does it matter what we class ourselves as, when it’s how we treat and are treated by our peers that really matters?

I remember the last round of class documentaries (in one sense of the word), which was clumsily presented by John Prescott. He goaded a young Vicky Pollard, suggesting she was working class, when in fact she felt she was middle class. ‘I’ve never worked; how can I be working class?’ was her heartfelt riposte. Andrew Neill had a go last night, and his programme seemed to focus only on two things. One was spaded on very thickly – namely that he had come from humble beginnings, but had risen to the dizzy heights of hobnobbing with Diane Abbott and Michael Portillo. The scene where he returned to his old Primary School in his flash silver motor was as grusome as it was predictable. The other point (and the whole premise of the show) was that we used to have working class Parliamentarians (Major, Thatcher), and now we have an influx of posh boys (Cameron, Clegg – neither of whom are truly posh – more upper middle, if you will). One might have thought that such flimsy evidence wasn’t really enough to justify an hour of TV, but Andrew managed to drag it out. The fact that people actually VOTED for each of these people in their millions seemed to have passed him by, and the fact that everyone (even the poor, and sub-middle) get a vote these days should ensure fairness on polling day. Far more interesting is to ask why people have been so turned off politics that so few actually turn out for a general election. Far more interesting would be to ask why so many of the population are overcome with apathy where politics is concerned. Probably not wise to ask, when you front a show about politics. If you want to shoo out the posh brigade (sorry, upper-middle brigade), just vote for someone else.

I take the point that many politicians have never really been anything other than politicians, or speech-writers for politicians (Wallace Milliband for example), but beyond that, the boring drone about class-divide sounds like something to churn out when no-one has any better ideas. I even saw a graphic this evening where a large saw cut the UK into North and South, emphasising the divide that only exists in the minds of people who want it to, giving them something to moan about. If Andrew Neill really wanted to see where the class divide is bypassed, he could come along to an old-fasioned British pub, and I’ll get him a Hendrick’s and cucumber…

Man of the People

I’ll start with a ‘snob disclaimer’, in that the following musings are not intended to appear snobbish or judgemental, although I guarantee that they will.

I’ve just been staring, dumbstruck, at an X-factor medley of ‘Shut Up’ by Pink (I presume the irony was lost on the show’s producers). It was worse than bad. The desperation in the performers faces bordered on the insane, as Simon Cowell smiled smugly like some modern day Pontius Pilate. There was a jovial black chap, a few pre-pubescent teens, a couple of pin-up boy-banders, some old fat woman and a mahogany-tinted man who looked as though he had been doused in cuprinol. This, I have since found out, is Wagner, which explains a lot of recent tweeting. When did TV stoop so low? Even the ‘light channel’, ITV, which has always pandered to the lowest common denominator looks to have hit rock-bottom. It’s ostensibly an old-fashioned talent show, a la New Faces, except minus the talent. There’s nothing original, bearing in mind that all the songs are covers, and the performers looks like a mixture of earnest School revue jazz-handers and working man’s club lags. I remember Take That getting a whole load of stick in the early 90s because they played on their looks and were seriously stylised, but at least they wrote and performed their own music; they are now hailed as demi-Gods for doing so.

We seem to have lost all interest in the product (ie the music) somewhere along the way, and have become more interested in the process of making someone a star; this contrived manufacturing of an individual merely to sell records is exactly what used to be seen as a kind of cheating. The ‘journey’ of the wannabe star, the tough family background, the ‘I’ve wanted this, like, forever’ tearful speech. This is what we pay to see, because once we’ve got the star, we tend to forget about them (McManus, Sneddon, Parks, Gates, Leon something, anyone?, anyone?). It’s a music show, but with little focus on the music. Get the song out of the way, and then let’s boo or cheer the judges, depending on whether they chastise or praise. ‘That’s your best performance’ (cheer), ‘I didn’t really feel that performance’ (boo).

So no interest in music, and no interest in finding real talent. But let’s examine the alternative. Let’s say that we are after real talent, and we take the most original, exciting, dynamic musicians out there, and judge them against each other for a record contract on a saturday night. I’d hate it. Why? Because it would make ITV (or ITV1, now) credible, and I wouldn’t have anything to rant about. I also don’t want to see genuine musical talent being mentored, going up in front of judges and being told about image and choice of song. I’m interested in the music, not in the process that gets the music to the people. Real talent should come to the attention of people through the quality of the music, not through the over-blown production and stories of troubled childhoods.

There’s also always something pleasing about knowing the masses are wasting their time with such tosh as X-Factor, whilst I’m watching something about British Art on channel 4. Orwell was fascinated by the working classes, and even noted a certain nobility in them. But even he said that ‘the problem with the working classes, is that they smell’, so man of the people he certainly wasn’t. I loved chatting to a nice old couple in the pub last saturday, just before the Palace-Swansea game, but that was enough of a dip into working class life for me thanks, and I’d prefer to leave them to their X-Factor and KFC mum’s night off bucket saturday night treat. If everyone gained some taste, and stopped watching Eastenders and Strictly Come Dancing, I wouldn’t be able to feel superior in my niche intellectual interests. If everyone started listening to Nick Drake or The Smiths, I wouldn’t be able to bemoan the lack of interest in proper music; I’m not sure we need a music show for people who don’t like music, but if it keeps them happy on a cold winter night, who am I to criticise.

It’s still better than watching Dean Gaffney eating a dessicated Kangaroo penis.

Room 101

‘You asked me once, what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.’

So says O’Brien to the emaciated and almost broken Winston Smith. The worst thing in the world to Winston turns out to be rats. He screams for it to be done to Julia instead, and in betraying her, he realises that he has given himself fully over to the party.

It may not be one of the greatest books, but it’s certainly one of the most iconic, and much of what it has to tell us is relevant today.

The phrase ‘room 101’ has made its way into common parlance. It was after the number of Orwell’s office at the BBC. Maybe this was his own personal hell, but for someone who spent a fair amount of time on the streets and in the muddy trenches during the Spanish civil war, there were a few contenders to choose from.

Do we all have a specific idea of our own personal hell, the recurring dream of which causes us to wake in a cold sweat; fear turns to elation as we realise the unreality of the horror?

I’ve got a few more years left on this planet, I hope, and until today I didn’t have any vision of any personal hell. I hadn’t expected to find one as I drove out to Peterborough, in the hope of buying a suit or two to replace my current crop, which are looking a little frayed around the pockets.

The next hour of my life will haunt me for some time to come, and my fingers are trembling over the computer keys as I attempt to explain the full grimness of the ordeal.

First stop: John Lewis. Hardly a gritty beginning, though this is a Peterborough John Lewis, and as such, though the store is at least sanitary, the people have a strange deathly quality to them. They peered out at me from under cromagnon brows, shuffling in anoraks through the aisles, searching for meaning in the discounted tie selection.

Having thought little of the fabric on offer, I decided to head to ‘Suits You’, home of a few labels, even though the store itself is a tad on the tacky side. They had a 75% off everything sale, which sounds good. One jacket I saw was discouted from £200 to £29, which is suggestive a company on its knees. This particular garment did seem to be big enough to clothe an entire Texan family. The racks sagged with cheap and nasty brands; I’m pretty sure that one of them was called ‘Johnny English’, which may impress the Hong Kong market, but did little to raise a smile. There were no suits on display, merely row after row of jackets up top, and the trousers beneath. None seemed to match. I was of the opinion that a suit was at least a two piece venture. The idea of a one-piece suit had me stumped; surely by then it is just a pair of trousers? I asked the manager (if such a place seemed to need one), and he seemed baffled to be asked if there were any matching jackets and trousers. ‘Just find what you can’ was his answer, which seemed to fit better as the answer of a soldier in Iraq who’s just recevied an order to clear out, and fast. The place was packed, and as I shuffled out, the second to last words I remember were from one man berating a store assistant because he couldn’t find anything for a fiver. The very last words were from a man who looked like he’d been hewn from granite (if you could tattoo granite). He looked me up and down, and asked if we sold shirts. We. Jesus.

Obviously this had exhuasted Peterborough shopping centre’s selection of suit emporia, but I had noticed River Island just around the corner. I hadn’t shopped in RI since the mid 90s, buy hey, it was cooler than Burton back then, and maybe they’d sell me a suit that came in 2 parts. They tried to. Sadly the RI suits were so shiny I could almost see my face in them. They were the sort of nasty shiny grey at which Mickey Pearce from Only Fools and Horses might have turned his nose. They did allow me to spy what was going on behind me however, and it seemed at first glance that an enormous ham in a white T shirt was singing to itself. I turned round to come face to face with the most obese child I have ever seen (most obese you’ve ever seen too). Global food shortage? of course there is; that kid’s eaten it all. Somehow in my confused state I managed to part with £165 in RI. My purchases: a purple v neck, a jacket that looks like I’m a four year old off to a wedding in 1927 dressed as a sailor and a military style jacket that makes me look that even if I was military, I’d be the first to desert, and then be shot.

Keen to finish what I came to do, I spent a hefty £564 back in John Lewis (not sure what on, as I haven’t dared open the bags yet). I think there’s a tie that makes me look like an Open University lecturer from the mid-70s, but that can’t have been more than twenty. Please?

With no word of a lie, I ran back across the bridge from the Queensgate shopping centre to the car park, stopping only to marvel at the unfathomably terrible music emanating from Heart 102.7FM’s broadcast station (it really is the sound of Peterborough). I paid at the car park machine, which someone seemed to have urinated on (this is bizarre – who urinates on these, and cashpoints, and in lifts?), and fled.

Room 101? I found it. 90 miles North of London.