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.

The social pariah

It’s generally accepted that men and women are good at different things. Their skill sets are different. Maybe it’s easier to say that certain skills are emphatically more masculine and others more feminine, bearing in mind that we all have a degree of each. Men claim spatial awareness as their own, and I think they’re probably right. It’s certainly easier to drive a car with the A to Z open on your knees than it is to get a woman to try to navigate. They’ll spend much of the time rotating the page as they try to decide which is left and which is right, before you find out that the blue wavy line wasn’t the motorway, but a nearby river. When the roles are reversed, things usually progress more smoothly, though never assume that a woman will be able to understand a satnav. The instruction to ‘turn right in 400 yards’ will be met with ‘how am I supposed to know what 400 yards is?’ before the inevitable turn of the wheel about 25 yards from where the instruction was mentioned. Multi-tasking is almost exclusively the domain of women. They can generally manage to cook, feed a baby, push around a hoover, tune the radio, order ocado online and read a book at the same time, whereas men will accomplish only one of those tasks, usually with the tongue hanging out of one side of the mouth, and with a furrowed brow that lets everyone know just how tricky the task is.

There’s a whole host of other things one could go into, but they’re all pretty lazy stereotypes, and are almost bound to offend someone. However, one thing that I find women far better at is conversation. If one ends up talking to a woman at a social gathering, you generally have no idea what topic the conversation will turn to. Whether it’s an old friend, a semi-known partner of a friend or someone you’ve just met, you’ll be chatting through books, food, Art, travel, films etc, with scarcely an pause for breath. With men it’s all so very different, although I should put a disclaimer in here that I have a small number of excellent male friends, most of whom I’ve known for a long time that do not fall into this category. The category I’m talking about is the men that you know, but not all that well. Maybe they are ‘work friends’ rather than real friends, or boyfriends of good friends that you spend little time talking to unless you have to.

I get a sensation that approaches dread when I end up stuck at a party (not that I go to many) talking to a male that I don’t know all that well. I consider myself to be a reasonable conversationalist, but somehow I know that the chat we are about to have is going to be the most awkward thing that’s ever happened to either of us. Why should this be the case? It’s not like I’m trying to pull. Maybe I’m subconsciously worried that he’s about to jump me? This would certainly explain the opening line I tend to use to dampen any homosexual advances: ‘so how did you get here tonight?’. Why do I care? Why does anyone care? The options generally tend to be via public transport, or via some form of owned vehicle. Either way, it’s not much of a conversation starter. And yet I always feel the need to kick things off with this gem. This will generally be followed up with a ‘what do you do?’. I don’t care what he does either, and until the day someone says astronaut or premiership footballer, neither will I care. This is bad enough, but it always provokes him to ask me the same question. I always say ‘teacher’, though by now some kind of latent, desperate alpha-male switch has been flicked, and I’ll somehow try and crowbar in that I teach at a very successful School, and I’m part of SMT. What a tool I must sound like. He doesn’t care, and I don’t even know why I’ve mentioned it. Maybe I should just challenge him to down a pint, compare size of car engines, or just flip it out there and then. I genuinely have no idea why I behave this way, other than some kind of inner desire to appear a person of quality to a total stranger.

The worst is yet to come. As if I haven’t appeared enough of a conversational dunce, I’ll then always turn around the chat to football, with a jolly ‘so who’s your team then?’. I hate myself for doing this. I have so much more to talk about, and yet I can’t go 5 minutes with a stranger without mentioning football. If the chap likes football, it’s then turn in to a kind of fencing stat-off, and if he doesn’t, what then? Rugby? The conversation always tends to improve after a while, but it’ll still be one of those conversations that both of us are just waiting for a chance to move away from. And when Victoria comes back with the G+Ts, that’s exactly what I’ll do.

Maybe I just need to try harder. Maybe my brain just takes over, and I click onto a sort of crap chat autopilot. I think this must be it; I had a really good idea about time and perception to write about when I sat down, and now I’ve wasted 15 minutes on this drivel.

Sympathy for All

I have huge admiration for Gareth Thomas, the Welsh Rugby legend and ex-Lions captian. Rugby is the most macho of all sports (assuming one chooses to ignore the strong homo-erotic undertones), and he is the only openly gay man involved in the sport in this Country. Isn’t that incredible? I’m not sure quite what percentage of the population is gay, though the 1 in 10 that gets bandied about regularly seems a reasonable place to start; this certainly makes the fact that Thomas is the only homosexual top-flight rugby player a statistical impossibility. He should therefore be lauded for his decision to make known his sexuality, even though it’s fair to say that he did wait until his International career was over before telling the world. He also represents a fantastic slap in the face for all those who maintain the homosexual stereotype that begins with Kenneth Williams and ends not so far away with Charles Hawtrey.

As a sport, rugby perhaps has a more enlightened following than the nation’s other great passion, football, and Thomas has been embraced by the rugby community for his courage and honest approach. This says much about the change in public perception over the last 20 or 30 years. Here’s a story from the 1950s about how such revalations were treated: Alan Turing was one of the greatest minds of the Twentieth Century, and the man whose breaking of the German ‘enigma’ code may well have shortened the war by one or two years. He was homosexual, and was offered the choice between chemical castration and a prison sentence for his ‘crimes’. He took the former, and committed suicide soon afterwards. There’s no direct comparison to be made, and it’s clear that prejudice exists wherever you care to look for it, but we do live in ever more elightened times, and the story of Gareth Thomas is generally one to applaud.

My take on this story altered slighty when I read an interview with Thomas in The Observer last Sunday. The article was essentially a good-news story, and focused jointly on the courage of Thomas and the magnanimous nature of the rugby fraternity. It also extolled Thomas as a positive role-model, a trail-blazer and an inspriational figure, all of which are undoubtedly true. His twitter account is unfailingly positive, and reveals a man with a real lust for life. The story does have a more tawdry edge to it however, and one that the article glossed over with a couple of short sentences. With such an inspirational story, why bother dwelling on the fact that Thomas’ sexuality was apparently the worst kept secret in rugby, the fact that he married (and has children with) his childhood sweetheart despite his feelings for men, and that his hidden homosexuality led to many ‘illicit encounters in Soho bars’?

This last revelation was brushed off with the statement that he was ‘horrified at cheating on his wife, whom he loved deeply’. Really? Not that deeply, surely. I can’t imagine much sympathy for him were he to have been discoved having illicit encounters in bars with women, no matter how much he professed to have been ‘horrified’ by the experiences. I’m sure it’s not an easy conversation to have, but the idea of the ‘I still love you, but actually I’m gay, and therefore I cannot remain married to you’-type conversation would surely be less hurtful that the ‘I still love you, but actually I’m gay, and I made sure of this fact with regular sweaty sex sesssions in Soho, and therefore I cannot remain married to you’-type conversation. I’m all for enlightenment, tolerance and understanding the emotional journey, but one can become too ‘right-on’, and in one’s desperation to appear liberal and forward-thinking, it seems that we can lose sight of the fact that there are other people’s feelings that need to be considered. The Observer article was a pretty shabby piece of journalism, written in a completely one-eyed way. I agree with almost all of the sentiments, but it’s only telling the part of the story it’s interested in, and the part of the story that leaves out the mucky bits.

Sexuality is something that we cannot, and perhaps should not have to, control; but my sympathy on this occasion lies with Mrs Gareth Thomas just as much as with Mister. ‘She now lives in Spain’ was a far as a biography of her got to. Well I’m glad that’s cleared up.