RADIO / Class chatter

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The Independent Culture
In a country where shadings of class are as delicate as they are here, we need all the vocabulary we can get to describe social position; so it's a pity that the label 'the chattering classes' hasn't caught on more. It isn't an elegant phrase, and its political origins make it hard to use in a purely descriptive way. But it does pin down a large social category - middle class, with vaguely intellectual inclinations not terribly well shored up by information or rigorous thought - that we've all come across and to which many of us, in moments of honesty or self- doubt, suspect that we belong.

One argument against the term is that it's a derogatory label for what in other countries is called the intelligentsia. That idea quickly disintegrates if you tune into Radio 4 late on a Monday evening. Over the past few weeks, Francine Stock has been chairing a live discussion programme (not a chat show) called No Illusions. In this a variety of academics and interested parties gather to debate large abstractions such as education, progress, community and, in last week's final edition, freedom.

The title flatters it a bit, perhaps, and few of the arguments put forward are entirely novel. But there has been an attempt to cut through the rhetoric accumulated around the arguments to arrive at the substantial points - a good example last week was Conor Gearty's summary of the concept of negative liberty as 'a fix for the powerful': 'The powerful have contrived a situation whereby being left alone is a right - 'liberty', they call it, and it trumps everything else. The powerless, desirous of bettering their lot, seek to have rights which the powerful ridicule as an idiotic notion.' And for a live programme, without the benefits of editing, it has remarkable clarity, largely because of Stock's unobtrusively intelligent and well- mannered intervention.

The point is that this is quintessentially a programme of the intelligentsia. This week it has gone off air to be replaced by The Salon; and this is surely the chattering classes in full cry. In the first edition, last night, Howard Jacobson kick-started a discussion on sex and the modern woman with a tirade about how dirty- mouthed and low-minded women are these days. That seems to set the tone - loud and a little over- assertive, like a dinner party where the food is late and everybody has had slightly too much to drink. Also, you don't know anybody that well, the person you're sitting next to isn't interested in your opinions, and you remember there's quite a good film on TV.

Some of it was fun, though, especially Edwina Currie's baffling insistence that she is not a lesbian ('I like to do it on two legs') and Jacobson's gloomy determination to quell all the giggling with proclamations about how dismal sex is. The proceedings only became rational when Andrew Davies moved on to Middlemarch and Pride and Prejudice; all of a sudden it was clear that people were far more interested in Eng Lit than anything else. That's probably as good a definition of the chattering classes as you can get.