Janet Street-Porter: Class warfare over the dining table

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The Independent Online

I can still remember the excitement and anticipation as I waited for my first mammoth plate of fish and chips at Harry Ramsden's huge palace in Guiseley, on the outskirts of Leeds. This homely, brick-built café, with its stained-glass windows and gingham tablecloths went from being the most famous restaurant in Yorkshire to a global brand (owned by Compass) which has expanded into seven countries. For many foreigners it is the face of British grub.

Yesterday, the man responsible for Harry Ramsden's success said he was starting a new venture - Realbradfordcurry.com - which will sell frozen curries via the internet. Sourced via top chefs in the local area, the new company plans to deliver your feast within 24 hours. For most of us, curry is our favourite takeaway, as British as cod and chips.

These days "working class" food like fish and chips is served in newspapers at parties from Pall Mall to Goodwood, and fortunes have been made putting Indian food on every supermarket shelf, from Harrods to Morrisons. I expect Shilpa Shetty to lend her name to recipe books and chutney the minute she leaves the Big Brother house. Food has become classless. Everybody is interested in talking about it and buying magazines about it. If 4 million or more people watch Jamie Olivier and Gordon Ramsay on television, that's not middle class people who want to know how to grill in aubergine or slice a papaya. Our taste in food has become so much more varied - we constantly try out new superfoods, from Acai juice and Quinoa to Pomegranate pips. We slow-cook mutton and declare the prawn cocktail, once so reviled, "ironic".

Food adventurers we may be, but when it comes to defining ourselves, we cling to romantic notions instilled by our parents' generation. We don't eat the corned beef and salad cream Mum and Dad used to, so why do so many of us insist we are working class, when plainly we're not? The annual British Social Attitudes survey is an excellent barometer of the state of the British psyche. Their latest findings show that almost two-thirds of people claim to be working class, while around half that number, 37 per cent, think they are middle class. The irony is that if you define class by take-home pay, it applies to just 31 per cent - so calling yourself working class is a philosophy rather than an economic reality.

Being working class is seen as a badge of honour, as if you are "true" to your roots and have created the go-getting person you are all by yourself. Of course, the reality is that who you are is defined by where you were educated and what kind of job you do. The former has a huge bearing on the latter. The managers and top professionals in Britain nearly all come from similar backgrounds, have had private education, and are generally white and male. So it's important for these people to pretend to be working class - no one wants to reveal that they had a comfy, boring middle-class childhood with few shortages and no rows.

We are delusionists if we think we live in a socially mobile society. For 90 per cent of us, we will move no further up the social ladder in terms of power and influence than our parents ever did. We iconise people who own a lot of stuff as if they are the aristocracy, when they're not. And we don't want to be labelled British either - a mere 44 per cent would be happy with that label. Deep down, we believe we are all individualists - a big problem for Mr Brown and his concept of Britishness. He'd do better harping on about drawing inspiration from the working class.

Kisses, parties and fumbles at the Palais

My old stamping ground, Hammersmith Palais, is going to be demolished after the local council decided there was no reason to prevent the site being redeveloped. English Heritage say there's no architectural features worth salvaging, so that's it. What about all the hopes and dreams it gave birth to? All the romantic liaisons, kisses, fumbles, and euphoric screaming that have taken place on that dance floor. From Glenn Miller to the Sex Pistols, every great band has played the Palais. Elton John held his 50th birthday party there and his costume was so huge he arrived in a removal lorry. I wore a Wonder Woman outfit, left, that got me on the front page of The Times. Later on that night, I let Michael Stipe try on my five-inch platform soled boots and hold my whip - hot stuff. Now reduced to housing School Disco club nights, Hammy Palais has been an important venue in London's music scene - surely a use could have been found for the place?

* Talking of Britishness, have you noticed that whenever there's a chance that someone from this country might be up for a gong or a prize, then they suddenly become British rather than English, Welsh or Scottish? Andy Murray plays well in the Australian Open and we claim him as our next great British hope, three of our greatest actresses get Oscar nominations and suddenly they are British Leading Ladies. But if someone comes up with a clipboard and asks what nationality we would like to classify ourselves us, only a minority will chose British. Mind you, researchers at Leicester University have tracked the genetic makeup of over 400 men with a rare surname and discovered that seven white men had a chromosome that proves their ancestors came from West Africa centuries ago! My own mother always claimed to be Welsh - but was born in Birkenhead, proving that we are all ethnic soup.

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