DJ Taylor: Banged up abroad, ganged up on at home

The woman arrested in Bali got little sympathy from her old neighbours, but then 'community' is rare outside a TV soap opera


In some ways, the most shocking aspect of the arrest of the British woman Lindsay Sandiford, on a charge of importing £1.6m worth of cocaine into Bali, lay at one remove from the immediate fact of her arraignment. It could be found, alternatively, in the reaction of her neighbours back home in upmarket Cheltenham. Usually a case of this kind – the defendant put on display in a prison uniform, the hint of coercion – inspires a fair amount of local solidarity. Mrs Sandiford's former neighbours, on the other hand, were united in their disdain. One recalled the "strange" visitors to her house, while another declared himself "glad to see the back of her. She was totally the wrong sort of person in this sort of neighbourhood."

If "neighbourliness" of the kind advertised in television soap operas, and indeed the Ten Commandments, is not actually a myth, then it is definitely a working-class construct. As a child growing up in an exemplary middle-class home, I was conscious that the outward cordiality of our relations with the people next door and over the road was tempered by a certain reserve. My father, for example, was suspicious of one set of neighbours on the grounds of their Catholicism. Another lot were reprobated for their brace of yapping dachshunds. A nadir was reached when this second family gave way to a jobbing plumber and his brood. "An artisan," sniffed my father – himself the son of an electrician – and that was the neighbourhood gone.

It is almost impossible to get this kind of social – or antisocial – virus out of your bloodstream. Watching Coronation Street as a teenager, I could never understand why all the characters were constantly popping into each others' homes to trade gossip and borrow tea bags. Hadn't they got better things to do?

It was the same with all those warm, homely working-class memoirs, in which everything that happened on "t'street" was abetted by a Greek chorus of vigilant quidnuncs. Even now, if asked to name the most advantageous feature of a domestic property, I would straightaway answer "a hedge".

The only faint excuse for this dreadful stand-offishness is its deep historical roots. In Kipps, H G Wells offers a satirical remark or two on his hero's aunt and uncle who "kept themselves to themselves according to the English ideal". The most common complaint advanced by residents of the model towns and garden cities of the 1950s, where a cheery communality was thought to prevail, was that the fences separating the houses weren't high enough. But none of this is probably much consolation to Mrs Sandiford.

BBC4's Punk Britannia season kicked into gear on Wednesday night with a captivating documentary about the "punk poet" John Cooper Clarke. Culminating in a terrific expletive-strewn version of "Evidently Chickentown", in which the four-letter words rained down like confetti, the profile also included a substantial amount of myth-making. In particular, several of the assembled talking heads were keen to set their hero up as an antidote to the political orthodoxies of the early 1980s, and to identify his classic "Beasley Street" ("It's a fully furnished dustbin, 16 Beasley Street') as a riposte to renaissant Thatcherite Conservatism. "Liverpool and Manchester were devastated by Thatcher in the Seventies and Eighties," one pundit declared, which rather ignored the fact that the Conservatives returned to power as late as 1979, while "Beasley Street", notwithstanding the line about Keith Joseph smiling and a baby dying in a box, turns out to have been written in 1978.

No venture of this kind, of course, can ever avoid disparaging remarks about "the establishment". The general feeling among the punk veterans was that Clarke had been cruelly neglected by a pack of bourgeois snobs. "You'd never see Andrew Motion here," someone (truthfully) remarked of a sleazy dive in which the Bard of Salford did his stuff. In fact, a little research reveals that, at various times in his long career, Clarke had signed a record deal with CBS, been profiled by Radio 4, featured on English syllabuses and been induced to deputise for Jarvis Cocker on BBC Radio's 6 Music. In other words, he has both a public profile and an esteem which most of the poets scrabbling to appear in the pages of The Times Literary Supplement would give an arm for.

"Bovarism", deriving from Flaubert's Madame Bovary, is generally defined as the desire to exist at one remove from the reality you truly inhabit. A dazzling example of it turned up in the obituaries of the veteran journalist Bob Edwards, who died last week at the age of 86. Mr Edwards, a champagne socialist of classic vintage, gave out that his father was "a milkman". In fact, Edwards senior was the director of a dairy company. It was all rather reminiscent of the unsuccessful libel suit brought by the Labour MP Michael Meacher against my late colleague Alan Watkins, after Watkins suggested that Meacher's description of himself as the son of an agricultural labourer was a romantic fiction.

On this evidence, Labour Party bovarism is simply a matter of inventing proletarian credentials. Mysteriously, the tendency works both ways. As someone once remarked of that notorious boulevardier and country house habitué Roy Jenkins, "If my father had been a Welsh miner imprisoned during the General Strike, you'd have never heard the last of it."

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