DJ Taylor: Struck with fear by a dripping tap? I spy the middle classes

As someone on holiday in the most bourgeois place in England, it's clear to me that the truest marker of social class is the inability to contemplate DIY
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The Independent Online

Extraordinary how often the middle classes manage to rise to the top of the news-gathering process these days.

Only the other week everyone was amusing themselves over the Prime Minister's valiant efforts to reposition himself as a member of the upper bourgeoisie rather than the proud descendant of several generations of oligarchical plutocrats. Miliband junior has warned the harassed tribunes of the people's party that on no account should they neglect middle-class interests. Ms Diane Abbott, his rival for the Labour leadership, has blasted into print with some reflections on the "myth" of the "forgotten middle classes".

Reading Ms Abbott's critique here on the Suffolk coast, I couldn't help noting the strong circumstantial evidence in her favour, for Southwold, at any rate in summer when the holiday-lessees and the second-homers descend like so many locusts, is possibly the most middle-class place in England. Well-breakfasted chaps in ill-advised shorts and espadrilles, with Daily Telegraphs tucked under their arms and mobiles clamped to their ears, go yammering down the high street ("Tell Nigel if he wants a commission on the deal, then he's got to ..."). Their wives, meanwhile, are spilling over the pavement outside the ruinously expensive delicatessen (damson preserve: £4.25 per pot, etc) talking about local house prices, while Jonjo and Tabitha go fossicking with crab nets. There are four-wheel drives parked up all over the double yellow lines because no one ever enforces the parking regulations, do they darling, and if you can't see a well-known novelist out shopping for artichokes, you can be pretty certain of finding a well-known actor at the newsagent's asking where he can get a cup of coffee.

The worst thing about this haute-bourgeois playground is that we are all implicated in its horrors. What else do I do in Southwold, after all, other than go about proclaiming my fundamental middle-classness, lope around the common in a Pierre Cardin shirt the colour of a Neapolitan ice-cream (a birthday present from my wife) and stand outside friends' beach-huts advertising the children's exam results in a disproportionately loud voice? Only the other night, sitting in the bar of the Lord Nelson, I found myself saying to my brother-in-law: "Of course, the thing I really like about Southwold is that you don't see anyone with body-piercings or those frightful tattoos." What terrible bores we middle-class holidaymakers are, with our ridiculous trousers and our futile chatter and our dreadful beach-books and little Serafina tugging wistfully on our arm because, even now, with the sea glistening 30 feet away, mobile-tethered Daddy doesn't seem to have the time to talk to us. On the other hand, some of the children were watching the final of Big Brother the other night, which inspired the reflection that there are probably worse things in Mr Cameron's Britain than the life we lead and the self-satisfaction that is its motivating force.

*****

Still with social class – as if one could ever get away from it – an amusing survey earlier in the week concluded that more than half of the nation's young people lack the skills they need to maintain their homes, with many relying on their parents to carry out basic tasks. According to statistics released by Halifax Home Insurance, 50 per cent of people under the age of 35 admitted that they did not know how to rewire a plug, while 54 per cent did not know how to bleed a radiator, 34 per cent said they would not even attempt to do gardening, and nearly two-thirds conceded that their fathers were better at DIY than they are.

One's initial reaction is to mark this down as simple incompetence – the feckless young failing dismally to attain the benchmark established for them by cannier and more resourceful seniors. Here am I, for example, proud paterfamilias and homeowner, able to wire a plug (just about) but reduced to a state of clamorous existential dread by, say, a murmur from the radiator or a dripping tap. My father, on the other hand, could scarcely boil water and was forbidden to help with the decorating from the moment he left a trail of pink streaks across the dining-room wainscoting. All of which suggests that the explanation lies not in generational decline, but in upward mobility. My grandfather was an electrician, but his son was a scholarship boy who fled the council estate and acquired a white-collar job. Cackhandedness, consequently, was a symbol of his social rise. A good working definition of "bourgeois" might be the otherwise inexplicable urge to pay somebody to do something that you should easily be able do yourself.

*****

The book I most enjoyed reading this week, as the Suffolk rain lashed against the bedroom windows and the packs of black Labradors (the East Anglian middle classes' favourite dog – we have one ourselves) foraged along the beach, was Michael Frayn's memoir My Father's Fortune. Naturally, the book's most affecting passages tend to be about Frayn senior, but there are some poignant reminiscences of the timorous, pre-teenage author's first myopic appearances on a sports field sometime in the early 1940s. "Soon I'm at a school where they play cricket with a ball that is not only invisible but hard," he writes at one point, "and my new spectacles are even less help than before because I have to take them off in case this horrible projectile breaks them." Sometime later he is transferred to another school "where they play hockey. One day my father and sister secretly come and watch me, to see if somehow hockey suits me any better than football or cricket. It doesn't. It combines the worst features of both."

The moral of these passages is surprisingly simple. Just as the reason why some Victorians were so inflexibly strait-laced was because certain other Victorians were so incorrigibly rackety, the reason why certain intellectuals (though not the habitually mild-mannered Mr Frayn) are so patronising about sport is down to the torments inflicted on them in childhood. I can remember once sitting in my tutor's study at college when the sports photographs were being taken in the quadrangle beyond the window. My tutor, a wispy medievalist, looked up, surveyed the proceedings, and then remarked, quoting Kipling: "The flannelled fools at the wicket and the muddied oafs at the goal." There was a sudden, exhilarating sensation of having finally grown up.

*****

Curiously, the throwing out of Vedanta's scheme to mine bauxite on sacred tribal land in the Indian province of Orissa offers a neat little parable of our week's holiday. For all the company's well-attested ghastliness, it doesn't take an economics expert to point out that "evil big company versus poor people" is an easy line to peddle, and while a variety of celebrity campaigners (including Michael Palin, Joanna Lumley and Bianca Jagger) have exulted in Vedanta's retreat, local politicians in Orissa are said to have supported the plan on employment grounds.

And this, mutatis mutandis, is the Southwold problem: an economic bargain based on a willingness to be exploited. Fifty years ago, it was a thriving town with upwards of 2,000 inhabitants and a fair amount of light industry. Now there is only the Adnams brewery and the holidaying hordes. If it weren't for the second-homers and the delicatessen habitués, the place would die. Southwold's locals, the 900 or so people who reside here all the year round, live a queer, alternate life, like Harry Potter's chums in the Muggle world. You can hear them gossiping in the street in the early dawn, see them exchanging quasi-masonic nods with acquaintances at the supermarket checkout, praying, no doubt, for the autumn to come when they can be alone with the gulls, the empty beach and (for those involved in the letting and shopkeeping trades) their bank balances.

*****

Great excitement attended the Prime Minister and Mrs Cameron's efforts to garland their newborn daughter with a Cornish middle name. No doubt encouraged by the variety of suggestions offered up by an enthusiastic public (these ranged from Morwenna and Loveday to Unemployment Blackspot), the Camerons eventually came up with Endellion. As a veteran of the regional-naming game, I applaud their refusal to be pressured into a hasty choice. When our eldest son was born, and despite then being quartered in SW6, we determined on something resolutely East Anglian. Unhappily, my own suggestion, Redwald, the name of the local seventh-century king, and not without all precedent (for example: Hugh Redwald Trevor-Roper), was instantly vetoed in favour of Felix. Officially, this was inspired by St Felix, who converted the East Angles to Christianity. On the other hand, I'm pretty sure that I was reading Trollope's The Way We Live Now in the week before he was born and that it's really a sub-conscious tribute to Sir Felix Carbury, the novel's liqueur-swigging, barmaid-chasing, archetypal bad baronet.

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