Harriet Walker: 'Being polite and going down well is what the middle classes are proud of'


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The Independent Online

I live a cossetted lifestyle. The only wolf at the door I ever contend with is the stubby Pomeranian from upstairs who snuffles around my (always-overflowing) recycling box when he can slip his owner's watchful eye.

Every so often, though, I do go beyond my comfort zone – literally and metaphorically. (My literal comfort zone being the area just in front and to the left of my TV.) There was the outward-bound weekend earlier this year, when I shimmied along zip wires 50ft off the ground and wore a harness that functioned like a big soggy nappy with a slightly industrial feel. Then there was a Saturday-morning llama trek I undertook for a friend's birthday. That was really fun although my llama, David, seemed a little wary of me throughout and was resistant to cuddling.

Then there are the little dives in and around the boundary of what's comfortable – a day at the football, say; an evening at a pub with no quiz machine – that are enough for me to be able to say, "I am a metropolitan type who is not afraid to interact with the rest of the country, and who please is Rickie Lambert?"

But I'm always astonished when the rest of the country isn't prepared quite as fully to interact with me – even when I'm doing my doe eyes, hair flick, "I understand your pain" Lady Di face.

In the summer, my boyfriend and I went on a brilliantly slothful package holiday where we mixed not only drinks but also demographics. I fully believe, as part of the urban middle class, that this is the sort of experience that should be prescribed to everyone.

It was there that I met Debbie, a care-worker from north Wales, who was, it rapidly became apparent, one of the most selfless people who has existed. She was also one of the only people I have met with an unironic mullet. Regardless, as we chatted in the bar, talk turned to the lesbian couple she'd met there the other night. "Such a beautiful girl," she said, shaking her head. "Still, at least she's been married, so she's got a kid. That makes up for choosing a life like that, doesn't it?"

"Powerless to disagree" is obviously the wrong, pointlessly pacifist and cowardly phrase to use here. I had at my fingertips a plethora of options as broad as the menu for modern sexuality. The one I leant most strongly towards was pointing out that, no, being a lesbian is hardly some second-rate lifestyle choice and that having children in this case is irrelevant. Not least that the "beautiful girl" didn't need Debbie's sympathy.

Yet I chose not to violate the code of the package holiday bar by dragging my ideology into it. "It's always hard for the middle classes," my mother (resolutely one of the aforementioned) said when I recounted it. "We're pushed from the top and the bottom, and to try to change either one's mindset in a social situation feels rude, and it never goes down well. Being polite and going down well is what the middle classes are proud of."

(This remains the best simultaneous apology for and defence of the middling sort that I have ever heard.)

Still, it rang in my ears a week ago when I found myself on the very outskirts of London – the sort of area that, were it really an outer skirt, it'd be the layer that got covered in mud and then caught on a hedgerow, before eventually being entirely shredded and left behind while the rest of the outfit carried on blithely towards it destination.

I regularly drink with people older than myself. My one resounding complaint about hipsters five, nay 10, years younger than me is that they too rarely spend time with older people who could teach them things – at the very least, that "like" is not an intensifier.

But on this occasion, on London's outskirt, I found myself with a man who protested his age almost more than your average Dickensian crock. A man who, after hearing that I work in fashion, told me he didn't really agree with "gays". And that he hadn't been able to watch a certain BBC cooking-related programme because he had found the presenter "not feminine enough".

I wish I had flown off the handle. I wish I had upturned my drink in his face while strangling him with the sartorially deliberate, entirely masculine, thin scarf he was wearing.

I wish, moreover, that I'd pointed out that the great age with which he prefaced every bigoted view was less than that of men I knew who would never have even thought to hold that much pointless hate within their atoms.

I wish I had reacted. But, being middle class, I refused his offer of buying a drink, shook his hand and left without smiling.

I have regretted it ever since.