To Bournemouth, only to get stranded in an episode of 'Carry On EastEnders'

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The Independent Online
Decided to heed the words of my Prime Minister this week and head for the countryside.

Decided to heed the words of my Prime Minister this week and head for the countryside. Bournemouth. Ahhh! ­ smell that country air. And it's true, every word Blair has been saying about business as usual out here in the sticks. The promenade closed due to a mud slide; horizontal needles of rain coming in off the Channel; the lower orders zipped into their anoraks like the dead in their winding sheets; nowhere you want to eat; nowhere you want to stay either, though there's no point being picky with a No Vacancy sign swinging from the gallows on every hotel forecourt; and that impenetrable mystery of our provincial life, how a place can be quite so full while feeling quite so empty ­ yes, it's true, nothing changed, everything absolutely as normal.

There are worse places to be than Bournemouth at this time of the year. Hollywood, say. It is partly to avoid the Oscars that I have come to Bournemouth. I entertain the fantasy that if you can get to the edges of the country you will escape the cultural triviality that consumes the centre. Surely, here where cliffs crumble and sheep burn, people are too engrossed in the beginnings and the ends of things to care about Julia Roberts. Or at least, if that's too much to hope for, there will be poor telly reception.

This is our only chance of intellectual survival, I now believe ­ poor reception at the margins. Gradually, starting from Salcombe and Broadstairs and Duncansby Head, people will get fed up with bad pictures and begin to read again. Until at last, by the middle of the fourth millennium, the word will have reached Birmingham.

In the meantime, I am booked into a hotel with mouldering statues and gazebos in the garden, a once elegant and choosy manor house now declined into a conference centre for the wet trades cum all-in weekend family getaway for people who haven't been to university. Too late to change my booking now, but I see I have avoided Julia Roberts at the cost of sharing a breakfast room with the cast of Carry On EastEnders.

Observing my distaste, my companion reminds me that I am a child of the lower orders myself. Though I am quick to acknowledge this, I insist that the lower orders I grew up among were bent on self-improvement, were not aggressively and ideologically marooned in their condition, had not fetishised it, nor connived in its fetishisation by television, to the point where cultural deprivation believes itself to be a virtue.

I do not add, because I would rather not spoil breakfast for both of us, that the juvenile Carry On EastEnders are fat whereas we were thin. And not just gluttonously or metabolically fat, but fat in a peculiarly defiant way. Fat in the spirit and by design. In-your-face fat. Actually, in- my-face fat.

On the plate of a little fat girl sitting at a table next to mine I count 11 sausages. I watch as her mother shakes her head. Tut, Veronica! But does she lecture her child on poverty in Africa, explain to her the workings of the digestive system, and remove 10 of the 11 sausages? No, she leans across and hacks the lot into gorge-sized gobbets, smiles incorrigibly at the father, a dyspeptic-looking man with that holier-than-thou expression which the godless are somehow able to achieve when they are out with their families, and leaves Veronica to it. Responsible parenting in the year of Our Lord 2001.

At our table, conversation proceeds as normal, despite the inducement to violence. "Apart from the fact that she can't act," I am saying, "I don't know how you can bear to look at someone who's wearing her arse where her lips ought to be."

Am I loud? Loud enough, apparently, for either the arse word or the offensive practice of criticism to have carried to the table where Veronica is now down to sausage number eight. On the face of her father I notice an expression suggestive of sea-sickness. What I say next I say entirely in the enthusiasm of the moment. Somehow talk has veered around, as it will over breakfast in the country, to the question of sexual inordinacy and the habits of domestic hygiene it engenders. My point is that the messier the intercourse, the neater, invariably, the house. "Think about it," I say, "there you are with shit and semen all over the walls..."

"Do you mind!"

I start like someone who has been mugged in his sleep, my face an angry question mark.

The paterfamilias, however, is angrier than I am, and holier. "Do you mind toning your language down," he says. "There are children present. I don't want them listening to this filth."

Filth? I am so astounded I do not have the presence of mind to say, "Then shove a sausage in their ears." Filth? ­ coming from a member of a class that reads nothing but filth in its papers, watches nothing but filth on its telly, and puts nothing but filth in its stomachs!

I make a stab at saying that. "I bet you let them watch telly," I retort, the feebleness of which makes me want to commit suicide.

Then I fall silent. Humiliated. Admonished, in my own sphere of expertise ­ education, decency and morality ­ by someone who doesn't even have a degree.

I retire to my room and try to find Julia Roberts on the box. She's there, on every channel, but the reception's hopeless. Something told me no good would come of leaving London.

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