Joanna Briscoe: At the Sharp End

There is a corner of bad taste hell where the rich and poor occasionally meet
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The Independent Online

Money can buy happiness, according to a survey this week. But of course it can. It's just that it's other people's biliously vulgar, teak-coloured wealth that is the source of joy as far as I'm concerned. It gives me surges of unalloyed pleasure to laugh at the rich.

To get this silly little survey out of the way, researchers from Harvard and Pennsylvania State universities have found that relative income is what's relevant in determining happiness. Namely, if you're better off than your friends and neighbours, then you're gloatily content, but if you're a millionaire trapped in a ghetto of billionaires, you're more likely to be a miserable git.

Let us now cunningly weld this survey to my main "news" hook: recent pictures of Posh. Ha ha ha! Snortle, chortle, gape and discuss. First, there's Posh boozing and cigar-blowing on new pal Roberto Cavalli's yacht alongside Mike Tyson. Cavalli is some kind of bling designer. Mike Tyson is a convicted rapist. With her husband off at work, Lady Beckham is posing on deck, a mangled badger draped over her ribcage in the form of a stripy tangle of hair extensions. Straw cowboy hat, ankle chain, pinched camera-ready pout, snout and tan complete the picture, the sun perfectly a-glint on oversized aviator shades. Oh goody. Posh has lost the plot.

Secondly, she ain't never read a book, innit. Pic to accompany this latest confessional soundbite shows the footballer's wife in denim shorts with her kids in achingly delicious chav finery, mulleted and logoed up like their dad's most cash-poor imitators.

So we have to be richer than our neighbours to be happy. Well, Posh is virtually my neighbour, and yours. I see her face popping up more times a day on AOL and in my latest issue of Grazia than I ever glimpse my real-life street-mates as I sit at home writing novels in a grey nightie, desperate for trivia and distraction. Posh is rather richer than me, but she makes me very happy, because by poking fun I'm partaking in the national sport of chav-taunting, and it soothes away any potential tricky wealth jealousy. Now that there's an inoffensive-sounding term at one's disposal, one's class-ism is permitted full and flowery expression.

Just as men jumped upon post-modern notions of "irony" to wrench us back to the Spearmint Rhino brand of pre-feminism they so mourned, the nation has embraced the term "chav" as an excuse to Kevin-scoff as never before. We're in an era in which hoi polloi and money merge very publicly. Where once your Midland industrial millionaire laboured in obscurity, now rich riffraff is there in our faces, rafts of famous chavs plucked from reality TV and footballers' Essex condos.

As a nation steeped in a Victorian caste system, we're still deeply suspicious of luck, meritocracy and class flexibility. We don't like them getting beyond their station, and so we have to laugh and tut at Colleen's shopping habits. Now that Britney's openly resembling pregnant white trash who married a pants-showing Kevin, eats junk food and gets pissed and brawly, she's the subject of a Channel 4 programme called Britney's Redneck Roots. She's rich and she's common! Thank goodness for that.

On Sunday, kids sleeping in the back of the car, everyone rich on holiday, I took a detour down the Bishop's Avenue, known as Millionaires' Row, in north London. This I do every five years or so for sport. There is nothing more cheering on a rainy August when London's half-empty than cackling at Millionaires' Row. Carefully avoiding the genuinely jealous-making Georgian glories in Hampstead, I cheerfully immerse myself in red-brick suburbia where the dominant style is American ranch Palladian and every thundering mansion is called something Lodge, Court, Hall, Mansion, and - yes - Palace.

We roll past a gatehouse with lions rampant, triple garages, leaded security grilles, brass carriage lamps, dead leylandii and palm trees. Here is the patina of ugliness only wealth or aspiration can provide. Just as there's a full circle between extreme squareness and extreme trendiness, the rich and poor occasionally meet somewhere in taste hell. Top entertainment. Long live trailer trash. The richer the better.

Make the grade

The nation's shimmering new A-level grades are a scandal. In my day (er, 1981), you worked your behind off at your country comp for your A, B, B, a result which would insult a full-blooded thicko in 2005. You sweated blood, Shakespeare and quadratic equations; you learnt your bloody Goethe and ablative and catfish dissection; you swotted at night, caught anorexia, developed myopia and sped straight to the library at a whiff of General Studies. The one girl in our school who bagged three grade As was a genius close to implosion with an enthusiastic teacher for a father and a photographic memory.

How different from those hooded, belly-baring little schoolgoers of today who spurn "hard" subjects like French in favour of texting, film and reality TV studies, mobile phone photography sessions, fast food science, basic sociology and hood-wearing classes as they consult Google instead of Brewer's and Gameboy manuals instead of Liddell and Scott. Send them to a boot camp. Feed them Ancient Greek. Confiscate their iPods. Award them all Es.

Only joking. Sort of.

Joanna Briscoe's latest novel, 'Sleep With Me', is published by Bloomsbury at £12.99