Trying Hard to Look Like You’re Not Trying…

Well it was lovely on Tuesday to see Larry Grayson back on the telly after such a long absence. He’s wearing a dress now and talking about art and lifestyle, and I’ve got to say whatever his health regimen it’s working because he’s looking younger today than he ever did back in the days of The Generation Game. Probably a bit of nip and tuck going on, but all well and good to him IMHO…

What? Really? 1995? Blimey… Who? Izzit? Oh…

Well isn’t it lovely to see Grayson Perry back on our screens after such a long absence. He’s doing this wonderful show about art and lifestyle where he’s travelling round the country talking to people about, erm, art and lifestyle then commenting for us, the viewers, on their art and lifestyle choices. The focus is on the British class system and each week he’s looking at different sectors of society to see how they measure up to their stereotypes, and what this means in terms of their ‘taste’.

Last week it was about the working classes and featured people from Oop North with tattoos listening to shiny-suited pub singers in working mens’ clubs and a group of overly made up women with false tits, hair and nails going out on the piss. This week it was about the middle classes and featured people living in the S.E. wearing either second hand clothes they’d paid well over the odds for or designer label clothes they’d paid well over the odds for sitting indoors eating cupcakes and lamb and paprika stews and downing bottle after bottle of PG (not the tea) and/or ‘robust’ reds while chirruping on about the angst of having too much money and not knowing what to spend it on without potentially exposing themselves to their friends as shallow and tasteless wankers who need Jamie Oliver or style magazines to guide them. Next week it’s about upper class twits.

This week’s episode was really interesting for me because it was filmed in the very town in which I (and several generations of the Oddlyactive clan before me) was born and still live, i.e. Tunbridge Wells, and in what is supposed to be a ‘gated community’ for the upwardly mobile elite a few miles up the road in West Malling.

The latter actually looks more like a hideous Barrett Homes’ housing estate from the mid eighties (complete with small golfing area/village green where Patrick Allen could land his helicopter a’la Anneka Rice and leap out to start shouting into a radio microphone about low deposits and easy finance terms), but as the residents pretty much admitted that they have not got a clue what to put inside their homes I suppose the wider aesthetic would have been lost on them too. Okay, the Barrett estates didn’t have bronze statues and water features dotted around, but to my mind these looked for the most part like the kind of thing you might see in a Disney theme park anyway, which seems perfectly in keeping with the general ambience on one level but somewhat at odds with the ideology and lifestyle the development supposedly aspires to project. Or perhaps it doesn’t, and I’m missing something?

If I am missing something, BTW, please don’t feel compelled to tell me because I don’t think it’s anything I’d want, even if it might appear desirable to others. That’s not me sneering or being judgemental – I just don’t ‘get it’. I didn’t see anyone whose life in any sense other than the material seemed enriched by having it, but did see all sorts of unnecessary anxiety surrounding the possibility of getting it wrong.

One person I saw at King’s Hill (that’s the name of this Disney/Barrett hybrid) about whom I would be judgemental was the wankspanner who had consciously divided his immediate social group into three subgroups and promoted himself to ‘upper-middle’ purely on the basis of his income. Where does he think he’s living, for God’s sake, America?

That’s not to deny, of course, that such subgroups exist or that money doesn’t have a small part to play in delineating them, but it’s far from being the only consideration. Even in the Good old U S of A where money really does seem to count for everything there’s a huge distinction between ‘new’ money and ‘old’ money, and the old adage stands that while money can’t buy you friends it can buy you a better class of enemy. Yes, money does open exclusive doors but so do butlers, and while a butler’s efforts may be greatly appreciated by those they serve, few of them would have the arrogance or ignorance to consider themselves their employers’ equal. And don’t even get me started on the ‘Range Rovers are ten a penny round here’ comment… I arsk ya!

One thing that really struck home for me was the symbolism of the aspirational cup-cake, probably because it’s something I rant about quite regularly (along with Range Rovers and Chelsea Tractors generally) anyway, and it ties in with another personal bugbear which is ‘micro-entrepreneurialism’. When I was growing up cakes were something that people cooked to give or share with others; they were symbolic, but they symbolised friendship and love and warmth. If they were bought rather than home baked they were bought from a local baker or perhaps even a supermarket in a box with Mr Kipling’s signature on the side, and they still symbolised friendship and love and warmth.

The cakes displayed as a centrepiece at the party shown in Kings Hill had nothing to do with friendship or love or warmth at all; they were hateful, pretentious little edible objet d’art, hideous manifestations of (dubious) style over content – all glitter and Mr Whippy swirls of glossy pink butter-cream… The swirls reminded me of those plastic dog-poos I used to buy at the joke shop when I was a child; the glitter just seemed to emphasise that you can’t polish a turd.

The thing I disliked most about them, though, was the thinking behind them – a cake is just a cake after all, and it’s difficult to dislike a cake even if it’s a pretentious one – and the idea that they were probably made not by a baker but by some local housewife who has rebranded herself as a micro-entrepreneur and sells them to her ‘friends’ at prices that would make daylight robbery look like a charity donation. And that’s horrible – why would people want to do that to their friends? Why would you want to put anyone you were supposed to care about into the position of having to reach into their pockets and hand their money over to you? Of course, the friends say they are happy to do it (it’s a lovely cup cake, well worth every penny of the £20.00 per half dozen you have charged them and of course they would like to place a regular order for a dozen a week…) and love to feel that they can help support you and your little business venture…

Apologies to any micro-entrepreneurs who might be reading (whoops, there go some more twitter followers!). I’m sure that somehow it makes some sort of sense and it’s just me being old-fashioned and crotchety and stupid for not getting it. Thing is, though, I kind of resent what’s happened to the humble cup-cake and the prostitution of the meaning and association it’s always had for me. They don’t mention a price in that old song, do they, and I think if they had it would have unnecessarily complicated the rhythm: “If I’d known you were coming I’d have baked a cake (£5.00 each for the small ones or £15.00 for the seven inch Victoria sponge) baked a cake (The fairy cakes are a real bargain) baked a cake (no I don’t make my own marzipan on the Battenberg but it is organic), if I’d known you were coming etc etc…”

Another aspect of life in Kings Hill that confused me was the idolisation of Jamie Oliver and the ‘Jamie Parties’. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not mocking the mockney geeza for his cooking (he’s my favourite TV chef when it comes down to the cooking, if I’m honest, though Huge Fuggly-Duckingstool gives him a close run for his money when Thomasina isn’t doing something clever with a bit of wildlife she’s just run over) or for his very commendable philanthropic efforts, but let’s face it the brand he’s created for himself is hardly one based on reality, is it?

I can’t remember Grayson’s actual words, but it was something like ‘working class Essex barrow boy makes good’ and it is this brand identity that underpins the appeal of Jamie’s cookware range of tagines, wood fired ovens and faux fifties kilner jars as tasteful lifestyle accessories for the aspirational. But Jamie, for all the mockney bish-bash-bosh and hand squeezed lemons ISN’T a working class lad made good, is he? His mum and dad owned a gastro-pub, and that’s where he started his cooking career. And that’s not to say that his mum and dad didn’t have to work bloody hard or anything like that or to imply that Jamie had it cushy, but owning and running a pub is not ‘working class’: Working class people drink in pubs and work as barmaids or pot men in pubs, but they don’t own them, gastro or otherwise.

Blimey, just realised I’ve typed over 1500 words and I haven’t even mentioned the Tunbridge Wells ‘set’ yet. Best leave that for another day (probably next week) I think. Also, I’m taking son out to a local concert on Saturday and if I’m going to get dragged off to the stocks and pelted with rotten veg I’d rather he didn’t have to witness it.

If you happen to be a TW cake-maker and follow (ed) me on twitter or whatever please remember that my opinion counts for nothing, especially when it comes to ‘taste’ or ‘style’. At some point Grayson said that the key to Tunbridge Wells’ style was to ‘work hard at looking like you haven’t tried’. I take that one stage further and actually don’t try, which is not the same thing at all, apparently, if the response I generally get is anything to go by.

Right. I’m off to finish icing that batch of cupcakes I made earlier. I want to give them to the new neighbours before anyone else gets in to tell them what a miserable old bastard I am…

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