Whatever happened to class?

I had an odd moment the other day – the sort of moment that suddenly and quite intensely reminds me of, hmm, life distance I suppose, between places and between selves. It’s not an angsty feeling, at least not precisely (I can work angst into anything, given half a chance), just a little thought provoking.

The thing is, H and I are off to Edinburgh for the Fringe at the end of August. We’ve doing this … God … since we were students although, thankfully, as our income, has increased we no longer sleep on our friends’ floors and we actually eat food that isn’t solely provided by the 100% Angus beef burger van parked outside the Gilded Balloon. I think last year we even went to a nice French restaurant.

(Although we also went to Well Hung and Tender … because it has the best name in the known universe and provides genuinely the best served-out-of-a-van food I ever eaten – or maybe I just think that because I tend to be eating it exhausted, and most likely wankered, at about three in the morning. God, I’m a classy guy).

It’s a bizarre choice of a holiday, I know, but it has a long, loved tradition behind it and neither our work schedules, nor our personal tastes, synch very easily on this one. H doesn’t like flying, and doesn’t really like being away from home – which probably sounds dreadfully boring but I like it. I mean, not that it’s boring, wah. I mean, that H is so grounded and content. I’m content, more than content, but I’m I am sort of world hungry as well. A few years back I left H behind and scampered around Europe having adventures. It was fun, but there was sadness on the homefront. And I know if I asked, let me drag him wherever I wanted to go, and he’d probably enjoy it too, but one cannot always be the dragger. Deep man. So the perfectly acceptable and functional compromise is we roam the length and breadth of this tiny island, and we go to Edinburgh every year. In increasing luxury. Which is sort of so hilariously anti-fringe it’s almost part of the pleasure.

The journey up there, however, is not so great – and that’s from someone who enjoys travelling. I mean, the travelling bit of travelling. That glorious, suspended non-time, with a landscape, or a skyline, streaking past. It’s either laziness or neuroticism but I like the space to think, and the safety that comes from a temporary state of no expectations. But British trains really suck. Or maybe they don’t suck as badly as I think but I saw Murder on the Orient Express at an impressionable age and now I have a distorted perception about what travelling by train ought to be like, i.e. luxurious and full of murder. Actually I can remember about ten years ago, travelling on one of old trains from Milan to Venice, rattling tracks and those adorable little compartments. A far cry from the Virgin cross country service from Portsmouth to Aberdeen, let me tell you.

The worst part of about travelling with H is that H is so terribly terribly MORAL about everything: won’t let me blag, the self-righteous git, even though it’s a victimless crime because it’s not like if you get yourself upgraded a comfort zone, somebody else is being stuffed in the baggage hold.

Once we drove up – and that was even worse. It’s about 8 hours behind the wheel and I know this probably sounds like pish to an American (it’s 8 hours just to cross the road around here) it’s a bit gruelling on me. I keep getting tempted to try and get the sleeper up instead – in practice, it’s pretty grim but it sounds oh-so romantic, doesn’t it? – except we’d have to get to Euston for, like, midnight and we’d be grumpily stranded in Edinburgh with luggage and nowhere to go at like 6am on a Saturday morning. The last few times I sort of managed to semi-honestly acquire first class upgrades – although I genuinely think they should rename them from Standard and First to Unbearable and Slightly More Bearable. Okay, I know I sound like a right knob now: “oh no, standard class is so plebeian.” Standard is actually fine for a short trip, to be honest, even if you have grasshopper legs like I do, but four hours down the line, when the entire carriage just reeks of humanity, somebody has been yelling into their mobile phone since Leeds, a child has been crying constantly (not that I blame them), and your legs have seized up … really, it’s not a good mood to start a holiday. First class is not, actually, all that much improvement (there are no oiled cabana boys with palms leaves, for example) but you get WiFi that functions, leg room and space for your legs and elbows. It’s not the Ritz but, dammit, I’ll take it.

Anyway, normally I do all the booking line and then faff around upgrading afterwards, while H looks on disapprovingly, but this year I decided I’d take a more cunning approach. So I went down to the train station, found a human being … and emerged about ten minutes later with two first class returns at … about the same cost as a standard class ticket. Oh score. I met H for lunch and babbled about this gleeful story and H burst out laughing (affectionately) and was like “dude, sometimes you are so working class, I can’t quite get over it.” And I was like “?” And H was like “Well, it’s a combination of the fact you’re ludicrously excited to have first class tickets, and you’re bragging because you got them cheap.”

I hasten to add, that this was an exchange carried out in the spirit of play, not classism. But it’s kind of funny really. There’s a stand-up routine by a Ed Byrne called, Different Class. I find him pretty hit and miss as a performer, but when hits, he hits hard for me – and the show touches on a lot of these sort of issues. I find it strangely comforting, actually. Like, yeah, sorry to describe someone’s joke, thus ruining it, but there’s a bit where he gets his first paycheck, buys an enormous telly and invites his friends round and they’re all “gosh, you’re so working class” and he’s like “how can that be working class, it was really expensive.”

I like to think of myself as a sort of class guerilla these days – I kind of slosh around somewhere near the middle, feeling quite comfortable about it, but I’m still so fascinated by these behavioural shibboleths. And, sometimes, I look around my life and I see all these … things that I like and have, and suddenly it all seems a bit impossible.

Like, a few years ago, I was in the supermarket and it was hot so I decided I was going to buy ice-cream and have it for dinner. Because I’m a grown up. A middle class grown up. Hell yeah. Anyway, while I was scanning the fridges, my eye fell on a Walls Viennetta which, out of deference for my vast international audience, I shall helpfully link to a Wikipedia page – just in case you don’t have ‘em over there. Now the Walls Viennetta is an institution where I come from. It’s the, ah, crème de la crème of sophisticated desserts. The sort of dessert you would carefully take out of the box and put on a plate before … serving. With flourish.

A Walls Vienetta, incidentally, is a bundle if vanilla ice-cream with layers of chocolate shoved through it.

And they are enshrined in my childhood memories: the careful ceremony of the Vienetta, the careful demarcation of portions by ripple, the sharp, crisp sound of the chocolate cracking under the serving knife. When the Vienetta came out, you knew it was a serious occasion. A Grandma’s birthday type occasion. I think we had maybe one or two a year. That’s just how bloody fucking special they were.

Okay, so a Walls Vienetta costs … 99 pence.

99 pence?! That’s an amount of money so negligible I would hesitate to pick it up if I dropped it on the floor.

It was such a disorientating moment. The pillars of all my childhood temples brought crashing down in the most careless of moments. I felt like such an arse, not because I was ashamed of having once worshipped at the ripply feet of 99p dessert, but because something so deeply valued had – without my noticing – become close to worthless.

absurdity, musing

8 Responses to Whatever happened to class?

  1. Susan says:

    They used to have these Vienetta commercials on tv when I was growing up…w/ this lovely stringed music in the background and this slow motion fork breaking through. Your post just brought that all back to memory. I’d, frankly, be happy to get any kind of frozen dessert for 99pence these days. I don’t think I’d find anything in NY for less than $3, sadly (and I’ve looked!)

    But HOORAY for first class seats…I’d celebrate that ANY day! Whether the actual difference in accommodation is noticeable or not, whether the acquisition was hard-fought or not, it always just feels like a “treat” to be in FIRST CLASS. 🙂 Enjoy!

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Yes, the Vienetta adverts over here used to be wildly sophisticated – like people in black tie being served Vienetta under those silver dish things. Deliciously ridiculous – like anyone would serve a Vienetta at a black tie meal, or, you know Ferrero Rocher at a royal reception 😉 I kind of love adverts like that, which try to sell a completely implausible lifestyle with a particular product.

      Yeah, 99p … buys so very little it is faintly disconcerting you can get a pudding for it 🙂 A wildly sophisticated pudding, of course.

      I will totally (and SMUGLY) enjoy my FIRST CLASS trip to Edinburgh.

  2. PeggyL says:

    Your article had me thinking, a lot apparently.

    I’ve had conversations with friends/colleagues/acquaintances/family about this topic (value system), all in Cantonese. And at this time, I just *need* to put it in writing. So, if the expressions are “off”, please let me know and I’ll try to explain.

    A person’s internal “value system” shifts over time. You might think a 99p dessert costs close to nothing today, but when you were a child, the price was not a concern (of yours, at least) but the rare occasions that you could enjoy the treat. For me, the nostalgic/sentimental value of such an item would be priceless. Don’t you agree?

    I’ll give you an example of mine. I started working very young (in these days’ “standard”) and by the age of 25, I would describe then I had established myself quite a bit in terms of a well-paying job and thus reflected in the life-style. At the time, I was willing to spend a quarter of my monthly salary on a dress (that I thought would look good on me, of course) and wouldn’t hesitate much. These days, I simply refuse to be manipulated like this (perhaps my vanity has already reached its limits).

    So I often wonder how people can afford carrying designer bags (while commuting by bus/MTR) that are easily twice their salary? Of course, I know they can – credit cards – thus the numerous commercials offering money-lending schemes. By the time these people are in their mid-20s, they would have accumulated a shitload of debt.

    As to “values” in the literal sense, I’d rather spend HK$40,000 on a piece of jewellery that’s supposed to last than on a Chanel 2.55, using money that I saved.

    On the “morals” level, I have another, real-life, example for you to ponder. We have this billionaire (in HKD terms) who has private jets, Maybachs and the most extensive Hermes bag collection. Who in turn is a divorcee and subsequently a widower and refuses to re-marry while still bearing (not him!) four children (at least that we know of) out of wedlock. (BTW, I know all these thanks to the paparazzi – yes, we have those here as well.) His girlfriends and children (a couple are toddlers) all parade the various functions in the city showcasing BabyDiors and BabyHermes – you get the drift. How on earth would the mothers tell the youngsters about their positions while they are so wrapped up in luxury, to teach/pass them morals/ethics or values of a normal person? I don’t suppose they could say they are abnormal if they were born with all the usual features and a normal IQ? That in our (society’s) eyes the children are illegitimate (yes, I’m old-fashioned) regardless of a name on the birth certificate?

    This is materialism to the extreme and it is truly disturbing.

    Back to your favourite childhood dessert: I happened to like it very much and I was very happy that a few years back they made the personal portion. Not that I don’t like to share but it seems I am the only person in the family who likes Vienetta – they think it’s not “real” ice-cream somehow.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Of course memory/nostalgia is priceless – and has nothing to do with whether costs 99 pence or 99 million pounds. Value and worth are not the same things and, you say, they’re informed very much by the context of our lives – I don’t actually believe that, because a Vienetta costs 99p to purchase, it has lost all its personal worth to me. But, at the same time, it’s weird to think how … negligible … that feels to me right now, and to think about on how it once meant, not just to me but to my parents. I can remember pretty much literally having no money. I can remember when £50 was the largest amount of cash I had ever held in my hand. And now, well, yes, I’d flinch a bit if I dropped £50 out the window but it wouldn’t … hurt me, it would just annoy me. I’d feel careless, but I wouldn’t feel like I couldn’t eat that month.

      Debt is a very different problem, but I do find the way we perceive worth kind of interesting. Perhaps a bit like you with your perfume, I hesitate to buy films on DVD, but not TV series. And I think on some level it’s because some very silly part of me genuinely believes that a 2.5 hour film is a less good “investment” than a 13-24 hour series. Which is, of course, utter nonsense because it’s not sensible to value a piece of art or entertainment media solely based on how long it’ll take me to consume it.

      As for morals and ethics, well, that’s a whole different kettle of fish. I suppose extreme situations tend to create extreme responses – but not always. I’ve known some exceptionally privileged people (to be fair, not quite billionaires) who have nevertheless had perfectly reasonable attitudes to stuff – but others who are wildly careless and clueless. And, by the same token, I recognise in myself sometimes a certain kind of graspishness, wanting to cling to the things I have, for fear of the memory of not having them, and an inclination to, well, blag and get things I may not be entitled to, whereas H is much calmer and more accepting.

      I didn’t know you could get individual Vienetta portions – not over here, at least. It’s always the solid block. And, well, although it is definitely “proper” ice-cream, it is a type of ice-cream that tastes only like itself.

  3. Kaetrin says:

    What is “blag”?

    We have the Vienetta here as well. The brand is called Streets here, but the logo is the same (just like Walker’s Chips are Frito-Lay in the US and Smiths here). I reckon the Vienetta still costs about $5 here, which means you get them way cheaper over there. We Aussies are always being ripped off – from ice-cream to the internet. I blame the government. I wish I could buy a Vienetta for $1.75. 🙂

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Blag is … sort of … talking yourself into getting something you’re not entitled to, or pretending to know more about something than you actually do. So you could blag your way through a class or into an nightclub. At least, that’s my understanding of the word but I could be completely wrong. Probably Susan will pop up to tell me it actually means “have sex with a marmoset” where she comes from 😉

      Streets is a rubbish name, frankly. Like Vegemite 😉 You should stand up for your right to cheap desserts. Come on Australia, cast off your shackles of, well, of us … and … okay maybe not 😉

      • Susan says:

        In NY, where I’m from, ‘blag’ usually means to ‘have sex with a marmoset’….. 🙂 j/k…

        I actually referred to my top resource, Urban Dictionary, to concur w/ AJH: “To gain, usually entrance to a restricted area or club, or some material good, through confidence trickery or cheekiness. Lying is also acceptable.”

  4. Hanne says:

    During my expatriation stint to the “little island” one regret is that I never got around to going to the Fringe in Edinburgh (nor did I get to go to Monkey World Ape Rescue Centre in Dorset). Can’t do it all I guess. 🙂

    I love travelling, whether by plane, train or car, I always have and can’t see myself NOT travelling (unless my health would prevent it), and I can see that if one’s partner doesn’t have the same “bug” it might dampen one’s enthusiasm and “wander-lust” somewhat. It’s usually a lot nicer travelling together with someone just to share the experience, but I’ve travelled solo for many years and it’s OK.

    I can’t see the point in paying a fortune for a plane ticket which will get me a semi-edible meal so I guess that makes me one of the pleps (but who cares about that anyway). I always travel Standard on the trains (don’t get me started on the “crappy” First Capital Connect trains vs. Southern), BUT on my recent travel from London to Manchester I actually sprung for a 1st class ticket – just for the free wi-fi (addicted to wi-fi connection much?) for the short 2+ hours journey. Oh ok, there was only about £4 difference to a Standard class seat when buying in advance online, and buyiing wi-fi access would cost more, so there! I can’t even blame long legs as I’m lucky to reach the floor while sitting in a chair.. lol.

    There’s no Vienetta here, but there are similar local variations, none of which I have tried (as far as I know), but I’m all for icecream in general.

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