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Will Self: Why I hate builder's tea

The sign that you have truly arrived is not that you can employ a chippie, but that you can damn him for being chippy.

I am distressed to see that the hateful expression “builder’s tea” doesn’t have an entry in Jonathon Green’s monumental, three-volume Green’s Dictionary of Slang. “Builder’s bum” does, with its allied coinage – previously unknown to me – “Dagenham smile”; and, Green’s being a dictionary on historical principles, the first recorded entry in print, from 1994, is quoted in full: “His monstrous pink buttocks were being forced upwards and were protruding above his waistline like tumescent pillows (‘the Dagenham smile’, this phenomenon is called on London building sites).” This is from Joseph O’Connor’s The Secret World of the Irish Male and, if you think about it, while both neologisms must derive from a time when low-cut jeans coincided with a boom in the construction industry, “Dagenham smile” is more likely a self-attribution – said of builders by builders – while “builder’s bum” has the hallmarks of a slur.

Not least because “bum” is neither an especially cockney nor an Irish working-class ascription, both moieties being more inclined to “arse”. No, “builder’s bum”, like “builder’s tea”, is one of those modifiers of social class that can be smuggled into English via the capacious portmanteau of slang. Back in the day, from upper-middle on up, the term “chippy” was deployed with the same intent. Once again Green’s nails it: “in middle-class use and often as a means of dismissing genuine complaints, the implication is that such ‘chippiness’ has no real justification other than class-based resentment”.

Know you’re in the know

Naturally, the covert assumption that to be “chippy” is on a par with living off the income obtained from the surplus value of others’ labour remains uncontested, and the moral equivalence of so-called “inverted snobbery” with snobbery itself becomes established. To accuse middle-class people who offer their guests (though probably not those employed in refurbishing their properties) “builder’s tea” of snobbery would almost certainly call forth the rejoinder: “Oh, but I was being ironic.”

If they’re smart, that is. Stupid bourgeois who define certain commonplace Indian tea blends as befitting artisans (rather than as “artisanal”) tend to fluff at this point and say things like: “Oh, I don’t know what you mean – I drink builder’s tea,” as if this in some way constituted a levelling of the social pyramid. Irony does pertain to slang terms inasmuch as some examples have their foundation in the semantic shift occasioned between defined and intended meaning; irony can also have a dramatic or situational aspect – the disjunction between what the parties involved know – and this can be information of any kind, including linguistic.

Irony thrives on class distinctions for this very reason: by creating scenes in which diverse social groupings are thrown together, there are endless opportunities for some people to be “in the know”, while others are ignorant or disempowered. It is often said of the English – by themselves! – that their great capacity for deploying ironic tropes is what makes them such sophisticated folk. But might it behove the English (the rest of the archipelago is a case apart) to concede that irony is itself a measure of the steepness of the hierarchical acclivity?

Arrogant argot

The madness of the crowd thus consists in the assertion that “builder’s tea” is a value-neutral term, when it owes its existence to systemic inequalities that have increased over the past quarter-century. The great success of the British upper classes (and this does apply to the Scots, Welsh and Irish, as they have all long since taken their accent and slang from London) is in simultaneously mutating to accommodate the social mores of North American egalitarianism and teaching the newly rich to speak their own immemorial, subtly arrogant argot.

If you look at it this way, the sign that you have truly arrived is not that you can employ a chippie, but that you can damn him for being chippy; not that you can get in the builders, but that you can give your pals a choice between builder’s and Assam. In the fullness of time, the arriviste will find herself no longer cosseted by this new social position – and its linguistic perks – but trapped by them. Fretting in the claustrophobic ambience of dull dinner parties, she will look for a way out . . . a divertissement . . . As she takes the tray of builder’s to the builders, her eye will alight on a cheery Dagenham smile giving her the come-on . . .

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, A-Z of Iran

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When will the government take action to tackle the plight of circus animals?

Britain is lagging behind the rest of the world - and innocent animals are paying the price. 

It has been more than a year since the Prime Minister reiterated his commitment to passing legislation to impose a ban on the suffering of circus animals in England and Wales. How long does it take to get something done in Parliament?

I was an MP for more than two decades, so that’s a rhetorical question. I’m well aware that important issues like this one can drag on, but the continued lack of action to help stop the suffering of animals in circuses is indefensible.

Although the vast majority of the British public doesn’t want wild animals used in circuses (a public consultation on the issue found that more than 94 per cent of the public wanted to see a ban implemented and the Prime Minister promised to prohibit the practice by January 2015, no government bill on this issue was introduced during the last parliament.

A private member’s bill, introduced in 2013, was repeatedly blocked in the House of Commons by three MPs, so it needs a government bill to be laid if we are to have any hope of seeing this practice banned.

This colossal waste of time shames Britain, while all around the world, governments have been taking decisive action to stop the abuse of wild animals in circuses. Just last month, Catalonia’s Parliament overwhelmingly voted to ban it. While our own lawmakers dragged their feet, the Netherlands approved a ban that comes into effect later this year, as did Malta and Mexico. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, North America’s longest-running circus, has pledged to retire all the elephants it uses by 2018. Even in Iran, a country with precious few animal-welfare laws, 14 states have banned this archaic form of entertainment. Are we really lagging behind Iran?

The writing has long been on the wall. Only two English circuses are still clinging to this antiquated tradition of using wild animals, so implementing a ban would have very little bearing on businesses operating in England and Wales. But it would have a very positive impact on the animals still being exploited.

Every day that this legislation is delayed is another one of misery for the large wild animals, including tigers, being hauled around the country in circus wagons. Existing in cramped cages and denied everything that gives their lives meaning, animals become lethargic and depressed. Their spirits broken, many develop neurotic and abnormal behaviour, such as biting the bars of their cages and constantly pacing. It’s little wonder that such tormented creatures die far short of their natural life spans.

Watching a tiger jump through a fiery hoop may be entertaining to some, but we should all be aware of what it entails for the animal. UK laws require that animals be provided with a good quality of life, but the cruelty inherent in confining big, wild animals, who would roam miles in the wild, to small, cramped spaces and forcing them to engage in unnatural and confusing spectacles makes that impossible in circuses.

Those who agree with me can join PETA’s campaign to urge government to listen to the public and give such animals a chance to live as nature intended.


The Right Honourable Ann Widdecombe was an MP for 23 years and served as Shadow Home Secretary. She is a novelist, documentary maker and newspaper columnist.