Just an ordinary town where Monty collected his pension

Two old men are standing outside the Argos shop, killing time. At the railway station, the commuters with first-class tickets line themselves up at the precise point they always go to on the platform, saving time. At the supermarket checkout, two women pause for a brief gossip, making time.

And all of them, here in Farnham, at the Hampshire end of Surrey, are being watched and overheard by a short, sharp Yorkshireman with an obsession about class, who is trying to nail down "the typical, the unique, the humdrum and the strange life of this small English town towards the end of the century".

Farnham is very close to the villages where two other shrewd observers went about their work, Gilbert White's Selborne and Jane Austen's Chawton. Farnham is also where William Cobbett came from. (A local plumber claims direct descent.) From his own rural rides, the Yorkshireman comes back through "the pale-grey wood smoke and the sour-sweet smell of slurry".

The two old men outside Argos "at first seemed slightly shabby. Their clothes are old-fashioned and in dead colours, the uninspired browns and greys of cheap men's materials . . . These ill-fitting trousers and jackets could do with a bit of pressing but not mending, they are clean. The very shiny black boots suggest war service."

The first-class commuters, meanwhile, are, "like the old men, inveterate clusterers". Dropped off by their wives in the Volvo, Range-Rover or Mercedes - a pair of retrievers behind "the obligatory back-grid" - they walk through the booking hall and join the other men they always travel with. Broad-striped dark suits, stripy shirts, rolled umbrellas, yet more shiny shoes. "Plainly, the hair is cut in the City, not in Farnham." Getting on to the train, "the first-class group are not crushed and do not squeeze".

And the women carry on talking. "Isn't it a pity about Charles and Di?" as though they were neighbours or members of the same club. Or: "Is your extension finished yet?" "Just about." "Oh good. You won't know yourself when it's done." "That's right. And we'll have to stay in Farnham now. Wouldn't get the cost back if we sold . . . Still, could be worse places."

The eavesdropper is Richard Hoggart in Townscape with Figures, published four years ago, but still, I think, little known. Yet it is his best book since The Uses of Literacy.

He gnaws away at the life of this "betwixt-and-between" town, not quite rural, not quite commuter-land. He came to live here 25 years ago, because it was within an hour of Waterloo. He must have come back home from every shopping trip since, and jotted things down in a little W H Smith notebook. He is enthralled by the "sub-sub-culture" of supermarkets: the pecking order of who buys what, where and when (morning, afternoon, evening; Safeway, Sainsbury, Waitrose). He peers into baskets filled mainly with baked beans and prunes.

Once he tried to make sense of his childhood working-class Leeds. Now, as an OAP, he tries to make sense of Farnham's many tiny gradations. The result is a charming, perceptive book about Englishness. Hoggart's usual obsessions are held down, and rubbed away at the edges, by the passion to observe.

In Jeremy Paxman's latest polemic about England, The Uses of Literacy is in the book list at the back, but not Townscape with Figures. The middle classes are perhaps not seen as so interesting. Certainly, in England, sociology - which prefers the workers by hand - has left the field to the sharp eyes and tongue of Jilly Cooper's Class, Ann Barr and Peter York's The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook, and now this late-flowering Hoggart. I picked it up almost by chance in a library last weekend. (It ought to be in paperback. But you can still get it as a Chatto hardback.)

Hoggart, here, is a spy in the house of Englishness, and in particular Tory Englishness. Field-Marshal Montgomery used to be chauffeured into Farnham post office to collect his old-age pension. A retired major sells garden bushes on the shopping street. Many of the houses are "more Poggenpohl than Magnet". Koi carp sell for up to £2,000 each. Farnham Toryness has faded since he wrote. The local councils have Lib Dem majorities. But even in the 1997 debacle, the parliamentary constituency stayed with the old firm. The MP now, as when Hoggart wrote, is Virginia Bottomley, former researcher for the Child Poverty Action Group, and by background a classic example of the middle-class voluntary workers he thinks tie Farnham together.

In spite of metropolitan warblings about a new millennial society, in Farnham, "change is very slow; for good or ill". This is where "Rock of Ages" was written, and the two-minute Armistice Day silence invented.

The architecture critic Ian Nairn praised Farnham's prettiest street as attaining "a level of inspired ordinariness, rare even in England". To write about the world that is just taken for granted - as if you were an anthropologist getting off the boat in Polynesia - is the hardest thing of all. Richard Hoggart is trying to unravel the enigma of the ordinary.

Paul Barker is group automotive editor at BusinessCar.co.uk.

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition