Show Hide image

I’m on the street party committee, and I am not even a royalist

I hadn't intended to be co-opted on to a royal street party planning committee. But this is what happens if you live in a small village. You accept an invitation to the pub, you find a meeting in full flow and discussing bunting, and suddenly Christopher (let's call him Christopher) says, "And Alice is in charge of the children." And you think, "What, am I?"

Before you can express any surprise, Christopher has moved on. Every village has a Christopher. He runs everything, from the parish council to the family services at church and the biannual fete. Well, he and his wife do. And if he tells you you're in charge of the children, or flowers, or putting on a performance at a church service - then you are.

So Christopher had moved on - "And there are 40 children's tickets, which Alice will fill, and they'll all come in fancy dress" - and in this way, readers, I not only became almost certainly the only person writing in the New Statesman this week who will be attending a royal wedding street party, but am On The Committee for one and tasked with finding three dozen children who will be dressed up as "something royal" for the occasion. I don't even like the royal family.

I don't feel that strongly about it - I'm not going to go to endless anti-royal wedding parties to prove how much I don't care, which sounds to me like much more effort than finding three dozen small children with princess tiaras and plastic swords. And I do like a street party; it seems to me part of living in a village that you turn up to such community events and preferably help in some way.

And I think I quite approve of Kate Middleton, who has a far more interesting social background than those vulgar Windsors. But it is true that I would prefer to hold a party to celebrate a general election or the opening of a new school than a royal wedding.

Village voice

We're bang in royal wedding street party country, where I live. West Sussex came third highest in the list of county applications for street parties, according to the Local Government Association - and that doesn't include our village, incidentally, because we're not actually closing the street. Nor does it include the party in the neighbouring village, or, I think, the neighbouring one after that. Oh yes, everybody is having one and the competition is pretty intense.

There appears to be a broad north-south divide to the street party applications this April. Gloucestershire, Hertfordshire, Kent, Nottinghamshire, West Sussex and Bristol come in with between 50 and 132 each. Even Richmond upon Thames, a single borough in London, has 44. But in Darlington and Leicester there will be none; Blackpool and Haringey will have one each; there will be three in Stoke; and four apiece in Bolton, Sunderland and Liverpool. You get the picture. It's more of an urban-rural divide, riven with class.

Street parties used to be a working-class thing - think of the coronation, everyone in their best clothes, Union flags fluttering, trestle tables down the centre of a terraced street. With the decline in patriotism among a working class that has been torn by social change, the street party, like so much else, is now firmly a middle-class preserve.

I've been reading Educational Failure and Working-Class White Children in Britain by Gillian Evans, in which one of the characters (who is a bit of a caricature), Sharon, is asked what she would do if Diana were alive and came in and sat on the sofa. "I'd tell 'er to get a fuckin' job," she replies.
So much for working-class deference to royalty. It's probably hard to be proud of your country when there is no longer any work for you and everyone tells you that you're "common as shit", as Sharon puts it. "I wasn't taught to mind my Ps 'n' Qs and my favourite word is c***." Wonder if she'd like to come to the party . . . No, maybe not.

Gated off

There is plenty of research showing that if an area has low socio-economic status, this has a negative effect on levels of trust and community feeling - as can high immigration. Unemployment, crime and disorder create feelings of alienation and in turn low levels of neighbourhood interaction. Hence no street parties.

There may not even be a public street in working-class communities any more - by which I mean anything that feels like a com­munal space. The public streets are for middle-class student yobs and Asbo kids. The old park is now probably a shopping mall patrolled by security guards, or a private members' health club - no trash allowed in.

The public swimming pools and youth centres are being shut. A proportion of the streets in working-class areas of London, in particular, are gated off, the roads around them prowled by invisible people in SUVs. By holding a royal wedding party in Downing Street, which is gated, David Cameron may be making a slightly different statement from the one he intends.

But we weren't worrying about all that on the street party planning committee in the pub. We were discussing how to get teenagers to attend. Answer: bring along an old Land-Rover and let them drive it around a field. I couldn't help thinking briefly that, in other circumstances, we would call this joy riding.

Participation these days in these sorts of committees - formal or semi-formal - is, in itself, a socio-­economic indicator, dependent on what sociologists call "cultural and material resources". So the very fact of holding and attending a street party committee meeting is socially divisive: an undemocratic form of participation in something that is open only to certain members of society.

But never mind that. I need to source some plastic swords and tiaras.

This article first appeared in the 02 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The Firm