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How to be classy, even when you’re teetering on the edge of the precariat

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

In a few weeks’ time, I’m going to be 50. Fifty! There was a time when I thought I wouldn’t make it, or that it would be a fine time to call it a day, but that was . . . oh, 40 years ago. Still, it’s a time to take stock of one’s own achievements to date. This doesn’t take long. One only has to rattle the box labelled “One’s Own Achievements to Date” to discover that it is empty, apart from “having three amusing children”, “can still fit into old trousers, just”, and an old Malteser, which turns out not to be my achievement at all.

I’d like to have a big party for the day, but how am I going to be able to afford one? And by “big” I mean “have some funds behind the bar so not all of my friends have to buy their own drinks all night long”. Of course, this raises the question of why I should be having a 50th party at all. It is a milestone that is only an arbitrary numerical curiosity.

Meanwhile, down the road, I notice that a new Swanky Shop is Opening Soon. This is not the kind of news I like. Ever since the picture-framer’s shop closed simply because the landlord saw an opportunity for screwing more rent out of a tenant (with the result that the premises have remained empty for months), I have been uneasily aware that the pleasant quality of my own little pocket of London – a place in which one does not have to be a millionaire in order to feel relatively comfortable – is very much under threat. (The Islamic bookshop has also closed down, I note. I was never going to be a patron of it, for all sorts of reasons, but at least it ticked the boxes marked “diversity” and “not an estate agent”.)

I look up the name of the Swanky Shop Opening Soon on the net. It turns out that it is a purveyor of hugely expensive wank for people who, as the late Alan Clark noted of the likes of counter-jumpers such as the Heseltines, are so unclassy that they have to buy their own furniture. And yet have oodles of cash to throw around, and scant reserves of taste. Later on in the evening, the Beloved comes round and I show her some of the wares on sale. There is a drinks cabinet on sale for £15,000. That’s right, 15 grand for somewhere to stash your Britvic. A 4ft by 2ft by 2ft chest comes in at £11,300.

“Travel to a universe of pirates and treasure your adventures in this chest,” advises the rubric somewhat bafflingly, explaining the high price thus: “This piece is layered in varying angled cuts of highly polished brass dipped in gold,” which have been “individually applied to the frame by the jeweller”. (It’s also lined in “green copper ultrasuede”, the last word of which should surely have been the name of a particularly awful progressive rock group from the 1970s, and for all I know actually was.)

The Beloved and I go through the site, marvelling at the prices they are asking. I then see that they’re selling some particularly grotesque champagne glasses, the kind you would pour the fizz into if you were the most loathsome dictator in the world trying to impress the most expensive prostitute in the world, only the price is listed on the page as £0.00. Now some of you may say that’s a glitch in the system, but I see that it still costs £4 postage and packing, so, after having had a good look at the terms and conditions, as they suggest, and rather egged on, I have to admit, by the bewitching woman sitting next to me, I order 1,000 of the objects. If I can knock ’em off for a tenner each I’ll be well in pocket.

Later, to see where I fit in the great chain of being that is this country’s class system, for I am beginning to get quite confused by now, I take the BBC’s “Great British Class Calculator” quiz. You’ve all done this, right? Then you’ll know what a crock it is. Like many such polls, it takes scant account of nuance, or makes allowance for flexibility, or what these days we are all being encouraged to call “wiggle room”. And also, with only five questions to answer, it seems like a hopelessly blunt instrument for something that claims to expand the standard number of British classes from three to seven.

The first time I take it, it says I am an “emergent service worker”. What on earth is one of those? It says I’m 34 years old. I try it again, factoring in a share of the home the estranged wife lives in. I’m now “traditional working class”, and aged 66. I see another category, a new word: “precariat”. That has a ring to it. At least my ages average out OK.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.