Class conscious

Earlier this week I was in an amusement arcade, watching a friend playing Virtual Striker Two. He was playing with himself (as it were) until he was joined by a guy, 20 years younger, wearing combat trousers and a sweatshirt. My friend beat that kid, and several others as well. Watching him see off his opponents, I was struck by the lack of communication. "Yeah," said my friend, "you basically don't say anything. They sit down next to you, and you start playing."

He explained that by reducing the words exchanged to one or, preferably, none, there was no chance of being condescending to the other party and, hearing this, I was reminded of my friend Fraser, a brilliant pool player who also happened to be solidly middle class (Oxford graduate and a barrister's son).

When I was just out of university, I spent a year playing pool more or less full-time with Fraser in the pubs of south London. Occasionally a local working-class bloke would put 20p on the side of the table. This meant he wanted to play one of us and, as the rule was "winner stays on", he usually ended up against Fraser.

Now Fraser was - is - an amusing and animated person in his natural, bourgeois habitat, but when playing pool against a working-class lad, he'd become mute and respectful. He never boasted about his own play, and if his opponent made even a half-decent shot, Fraser would nod at him; if the shot was actually good, he'd bang his cue twice on the floor in appreciation.

If there were any exclamations during these games - a sudden blurted expletive at the accidental potting of the black, for example - it always came from Fraser's opponent. Why? Because the opponent's deference towards Fraser's bourgeois origins (which was always evident because he boldly wore a tie in even the scuzziest boozers) was less inhibiting than Fraser's guilt-ridden desire to avoid provoking class resentment.

But whenever I ended up playing the tattooed local lad, I couldn't match Fraser's reserve. "Oh, well played!" I'd say, sounding like Bertie Wooster, while Fraser, sipping his pint in the corner, tried hard to pretend he wasn't with me.

This article first appeared in the 07 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Europe grows after Kosovo