Class conscious

Many of my middle-class friends won't join me in an Indian takeaway. They have this amazing capacity to drink five pints of bitter on a Saturday night and then . . . go home.

Maybe they're intimidated by the idea of what might be going on at the Bombay Palace after closing time. Certainly a good many drunken, not very posh blokes will be woozily perusing the menus, but their behaviour, in my experience, is likely to be perfect.

I remember buying a takeaway in York, when the person who'd been the hardest kid in my school walked through the door, calling out to the head waiter, "'Ow do, Iqbal. 'Ow's t' wife and bairns?" He must be a changed man, I thought, but then he looked at me with a familiar scowl. He was the same man but he was simply aware of the stereotype of the tattooed lager lout (ie, himself) abusing mild- mannered Indian waiters and was determined not to conform to it.

On visits to my local takeaway, my post-imperial guilt meets head on the almost infuriating deference of my Indian hosts, creating exchanges that are of the utmost gentility - at least they would be of the utmost gentility were I not completely plastered. However hard I try to appear unboorish, the doors of curry houses keep slamming behind me, and the mango chutney keeps plopping off my complimentary poppadoms on to pristine tablecloths as I wait for my order.

Then there's the problem of the takeaway menu, which has been thoroughly codified, class-wise. A mild and sensible chicken korma, for example, smacks of bourgeois propriety because, being one of the relatively few Indian takeaway dishes that doesn't keep you up half the night, it allows you to turn up to work the following morning in reasonable condition. A phall, on the other hand, is associated with yobbish machismo, which is, in turn, associated with the working class.

That association is frequently unfair. I knew one public-school product, for example, who bet his mates that he could down his prawn phall in under two minutes. He chucked the lot into the water jug and drank it. And to think that his parents paid two grand a term to have him brought up right.

This article first appeared in the 05 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, He makes us nice enough for export