Class conscious

I've just seen the West End revival of Tom Stoppard's play, The Real Thing, in which a clever writer called Henry worries about revealing his incongruously downmarket musical tastes on Desert Island Discs. He agonises that a man who's written a play telling the existentialists where they went wrong shouldn't let on that he spends half his life listening to "Da-Doo-Ron-Ron".

I was reminded of my teenage years in the 1970s, when I assumed that at any moment I would suddenly grow out of pop music, at which point I would also become definitively middle class. Meanwhile, invited in my mock A-level general paper to write about "an artist I admired", I produced an essay describing Keith Richards as "sublime". Almost all of it was simply crossed out by the examiner.

But The Real Thing first appeared in 1982, and by then high and low culture were starting to blur, and intellectual snobbery directed at pop music was actually an increasingly marginal trait. A few years after that, I was writing reviews for Q Magazine, and the features editor would say things like: "We think you've slightly misread the new Pat Benatar album." Today, I turn on Radio 3 and there always seem to be bespectacled postgrads whispering reverently about Bob Dylan (well, they sound bespectacled).

As for social snobbery regarding pop music . . . it, surely, has long been impossible. I live in Highgate, and the unquestioned aristocrats of the place, spoken of with deference by all the tweedy ladies and silver-haired gentlemen, are Sting and Annie Lennox. But that's only fitting, given that we have an electric guitar- playing Prime Minister, given that old rock 'n' rollers are sirs, and that Mick Jagger is the number one country house guest.

I have two sons and both seem interested in pop. I've been trying to interest them in the music of the Beatles, which they do seem to enjoy, but they see the Fab Four primarily as a benchmark of success and wealth. If we drive through some new town, they'll ask: "Could Paul McCartney buy this town? Could Ringo Starr?" It goes without saying that I shall be passing on my own rudimentary guitar-playing skills as soon as their little fingers can grasp a fretboard.

This article first appeared in the 07 February 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The Prime Minister loses control