Class conscious

Recently, revisiting an off-licence in a part of south London where I used to live, I noticed that the metal grilles guarding the cashier and his pyramids of extra-strong lager had been removed. I mentioned this to a friend of mine who still lives near that shop, and he nodded his head at me for a while. "Gentrification," he smugly pronounced.

OK, but it remains the grottiest booze-selling place I know. The smartest is Berry Brothers in St James's Street, which is so antiquated and picturesquely buckled that it reminds me of the "wooden world" of the Nelsonian navy. Indeed, I sometimes feel slightly seasick as I walk across its undulating 18th- century floorboards. The staff all look like merchant bankers, in that they're pinstriped and hefty with a kind of glow about them. If you go in there and ask for a cheap bottle of claret, as I sometimes do, they'll inquire: "Is it to drink now, sir?"- and the first time I was asked that question I only checked myself at the very last moment from answering: "Well, no . . . it's for when I get home."

I had confused it with the familiar eat in/take away query, you see, when what was really meant was: "Are you going to lay this bottle down . . . in the cellar of your Georgian mansion?"

Most of my booze, however, comes from Oddbins, the future ownership of which is currently in doubt. I do not expect to feel socially and intellectually intimidated in mainstream retail outlets, but I always experience a frisson of masochistic pleasure when it does happen, and it happens all the time when I go to Oddbins. I quote from one of the labels on a bottle of red, handwritten by staff in my local branch: "Aromas of intense pepper spice allied to a palate of fine, firm tannins and underlying herbaceous characters."

After reading that, I got talking to one of the incredibly charming assistants in the shop, who writes those kinds of things all the time, abetted by the education in wine provided to all employees by the company. "I've been to university, but I'm not middle class," he insisted.

But I told him I would be the judge of that.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Trapped in the human zoo

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No, David Cameron’s speech was not “left wing”

Come on, guys.

There is a strange journalistic phenomenon that occurs when a party leader makes a speech. It is a blend of groupthink, relief, utter certainty, and online backslapping. It happened particularly quickly after David Cameron’s speech to Tory party conference today. A few pundits decided that – because he mentioned, like, diversity and social mobility – this was a centre-left speech. A leftwing speech, even. Or at least a clear grab for the liberal centre ground. And so that’s what everyone now believes. The analysis is decided. The commentary is written. Thank God for that.

Really? It’s quite easy, even as one of those nasty, wicked Tories, to mention that you actually don’t much like racism, and point out that you’d quite like poor children to get jobs, without moving onto Labour's "territory". Which normal person is in favour of discriminating against someone on the basis of race, or blocking opportunity on the basis of class? Of course he’s against that. He’s a politician operating in a liberal democracy. And this isn’t Ukip conference.

Looking at the whole package, it was actually quite a rightwing speech. It was a paean to defence – championing drones, protecting Britain from the evils of the world, and getting all excited about “launching the biggest aircraft carriers in our history”.

It was a festival of flagwaving guff about the British “character”, a celebration of shoehorning our history chronologically onto the curriculum, looking towards a “Greater Britain”, asking for more “national pride”. There was even a Bake Off pun.

He also deployed the illiberal device of inculcating a divide-and-rule fear of the “shadow of extremism – hanging over every single one of us”, informing us that children in UK madrassas are having their “heads filled with poison and their hearts filled with hate”, and saying Britain shouldn’t be “overwhelmed” with refugees, before quickly changing the subject to ousting Assad. How unashamedly centrist, of you, Mr Prime Minister.

Benefit cuts and a reduction of tax credits will mean the Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for “equality of opportunity, as opposed to equality of outcome” will be just that – with the outcome pretty bleak for those who end up losing any opportunity that comes with state support. And his excitement about diversity in his cabinet rings a little hollow the day following a tubthumping anti-immigration speech from his Home Secretary.

If this year's Tory conference wins the party votes, it’ll be because of its conservative commitment – not lefty love bombing.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.