Class conscious

The other day, a friend of mine very much at home in the milieu of Oxford University was lamenting the drunkenness of the dons. He recalled going to a meeting with one of them at 10am and being offered an alcoholic drink. "It was horrifying," said my friend. "I mean, the taste of toothpaste was still fresh in my mouth."

This was very telling on the subject of Oxford dons, but also quite telling on the subject of the English middle class and teeth. The taste of toothpaste would never be very strong in my mouth at 10am because, although I usually clean my teeth in the morning, I do so quite perfunctorily. This suggests that I am fundamentally an oik, because one of the hallmarks of the English middle class is a tremendously strong emphasis on the cleaning of teeth.

I recently went away on a weekend break with a family of six, all of whom had been to, or were actually at, a public school, and I swear that they took longer over cleaning their teeth than they did over eating their breakfast. They would lay great worms of toothpaste across their brushes, and keep up the brushing for about ten minutes, returning repeatedly to difficult corners, as if not only their teeth but their lives depended on the action being performed correctly.

This family - very nice people, I should say - cleaned their teeth after every meal, and the idea, I decided, was to banish the notion of food once it was safely in the stomach. The teeth-cleaning was in fact a function of a kind of austerity that is far commoner among the English middle class than self-indulgence.

Other habits that go alongside intensive teeth-cleaning include keeping all windows open at all times, a preference for wearing full sets of flannel-like pyjamas rather than switching on the heating at night, sitting up straight, not eating between meals, looking left, right and left again before crossing the road, and washing one's hands after merely urinating, even when nobody is watching. I have often resolved to do all of these, but unfortunately remain very much the sort of person who eats crisps in bed.

Society, as usual, is to blame.

This article first appeared in the 12 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The Empire strikes back