Average white band

<strong>Welcome to Everytown</strong>

Julian Baggini <em>Granta, 274pp, £14.99</em>

ISBN 18620

Being English is a wonder and a pain, not least because the collective philosophy is rooted in collectivism. The wondrous side of our soul-deep socialism is the way we treat the NHS - or perhaps that should be "have treated" - as a secular religion; the painful side is our unspoken adherence to the idea that "the nail that sticks out must be hammered down", a philosophy attributed to the Japanese, but which could equally apply to us.

You can say all you like about the Thatcher-sponsored rise of rugged individualism, suggests Julian Baggini in his latest book, but the English remain conformist to the core. We feel stronger as a collective, with shared values and a philosophy that Baggini classifies as "conservative communitarianism". Having long suspected how atypical his lifestyle and neighbourhood - a boho corner of Bristol full of delis and organic stores - was compared to the rest of the country, he decided that the only way to test his hy pothesis was to spend six months living the most average English life possible.

He did this by moving to S66, a Rotherham suburb pinpointed by statisticians as the place where English averages of income, home ownership and car ownership converge. After a few false starts, he finds a very average-looking "Barratt box" to rent privately (few areas of the country have large concentrations of privately rented housing), and settles down to enjoy, if only temporarily, the ways of the average Englishman.

While wearing my metropolitan, liberal-lefty, yogurt-knitting goggles, as Baggini does initially, it all looks pretty awful. Being average, he finds, involves watching huge amounts of telly, going on Mallorcan package tours, eating ready meals for tea, using racist language casually, complaining endlessly about taxes and foreigners, drinking WKD-lager shandies and making gentle, if pointed, digs about experiences or views that are anything more than "a little different".

This kind of cultural conservatism, which lends itself to preserving many aspects of working-class life as it has been lived for generations, manifests itself in a depressingly narrow definition of what tastes and experiences are acceptable. You have to be sufficiently similar to everyone else in order not to be regarded as a black sheep or, worse, someone who clearly does not respect the views of the majority.

I remember a couple of years ago being given the chance to spin a few records at a family party in my dad's local social club on a council estate in Birmingham. In selecting only singles that had reached the top ten, I hoped my playlist would appeal to most of the audience. The evil looks and empty dance floor that greeted Franz Ferdinand's top-five hit "Do You Want To" proved how wrong I was. In picking an indie guitar band, no matter how popular, over Westlife's insipid balladry, I'd revealed my taste in music, and by extension my very self, to be unacceptably different to that of everyone else in the room.

There's no better place for Baggini to prove how game he is than in his (temporary) local pub. He corrals a small group of drinking buddies and - without much prodding, I'd wager - solicits their opinion on the hot topics of the day: the London Tube bombings, immigration, the price of owning a car. That he doesn't either punch them or flounce out in a huff, as I would have done, the minute one of them uttered the word "Paki" is a testament not only to his strong stomach, but also to his willingness to accept that, in S66, he and his urbane outlook are in a minority of one. He is right to challenge their views because they are racist and narrow-minded, but not to dismiss them out of hand on the basis that the average man is a thicko who doesn't know any better.

"The most racist person I met in S66 was in some ways frighteningly close in his opinions to those of the majority," he writes, adding: "The unwillingness to see the mainstream way of life changed too radically clearly fits in with the traditional working-class culture which values continuity, community, stability and a sense of belonging." Baggini respects, without grudge, the desire of the majority not to have their values threatened, as it has some upsides.

The downside, however, is the rejection, whether subtle or forceful, of anyone who doesn't see things their way. Baggini, in this generous, clever and thoughtful book, suggests that England's liberal minority does exactly the same thing without realising it. Each side rejects the other, with no room for understanding: where's the self-awareness, the so-called English talent for tolerance?

Unicef's report on the well-being of the world's young has revealed that only 40 per cent of British children regard their peers as being "kind and helpful". Think of the values of the adults they are learning from.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The great generational robbery