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How to be classy, even when you’re teetering on the edge of the precariat

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

In a few weeks’ time, I’m going to be 50. Fifty! There was a time when I thought I wouldn’t make it, or that it would be a fine time to call it a day, but that was . . . oh, 40 years ago. Still, it’s a time to take stock of one’s own achievements to date. This doesn’t take long. One only has to rattle the box labelled “One’s Own Achievements to Date” to discover that it is empty, apart from “having three amusing children”, “can still fit into old trousers, just”, and an old Malteser, which turns out not to be my achievement at all.

I’d like to have a big party for the day, but how am I going to be able to afford one? And by “big” I mean “have some funds behind the bar so not all of my friends have to buy their own drinks all night long”. Of course, this raises the question of why I should be having a 50th party at all. It is a milestone that is only an arbitrary numerical curiosity.

Meanwhile, down the road, I notice that a new Swanky Shop is Opening Soon. This is not the kind of news I like. Ever since the picture-framer’s shop closed simply because the landlord saw an opportunity for screwing more rent out of a tenant (with the result that the premises have remained empty for months), I have been uneasily aware that the pleasant quality of my own little pocket of London – a place in which one does not have to be a millionaire in order to feel relatively comfortable – is very much under threat. (The Islamic bookshop has also closed down, I note. I was never going to be a patron of it, for all sorts of reasons, but at least it ticked the boxes marked “diversity” and “not an estate agent”.)

I look up the name of the Swanky Shop Opening Soon on the net. It turns out that it is a purveyor of hugely expensive wank for people who, as the late Alan Clark noted of the likes of counter-jumpers such as the Heseltines, are so unclassy that they have to buy their own furniture. And yet have oodles of cash to throw around, and scant reserves of taste. Later on in the evening, the Beloved comes round and I show her some of the wares on sale. There is a drinks cabinet on sale for £15,000. That’s right, 15 grand for somewhere to stash your Britvic. A 4ft by 2ft by 2ft chest comes in at £11,300.

“Travel to a universe of pirates and treasure your adventures in this chest,” advises the rubric somewhat bafflingly, explaining the high price thus: “This piece is layered in varying angled cuts of highly polished brass dipped in gold,” which have been “individually applied to the frame by the jeweller”. (It’s also lined in “green copper ultrasuede”, the last word of which should surely have been the name of a particularly awful progressive rock group from the 1970s, and for all I know actually was.)

The Beloved and I go through the site, marvelling at the prices they are asking. I then see that they’re selling some particularly grotesque champagne glasses, the kind you would pour the fizz into if you were the most loathsome dictator in the world trying to impress the most expensive prostitute in the world, only the price is listed on the page as £0.00. Now some of you may say that’s a glitch in the system, but I see that it still costs £4 postage and packing, so, after having had a good look at the terms and conditions, as they suggest, and rather egged on, I have to admit, by the bewitching woman sitting next to me, I order 1,000 of the objects. If I can knock ’em off for a tenner each I’ll be well in pocket.

Later, to see where I fit in the great chain of being that is this country’s class system, for I am beginning to get quite confused by now, I take the BBC’s “Great British Class Calculator” quiz. You’ve all done this, right? Then you’ll know what a crock it is. Like many such polls, it takes scant account of nuance, or makes allowance for flexibility, or what these days we are all being encouraged to call “wiggle room”. And also, with only five questions to answer, it seems like a hopelessly blunt instrument for something that claims to expand the standard number of British classes from three to seven.

The first time I take it, it says I am an “emergent service worker”. What on earth is one of those? It says I’m 34 years old. I try it again, factoring in a share of the home the estranged wife lives in. I’m now “traditional working class”, and aged 66. I see another category, a new word: “precariat”. That has a ring to it. At least my ages average out OK.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue