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June 21, 2004

All Oiks Now?

Posted by Digby Anderson

Once, Middle Englanders were a recognisable group with an immutable set of values. They spoke "properly", disciplined their children, valued self-reliance and disliked exhibitionism and vulgarity. But does this Middle England still exist? This is what Digby Anderson set out to discover in researching his book All Oiks Now: The Unnoticed Surrender of Middle England.

Anyone researching the state of Middle England by direct observation of how its members behave in public places will quickly encounter - and just as quickly overcome - a significant difficulty. How do you tell a Middle Englander? Looking at shoppers in a mall, for instance, are they Middle Englanders or members of the unrespectable lower classes, those who used to be referred to as "not our sort of people"?

It used to be easy. The MEs dressed differently, held themselves differently, spoke differently. They wore sports jackets or blazers or twinsets or suits, and any doubts left by dress were resolved the moment they opened their mouths. Now, Estuary English is BBC English and the middle-aged MEs dress and speak much more like the middle-aged lower orders and both imitate the young of both classes. However, they do tend to shop in different shops: the market researchers know where As and Bs and Cs go. And even though the middle-aged MEs try to imitate lower-class yobs in their use of certain vogueish expressions, or expressions that were the vogue last year, the imitation is far from a total success. It certainly does not fool the imitated young people. Why do the MEs want to look and sound like the lower classes and youth? What is significant about it is their attempt, not the ineffective result. In the past, MEs devoted considerable effort to maintaining and showing as much difference from the lower classes as possible and in training their offspring in these differences. Their efforts have simply been abandoned or even reversed. They have hauled up the white flag or even gone over to the other side, the enemy - as was.

There is plenty to observe about Middle England in their favourite supermarkets and shops and even in street markets. When I entered the supermarket in the mall, I had a pre-conceived idea that the key issue would be what products MEs bought. That is quite interesting. They buy a lot of food that promises to be "easy", for instance. There is "easy" garlic, garlic cloves separated, peeled and chopped. Today's shopper must be busy indeed if she cannot afford the 30 seconds required to peel and chop a couple of cloves of garlic.

One can make quite a lot of this easiness business. Old Middle England never sought ease. It revelled in hard, boring work and thought ease corrupting. It would have called it "corner-cutting". It is sometimes said that the modern woman or, occasionally, "new man", is too busy to cook from raw. Processed ready foods may cost more but they enable the family to have two incomes, so they are efficient in terms of cost.

In fact, cooking from raw rarely takes lots of time. What it nearly always demands is discipline and time management. So, for instance, the woman-man tasks involved in making bread – mixing, kneading – take a couple of minutes. The key is that one must remember to mix the dough so many hours before baking and eating.

What easy foods allow, then, is not so much time as freedom from the need to think and plan about food. They allow indiscipline. ME used to pride itself on its disciplined approach to life. What ME buys today shows off its new values and they are far from the old ones.

At the airport
At the airport, there is a lady in the café near the departure lounge drinking a cup of coffee. I am looking at her rear. She has spiky hair with red and green streaks. She wears a "top" that is too small for her. As she slumps forward to slurp her coffee, she exposes two or three inches of flesh that cascade down at each side over her trousers, which are also too small for her. In the middle of this roll of floppy pink flesh there is a tattoo with some rude words. When I go round to have a look at her front, I see she has a large ring through her nose.
Leave aside, for a moment, the repulsiveness of her get-up: two things are of interest. First, she is in her fifties and the uniform she is in is a youth uniform. The old ME had a key dress rule that was never to look like "mutton dressed as lamb".

You age sheep by their teeth. This lady is well over "sixtooth". She should be using dress and make-up to conceal her lumpiness, not to parade it. In another phrase of the old ME, we should "act our age". The fads of the young are often tiresome and ugly. But far worse than any sartorial absurdities young people themselves may exhibit are those that occur when middle-aged and elderly people act as if they were young.

The fat lady in the tight clothes with the tattoo and ring is off to Spain or Greece for a holiday. She herself is English so she will be an Englishwoman abroad and be seen by the Spanish and the Greeks as such. The old ME would have said she had an obligation to show off her country in the best light, not to let it down. Not only does she look repulsive and stupidly inappropriate for her age but she makes, in some small way, English women of her age in general look repulsive and silly.

At table
In the culture of Middle England, there was "a place and time for everything" and the time for eating was mealtimes and the place was, usually, the table. Other parts of the culture flow from it. For instance, washing hands before eating or sitting up straight and not putting elbows on the table were enforceable because children were under adult supervision at table.

How could any such manners be inculcated and enforced if children ate on their own, in their bedrooms or on the street? The same applies to other aspects of the culture. You opened your mouth to eat, of course, but you did not leave it open. You might speak, but not with your mouth full. You would not have much time to speak anyway since, if the house was persuaded by such moral-medical tracts as Lieutenant J P Muller's My System: 15 Minutes Exercise a Day for Health's Sake, the mouth would be otherwise occupied, chewing each mouthful 30 times. Knives and forks were placed and held correctly.

This, like several of the rules, was useful for distinguishing Middle Englanders' eating practices from those of the lower orders, who either grasped their irons rudely, stabbing and shovelling with the thumb well down the stem, or used them over-preciously, as if the knife were a pen. ME lowered its cutlery; Lower England kept it aloft, waved it, and even pointed with it.

Some rules applied to the food itself. All food was to be eaten, nothing left. Leaving things was a great sin. Whoever was supervising the table "wanted to see a nice clean plate". This was both a matter of not wasting the good things that Father's hard work or Providence had bestowed and also of not insulting other poorer people, often in the Colonies, who would have been grateful for the food so churlishly wasted.

Children who suggested that they did not like fat or bread crust or greens or eggs or kippers or whole classes of food such as meat were told not to be cranks. "Fads" were not allowed. They were condemned as a form of irrational self-indulgence and even exhibitionism.

Middle England ate out in restaurants rarely, especially outside London and the big cities. Eating out was a treat or occasion, a celebration of a birthday or anniversary or because one was away from home on holiday in a hotel. Crucially, when children and young people ate out, they did so at table under the supervision of parents and other adults, so the general ME culture of eating and good behaviour was enforced.

The old Middle England did eat away from tables. It ate picnics on rugs and had elevenses off shelves and desks. But even these were governed by collectively sanctioned forms. At cinemas, eating was confined to an intermission when a girl appeared with a tray of ice-creams. An orderly queue formed, ice-creams were purchased and eaten, and then the films resumed. Today, drinks are slurped and sweets eaten throughout. What's eaten, predominantly, is popcorn and that results in a stench which pervades the auditorium. Making smells in public used to be thought even worse than shouting. And both were associated with foreigners.

So what has happened to ME eating habits? Children and young people increasingly eat on their own or away from adult supervision. Old-fashioned souls may object to the way young people, and not so young people, including those from middle-class provincial homes, eat today - the way they slump at table, lean and fork out bits of their friends' food to try, dribble, guffaw and speak loudly to each other of matters that should be private. People now eat on their own, standing up, in trains, malls, buses, streets, offices, classrooms and occasionally in churches. Many of the young eat on their own or with their own age group. That, in terms of the old ME world, is total revolution.

It is not a revolution that has been forced on the families of Middle England. For some reason, the parents have given up their old responsibilities in bringing up their children within an orderly, adult-dominated home and surrendered their faith in their own culture. The result is music to their old enemies, the Lefties' ears: the supposedly ME young, when they eat are, now indistinguishable from the lower orders. Unfortunately, the consequences go far beyond the table. What has been surrendered is not table etiquette but a concern for and a distinct way of bringing up children. If this were the working class we were talking about, the term used to describe those who have so abjectly surrendered would be class traitors.

Digby Anderson retired as Director of the Social Affairs Unit earlier this year. Dr Anderson is the author of All Oiks Now: The Unnoticed Surrender of Middle England.

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