How is class defined in England today? Is it still all about who your parents are or were, which clubs you belong to, your education and table manners or are those rumours that social mobility has arrived really true?
Along with cheese in a can and giant foam hands the other great American import of recent times appears to be meritocracy and the English have taken to it like a duck to baseball. Dragging oneself up by the straps of one's boots is now just as, if not more, admired than being sired by the right stud.
In the 21st century new money is accepted just as readily as old. Children of working-class parents can now eschew the professions of their forebears, learn how to say and use 'aitch' and slip unnoticed into a white or even pink-collared profession. Their coalmining roots can then be dragged up and displayed at dinner parties to give much never-needed street cred. It doesn't matter so much which school or University you attended. As our current leaders show you can read anywhere from Oxford to Cambridge...just nowhere in-between.
The question then is not whether or not citizens of this United Kingdom can cross over the dividing lines of class, but whether or not there are any such lines left at all?
I can happily report that the class system is still alive and well. Such a line does still exist. In Angel, Islington this line is easy to spot - you can even touch it. It's the wall between Waitrose and Sainsbury's.
Not being a native Englander I've never quite understood the shopping hierarchy. I naively imagined that if you're buying a particular product, and the product is in many cases exactly the same as it is in the shop down the road, surely you just want to pay as little as possible for it? That's how the market works innit? Apparently not.
My English grandmother used to say she wouldn't be seen dead coming out of Woolworths. I always thought that would be a strange detour for a hearse to make anyway. Sadly she passed away before being able to run through the whole gamut of acceptable supermarkets with me, so I've had to learn this the expensive way.
Sainsbury's appears to be aimed at the centre - if anything perhaps slightly below. If supermarkets were elections Sainsbury's would be targeting the great, occasionally washed, middle; the undecided voter. Of course it stocks all the usual necessities - milk, bread, toilet paper and aisle after aisle of cut-price alcohol, but is slightly limited when it comes to its luxuries.
It contains an entire shop's worth of frozen pizza and ready-made microwaveable dinners but unless your palate is still at the school lunch level, most of these are almost inedible.
For the red meat averse, there are walls of freezers holding nothing but fish fingers at surely unsustainably low prices. These contain warnings such as 'may contain fish' but only the most piscaphobic shopper takes this warning seriously.
The music, or rather muzak, is that of most supermarkets and department stores. Unobtrusive enough so you barely notice it's there, subtly infused with calming lyrics about the joys of Uncle Joes deep-dish frozen pizzas, and is repeated every hour on the hour...or is it every five minutes? It's so lacking in melody it's hard to tell.
It's by no means the bottom of the food-market chain of course. That wooden spoon is proudly held by Aldi. Their soundtrack is Gorecki, spliced in with samples of abandoned children. I think there's even an abandoned toddler aisle there, but they haven't been unpacked or put on shelves yet. They're just on pallets, next to cans marked 'food'.
The girl on the counter, still annoyed at not being cast in TOWIE, hates her job, hates the acne-riddled boy packing your groceries and hates you most of all. How this breed of 'customer service specialist' manages to greet you, enquire as to how your day is proceeding, scan your groceries and demand payment without ever getting close to making eye contact is a miracle.
I don't wish this to seem like a damning supermarket review one way or an advertorial the other, so I will point out that the bill is usually quite reasonable.
For the absent-minded Sainsbury's or Tescos shopper, there are invariably more specials on than you'd realised. At the end of the shop I still have a couple of pounds left to buy the Big Issue which is thrust at me the second I walk out the door. (I'm talking about Sainsbury's here. B.I. vendors know there's no point in waiting outside Aldi).
A foot of reinforced concrete away lies the Narnian land of Waitrose. Aisles of beautifully presented food and assistants stretch out to the horizon. The vegetables are buffed to a high shine, the corn & sage fed free-range chickens look like they lived a contented life and were taken to Switzerland to cluck their last. Every time I walk in I feel as if I've arrived fashionably late for dinner.
The hostess is going to descend upon me at any moment, thrust an aperitif in my free hand and call out to the study that the guests have begun to arrive. An eager assistant will follow soon after, holding up a goat's cheese and pine nut flan alongside my figure: that would look great in you!
The Waitrose Essentials range best sums up the divide. What other stores don't even stock as a luxury, Waitrose considers a staple - Macadamia nuts & figs, queen olives and devilled swans eggs. After all, man cannot live on foccacia bread alone.
It's the only supermarket I've been to just to browse, but sadly browsing is often all I can do. At the end of the Waitrose experience one of the charming cashiers enquires as to my health, adds up the bill, then begins reciting a number which sounds like pi...except I seem to be waiting an awfully long time for the decimal point. It's a wonderful place to visit for flatbreads and flattery, but if it's bog roll you're after Tescos or Aldi will do just fine.
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