5 JULY 1975, Page 16

Cut price whines

Llew Gardner

Voices from the Middle Class Jane Deverson and Katherine Lindsay (Hutchinson £3.75) An aeon or so ago when the middle class had good reason to suppose that man had been created in their image, when Macmillan reigned and the 'sixties swung, Lord Beaverbrook circulated a memo to all his gossip column editors which read something like this: "We will no longer refer in our columns to so and so throwiag a champagne party — it is to be presumed that when our readers have a party they serve champagne." Happy days. But that was before the boyos from the Sunday Times set about snaffling the A ad B readers and making them feel guilty about the starving in Biafra in between the offers of cut price Chateau Plonk. And it was before the bitter wood worm of doubt, financial and about their chosen station in life, set in.

This book is about the middle class of today, better off than their council house neighbours across the tracks but filled with the feeling that somehow they are being got at. Tea with sympathy has been replaced by coffee Mornings with suspicion. What emerges from the book is an enormous sense of frustration apparently shared by a whole class. "Well here we are. We've made it. But what have we got and what shall we do with it?"

The work consists of one hundred and twelve interviews in two contrasting suburbs in the South. One is a spanking new development, the other a more traditional area divided into middle-middle class and upper-middle class. The authors have given the areas fictitious names and Some innocent fun may be had trying to identify them. I would hate to stray into either by accident. The interviewees are all anonymous and occasionally they have been chopped up as a further protection to anonymity. The result is a highly unsatisfactory hotch-potch of voices crying in a vacuum. On top of this the authors have no ear for ordinary speech, or a lack of ability to transfer ordinary speech to paper via, probably, a tape recorder.

So everyone sounds the same. Yet surely one hundred and twelve people did not speak with one accent, with the cut and dried unimaginative precision of colour magazine caption writers conveying no image of the person speaking. The truth is that a good feature writer.with an ear for the way people talk and a little bit of imagination could probably have presented as accurate a picture of suburbia in a deal less effort and space.

Not that I'm suggesting that the authors have made up one word, just that the book might have been rather better if they had. No faces emerge. Because all the quotes are delivered in the same tone of voice not one voice sticks in the mind. Had the authors not been so keen on the mass, had they been prepared to move in closer and to concentrate on a few people prepared to co-operate and risk their precious privacy they might have produced a written documentary which would at least have stood comparison with a run of the mill television report.

So what does emerge? Well, certainly not the Peyton Place sexuality hinted at in the Sunday populars. More a sad story of people barricading themselves on their own islands of affluence. It may be true that no man is an island — but these people make a damn good go at proving Donne wrong. Their social thinking is largely summed up by an estate agent who told the authors: "You see a tremendous amount of greed in this job." Those with houses to sell are never interested in the purchaser. "They're constantly looking for the main chance, and thinking, Should I capitalise now, or should I wait another six months for prices to go up again'."

To these middle class the workers in their council homes are another species. Yet surely some of those who live in the lovely homes must have sprung from the working class. They can't all have been born, mortgage and season ticket in hand, into the world they now inhabit. Again closer focus would have told us more about the way attitudes change as the financial ladder is climbed.

Envy abounds but it is envy less of the Jones family living in greater luxury up the road than of the council house tenants encroaching ever nearer Fortress Mon Repos and living a life of beer, skittles and song on the taxes of the oppressed middle-class. "We struggle to buy our homes and send our children to good schools, while the poorer people live in council estates and have everything done for them. They're earning nore than we are, they have two cars parked outside, and all they do is moan and groan ... after all, we're middle claSs, we're paying our mortgage."

A certain dotty logic drives them to make economies in order to keep up a life that on the face of it is grander than that enjoyed on the dreaded council estates. "You should see the women on the estate, the meat they buy. This is why they probably never end up with any money in their purses; they will buy expensive meat. I haven't had a steak for more than a year, I have to buy minced meat," and on top of minced meat the money saved is minced up by Education is a dominant issue and again the argument comes down to the preservation of the species. A father: "I'll fight tooth and nail • not to send my children to the local comprehensives. We've heard such stories about them! You're not dealing with human beings there, you're dealing with wild animals" Even those who confess to being Labour voters, Socialists, even, argue: "When it's your child at stake your principles go to the wind." Some have grasped that society is changing and dimly perceive that in the long run their children might be better off learning to mix it but they are still caught in the dilemma: "Obviously we've got to have social mixing, it's got to come, but do you suit the child or do you suit society?"

And so on and so on. It is not a pretty picture that emerges. It may not be an entirely fair picture. Perhaps those on the two estates who refused to speak to the authors knew what they were about, suspected rightly that whatever they said would be taken down and used in evidence against them. The qualities of thrift and self-reliance which once made the middle class such a positive force have been muddled. by envy of almost everyone else in the social spectrum. Worse is the lack of any sign of intellectual leadership coming from a class that once contributed so much to British social change. One suspects that anything resembling an idea would be as-unwelcome in these homes as dust on the picture rail. There is a lack of confidence and a lack of guts.

Even their moans seem trivial. No Bubbly, my Lord Beaverbrook, just a cut price whine.

Llew Gardner is the presenter of the television series, People and Politics.