Sunday, October 22, 2006


I don't think about class very often, but recently it's been nibbling at the edges of my subconscious.

I think it's partly due to my recent reading matter. I've just finished this year's Man Booker winner, Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss. Great book (and I agree pretty much wholeheartedly with James Ley's review in the Age this weekend). The characters all are all victims of their class in some way.

Those who have benefited from the British colonial regime live on in an atmosphere of faded gentility - left behind and long forgotten by their colonial masters, but still clinging to the customs and prejudices bequeathed by them. One of these characters, a retired judge, has risen far from his humble beginnings in the merchant class. He has lived his life in intense discomfort, belonging nowhere - never accepted by his British civil service colleagues, but tutored by them to adopt their disdain for his own people. During his Oxford education in England, he learnt that his Indianness was disgusting, despicable - that his dark skin, his eating habits, his religion, and even his very smell were something to be ashamed of. He returned home stuck between worlds, clinging to the habits and manners of an English gentleman (including brutal contempt towards his own people) to disguise his lack of self esteem.

On the other side of the cultural divide are those characters attracted by the lure of modernity rather than the lingering attractions of colonialism. The American dream dominates - the land where anyone can make it if they try hard enough. The judge's sole servant, the cook, puts his money on this dark horse of fortune - literally. Scraping together savings from illicit sales of home brew liquor and other similarly dodgy enterprises, he manages to send his only son, Biju, to the US, where he hopes he will make his fortune and thus escape the family's cycle of servitude. Of course, Biju (an illegal immigrant) lives in a cellar corner in Harlem, endures a series of woefully underpaid jobs, dreams of a Green Card, and is bone-achingly lonely. He is as much a servant as his father is, but with no community and no support. Biju is despised and resented, as the judge was in England all those years ago. He, too, is stuck between cultures.

In Australia, we don't talk about class much. In fact, we often like to think that it doesn't exist. It does seem to be creeping onto the agenda more these days, though, with discussions of CUBs (cashed up bogans), the popularity of Fountain Gate's most famous shoppers, Kath and Kim, and a briefly scandalous extended essay last year by the wonderful Margaret Simons, Ties That Bind, published in Griffith Review and extracted in The Age. Simons, an admitted member of the latte-sipping intelligentsia, aimed to find out was really happening in the hearts and minds of the Howard voters of Australia by visiting the outer suburbs and talking to some of those who lived there. Some found the article patronising; others found it enlightening.

A new book by Andrew West, Inside the Lifestyles of the Rich and Tasteful (the first in Pluto Press's NOW! series of short books) similarly aims to penetrate a social class and examine how and why it lives the way it does. In this case, he enters the world of Australia's upper middle-class, which he divides into two camps: the materialists and the culturists.

The materialists like new, cutting-edge, difficult-to-obtain possessions that make them stand out from the grasping aspiring classes. They've moved on from IKEA and Country Road. They use Vogue Living as their bible. They eat out at prestige places like Vue Du Monde and have second kitchens where the real cooking is done so that the 'show kitchen' can stay pristine. They're interested in money and more of it.

The culturists like cosy, deliberately rustic, 'unique' items that show their individuality. They have country houses or beach getaways. They are socially and environmentally conscious and worship literature, art and music. They shop at the Queen Vic Markets and cook from The Cook's Companion. Anyone can fit into the culturists' club if they want to: 'It demands only three things of its members: a curiosity about the world, a commitment to reading and self-improvement, and an ability to conduct a relatively fluent conversation.'

But, concludes West, the vast majority of Australians aspire to be materialists. 'They seem more accessible, and easier to fathom.' He continues: 'Their lifestyles seem within grasp of those just below them on the ladder: the middle-class aspirationals. The materialists and their political representatives in the Liberal party continue to hold up to aspirationals the illusion that, with a little more hard work and some wise investments, they too can live the caramel-coloured, concrete-rendered, four-wheel-drive-in-the-garage, power-boat-moored-in-the-dock, ski-pass-to-Aspen-in-the-pocket dream.'

The materialists' promise has proved more alluring to the public than the generally communitarian outlook favoured by the culturists, says West - even though public opinion polls show that most Australians do share their in-principle support of public institutions, such as Medicare and public education.

The problem, perhaps (and here I'm making my own interpretations), is that the language of the culturists, their support of the arts and the environment and social justice, reminds the general population of the Keating years. Perhaps they don't trust that support for those on the fringes of society, the conspicuous disadvantaged, can exist without pulling out the rug from under those in the middle. Perhaps they have sharp memories of the way that the 'cultural elite', personified by the media, reacted to Pauline Hanson - ridiculing her lack of sophistication and questioning her right to speak rather than engaging with her arguments. Focussing on her ill-informed racist surface and her simplistic solutions rather than the howl of disenfranchisement that lay beneath for many of her supporters - a symptom of the ALP-led globalisation (as latterly acknowledged by Bob Ellis, culturist extraordinaire).

Or there is the alternative reading: that we have been conditioned to be selfish, to think of our own interests first. That the general population may well be committed to public health and education, to the preservation of the environment, but that these things come second to their desire to get ahead. That the priorities of modern life lie within the walls of one's compound - be that a McMansion or a studio apartment. Mortgages come first. Plasma TVs and two cars come first.

Hmmm ... too tired to think on it any longer.

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