Iron Maiden's guide to class | Anne McElvoy

Pity the poor middle classes – now under attack from heavy metal singer Bruce Dickinson

How middle class are you? Take the Glasto test, even if you have no intention of chugging across clogged motorways for Kaiser Chiefs and St Billy of Bragg in a field named after Tony Benn. Do you picture yourself a) arriving in an estate car with a Cath Kidston wine cooler and the family clad in this season's Boden? b) driven by a super-useful chap who helps carry the bespoke wine cooler and macrobiotic nibbles for after Rupert Soames's party? c) hitchhiking despite your mum's warnings, with a ragged tent, no change of underwear and a diet of crisps and Heineken?

If you are in the last category, you might even garner the approval of the Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson, who has just decreed exactly how middle class you are allowed to be while still enjoying a rock-related event.

Bruce takes an especially dim view of category b) – the middle kingdom of air-conditioned yurt-dwellers, who faff around like Gwyneth, worried about what's in their yoghurt. He doesn't have an awful lot of time for the modest gentlefolk of category a) either, seeing as anything "bourgeois" gets a sneer. So he is eschewing Glastonbury for Knebworth where the "great unwashed" can "drink lots of beer and have fun".

All this might just have had more credibility were it not for the fact that the (very entertaining) interview Iron Man gave to the Guardian this month saw him turning down a beer with the unwashed at one of his gigs, as he was flying his plane back from Copenhagen afterwards, a consideration that does tend to put the thirsty prole off his tinnies.

Allowances must be made for the rock star's prerogative to say vastly inconsistent things, without being called out on them, like any other mortal who gets their principles in a twist.

On this score, Bruce is worthy competition to Paul Weller, moaning about old Etonians in the cabinet, then saying he doesn't feel guilty about educating his own kids privately, "'cos anything I've got in life I've worked for", while announcing in the next sentence that he still feels working class. Right ho.

In this case, it's the use of "bourgeois" as an argumentative cosh that irks. Here is an articulate, polymathic, university-educated, extremely rich man who is on the board of a company that supplies private jets. His music appeals across classes, which is why a privately educated chap from Oundle like him can end up with a long-lived career as heavy metal icon with no hard feelings. Good luck to him. But his own story undermines the dreary claim that the classes have to be segregated and the assumption that middle-class fans are in some way inferior to the real thing.

The stonking great irony is that it really is a vice of The Middle to fret about categories and pointless taxonomies. Middle Britain is now an elastic grouping, no longer bounded by the cast of Brief Encounter at one end and Kind Hearts and Coronets at the other. It doesn't really work to define it by simply drawing a line in median income, which comes out about £23,000 per household. The Office for National Statistics more wisely focuses on the middle fifth of the income scale, which cashes out between £35,000 and £40,000.

How much of a merry, chablis-swilling life you can lead on that income depends to a great extent on where you live and your other entitlements. Retired people in this category, for instance, will have seen their disposable income rise since the recession. Anyone else in the same income niche will have felt the purse strings yanked tighter and to have a prosperous life in London, you need an awful lot more than elsewhere.

Being middle class, whether lower, upper or Hyacinth Bucket, is a state of mind, just as much as it is a range of income. The aspirational element makes this easy to mock, but that is because we might secretly prefer people who know their place – whether it is Basil Fawlty's slavering admiration for toffs or today's well-heeled rocker reviving Edmund Burke's vision of "great unwashed masses of humanity" as his chosen audience.

I remember a glossy magazine editor getting a frightfully amused column out of a woman who envied someone else's electric garage doors. But that is no odder than envying someone else's Cartier watch or polo prowess. The point of such stories is to underline the superior taste of the speaker.

In middle-speak, this is "not very nice". Hands up who has not succumbed. I once decried the invasion of bright pink Christmas poinsettia, only to realise that my interlocutor had bought a load for her house. The cheap pleasure of declaring oneself above invasive plants was sorely undermined by the regret of having spoilt an innocent pleasure. Not that I went so far as to get some euphorbiaceae in solidarity – there are limits.

But as life rolls along, you do begin to value those derided of being pleasant, even if it is through gritted teeth and garage envy. Those bourgeois indulgences of books, wine and a Gwyneth Paltrow cookbook are not the worst marks you can leave on the world and nor is it wrong to want to spread access to them. Yet under the guise of not foisting middle-class values on others, we end up in a guilty, unconfident ghetto, hoarding social goods that should be shared.

So teachers stop believing that poorer children can be introduced to great works of literature (Shakespeare for the university candidates; Unman, Wittering and Zigo will do for the rest). We retreat from teaching classical music in schools on the grounds that working-class kids don't want it anyway, forgetting that many a musical talent started out with no background in the subject and relied on some well-meaning, middle-class peripatetic teacher to help them find it.

We thereby find the perfect excuse for pulling up the mental drawbridge, living on a diet of disapproval and widening the distance between people, rather than narrowing it. So Bruce, hop in the plane, zip down to Glasto and share the wasabi peanuts. It's not really as far from Knebworth as you think.


Anne McElvoy

The GuardianTramp

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