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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Affluenza in Winchmore Hill

I don't buy into the relative poverty argument that surfaces on the Today programme every year. I'm not sure of the significance of the fact that there's a greater wealth gap than ever before between an Albanian beggar on Oxford Street and, say, Roman Abramovich. I can't see where that gets you. My working definition of real poverty in the first world comes from Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson. Caro describes a school Johnson taught at in the Texas hill country during the twenties where they had to have a major fund-raising campaign in the local community to buy the basketball team a basketball. It's never about money. It's about what you have or don't have and the expectations that flow from that.

I've just returned from Sainsbury's where I was kept entertained by a 19-year-old who was talking on his mobile as he pushed the trolley round with his mum. Being English I am obviously compelled to make a guess at his background from his accent. He had a pierced ear and was dressed by Hackett. I am guessing that a generation ago his family would have described itself as working-class. His great-grandparents might have rented a radio and holidayed at Southend. In the course of a ten-minute conversation with his friend he recounted which three pubs he and his friends had been to last night, which ones they planned to go to tonight, which clubs in Essex various people were deejaying at, how the Freshers Ball at his "uni" was being held at Pasha and it was only £15 and how he and some mates planned to find a cheap hotel in Brighton so they could stay over when they went clubbing there the following weekend. The fact that they had access to cars was taken for granted. I guess they had most of the things they wanted.

His was clearly not a life of simple pleasures. It's highly geared, as they say in the city. There's something about hearing this round of pleasure being airily outlined on a device that twenty years ago would have been the sole province of merchant bankers that brings home to you just how massively the expectations of ordinary people have grown in the same period. And is the future going to inevitably disappoint our friend on the phone, will he find a way to continue to pay for it or will he be marching in the streets within the next few years, wanting to know what happened to the Good Life?