Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Camping in the 'Me First' Era

In many ways I am a middle class person.  My parents were certainly middle class, having risen from the skilled working class through study and hard work.  I did not go to private school, but I went on foreign holidays through my childhood and attended university at a time when probably a seventh as many people did as do these days.  My parents were certainly not wealthy middle class, they always drove a second-hand car and owned a black-and-white television when many neighbours had moved over to colour; most of their furniture was second hand and refurbished.  They grew their own vegetables at a time when this was a predominantly working class activity, despite the popularity of the television series 'The Good Life' (1975-8) [about a couple trying to live a self-sufficient life in suburban Surbiton] and certainly not filling the prime time television programmes and bookshelves that it does today.  Despite being a graduate, through bad luck, bullying landlords and bad judgement over buying a flat, my income is far lower than my parents' equivalent was back thirty years when they were my current age.  Being made redundant twice in twelve months has not helped this, especially at a time when we are rushing headlong into a even more unpleasant remake of the 1980s. 

I have always subscribed to E.P. Thompson's view that social class is not a structural thing but a relative thing.  We define our class by comparing ourselves to our 'referents', the people we think we are like, those we want to be and those we want to avoid becoming.  I do have middle class aspirations: that I can replace the things that wear out, that I can own a car newer than 15 years' old and especially that I can continue to have the foreign holidays that I had in my youth, but none of these things seem likely.  According to 'The Guardian' the middle class is dying, though the attributes that the newspaper sees as being the defining ones for that class are well above anything I could aspire to, let alone possess.  Maybe I misplace myself, I am just bumping along certainly in the lower middle class (though eschewing the aggression and chauvinism still associated with such people) and in terms of income, worse of than many working class people.  Of course, skills these days are very different and are as much about computers as using a lathe.  In addition, we have 'labouring in a suit' or 'machine minding at a desk', in other words a lot of jobs look middle class but in fact are just the modern version of factory work; most notably in call centres.  Of course, even in revolutions, a class does not disappear as a mass, it is made up of the failure of family-by-family, individual-by-individual as we each lose the fight to retain what we need, let alone what we want under economic policies which seem to be charging headlong in destroying huge swathes of economic activity in the UK just because it is felt by Cameron and his henchpeople that Thatcher did not impose monetarism hard enough for the good of the wealthy.

Anyway, this is the socio-economic context of now.  What is interesting is how in the past decade at a time when we were all supposed to be becoming middle class and leaving working class jobs to migrants, the middle class may have lost some of its traditional attributes, but has also absorbed much of what was once the preserve of poorer people.  The classic examples have often been commented upon: football and large families.  Large families were once the reserve of rural people and the poorest in cities and yet since the 1990s it has been the sub/urban middle class that has started having the large families and 'family' has become a middle class hobby in a way it was not, say, in the 1970s, when private schools and nannies/au pairs were there to deal with the children while middle class adults went on foreign holidays, to cocktail parties and 'wife' swapped. There has been so much said on the gentrification of football spectating that I will leave it to others.

In 2010, we encounter another example of middle class absorbtion of working class culture.  I am not the first to notice it, all I am doing here is highlighting my personal experience of it. As you will have guessed from the title the 'in' holiday this year is not to go to a Tuscan villa or a small Greek island, but to camp in the UK.  Of course, there has always been the 'nerdy' strand of the British middle class, quite often teachers and civil servants (and their conscripted children), who have been the backbone of camping (in the UK this means staying in tents) and caravanning.  However, their ranks, this year, have been swelled by a much broader slice of the British middle class and this is where a lot of the problems are beginning to appear and this stems from a clash of ideologies.

Having laid the background at length, I will explain how I ended up camping.  Like many young British people I experienced camping predominantly as an adjunct to attending festivals (ironically never in the UK) and in the back garden.  I did have friends whose parents were of the 'nerd' middle class who camped as well and my parents experimented with one year of using a tent and one year of using a caravan before settling on renting holiday houses instead.  When I used to cycle on holiday I had enough cash that I stayed in youth hostels rather than camped.  Given how I would struggle with my panniers, I imagine my holidays would have been even more constrained if I had had to lug a tent around as well.  So, that is my personal background with camping, not overly experienced, but not a total beginner either.  The woman who lives in my house, is extremely experienced in camping on two continents and the 8-year old who shares our house, had camped in a rear garden but was certainly up for a proper camping experience.

One reason for picking camping is because it is cheap.  We had managed to get a tent to accommodate us for £35 in a sale and had picked up odd items throughout the year, at a price far less than the travel insurance for just one of us would be if we had flown abroad let alone an aeroplane ticket.  The campsite space cost us only £15 per night, about the same as we would spend for burgers for all three of us.  We had inflatable beds, but no luxury sleeping bags (we took bedding from our beds, pretty necessary to have a lot of it, plus thick socks and jumpers as the woman in my house knows from experience in a British summer it can become bitterly cold at night) and the most high-tech piece of equipment was a wind-up torch and radio.  We drove for an hour to reach our campsite in Dorset.  The one we had intended to visit (which you could not book ahead at) was full and the next one could not accommodate our 3-person tent.  The third site, however, one of four new ones in the area, could fit us just precisely for the period we wanted.  Despite battling the wind while putting the tent up, we got it all sorted and felt immediately to be on holiday.

The camp site is attached to a working farm and it certainly appears that for some little investment a farmer can kit out some fields and then have a solid revenue through the summer.  I think the field of possibly 100 tents probably, even at the rates, we were paying brings in far than a herd of sheep or cows on the same plot.  What was striking was that we so soon felt on holiday.  I realised that having had four days of diarrhoea in Bath and two stressful days in Belgium in the past five years was an insufficient quota of holiday for a properly healthy life. 

The other thing which struck me immediately, though I do not know why I forgot it, given my sensibilities, especially seeing it has been discussed by the commentators of the new middle class enthusiasm for camping, was the communal nature of the activity.  I suppose it is more the surprise for Britons, used to keeping behind closed doors and only interacting with our neighbours when they do something 'wrong'.  However, on a camp site, you cannot avoid having to collaborate with the society around you.  Even on the best equipped you have to share the communal facilities.  I know many caravans have their own showers and toilets but they still have to come out to replenish water supplies, and certainly anyone in a tent has to go and use the communal toilets, showers and dish-washing facilities.  You have to take your rubbish to central points and these days sift the recycling.  No-one seemed to be needed to regulate these activities.  People waited patiently to take their turn with the each particular facility, not elbowing in.  There was sharing of washing up liquid, scrubbing sponges and anything else others seemed to have forgot.  Perhaps simply not having so much of everything was in itself healthy.  It was incredibly easy to slip into this manner of behaviour and I found it incredibly relaxing, though in fact, having to walk 5 minutes to urinate should have made it tiresome.

Unsurprisingly there were an immense number of children in the camp.  That may have been a facet of the particular site which had facilities appealing to children.  The first one we had visited had more teenaged people and the second one seemed almost purely adults.  Camping for children will always be a challenge.  There is the excitement of doing something different, going on an adventure, but there is also a lot of sacrifice.  In one big leap they are suddenly cut off from their television programmes (though most caravans seem to have television aerials) and their games consoles (bar the odd Nintendo DS or other hand-held), their own beds with most of their soft toys, the place where they usually wash in favour of one with tens of strangers in it, food cooked in an unusal way and probably tasting pretty different, and generally new smells and noises.  However, bar a few tears, usually from people not taking turns properly in the games or children falling over, there did not seem to be despair.  I could imagine teenagers being less impressed which may explain why most of the children there were younger than 13.  Certainly for the one child in our party it was an excellent adventure and he seems to have come back seeing the experience camping as different, but not less than the delights at home, and perhaps, more appreciative of those things.  Not a bad lesson in this age of consumerism.

What was striking at the camp site was the autonomy the children had.  They were running around playing everywhere, conscious of cars coming in and out and often warned about knocking over barbecues with their balls, but there was not that every-second concern that they were going to be abducted or injured.  This created a far more relaxed attitude compared to the usual attitude of mewing up children in suburbs.  I assume it does not work all the time, but it did while we were there.  Conversely, children are also set to work.  They tend to dominate the washing-up facilities in the evening and even primary school children are sent to accompany even younger siblings to the toilet and especially to fetch water.  I am not saying that we should try to get children to ape what their counterparts in the Third World would do nor go as far as my parents did in assigning chores that filled the weekend, but there seemed to be benefit in having children do these little jobs.  I suppose it is the 'all mucking in' attitude that has been commented on in the newspapers, in force.  Certainly it restored the woman who lives in my house's faith in humanity to the extent she now wants to go and live in a commune.

When you are living day-by-day with 'walls' as thick as your fingernail, privacy and respect for those around you becomes vital.  You see this in shanty towns and refugee camps.  Whilst it is good to live communally, you also need to be able to absent yourself from it and not have the voice of your neighbour intruding into your conversation and similarly not to think everyone can hear your discussions.  Thus, in line with camp site rules (well, more guidelines, we later found out), people had spaced themselves out properly, leaving 6 metres between tents.  There were a lot of people there, possibly something over 400, but it did not feel crowded or oppressive.  It worked through 'unwritten' rules and the fact that if some was asked to be a little quieter they did not take offence or turn aggressive, they seemed to know that if they were upsetting people it would put a chink in the dam and the structure they presumably were enjoying could crumble.  It was no idyll, but it worked better than society does in most streets I have lived in (the current one is an unusual exception).

Of course, as anyone who has been a regular follower of my blog, something always goes wrong very soon into my holidays and this one was no exception.  We spent a wonderful day away from the camp site in the town of Swanage which is as much of a time warp place as any I have been to.  It seems stuck not in the Victorian era but something like the mid-1960s.  There are some modern eateries and we had some really excellent sea food at a very unassuming cafe, but a lot of architecture and things like dedicated toyshops seem to date from when I was born.  It only has a steam railway (diesel in the evening) running into it so I suppose that adds to the feel.  Families fish by unwinding fishing line sitting on the hard and there is a punch and judy show on the beach assisted by a PA system.

Arriving back from a day in Swanage and seeking to have a doze before firing up the barbecue for dinner we found that four families had moved right into our area.  Rather than the six metres between our tent and theirs, there was less than 10cm.  They had a wide assortment of tents, two of which could have housed our one inside it three or four times over.  I have no problem with large tents, in the 1970s they all used to be heavy metal framed ones with plastic windows and always high enough to stand up in.  The more pod-like strutures of the 1990s are still the norm, but now have grown so the average adult can stand erect within them.  Some now have an atrium with wings off it; one looked like a chapel.  I imagine these appeal to the new category of middle class campers wanting to bring as much of home to the camp site as they can.  I have no problems with that as long as it is not erected, rather than parallel to the already pitched tents but at an angle which leaves the residents bare centimetres from where my head is going to lie.  I could hear them more clearly than the child in the other part of our tent.  These people seemed to have no understanding of what they had done wrong, they seemed to think that because their door faced in a different direction to ours that was fine.  However, they clearly had not paid attention to the numerous signs about spacing nor the pattern that every other tent in the field was laid out along.  The woman from my house was bitter and complained quietly too them.  One offered a bottle of wine as recompense, the others still did not seem to understand what the problem was.

The camp site authority came and like us, realised that with their four main tents and their smaller storage tents around already they could not be compelled to take them down and re-align.  The regulations plastered on numerous signs were revealed to be only 'guidelines' anticipating expected EU legislation.

There was no option but for us to leave which we did in record time, feeling that all that we had enjoyed about the mutual respect had been violated by people who could not see anywhere beyond their own wishes and certainly had none of the communal spirit everyone else seemed to operate by.  I swore at them as we left, because though I had not wanted to let my temper show, I realised that I had to do something to at least raise some attention that they had upset us.  It seemed to beyond their comprehension that they had done anything wrong that I despaired that they would understand.  It is painful for me that these people probably no doubt the children of very selfish parents, cannot even recognise when they have upset others and broken the rules which made the site such a nice place to be.  I suppose it is unsurprising.  I see it every time I go driving.  No-one signals, they drive around dangerously and park carelessly because their own concern is their own ease.  There is no recognition that when you drive or camp or simply live in a town you impinge on others whose rights (though they fail to even comprehend this) are as legitimate as yours. 

Given that the current political culture based on the creed of a woman (Margaret Thatcher) who said (to 'Women's Own' magazine in 1987): ' know, there's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.'  It is ironic she mentions looking after neighbours, because I think that aspect has been left behind too.  The horizon of far too many people in British people is only 'there are individual men and women and there are families'.  Yes, you see that on camp sites, everyone in their own tent or caravan but they are still inter-linked we cannot live in isolation,  The trouble is that too many take the 'people must look after themselves first' and see that as the justification for not taking any consideration of not only the needs of others but simply how their own behaviour impinges on the human and physical environment around them.

In the space of a couple of days I saw the best and the worst of British society.  I had found an oasis of respect for others and the benefits of communal living and yet it could not keep out the pig-headed inability to comprehend that other people have a right to enjoy facilities too and that means you have to sacrifice a little, just a little of your desires, and think before you act rather than assuming everyone you do, however inattentive it is, is perfectly fine because it gives you the outcome you want.  I hope that next year the selfish middle class move on from camping to some other activity, possibly even one they have not comandeered from other sectors of society to distort to their own tastes and then contaminate with their self-centred perspectives on things.  For myself, realising that I am too unfit to return to cycling, have my eye on hiring a canal boat, but please do not tell the middle class idiots, I want at least one holiday per decade that selfish morons do not stamp all over.

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