Telegraph Poles on Snob Alley – Part Four.

As we entered the capacious knock-through living-cum-dining area, with its mahogany panelled integral units running down the full length of one wall, Olga’s husband Cliff stepped forward to greet us. A self-made man and proud of it (“I’m a money maker, not a philosopher!”), Cliff ran a company which supplied raw materials to the building trade. Then, as now, these products were in great demand, due to the burgeoning mid-1980s property boom.

“Michael! How are you, young man?” Cliff raised and tilted his whisky tumbler toward me, expansively. “What is it you’re doing these days? Computers, is it? Champion! Well, they’re the future, aren’t they? I mean, ha ha, I know nothing about them myself, but you young uns, you’ve got to get in there, haven’t you? Now, have you all met our friends Ray and Molly?”

The group divided. Towards the rear of the room, my father, Cliff and Ray fell into business talk, with Molly looking on. In the lounge seating area at the front, girls’ talk was the order of the day, as S and Olga began to catch up. Naturally, K and I gravitated towards the latter group. Olga was holding forth about the delights of the estate.

“Of course, all the other houses have only the one telegraph pole in their back gardens – but we’ve got two telegraph poles in our back garden. Oh, S darling – let me get you an ashtray for that…”

My stepmother, not exactly on her first drink of the day, was waving her dangerously ash-laden Embassy Slim Panatella around, with reckless disregard for the state of the shag-pile. Or, if I am to be strictly accurate, a reckless disregard mixed with a certain veiled, f**ked-if-I-care contempt. Oh, I knew her too well.

The talk turned to cars, which gave Olga another excuse to lament the state of the back-seat cigarette lighter in the Rolls. Sorry sorry, one of the back-seat cigarette lighters in the Rolls. Just in case we hadn’t picked it up the first time.

“So what’s that you’re driving?”, she asked K, who proceeded to tell her all about his pride and joy, the 1972 MG Midget. With chrome bumpers. And round wheel arches. (Amongst the community of MG owners, such details are critical. Chrome bumpers wave at other chrome bumpers, but never at rubber bumpers. The very thought.)

Olga looked unimpressed. “Well, I’ve just picked up that new MG Maestro”, she explained. “You know, as a little run-around. It would leave your thing standing”, she added, with an air of dismissive finality, allowing herself a sharp little victory puff on her Players No. 6.

With her elaborately lacquered and bouffanted jet-black hairdo, with “beauty spot” to match, Olga cut a singular figure in the village. Her early 1960s Elizabeth Taylor look, unchanged for the past two decades, flew right in the face of prevailing fashions, and was the cause of much comment. Apparently, Cliff had some sort of “thing” for women who looked like this, and had insisted that the look be maintained at all times.

People sometimes spoke sympathetically of “poor Olga”, and not without reason. An essentially sweet-natured woman and a loyal friend to many, Olga was, it was felt, trapped in her role. Still, she was allowed considerably more stylistic freedom in her clothing, today’s ensemble being “golfing casual”: a black V-necked Fred Perry sweater over a polo shirt, and matching pegged trousers.

My step-sister C had recently announced her engagement, and plans were underway for a big summer wedding, with a reception at one of the local country clubs.

“She must be so excited!”, beamed Olga. “Oh, I’ve had an idea. Would C like to be driven from the church to the reception in our Rolls Royce? It would be such a thrill for her on her special day! Of course, we’ll have to get that back seat cigarette lighter fixed first – I don’t know what we’re going to…”

For the first time that afternoon, Molly piped up from the other end of the room.

“Or there again, maybe C would like to be driven in our Rolls Royce? Because of course, our Rolls Royce is open top.”

If daggers could kill, as one of my barmy line managers at the council once said.

On our way out (Cliff’s parting shot to me: “Get climbing that ladder, son!”), K shot me a stricken, what-the-f**k-was-that-all-about glance, which I returned with a rueful, welcome-to-my-world, better-get-used-to-it-darling glance. To this day, it remains one of his favourite stories – which is why I have retained such an accurate recall of its salient details, none of which (lest you should think otherwise) have been exaggerated for effect.

How very unlike the home life of your own dear author and his beloved civil partner, in their stylish and elegant “new rustic minimalist” weekend retreat in the Derbyshire Peak District. (As featured in Period Living magazine, and did I ever tell you about that?)

Telegraph Poles on Snob Alley – Part Three.

Cliff and Olga lived on the new estate: a winding cul de sac of sizeable detached red-brick houses, which had undoubtedly been described by the estate agent as prestigious, if not exclusive. To most of the kids in the village, it was known more colloquially as Snob Alley.

Although architecturally unremarkable in most respects, many of the properties distinguished themselves by their use of selected “heritage” elements. In Cliff and Olga’s case, this meant juxtaposing the quaint bull’s-eye panes in the bay windows with a pair of imposing neo-classical Grecian columns, which flanked the entrance porch. Reproduction carriage lamps on either side of the front door completed the look.

It was a Sunday afternoon in the late spring of 1986. K and I had been together as a couple for barely a year, and were still some distance away from disclosing the nature of our relationship to our respective families. As far as my father and stepmother were concerned, he was my new flatmate – albeit a flatmate who did seem to have the habit of accompanying me everywhere, even on weekend visits back up to the north of the county.

K found instant favour with them both. My father, being fond of coining nicknames for those whom he liked the best, dubbed him “Kevin the Gerbil”, after the popular breakfast television puppet of the day. My stepmother simply called him “Darling”, and flirted with him heavily, as was her wont.

Cliff and Olga had invited us all to join them for afternoon “drinkies”, in order to fill that awkward gap in the day between lunchtime last orders and evening early doors. Despite their house being not much more than five minutes’ walk from our own, it would have been unthinkable for us to arrive by foot. Hell, my father would often drive from our front gate to the nearest pub, less than a dozen doors away.

Seizing her opportunity, my stepmother asked to ride with K, in the passenger seat of his immaculately restored 1972 MG Midget. (Mallard green exterior; ochre interior; chrome bumpers; round wheel arches; sold eighteen months later, before the prices started going mad; still much missed.) Meanwhile, I travelled behind in my father’s chocolate brown Rover, with its odour of stale cigar smoke and dog hairs all over the seats.

As the two cars pulled up in front of Cliff and Olga’s des. res., Olga emerged from the front door to greet us. With a cut-glass champagne flute in one hand and a Players No. 6 in the other, she arranged herself betwixt the dual Ionics and flashed us her most winning smile, every inch the Lady of the Manor.

“K, darling – kiss me!”

Before K could raise an objection – assuming he would ever have dared – my stepmother leant over to his side of the open-top car, lunged her upper body forwards, planted her lips onto his, and held them there. As a free spirit trapped in a petty world, she had to take her pleasures where she could find them, and these sorts of épater la bourgeoisie stunts were a regular source of delight.

Whatever Olga might have thought of the spectacle, she didn’t so much as flinch.

“S! Lovely to see you! And who is this young man?”

“Oh, this is Michael’s… friend, K.” (She had a way of pausing before “friend”, just for a split second, but just long enough to let you know that she knew, and that she knew that you knew that she knew.) “How are you, Olga?”

“Flourishing, thank you! But we’ve had such problems this week, you couldn’t imagine: one of the back seat cigarette lighters in the Rolls Royce has broken. I don’t know what we’re going to do! Now, in you come. What can I get you? Campari and soda, or a nice glass of bubbly?”

Telegraph Poles on Snob Alley – Part Two.

My father’s social re-alignment within the village was mirrored by the nature of his two marriages. With my mother, he had forged a propitious match, marrying a good couple of notches above his status. (Let us not forget how important these distinctions were in middle class English life of that period.) Ill-prepared for the comparative coarseness of life “up north”, my mother kept an inscrutable distance from most of the village, only integrating herself to the extent that was deemed necessary and proper. When she left her husband, her children and the village behind in order to re-marry (a local re-match, which caused something of a scandal at the time), it was generally felt that no-one had ever been permitted to get to know her properly.

In stark contrast – and this must surely have been one of the many causes of tension between them – my father was almost voraciously gregarious, in a way which cut through all class boundaries. Snobbery was never one of his flaws; instead, he would befriend whoever he happened to come into contact with, deploying a disarmingly effective equal-opportunities charm that was never based on social positioning. He would think nothing of walking into a strange pub on his own, and striking up conversation with the people next to him at the bar. Indeed, it was one of his great skills and pleasures, to the extent that he would visibly bridle if forced to sit at a far-flung table, away from the action.

However, this complete lack of discrimination on my father’s part was not without its drawbacks, as he was also a hopelessly bad judge of character. A complex and in many ways immature man, something in him constantly craved approval, and he would go to great lengths in order to generate it. Many, if not most, of the people with whom he associated were not used to enjoying the company, hospitality and generosity of a man such as this, with his law degree from Cambridge and his army officer’s background, his large house and his privately educated children. Not surprisingly, his popularity was immense. Equally unsurprisingly, his kind-heartedness was often exploited.

My future stepmother burst onto the scene in the fabled long hot summer of 1976, in a flurry of back-combed hair, rattling jewellery, plunging cleavage, earthy language, and thick, choking cigar smoke. The village had never seen anything like her, and many felt distrustful, even threatened. Accompanying my father on her first visit to the nearest pub, one of the local matriarchs bent over and hissed in her ear: “So, are you his screw for the weekend?”

Her riposte – as she delighted in reminding us for the rest of her days – was to smile sweetly, flutter her thickly mascaraed eyelashes in a parody of the wide-eyed ingénue, and breathily reply: “No darling, I’m just here for the night.”

Shortly after their engagement a few months later, and on their way to the same pub one Sunday lunchtime, the two of them approached the vicar walking in the other direction. My father, a faithful church-going man during his first marriage but now somewhat lapsed, seized the opportunity.

“Vicar, can I introduce you to S? We’re looking forward to getting married in the near future.”

Without breaking his stride, the vicar replied, in the iciest of tones: “Ah, that would explain why you’ve left your car headlights on” – and carried on walking straight past them.

At around the same time, a deputation of concerned friends paid my father an unannounced evening visit, with the express intention of talking him out of what they saw – correctly, as it turned out – as an over-hasty, ill-matched and dangerous union. It didn’t make a scrap of difference.

As it turned out, my louche, theatrical, outrageous step-mother carved out more of a niche for herself in village life than my impeccably well-bred mother ever did. But then, times were changing, and the people who ended up standing next to my father at any one of the village’s four pubs were beginning to emerge from altogether different stock.

People like Cliff and Olga.

Of whom more tomorrow…

Telegraph Poles on Snob Alley – Part One.

When K first suggested moving out to the countryside at weekends, my initial reaction was a cautious one. Having spent most of my childhood and adolescence marooned in rural North Nottinghamshire and longing for escape, I knew all too well the pitfalls of village life.

The village I grew up in was not typical of its surroundings. In an area dominated by collieries to the north and agriculture to the south, and nestling in the shadows of the local slag-heap, it represented a tight, plucky little enclave of Conservatism in a diehard Labour heartland. North Nottinghamshire may not have boasted of much in the way of a “county” set, but our village did its best to uphold the values of church-going, fete-holding, tweed-jacketed and navy-blue-pleated respectability. For several years during the 1970s, a sign on the village green proudly declared our status as the “best kept” village in our part of the county.

By the middle of the 1980s, the ground had started to shift. With the coal industry clearly in decline, and Arthur Scargill’s striking miners newly defeated by the Thatcher government, the chill winds of recession were blowing over us. Nevertheless, Thatcherism was not without its winners, and such winners as there were seemed to be headed in our direction. As the aging tweed-and-pleats set continued to merrily tootle along, with increasing irrelevance, so the “new money” moved in.

Returning to the UK after a year in West Berlin, I could instantly feel the sea-change. New dogmas had taken root, social divisions had widened – and amongst the emergent ranks of the newly successful, attitudes had hardened.

As a freshly politicised would-be radical myself, eager to position myself on the other side of the fence, the village provided ample fodder for my withering scorn. It’s like a downmarket Dallas, I would sneer to my student housemates in Nottingham, blithely unaware of my own crashing snobbery. But not without reason, for the place felt stuffed full with slippery philanderers and tinpot tycoons, gin-soaked lushes and tear-streaked tragedy queens – high on conspicuous consumption and surface gloss, barely concealing the ruthlessness and desperation which bristled beneath. Brittle, incestuous, claustrophobic and philistine: this was my perspective on village life, and I assumed it held equally true of all villages everywhere. No wonder that I baulked, however momentarily, at thoughts of returning.

There again, my perspective was inevitably skewed by the shifting fortunes of my own family, and my father in particular. Of which more tomorrow…