Stuck in the middle?

A whittled spoon (not one of Barn's)

A whittled spoon (not one of Barn’s)

It took an artisan spoon to make me realise that there is a limit to just how middle-class a person can be.

Full disclosure, it is fair to say I fall into the category of middle-class. Last week, for example, I was sitting with a macchiato in the garden with a friend, surrounded by the remains of a carefully-filleted Saturday Guardian, when I began bemoaning the cost of shopping. I lamented spending more than £100 at Waitrose on a basic shop but then had to confess that the ‘basics’ included a litre of gazpacho and a dozen quail’s eggs. I sipped my freshly-squeezed and perfectly-chilled orange juice with mounting shame.

Despite varying degrees of capital inadequacy throughout my formative years and a life-long commitment to Labour, I am afraid to say I have always been middle class, although certainly not always with the comfort (and sometimes arrogance) that it can bring.

As a student, I remember flying home from college where I was studying English and European thought and literature. The contrast was immense.

The college was in Cambridge (although not the University) and my days were spent with equally earnest students discussing authorial intentions and engaging in debates about the arguments for the existence of God. Since no mortal is perfect and I therefore have no personal knowledge of perfection, God must exist to have given me the understanding of a concept of perfection. That sort of thing.

Then we’d go to the pub and talk more bollocks, but this time infused with cheap alcohol. My best friend gave me daily hand-written sonnets to read that he had produced in his smoke-ridden garret, perhaps even with a quill.

Then I flew home to Shetland – and to a windswept village of fishermen, oil workers and crofters. There I drove a borrowed tractor to fetch peat from the peat bank on the hill. After single-handedly filling the trailer while simultaneously cultivating some interesting blisters, I set off for home.

Five minutes later the rear axle was buried almost irretrievably in mud. And I was the only person for at least five miles. There was no phone.

It took me hours to get the thing out, but I did it. All the while contrasting yesterday’s tutorial on Descartes to the intractability of a giant piece of machinery stuck in the very earth I was attempting to move. All the Philosophy and English I had learned did nothing to help me with the reality of my predicament. That came from basic physics and having, thankfully, paid some attention to my much more practical dad.

More to the point, I felt more of an accomplishment getting the tractor out than I did finally understanding Descartes.

Thereafter I had an uneasy relationship with academia, worried the knowledge (and smooth hands) it offered was somehow inferior to the reality of daily life of, say, a fisherman or a crofter.

Curiously most of the fishermen and crofters I knew were incredibly knowledgeable and very well-read. But while we could converse on an equal footing about existentialism, they could also catch and gut a fish or plough a field or weld a pipe with almost flippant ease. And they worked harder.

It’s this nagging unease, maybe in my case based on inequality of ability, that causes me to fret about middle-class guilt. Others must feel this, surely? It’s the same thing that prompt high-ranking managers to swear more in the presence of those they feel may tend toward the working class. “I’m like you really!”.

Once, in a builder’s van enroute to pick up some supplies, I almost felt it necessary to wolf whistle at a woman on the street. Another inability – that is, to whistle with any confidence – mercifully prevented me from doing so.

So, you get the idea. I have almost no practical ability, no great memory or knowledge retention of my time in education, and a shallowness of character that (almost) keeps me up at night. The only ‘success’ I can really claim is, despite a great shortage of capital, I seem to have remained middle-class. That is, I have somehow blundered through life with more luck and enjoyment that I should rightfully have experienced.

Generally, I feel inadequate and guiltily fortunate but never, really, ashamed.

Never, that is, until listening to Saturday Live on Radio 4 the other day. Itself a sign of belonging to the MC tribe, I tend to listen to a lot of Radio 4 and regard it as a veritable national treasure.

But I spent 15 minutes listening with increasing unease to a man – who referred to himself as a one-time hermit – talking with great seriousness about spoons. Whittling spoons. Seriously. No humour. Not even a nod to it.

Again, full disclosure: I have whittled a spoon and I liked it. I know others that have done so on many occasions and even presented them as presents.

But this guy – Bar the Spoon – talked about his life in the forest and a need to give back that drove him to creating more and better spoons, crafted from the trees which surrounded him. He talked of a peddler’s license and the need to get out of London, where he now has a spoon shop.

He is described as an artisan spoon carver, teacher, author and co-founder of Spoonfest. In the flesh he looks rather like Rag and Bone Man.

All he wants, he says, is a piece of land to build a house and take his leave of life in the city. To achieve this, he is working on a Thousand Spoon Project. He will fell a tree, carve a thousand spoons and sell them to raise the money to buy a piece of land.

A thousand spoons to buy some land? Just how much does he charge? Turns out it’s £48 a spoon plus postage. But that isn’t the point.

And, by the way, Barn seemed a really nice guy. That isn’t the point either.

The point is that this discussion took place on a national radio station over the course of 15 minutes and nobody – NOBODY –  thought to say ‘hang on a minute…spoons? And the producer didn’t think that maybe this was, in some way, a sort of piss-take? Shouldn’t this have been a segment from Dead Ringers?

It was too much.

For the first time in my life I listened to Radio 4 in my Discovery 3 (a necessity outside London), my rope bracelets fluttering in the breeze of the air conditioning, my Starbucks coffee secured in the generous cup holder, and I felt both bewildered and ashamed.

Then again, maybe a £48 spoon with that sort of provenance might make a good gift this Christmas…

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