Saturday 30 April 2011

Romance and Sex, the British Way

The lower and lower middle classes, the Definitelys and the Teales, have proximal relationships (they’re friends with people who happen to be nearby). The rest have distal relationships (they’re friends with people who live miles away but are the right kind).

Sharon, Jen and Bryan hang out with people they work with or go to school with (or fight alongside in wars), or who live in the same close. When their kids go to the local school, they meet other parents. Upwards, Weybridges and Stow-Crats choose their friends (in fact they are much more choosy), and have to make much more of an effort to “keep in touch”. They can’t meet very often but when they do “it’s good to catch up”.

You can get Commitment rings from the Freemans catalogue and “affinity jewellery” from high street shops. Couples don’t give engagement parties any more, but they “make a commitment”, possibly inventing their own ritual – except for the Upwards, who don't do "romance theatre". Their love lives are deliberately drab. They're very suspicious of romance and always have been. They don’t dance barefoot in the park, they discuss the state of their relationship or give each other poetry books. They think Valentine’s Day is a commercial plot (imported from America!). They don’t say “I love you” because it’s a cliché. They’d sooner eat a Macdonald’s hamburger than have their proposal put up on a railway departures board, or towed behind a plane, or announced by a Radio 1 DJ.

Upwards don't really do dating, either, but who does? Forty years ago Upwards were - or pretended to be - terribly worried about what to call people's live-in lovers. They didn't think living together was illegal or immoral (and besides, they liked to think of themselves as unconventional), but how would you introduce these people at a party? Nobody says “live-in lover” any more. They use non Upward terms like Significant Other or just SO or partner. The truth was that Upwards couldn’t say “boyfriend” and probably still can’t. They desperately tried alternatives like young man or fellow. (How antique that sounds. There's nothing so distant as the recent past. The really distant past sounds quite like now.)

Sharon has a bunch of mates who live nearby. They've known each since primary school. Every Friday or Saturday night they all “go out” in a group, spending hours getting ready – plastering on fake tan all over, spraying on glitter and climbing into tiny outfits. They go out to a “club” where they pretend to pole dance, fall about, scream and laugh like hyenas. It’s just a mating display. They may pull and have sex with a drunken stranger. They either never see him again or immediately become an item and marry him in a few years.

The Upward children have to go to university to do all this, minus the fake tan and pole dancing. They go through a prolonged adolescence and then have a horrible “came the dawn” moment in their early 30s when they realise that everyone else in the club is 16 and all their friends have paired off and got mortgages and there’s nobody spare for them.

Or else they wake up and go “Omigod, I’m married with two kids! How did that happen!” If male, they immediately have an affair with someone rather plain and vulnerable. They claim to be madly in love on the lines of Dante and Beatrice or Abelard and Heloise, and then they betray themselves to their wives accidentally on purpose and all three go to therapists. The men stay with their wives, who tell all their friends that Gideon had an awful time with a dreadful neurotic woman who threw herself at him.

The Nouveau Richards stay with their husbands because they don’t want to become the Nouveau Pauvre and not get invited to dinner parties any more. If Mr Definitely has an affair, his girlfriend turns up on his wife’s doorstep and tells her all about it. Mrs D then shoves all his belongings into black plastic bags, puts them out with the dustbins, and changes the locks.

Teales, of course, are sensible. They don’t have to follow those restricting Upward rules about being spontaneous and different. They’re the ones who say: “We’ve got a five-year plan: we’re going to go to America, earn some money, come back, buy a house, have kids.” But then Jen reads in a magazine that you're supposed to leave a trail of nightlights and rose petals up the stairs to entice your husband to your bedroom, which is decorated neatly but impersonally like a boutique hotel - and full of scented candles. (The boutique hotel effect is achieved with a folded quilt laid in a wide stripe over the middle of the bed.) You then massage each other amateurishly – with scented oil - and spend hours in foreplay. (But perhaps "massage" is a euphemism.) This is called “putting the sparkle back in your marriage.” No wonder husbands become addicted to lapdancing clubs and Internet porn.

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