Finally we come to an unusual and rather lost middle-class tribe, which happens to be the one with the most diverse members.
The alt.middles are a friendly but confused bunch of people. Outwardly, they may well belong to one of the groups we’ve described in the earlier chapters, but inside they find it impossible to buy into things with the same enthusiasm as their friends. On hen-weekends, the alt.middle woman is the one suffering visible embarrassment at the idea of being “pampered”. At the football, alt.middle man is more depressed by the sight of wine being sold in the refreshments bar than by his club losing. At corporate away days, or during PowerPoint presentations in the office, they may have to leave the room to sob helplessly. People say: “Cheer up, alt.middle – it might never happen!” To which the alt.middle replies, “But it is happening! Now! All around us! And people saying, ‘cheer up it might never happen’ are part of ‘it’ ‘happening’!”
Alt.middles can be any age, and might do any job, although they are unlikely to crop up in positions for which unqualified enthusiasm is needed. Politically, they are inclined to be liberal and open-minded about race, class and gender, but they have a sceptical view of politicians that makes them open to conspiracy theories. They find it far easier, for example, to believe in rumours about the 9/11 attacks or Diana’s death than in a politician or CEO’s claim to care about people’s welfare.
They don’t feel a terribly strong affiliation to any sort of group or organisation, and many share Groucho Marx’s sentiments – the only groups they even begin to admire are made up of people who they assume would dislike them. They do have, luckily for them, a great ability to seek each other out as if by radar. At weddings, the alt.middles of all ages tend to gather in one or two groups, gradually gaining the wine-enhanced confidence to ask each other if they didn’t think the décor a bit overdone and choice of first song cringey? It is in these rare moments of bonhomie with strangers and pals that alt.middles feel all is not yet lost for the world, and think that actually, they are not in such a minority as they think (they wonder a lot about whether they are in a minority or not; sometimes they secretly think they have something wrong with them). Sadly, these experiences always end the same way; they fall asleep feeling happy, and then they wake up to find Katy Perry is number one again, the TV ads targeted at women seem to have got worse, and so their despair springs afresh.
As these attitudes cross groups and ages it is in some ways pointless to outline a typical couple, but a representative one is David and Kate, in their mid-thirties, living in a 1930s semi-detached suburban house which they have decorated roughly in keeping with the period (rough historical integrity is a middle way through “contemporary” naffness and the showiness of classic or modern antique styling). The house is in the mid-suburbs, not particularly close to town, and near a decent-sized park. They live as a couple but are unmarried, and are going to start a family in the next year or so. David is the deputy head of English in a good comprehensive, Kate is a barrister for a firm specialising in employment law – her work requires her to be very tough and resolute, but she doesn’t often talk about it. They are interested in a wide variety of subjects, though he thinks some of her telly just too girly. He watches reality shows claiming that she makes him, but actually places bets on contestants because he thinks he can analyse the public’s tastes semi-scientifically. She finds some of the stuff he records from BBC Four dull beyond belief. (“Yes, it is interesting that the Moog led to so much interesting music. But a whole hour on how it was invented, Dave?”)
What do you think an alt.middle hates most?
- Changing Rooms
- Management consultancy
- Bratz dolls
- Pret a Manger’s marketing, ugly trainers
- Trinny and Susanna
- e mail emoticons
- Xelebri mobile phones,
- Actually, make that all mobile phones
- Modern business-speak
- Graham Norton
- People being finicky about food
Secret heroes, if they would admit to having heroes
- Victor Meldrew
- Will Self
- Private Eye
- Peter Sellars
- Daniel Clowes
- Christina Ricci
- Lisa Simpson
- Any Labour politician serving in the cabinet between 1945 and 1970
Things alt.middles probably own, grudgingly
- Volkswagen Golf, not Gti or V6
- Tony Parsons novels
- Smile bank card
- Old maps of the area they were born
- Sense of despair masked by gallows humour
- Levi jeans
- Old Sixties 45s in picture sleeves
Things alt.middles will sometimes do in fits of disgust with the modern world
- Hang up in the middle of a phone tree and weep
- Experience road rage which is out of keeping with usually pacifist outlook
- Shout at Simon Cowell using words out of keeping with etc etc
- Order real ale
Things alt.middles like without qualification
Before they were trendy:
alt.middles tend to be put off what they love when other people start to love it too. This makes them very difficult friends. Anyway, this is particularly true with music; thus usually it is safe to like only the early work of artists, and difficuilt to know when to stop. Do you know what year you needed to stop liking the following artists?
- Van Morrison
- Elvis Presley
- The Sex Pistols
- Miss Dynamite
- The Beach Boys
- Trick question – the best period to like the Beach Boys is 1966-1973. NB You must say the best album is Holland NOT Pet Sounds.
Alt.middles would love to have answers to all this, but knowing they don’t have them, and feeling the country to be bereft of ideas and leaders, they lapse into consoling nostalgia and emigration fantasies, devouring books by David Kynaston and David Peace, and enrolling the kids in Mandarin classes. Sometimes it’s hard to know whether they are hopeless idealists, or just plain grumpy, but on the whole it’s safe to say they believe in a better world. They’re just not sure where it is.
It has to be said, though, that despite their long-standing objections to the bland corporate mainstream, David and Kate, like all alt.middles, are becoming a little more tolerant of the sort of Americanised, smiley-happy service culture they find in places like, say, Pret A Manger or boutique hotels. After all, it is better than the rage and violence lurking beneath the surface of much of the British retail experience; surely it is preferable to be told to have a nice day by someone who doesn’t mean it than to be aggressively ignored then patronised by someone who does?
They hate this, and increasingly find themselves choosing or liking things or people purely on the grounds that they have not been co-opted by a big brand yet. They often quite like things simply because they’re non-mainstream; when David said he wasn’t keen on Florence Welch, Kate pointed out that “at least she’s not Katy f***ing Perry”, which was enough to persuade him.
When it comes to shopping and lifestyle tastes, David and Kate’s desire to distance themselves from the mainstream leads to a fondness for obscure, nostalgic and vintage things. Their ideal car, if they have kids, is an old Volvo 245DL estate. Sadly, for them, the High Street has caught up with their period-style-decorated home in recent years, and almost everything the alt.middles have used to personalise their homes in the past 40 years is now on sale at a chain store, from 1930s Coca-Cola signs, to hand-stitched wall hangings made from scraps of saris, to prints of Edvard Munch’s The Scream to Keep Calm and Carry On signs.