They believe in fair play, manners and house prices. They like tea and garden centres. They don't like binge-drinkers, white vans and bubble gum. Tim Adams journeys into the hearts, and minds, of Middle England
Sunday April 10, 2005
It was a road trip, of sorts. I had spent a couple of weeks reading about Middle England, a place defined by its inhabitants' love of fair play, decency, neighbourliness and house prices (and their visceral distrust of travellers, journalists, politicians and other deviants). It was, I had learned, the place where the past two elections had been won and lost, and where, 'like it or loathe it', the coming one would be decided, too. I did not really want to like it or to loathe it, though, I just wanted to find out where it was.
There was only one place to begin. The more I had read, the more the idea of Middle England seemed the preserve of two men, perhaps the two most formative current influences on the nation. While they were developing their versions of this big, narrow idea, these two men had houses not 50 yards from each other in the leafiest corner of Islington; there must have been something in the air. Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail, had a home in Malvern Terrace, a little cobbled street of Georgian cottages beside a gated square; Tony Blair had a big house just over the way in Richmond Crescent. When these houses had been built, nearly 200 years ago, they'd been described in the most poetic terms by a lyrical property developer:
You who are anxious for a country seat, Pure air, green meadows and suburban views, Rooms snug and light - not overlarge but neat And gardens watr'd with refreshing dews, May find a spot adapted to your taste Near Barnsbury park, or rather Barnsbury Town, Where everything looks elegant and chaste. And wealth reposes on a bed of down.
In the two centuries that followed, not that much had changed, save for the fact that this part of north London, alive with birdsong and period street furniture, was now hemmed in on all sides: by the wall-to-wall nightlife of Islington's Upper Street to the east, by the prisons of Holloway and Pentonville to the west, and by the estates and tower blocks that run down to King's Cross to the south.
At Malvern Terrace, however, where the residents not long ago purchased the road in front of their houses from the local council, in order to maintain it to their own standards and to police their own parking scheme, none of this is visible, and all seems right with the world.
I meet our photographer, David Modell, who has made the strange death of Tory England one of his subjects, outside a pub called the Albion, which offers roast lunches in the company of glorious hanging baskets. I wander over to ask directions of a man who is walking his dog. Does he know the way to Middle England? Is it round here?
He smiles. 'I think you are in the wrong place,' he says, 'this is upper, upper England.' He's lived over on the Caledonian Road, just the other side of the tracks, all his life, walked his dog, watched this place get richer. He is, he tells me (while I ask vaguely what he makes of Michael Howard's 'Are you thinking what we're thinking?' poster campaign), Bob Hoskins's cousin.
While we're discussing the origins of the Hoskins clan, and its place in modern society, David, our photographer, has run into a conversation of his own. Taking a picture of the birthplace of Middle England, he has been accosted by a formidable woman. He's taking zoom-lens photographs of window locks, apparently, the better to jemmy them later. She's a good mind to call the police. Mention of the Observer Magazine doesn't help much. She's worked here for 15 years, she dusts for the Labour baroness at one end of the little road, so don't come round here telling her about magazines. We won't, we say. It's not that long since there were police here every day watching the Blairs' back garden, she goes on, so don't tell her about photographers. We won't, we say. She has hoovered, too, for the editor of the Daily Mail for much of that time, kept everything in order: 'He's a proper English gentleman. Perfect manners.' So don't tell her about journalists. We won't, we say. She has a town house in Islington worth ¡ê1.5m or more, she's thinking of selling up, downshifting, and her a nurse, and a housekeeper. So don't come round here talking about Middle England.
We won't, we say.
When we return to the car we have left for two minutes of lecturing, a traffic warden kindly mentions that he has just put a ticket on it. He's photographed it, helpfully, at the kerbside in this traffic-free street, to prove his point. He shows me the little digital image on his screen. I'm tempted to suggest that he is just taking pictures in order to break into the car more easily later. But I think better of it. Still, our quest for Middle England could hardly have started better: a brush with minor celebrity, some naked paranoia about crime, a discussion of extraordinary house prices, a brief run-in with council bureaucracy, and we are not yet on the road. We head westwards in high spirits.
All road trips need a soundtrack. We decide ours requires a Five Live phone-in. There are, happily, two topics for the morning, both of them designed to get under Middle England's skin. The first is a debate about the early release of the 'pop mogul and convicted sex offender' Jonathan King, for whom, of course, by popular consent, hanging would be a woolly liberal cop-out. The second follows the news from Germany that dog shit left on the pavement is to be traced back to its 'owners' using DNA analysis. There is not a caller who does not think this a splendid idea. One woman talks of the horror of 'dog toilet' on bridleways; another rails against the perils that 'dog mess' brings to hedgerow life. Someone who represents something like Concerned Parents Against Pavement Fouling suggests 'dog dirt' is just the tip of a very unsavoury iceberg that includes 'graffiti, vandalism, fly-tipping, fly-posting and binge-drinking'.
By the time we have reached Hammersmith a backlash has begun against cat owners, who, several callers point out, cannot afford to be too smug. Somewhere near the M25 another listener is wondering about the practicalities of the DNA method being applied to people who spit their chewing gum on to the pavement.
Our nominal destination in our drive-by analysis of the heart of the country is Reading, since this is the place that Paul Dacre, by all accounts, uses as a touchstone in editorial meetings. At least, when faced with a bright new story about asylum scandals or celebrity divorces or house-price slumps, he has apparently been known to murmur: 'What would housewives in Reading think?'
Reading, these days, begins just east of Slough and extends along the M4 corridor, which is alive with business parks offering all kinds of logistics, transportation and information solutions, and new housing developments for many of the people who are part of them.
At Langley Woods, a Bellway Homes development, we make our first stop, among a hundred or so half-built redbrick homes of indeterminate architectural parentage. Langley Woods has, as yet, no woods. The bard of Barnsbury would be struggling to rhyme its particular charms. Still, there are a few 4x4s in the driveways of those homes that are complete, and sophisticated built-in security systems already on full alert. In one of the more finished cul-de-sacs I meet a large jogger wired up with an iPod, skirting the JCBs, clambering over piles of rubble, struggling for his footing.
'I'm looking,' I say, miming a little, 'for Middle England. Would you happen to know ...?'
'Well it's probably here, really,' he says, unplugged, somewhat hopefully.
In what way?
'Well, all middle-class people, private schools for the kids, new houses.'
We briefly scan the great piles of earth that flank Austen Way and James Gardens, and the men in hard hats fitting double glazing. As far as we can see there are ranks of red houses with their concocted bucolic names: the Ashwood, the Assendon and the Fernlea. 'It's going to be really fantastic here,' he tells me, with some conviction, and jogs on.
It's curious walking round Langley Woods. The houses appear defensive, even those without windows, even those that only say 'Plot reserved'.
I meet Michelle Taggart, 31, pushing a baby buggy down a block-paved alleyway towards a building site. She's moved here, she doesn't mind telling me, to escape the crime wave - she was plagued by kids on mopeds where she was before - and to get away from the white vans.
What, like builders and plumbers?
'No,' she says, 'the blokes in white vans that drive round and pick up children.'
Right, I say. So it's safer here.
'Much,' she says. 'There's going to be a big playground in the middle where we can let the kids go alone. You have to have that these days, can't let them out of your sight.'
We talk a bit about politics. What are the issues for her? Asylum, she says. 'Don't get me wrong,' - a phrase I'm about to hear a lot - 'I've got nothing against them personally, but they are bringing all these diseases in. They need to get injected.'
I think of a particular Mail front page I've ripped out, suggesting just that.
'All sorts of diseases,' Michelle goes on, 'and we are just letting them come in. It's a real problem in Slough. Tony Blair,' she explains, 'has a lot to answer for.'
I ask Michelle about Middle England: is it around here?
She wouldn't know, she says.
I mention decency and neighbourliness and fair play and the rest.
'Oh well,' Michelle says, 'the English have always had that, haven't they; nothing's changed there.'
Across the road from the new estate there is a Toby Carvery. I go in for a coffee, while David goes to take a photograph of a road sign that says: 'Welcome to Slough.' In the Toby there are framed and signed pictures of Richard Wilson as Victor Meldrew - 'I don't believe it!' - in the lounge. Is he a regular? No, the woman at the bar explains, they have those in all the Tobys.
There is only one other occupant of the lounge, Eric Jeffries, reading a free Independent, nursing a pint, and eating a bowl of soup. He doesn't otherwise read the papers much, they're full of bad news. He's had seven incidents himself in