Saturday, August 21, 2010

Hate mail in the shires or why it’s wisest to take nothing for granted, not even good manners among the self-regarding middle-class great and good

The following is a true story. I don’t know whether it’s funny or sad, and I hope it doesn’t embarrass the chap involved. I work with him, and although I don’t know him well — he is an acquaintance from work rather than a friend — he is a nice, decent guy, the sort you (or, at least, I) always wish well rather than not.
This chap, Mark, is unusual among national newspaper journalists because although he is a freelance, he works in several executive capacities on different newspapers, and he does so on the Mail, where I got to know him. Most ‘freelancers’ are writers who are in the loop and can make a reasonably good living from their work. Other ‘freelancers’ are, like me, casuals who (in my view) only call themselves ‘freelancers’ because they think it might impress others a little. In fact, they are, like me, ‘hacks’ in the truest sense of the word, i.e. subs or writers hired by the day, journeymen. But Mark is in a rather more rarefied league, that of the true freelancers. I believe there is family money in the background, and I’m pretty certain he was educated privately. That family money might account for the fact that although he lives in London, he also owns a weekend cottage in Wiltshire. On the other hand, and knowing the range of his work and where it pops up, it is perfectly possible that Mark makes a very, very good living from his freelance journalism and that it is his sole income.
As I say, I know him from the Mail, but a month or two ago when I was staying with my aunt in Bordeaux, I came across a copy of The Spectator in which Mark had written a piece. The Spectator (‘The Speccy’ to those who like to indicate that they are somehow in the know) is not a magazine I ever buy and not one I read at all regularly. Ann, my aunt, a retired university teacher, gets it from a friend and former colleague who passes it on once she has read it. For me the trouble with The Specator is that it is eternally preaching to the converted, it always seems to be bemoaning ‘modern life’, it’s politics are always wholly predictable, and it has about it a rather stand-offish air which says ‘if you’re not one of us, you’re not worth bothering with’. (On the other hand, that might be my hang-up. Discuss.)
However, one evening, I picked up a recent copy and, flicking through it, came across a piece by a ‘Mark Palmer’. ‘Is that the same Mark Palmer I know,’ I wondered. The piece was headlined Social Pariah In The Shires and you can read the piece here, but briefly it is about how he and his family bought a weekend cottage in Wiltshire and where he hoped lead a pleasant weekend existence and build up a circle of friends, but for some reason was never accepted. He was invited to early evening drinks where he was introduced to the rest of that village’s great and good, where, a friend later assured him, he will have been given the once over but that village’s leading lights. Appartently, he didn’t pass muster, because no more invitations followed.
It is a readable, amusing and entertaining piece, though rather wistful. But after I read it, I did think to myself that Mark was making of himself something of a hostage to fortune by publicising the goings on, or rather lack of them, in that Wiltshire village.
Once back at work and when I was in (he only works at the Mail for three days a week, and our working weeks only coincide on Wednesdays), I asked him whether he was the same Mark Palmer. He said he was. So I told him what I have recorded above, that surely he was making of himself a hostage to fortune and that given their rather unwelcoming nature, some in the village would have been none to pleased to see it publicised in the oh-so-middle-class ‘Speccy’ which, even if they don’t actually read it, many in the village will have lying around the living room hoping friends and visitors will notice it and be impressed. What had been the reaction? I asked him. Oh, he said, they weren’t very pleased at all. In fact, he added, he had even had hate mail.
I started this piece by stating that I didn’t know whether the conclusion to this anecdote was funny or sad. I now know: it is not in the slightest bit funny, and it is more than sad. I am certain that the authors of that hate mail would be the first to lecture others on courtesy, manners, the ‘kind of thing one doesn’t do’ and generally how a well-brought up chap should behave. So not only are they pretentious, they are also nauseatingly hypocritical.
It makes me think that the plots of Midsomer Murders aren’t quite as far-fetched as I thought.

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