Residents of Tunbridge Wells are usually acutely aware of their ‘disgusted of’ reputation. We live each day as a national joke (yes, I speak from personal experience).
The town featured in the second part of artist Grayson Perry’s new examination of the ‘taste tribes’ of Britain (Channel 4). Perry had singled out Tunbridge Wells for his programme on middle class taste. Would we conform to our stereotype I wondered as I perched on the edge of the sofa in anxious anticipation? You bet we would.
There was the charming elderly couple surrounded by objets d’art and William Morris wallpaper; there was Julian the gastro pub owner, and the dinner party couples; and there were the sights and sounds of incurably middle class Tunbridge Wells – the vintage fair in The Pantiles, the farmers market.
So far so predictable. But towards the end the programme there was a completely unexpected jaw-dropping moment. Perry was chatting to a local NCT mother and baby group. These new mums were explaining why they seek out organic and green products for their babies. He asked what their decision to buy organic and green said about them. “It’s our bling, it’s Green bling,” said one of them without hesitation.
Perry, it seemed, had unlocked the collective middle class subconscious. Organic and ethical is our label it announced. In fact, Julian the gastro pub owner had hinted at the very same thing in the previous scene when he observed that the “knowledge classes” (bit of Tunbridge Wells one-upmanship for you) consumed just as much stuff as everyone else, but wore different ‘badges’ – “we like to think they’re a little more hidden”.
As much as they made me feel uncomfortable, I was left thinking that these little revelations yielded significant insights into modern consumer behavior – especially coming from real organic consumers. But were they were also evidence of David Milliband’s infamous description of organic as a middleclass “lifestyle choice”? On one level perhaps, but as usual these behaviours and choices are complex and draw on deeper concerns and motives. As Grayson Perry reflected himself, what you might trivialize as ‘taste decisions’ are actually “underpinned by an unconscious desire to be a good person”. And you can’t really argue with that.
By Jim Manson
Natural Products editor and environment journalist
Jim Manson is editor of Natural Products magazine. He’s written widely on environment and development issues for specialist magazines and national media, including the Financial Times, The Guardian and Time Out.