It's 25 years since 'Common People' and the broadsheet newspapers are *still* playing at being poor

If they called their dads they could stop it all, yeaaaah.

Did you know that buying things that aren’t horrendously expensive is quite good? Or that Pot Noodles can be frigging delicious? You did, of course, because you’re not a chuntering idiot or putting on a faux-naive act for the purposes of writing a feature in a Sunday supplement. But if you were an editor at The Observer or The Sunday Times you might have softened your brain on the dangerous drug of journalism for so long that the notion of not emptying your bank account to buy a single incredibly expensive special golden cauliflower might come as a life-changing surprise to you.

Back in September, I crashed onto the excellent left-wing podcast Podcasting Is Praxis to talk about an egregious example of broadsheet poverty tourism. It was whipped up for The Times by Polly Vernon, a repeat offender at creating awful neologisms, who posited that she was now — after 6 months of the pandemic — “the nouveau broke”. Because, of course, readers of The Times cannot simply be skint, just as they cannot simply move to the suburbs like generations before them — it must be a trend.

The ‘nouveau broke’ premise allowed Vernon to brag about her lifestyle while also complaining about ‘reduced’ circumstances and being condescending about lives that common people like you and me live all the time. I dare you to read the following paragraph and not consider disappearing into the woods to train as a Marxist revolutionary in preparation for the coming hot war against the establishment:

To find that is no longer the case, that my income has been cut by 40 per cent, that I’m earning less than I have at any point in the past 20 years, is quite a shock. I still have more than enough money to pay the bills and cover the mortgage, but my disposable income has just gone. I’ve had to sack my shrink, physio and acupuncturist (hanging on to my trainer, for now), realised I can only ever go out for dinner with people who love me enough to pay for me and whom I love enough to let them have had to pitch and hustle for new work, more work, and been quietly relieved we can’t really go abroad on holiday because I could not afford it, even if it were a genuine option. And that’s for starters.

And if that didn’t tip you over the edge, try this bit from the guide to being nouveau broke versus pre-Corona middle class (PCMC):

PCMC Finding elaborate excuses to justify privately educating your children to your left-leaning friends.
Nouveau broke Whacking the kids in the local comp, discovering it’s really inclusive.

That last line is a classic of a very common line of thinking in the broadsheets; it’s a special kind of studied ignorance about the way ‘other people’ live that is illustrated every time a journalist at The Sunday Times’ Style magazine selects a cardigan that costs more than the national debt of a small nation and adds indulgent insult to expensive injury by tagging it as ‘an essential’.

If the currency of the tabloid is fear, the coin of the realm in broadsheet-land is aspiration. Like a Republican voter in the United States barely keeping their head above water but convinced that one day they will have a skyscraper with their name on it and must therefore fight any possible tax rise that might hit multi-millionaires, many broadsheet readers are not remotely well off enough to go on endless mini-breaks clad in ruinously expensive cashmere and eating at restaurants that serve dishes where the price is huge and the portions are minuscule. The point isn’t to reflect their true lifestyles but to present an aspirational alternative that could lead them to buy the more expensive mushrooms in Waitrose and splash out on some unnecessary gadget that was advertised in… wait for it… the very same broadsheet.

Now, it must be said that a three-month-old Times feature was not the catalyst for this edition of the newsletter, no matter how long the half-life of my anger about that tedious pile of wank may be. Instead, I was inspired to sit here at a painfully early hour in the morning hammering my keyboard by an Observer magazine feature. Honestly, I don’t know why I do these things to myself…

The piece in yesterday’s magazine, which came with a standfirst that reads “Whether it’s tea or trainers, bread or body lotion, why do we pay more for posh things when the cheap stuff is so much better?” made me mutinously angry.

I know the piece was intended as a humorous bit of filler and there are some good lines in it, but my issue is not with the specific writer nor even really with this individual article; it’s with the thought process that led to the piece being commissioned. For millions and millions of people — myself included — getting the best possible deal and buying ‘cheap’ (I prefer saying ‘good value’) is both a necessity and ingrained inclination.

One of the best things my grandmother — the country’s most excellent near nonagenarian — taught me was to look at the little prices at the bottom of the supermarket shelf labels to avoid being fooled by their headline ‘bargain’ tricks. During the first lockdown especially my longstanding commitment to Iceland and its fantastic freezer wonder world served me in good stead. Broadsheets framing this as a lifestyle choice and not simply life is maddening.

“Why do we pay more for posh things when cheap stuff is so much better?” Well, because there are entire industries dedicated to persuading us that changing our toothpaste could be the final piece in the jigsaw of our happiness. Because broadsheet newspapers dedicate hundreds of pages a month to telling us that what we have is not as good as what they suggest. Because the same edition of The Observer Magazine that includes the ‘cheap’s great, innit?’ cosplay also includes a luxurious set of spreads on a millionaire’s beautiful French mansion.

Every word printed in broadsheet features sections is about aspiration and envy. That’s what brings in the advertisers, those helpful corporations who are there to swoop in with some affordable luxury or other that will help distract you from more daily dismal realities. That’s why you — broadsheet writers — buy expensive things when you don’t need to: If you stopped, you might realise that there is a gaping vacuum inside you where a personality might ordinarily reside. Have a chat to some more common people; who knows what you’ll discover…