This is the title of a song on Pulp's Different Class album of 1995. You must surely know what it's about - a student girl with a rich father asks Jarvis Cocker (vocals) to show her how the 'common people' live, including how they make love. Cocker obliges, while at the same time despising her for her naïve romanticisation of ordinary people's lives. Thinking of her as a 'tourist', able to escape from the whole depressing world of the 'common people' simply by phoning her wealthy dad, who can immediately whisk her out of it. She doesn't have to put up with chip-shop grease in her hair, and cockroaches in the bedroom - a phone call to her dad will 'stop it all'. Unlike how it is for the rest of us.
The song has many good lines, and the music is exciting to listen to, inducing a sensation that nothing matters, and that all responsibility is pointless. So much so, that this is a dangerous track to listen to when in a car on a fast road. You tend to drive faster and faster as the song progresses, as recklessness takes over. But then, that's the song's basic message: that the 'common people' - the submerged millions of people who are stuck at the bottom, and have shallow lives 'with no meaning or control', and for pleasure can only 'dance, and drink, and screw, because there's nothing else to do' - are powerless. Nobody cares about them, and they have stopped caring about themselves. Also that anyone who treats them as interesting specimens, or tries to understand them, or apes their ways for fun, is despicable.
I don't think the 'common people' in the song are necessarily 'working class' in the British sense, because the lyrics suggest a downtrodden, cynical and somewhat desperate subculture that I can't equate with my own perception of long-standing British working class aspirations - such as getting a good education and/or first-class vocational training - siezing a chance to get on - and becoming a force in such diverse arenas as politics or the performing arts. Surely, even in 1995, the notion of an Orwellian proletariat without any hope of betterment was quite dead. And, it must be said, squalid deaths among the rich and famous and privileged have never been a rarity, with 'living a pointless existence' a chief reason to drink or drug one's moneyed self into oblivion. So I think that the 'common people' in the song are an overdrawn fantasy, conjured up to highlight just how crass it is for rich girls to indulge their curiosity.
For all that, I think Common People makes its point rather well, and is still cutting-edge. There are millions of people who don't earn enough to escape a hand-to-mouth existence, who have no security of living accommodation, and who can't escape the social problems of a tatty neighbourhood. People who may use Food Banks.
And this is where I revealed myself to be an ignorant, middle-class tourist just a couple of days ago. I was entering Waitrose (which as you know is an upmarket foodstore, part of the prestigious John Lewis empire), and I was accosted by an earnest woman who was part of a team asking incoming Waitrose customers to donate to the local Food Bank. My first reaction was to fish for coins in my purse. Lady Bountiful. No, she didn't want money! She wanted food in tins and packets, the sort of stuff that would keep, and could be given to deserving local families. Could I consider buying some extra items while shopping in Waitrose, and giving them to the Food Bank people waiting with boxes at the exits? She gave me a leaflet on what the Food Bank was all about, and exactly what they were looking for.
I was determined to oblige, but at the same time it was a novel thing to be doing. Giving money was one thing. That was easy, and required no thinking. Selecting nutritious and appealing food in tins was quite another. I had to use my imagination. It wasn't quite as bad as 'wondering what the Common People eat', but I did have to put myself in the place of some single parent who wanted to heat up something tasty for the evening. A tin or two of corned beef wasn't going to do it. Tinned curry? Sardines? The kids might not like the taste. I settled on two tinned steak pies, which I would certainly eat if so minded. Job done. I got a nice 'thank you' on the way out.
But of course I really ought now to make this a habit. 'Ought'? Why? Shouldn't the government see to it that families do not go hungry? But the stark fact is that they know caring people will step in, and get comfortably-off Waitrose customers like me to cough up.
And not just Waitrose customers. I dare say that there are Food Bank people outside ASDA as well (ASDA being a downmarket foodstore, part of the less prestigious but mighty Wal-Mart empire).
'I dare say'. There, I've given it away: I never shop at ASDA. Why ever not? Their prices are famously cheap, car fuel too. But I don't. And I will be frank about the reason. I think the staff are very helpful, but the customers make me feel uncomfortable. I feel like an intruder into their space. Some of them are most certainly the sort to give you a hostile stare. I feel I shouldn't be there, and whereas I love having a lively chat in Waitrose, I would be careful about opening my mouth in ASDA. The place makes me wary, even afraid. I feel that I might, at any moment, get badmouthed by some sneering lout with a beer belly, or given a killing look by some impatient mum with lank hair and kids out of control, who resents my affluence, my freedom from grinding family responsibility.
'Birds of a feather flock together'. It's so true. I go to Waitrose because I won't be mobbed and pecked there. I feel tolerated in other places too, Sainsbury's and Marks & Spencer for instance, but I have a definite no-go list in my head, and ASDA is on it.
By the way, I'm talking about ordinary social tolerance here. I'm not talking about tolerance of the fact that I am trans. That would be something else again. If ever the cry goes up in a crowded foodstore, that a trans person is shopping there, I know exactly where the ensuing nightmare of being publicly embarrassed and pushed around by surly lads will happen. Sorry, ASDA. It's the people who appreciate your very low prices. A bit like the situation in another Pulp track from Different Class, the one titled Mis-Shapes:
We'd like to go to town, but we can't risk it
They just want to keep us out
You could end up with a smack in the mouth
Just for standing out, now really
I often think how apt that is for people like me. Whether I see myself as being trans, or merely a half-posh tourist, I could be taking a big risk. Maybe you too.