Toby Young

The rules of middle-class camping

<em>Toby Young is associate editor of</em> The Spectator.

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I’ve just returned from a middle-class camping holiday. I don’t mean one of those camping weekends that doubles as a literary festival, like Port Eliot in Cornwall. I mean I’ve just spent three nights at a campsite that is middle-class all year round. Blackberry Wood in Sussex is about ten miles from Brighton and while there isn’t actually a sign on the gate saying ‘No Riff Raff’, you’re very much in BBC1 sitcom territory circa 1976. I kept expecting to bump into Margo and Jerry in the washing-up area.

As you’d expect, there are numerous rules of etiquette that aren’t written down anywhere but are religiously observed. Personal computers, for instance, are frowned upon. I found this out within minutes of arriving when I was ‘caught’ watching the Olympics on my MacBook Pro. I knew Caroline would disapprove of this — ‘We’re supposed to be camping, for God’s sake’ — so I pretended I was going off to look for wood for the bonfire. You can actually buy wood in the reception area if you’re feeling lazy, but that is terribly infra dig.

I discovered a Wi-Fi hotspot just by the men’s loos and was standing outside, watching the British men’s four row to victory, when a middle-aged woman tapped me on the shoulder and asked me how much longer I intended to watch ‘television’ for. Not ‘the Olympics’, mind you. Television.

I scuttled off with my tail between my legs. I subsequently discovered that it was equally unacceptable to whip out my iPhone and check my emails. All forms of digital communication are strictly verboten at Blackberry Wood. Indeed, I was half tempted to doctor the sign at the gate, inserting the word ‘free’ between Blackberry and Wood.

There were dozens of children scurrying around, all called things like Oscar and Poppy. Then again, I can’t talk, given that mine are called Sasha, Ludo, Freddie and Charlie. The golden rule on middle-class campsites is always to chastise your own children, never anyone else’s. Doesn’t matter if some other little urchin pushes your child off a log and into a pond — which actually happened to Jimmy, the child of one of the friends we were with. Jimmy’s poor mum had to shoo him back to our camping area, telling him to stop playing such dangerous games, all the while seething with hatred for the child who’d just tried to drown him.

I’m not sure what accounts for this rule. Is it because it would lead to fights with other children’s parents and that would be a bit chavvy? Is it a method of conveying to your children that they should always accept responsibility for accidents and the like rather than try to blame other people? Or is it just a way of avoiding conflict? That would inevitably lead to embarrassment, the greatest of all middle-class fears.

On my last day, I fell foul of another rule, one I was completely unaware of. Sasha and her friend Ella came trotting back from the reception area clutching a bag of croissants and pain au chocolats (they make them on the premises) and started handing them out. I took one and bit into it, only to be met with shocked expressions all round. Turned out, there were only enough pain au chocolats for the children to have one each. When it comes to delicious pastry snacks, apparently, children are supposed to come first.

This immediately presented us with a problem: which child should go without? We were with two other families and I could see the other mums biting their tongues, too well mannered to point out that it should be one of my children and not one of theirs. It fell to Caroline to nominate Charlie, our four-year-old, because he hadn’t been quick enough to grab one of the remaining buns.

Cue floods of tears and a contrite daddy desperately trying to persuade Charlie to accept his pain au chocolat even though he’d taken a large bite out of it. No dice. I had to rummage in my bag and dig out a bar of dark chocolate as a peace offering which, of course, immediately led to cries of ‘unfair’ from the other children. I sometimes think of middle-class etiquette as being unnecessarily elaborate, but here was an example of how essential it is. Thanks to my breach of some obscure sub-clause, the delicate social ecology of our little community had immediately broken down.

It would be Butlin’s next year if I had my way, but that’s the other thing about contemporary middle-class mores. When it comes to deciding where to go on holiday, the lady of the house wears the trousers.