Kiwi Abroad

Matt Kennedy-Good extends his OE and follows his heart to Finland

The 'C' word

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"It is beautiful" Sanna said with real surprise as we drove along the Cornish coastline, in the South West of England.

In 2005 when I first visited, my reaction was similar. I had heard that Cornwall was stunning, but assumed that the beauty was relative - like the desert in NZ's "Desert Road" or the apparently "mild" Finnish winter this year.

But as we found out, there is nothing relative about the beauty of the Cornish coast, or the cities along it like Newquay and Torquay.

We were in Newquay to see an old school friend marry an English girl. This defiance of distance was something Sanna and I were happy to celebrate.

While catching up with old friends and admiring the scenery, we wondered why the English people did not make more of a big deal of Newquay and other towns in Cornwall.

We figured that part of the reason is probably the competition.

Europe is full of incredible coastline only a budget flight away from London - most with more reliable sunshine than Cornwall.

But this alone doesn't seem to explain it. After all, this is a country that proudly calls the cute little hills of its Lake District "mountains".

Another explanation was suggested: the area's reputation for chavs.

"Torquay?" an English girl in my office said, when I told her I was visiting for the first time back in 2005.

"Well it is beautiful ... shame about the chavs."

"Is there such a thing in Newquay as a non-chav club?" asked a visitor on an internet forum we found while searching for accommodation.

For those unfamiliar with English pop-culture, "chavs" are the tracksuit-wearing, bling-encrusted, foul-mouthed scourge of England.

The closest NZ has to the notion of chavs are probably "westies" or "bogans" but I don't think it's a meaningful comparison.

NZ has no real equivalent not because of a shortage of yobbos, but because compared to England, NZ society lacks Class.

"Chav" is the most recent and derogatory middle class label for the young white working class.

In England, class is still a big deal.

"Class division disfigures [England] and it sometimes seems as if the greatest progress that Britain has made in dismantling class barriers is to widen the number of people who feel themselves entitled to be snobs" the Times editorialised while controversy over Big Brother star Jade Goody raged.

My neighbour in Wellington might be a bogan on a Sunday afternoon while modifying his Cortina and listening to Whitesnake, but on Monday morning he could slip on a suit and into polite society.

Unlike a bogan, someone considered a chav has to change more than his fake Burberry tracksuit to lose the label.

They would also have to change their vocabulary and probably their parents.

I was unaware of the continuing importance of the class system when I moved to England.

I was also never truly subjected to it. With no class defining accent or origin, it is difficult for English people to place foreigners in their social hierarchy.

This enhanced social mobility does not mean that I was rubbing shoulders with the upper classes. The closest that I got to this polo-playing, fox-hunting lifestyle was disturbing inner city foxes on my way home at night.

Kiwis and Aussies are popular, but in my experience still regarded as somewhat inferior. What else could explain the way some antipodeans (I worked with a few) lose their twangs so quickly in favour of a gentrified English drawl?

Not that I found those considered working-class especially welcoming.

I lived in the "up and coming" neighbourhood of Bermondsey in central London when I first moved to England. Jade Goody grew up there, and in her unpopular spells was occasionally referred to as a "Bermondsey chav".

Living there, my flatmates and I discovered that wearing a business suit on the street instead of a tracksuit was liable to get you egged.

Once, when making a chicken stop on the way home from the pub a girl told me she was going to "stab me up" if I didn't talk properly. I laughed nervously. Everyone else in the KFC-themed takeaway looked the other way.

My decision to move to Clapham was cliché, but at least living there I was able to indulge a late night chicken fetish with only my arteries to worry about. Surrounded by antipodeans class wasn't an issue.

While in Newquay I didn't notice a great number of tracksuits, and none of the guests at the wedding had eggs thrown at them. There were a lot of beautiful houses and expensive cars though.

Maybe, we decided, the idea that chavs congregated in Cornwall was all a rumour started by the upper classes to keep the middle classes away.

If so, after this weekend rumours might start circulating about all the Australians down here.

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