It’s easy enough to find the differences between cultures when you move to a new place. They’re unavoidable. When I moved to London from Dublin about six years ago, by far the most pervasive and interesting (but hugely irritating) difference between the two countries was the stratified and closed nature of class in the UK. This remains the case.
Of course, we do have the concept of class in Ireland; we have two classes – working class, and “notions”. Middle class people (and heaven forbid, whatever lies atop that) are registered in Ireland more or less as British. They’re allowed but somewhat reluctantly and they will be judged if they lean too far into it.
This conception has its problems and fundamentally, it is quite insular. It’s why everyone in your town will start calling you “comrade” at the pub if you dare to rock up wearing a pea coat. They’ll see your newly laminated eyebrows at your cousin’s wedding and some aul fella who’s friends with your dad will say, from his position leaning heavily on the (free) bar, “Here’s Marty Morrissey, now. How’ye there Marty?”, at which point a significant part of you will simply long for death.
Class pervades everything in London and is far subtler than accents and economics, which are the primary class signifiers at home. I quickly came to understand that you need to “pass”, or doors will close. You should understand which music is “good”; which clothing signals “I went to an elite university so you should pay me as much as my colleagues with double-barrelled surnames”; and which food is likely to indicate to people that you don’t belong.
These foods include anything that is not currently fashionable, anything with melted cheese on it and any chips which are not made from courgettes. That’s exhausting. It means you can only listen to Paul Brady’s Nothing but The Same Old Story in your headphones and that you must pretend to think courgette fries are just as nice as potato ones, when we all know they’re flaccid and weird.
British supermarkets mirror the nation’s class structure. Iceland, the supermarket where pretty much everything is frozen, is understood to be for poorer people. Asda is for the pragmatic and efficient working classes, as is Tesco. If you’re headed into Sainsburys, you’re upwardly mobile middle class and slightly notions. Marks & Spencer? Your dad owns a boat that he keeps docked in Latvia and lives on three months a year for tax purposes. Once you’re doing the weekly shop at Waitrose, your job in finance or your marriage to obscure European aristocracy is going very well indeed.
I once went in there at lunchtime and found a bottle of something from their equivalent of a “value” range – it was “Waitrose Essential Ironing Water”. That’s water you put in your iron but more expensive. I held its exotic weight gently and uncertainly as though I’d found a baby parrot in the laundry aisle and thought to myself: “You’re very much not in Limerick any more.” Even holding British ironing water in Waitrose could get you two to four years in Mountjoy. But there are worse crimes.
At the pinnacle of notions supermarkets in the UK is the United States’ (libertarian-founded and Amazon-owned) Whole Foods, where you can buy sausage-free sausages and free range eco Panadol for the headaches you get when your nanny can’t seem to keep the children quiet. They also do nice smoothies.
When we moved to Australia from London two weeks ago, for reasons I wrote about in these pages recently, I felt confident the supermarkets would tell me much about the class structure of my new country of residence. It was a relief to discover in the supermarket aisle that Australians generally appear to have a similar, less insidious class structure closer to Ireland’s.
They are practical people and the market here for panda-free low carb Panadol is smaller than in the UK. This is possibly because so many Australians are a couple of generations descended from Irish criminals – though I’ve noticed that they tend to dislike it when you tell them that. Especially when you point out that everyone here seems to claim their indicted Irish forebear was sent here for stealing a loaf of bread to feed their family and that the British were considerate and efficient about keeping all the serious criminals at home.
[ It was him or me: the battle to catch Mr Jingles, our furry little London lout ]
There’s an Aldi near me where you can buy, or simply marvel at, a two-kilo pack of beef mince for around €13 but, generally, Coles and Woolworth’s have a duopoly on Australian groceries. There are flaws in this system. Price gouging, probably. A distinct lack of Percy Pigs. And what happens if one day I encounter an ironing emergency and really do need some essential ironing water?
Because sometimes Irish people are in the mood to be slightly notions, though we may pretend otherwise. Inside every Irish person is a tiny British person in a pea coat who likes Yorkshire puddings and Percy Pigs. It’s not our fault – that’s just part of the legacy of colonialism.
When my husband asked a stylish young Gen Z guy with a generous mop of hair and the look of someone who’s giving veganism a solid crack for September if there is a Whole Foods in Canberra, the boy looked at him in bafflement. “A whole what?” he replied. My husband elaborated, mentioning terms like “organic” and “grain-free”.
“There’s a farmer’s market on Sundays,” the obliging fellow replied with an expression of mild distaste at the question. “They have vegetables and stuff.” It feels less far from home here than you might think.