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Sat 28 Feb 2009 04:00 AM

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Still a class act

Damian Reilly has a good time with the middle classes in London. So are they really on the brink of extinction?

Damian Reilly has a good time with the middle classes in London. So are they really on the brink of extinction?

They don't half bang on about it, the credit crunch, in London. It's taken on the ring of a muscle memory mantra. Buses late? Credit crunch. No plumbers? Credit crunch. Not getting any?

Credit crunch. Perhaps there's truth in it, perhaps the credit crunch is the root of all ills and evils in the British capital. But it certainly didn't look like it on Chelsea's Kings Road in the days after Christmas.

What was happening on the Kings Road in the days after Christmas appeared to all intents and purposes to be an orgy of middle class spending and indulgence. Well dressed middle aged women clutching bags were patrolling the pavements, lips pursed with concentration, beady eyes scanning shop fronts, ever alert to bargains.

In their wakes shuffled feckless young men for whom shopping is a once-a-year activity, insulated from the clamour by the tish tish tish of ipod headphones. And, everywhere, gangs of Ugg-booted, well to do teenage girls, in London for the boarding school holidays, giggled and gossiped, legs wrapped in thick tights, bums wrapped in mini-skirts.

The temperature was around the freezing point. But still they came, to spend.

It's not exactly a barometer by which to read the nation's financial health - the Kings Road in the January sales, the January sales that now don't start in January, but increasingly as early as possible in December - especially as the people doing the shopping seemed to be predominantly white, English, and from the monied-middle class

But it's a start. The Kings Road is a famous shopping destination, like Knightsbridge (which was also packed to the rafters), and people travel to it from all corners of the country to relieve themselves of cash when the sales are on.

To report that people were spending in droves is not to argue that the credit crunch is a myth, but rather it is to say that the crisis is not as bad as it might be, yet. Some people still have money - that's the good news. And if a chocolate cake in Fortnum & Mason continues to cost ₤45, then they will need to.

That chocolate cake, by the way, three years ago cost ₤14. Perhaps it is made with crude oil, and the price has not yet been adjusted downwards. It is extremely tasty.

You might say it wants to be, at that price, and I would agree. Prices for products are still breathtakingly high in many places in London, despite all the moaning. For example, a cup of tea - more a thimble, in fact - was ₤5 in the hotel in which Insight stayed, the Bentley hotel off Gloucester road.

The Bentley is exactly the sort of hotel that out of towners might stay in while visiting London to shop. Five pounds seems a comical price for one serving of tea, even in a hotel. It is enough to buy over 200 teabags. And why stop at ₤5, once the decision is made mark up so aggressively? Why not price at ₤10, or ₤100? While we're on the subject, a full English breakfast was ₤23.

The Kings Road looked beautiful, as it always does in the depths of winter, when the night blue Christmas lights decorate Sloane Square so tastefully, pretty against the cold gloaming, and shop windows, festively decorated, twinkle warmly at passers by.

It would take a hard heart not to enjoy being here. Incidentally, if you are here, you'd be mad not to look in on Charles Saatchi's Saatchi gallery, which now occupies an excellent spot close to Sloane Square tube station, where the Territorial Army used to have their headquarters.

Ideally, if you are going to visit the Saatchi, you might like to wait until the current China exhibition has ended, to be replaced by something better. One of the current exhibits is a giant human turd, coiled fatly upon the wooden floor. It's not shocking. But it is an apt metaphor for most of the work on display.

On this trip, we went to Twickenham, the home of rugby. Owing to the fact this was a trip organised by Etihad to watch a team they sponsor, Harlequins, play Leicester in a Guiness Premiership match, Insight found itself in the improbable position of sitting in the Royal Box.

There was no royalty on display, but for a short period at the beginning of the second half, the seat next to Insight's was occupied by legend of the game and current England manager Martin Johnson.

Etihad did not lay this on. Insight, rather than asking clever questions about whether or not Danny Cipriani will ever mature into a fly half to beat the world, or why the English will never be able to play the free flowing rugby that seems to come instinctively to the French, was rendered speechless and wondered perversely how this massive man would react if someone was to tip a pint over his head.In the flesh Johnson is about nine foot five. He would easily be world champion of glowering, were he ever called upon to compete for the title.

The game was daft - a long procession of fumbles and miskicks, errors that one might expect to see on a school playing field. Current England fly half, Jamie Flood managed a forward pass that will haunt his dreams, and Josh Lewsey couldn't seem to work out whether he was injured or not, wandering on and off the pitch from time to time.

But it ended in an almost thrilling last minute draw, so the crowd went home happy. The crowd, incidentally, was mostly the same sort of people that were out at the sales in Chelsea and Knightsbridge. The English middle class are the demographic that comprises the great majority of rugby supporters in that country.

The atmosphere at rugby matches is markedly different to that at football matches, where traditionally, and despite the best efforts of marketing men, the working classes go to let off steam. Rugby matches seem to be all "ooh" and "ahh," where football matches are more "come on ref, put your ****ing glasses on, there's a game going on!"

Perhaps it was the beer, and the reverie induced by driving back from the game through the leafy, organised streets of Richmond, and then past the prettily lit Christmas trees that sit on the wall of the Fuller's brewery, but I couldn't help but think that London, and England, and Britain, might not be dead just yet. Some people think it is, or very nearly.

Economists talk about the lack of industry, and the reliance on the square mile - the city's financial district. They say the country doesn't make anything anymore, and relies instead on the world coming there to bank, something that will not happen anymore. They say that Europe as a whole is not prepared for what is going to happen to the global economy, and that Britain is the worst prepared of all Europe.

Maybe they are right. But Britain surely also has something still worth exporting: expertise. For such a relatively tiny country, historically it has had an amazing amount of influence on the rest of the world.

Forget the divisive Empire stuff, if you can. But what other country has had influence in so many modern areas of life, from literature to medicine, from farming techniques to music, from scientific research to comedy? Surely this lucrative aspect of British life cannot be extinguished merely because a gang of greedy men in pinstripe suits got their sums badly wrong.

The independent shops on the Kings Road may be closing, and the middle class shoppers might find themselves impossibly hard up by March, and the price of tea in the Bentley might even drop as sharply as the cost of Fortnum's chocolate cakes has rocketed, but good times must return eventually. Mustn't they?

Watching London from the window as my departing plane arced over it, beneath the grey evening clouds, it was impossible not to be struck by the order of the place - imposing and meticulous and sober.

Chaos may be in the process of making itself at home down there, but from up there it looked the same as it ever did. Perhaps you should visit now, if the doomsayers are right. Before it is too late. For one thing, the dirham currently buys a lot of pounds.

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