From seaside landladies to wine bores and farmers’ wives, Sarah Freeman meets the double act behind a book of Great British stereotypes.
Real ale bores dress in last season’s Oxfam offering, sport out-of-control facial hair and always smell of pipe tobacco. Investment bankers are louche, well-educated and knew they were going into finance ever since premature baldness started in puberty. Meanwhile, traffic police are unreconstructed males with a banal sense of humour since subtlety usually passes them by. Stereotypes? Well, yes, but according to John Calvert, the man behind Calvert’s Guide to the British, also true.
“People like to say that when it comes to social groups it’d too easy to generalise, but let me tell you a story. The other day I went to a design show in London. It was packed out with architects, people who see themselves as having a unique creative talent and who strive to be different. But you know what?
“Every single one of these tall handsome blokes was wearing a polo neck jumper and rimless glasses – I’m sure they must hand them out on graduation day. The fact is stereotypes exist because they are true.”
By day John is director of the Pickering-based That Company Called If, which sells design-led book gifts from reading lights to bookends. Set up in 1996, the business now employs 50 staff and sells to more than 70 countries, but for a while he’d had a desire to embark on a project which went against any commercial instinct – John wanted to produce a glossy, hardback book chronicling the different characters that populate Great Britain. However, it was only when he was introduced to York artist Tim Bulmer two years ago that the idea took flight.
“Very few people make money out of books, particularly the kind of book I wanted to produce, the margins just aren’t there. But that wasn’t the point. I’m not sure I’d quite describe it as a labour of love, but it was definitely a niggling desire which wouldn’t go away.
“Originally I imagined each entry being accompanied with a photograph, but I soon realised that if you ask someone to approach a fat bride or a would-be gangster (both of whom feature in the book) they might well get themselves in trouble.
“I didn’t quite know where to go with it, so I put it on the back burner. To be honest that’s where it would have stayed had I not met Tim. I saw some of the work he does and right there everything fell into place.”
Having originally trained in theatre design, Tim has spent the bulk of his career working as an illustrator and his quirky watercolours and etchings have been used in everything from a Ray Mears book to the wine menu of the Pipe and Glass.
“Right from the start I just loved the idea,” he says. “Britain is a fabulous place and one of the reasons for that is the people. Of course to a large extent these drawings are caricatures, but I hope people think they are done with warmth and love.”
While Tim got to work on the drawings, John began compiling a team of contributors to write the character studies of 200 peculiarly British stereotypes, from the seaside landlady to the gents’ outfitter. The description runs to just a few paragraphs and alongside there’s a run- down of their life expectancy, the number of hours of television they watch each week, and, perhaps deliberately provocatively, their IQ.
According to Calvert’s Guide, a hill farmer has an IQ of 95 – a few points below average, while a London cabbie scores 156.
“I know it might sound odd, but the one thing were agreed on right from the start was that it had to be factually correct, when people read the entries we wanted them to say, ‘that’s so true’,” say John. “We all know the kind of B&B owner who moans about her neighbour’s sub-standard hanging baskets or the pub landlord with a Sid James laugh, but I didn’t want to rely on easy clichés. When were putting the book together someone mentioned the social stereotype section in the Daily Telegraph magazine. I honestly didn’t know it existed and initially I was a little bit disappointed, but while they are beautifully written, but they are very middle-class.
“I wanted our book to be different. That’s why in the portrait of the homeless man we say he’s as likely to be a professor of obscure Middle Eastern studies, who lost his job and everything else in the divorce as a young offender. This isn’t about making judgements.”
Except the stereotypes are ranked in social order. In Calvert’s scale, which runs from long-term unemployed dads at the bottom to minor royals at the top, lorry drivers are ranked lower than Essex girls and the Labour politician sits directly behind the loud female found at every major race meeting.
“People like to say that the class system no longer exists,” says John. “Secretly all British people rank themselves against their neighbours, their colleagues and sometimes complete strangers.”
While the book pokes fun at everyone from woolly liberals to the landed gentry, both John and Tim didn’t want it consigned to the humour section.
In an effort to market it as more of a reference book they opted for a plain black cover and, with a second volume already in the pipeline John sees it as a work which will reflect changes in society.
“Will people be offended? Maybe, but we all recognise stereotypes and surely its better to embrace and celebrate them than pretend they don’t exist.”
Calvert’s Guide to the British, priced £20, is out now.
Here are four examples of John Calvert’s Great British stereotypes.
Seventy-something called Arthur with lungs like empty crisp packets who left school at 14, did National Service with the Grenadier Guards and then put in a quarter of a century underground. He retired due to ill-health in the mid-eighties and has spent the remaining years sitting in his armchair in his carpet slippers showing his grandson his Davy Lamp. He lives in a ground-floor flat in Barnsley with Beryl, his beloved wife of 50 years. They recently appeared in the Daily Mail after being robbed of their life savings of £814.50.
Most likely to say: “Since they shut the pit...”
Ego issues: None
Fears: Dying before his wife because he worries she’ll struggle on two-thirds of his pension.
Seaside B&B Owner
Plump, impersonal and passive-aggressive, the seaside landlady runs her guest house by a strict and complex code which she thrusts into guests’ hands upon check-in. Mealtimes are a bleak, institutional affair: the tension is as heavy as her speciality fish pie and stays with you almost as long. She has perfected the art of misleading sales blurb: her brochure describes “spacious sitting rooms” (a chair and coffee table squeezed at the end of the bed) and “well-tended grounds” (the back garden of her Victorian end-of-terrace).
Most likely to say: “Breakfast is any time between 8 and 8.15am”
Ego issues: She has yet to check-in a guest she believes worthy of residing at her establishment
Fears: Rule breakers, yobs, smokers, hooligans and anyone from the Midlands.
Rich red-faced porker who has inherited his mother’s chins and his father’s breasts along with 4,000 acres of prime farmland. His family has eaten gargantuan quantities of meat over centuries. His Amazonian wife is posher than Kirstie Allsopp and their grown-up children are so tall and barrel chested they look like they’ve swallowed a fleet of Land Rovers. Bores women to tears in the local pub before copping a feel and then gives them free meat to keep quiet.
Most likely to say: “They should be made to buy bloody British.”
Ego issues: If he wasn’t so busy counting his guns he fancies he might have a career as an opera singer.
Fears: Having to spilt income from Saxon hoards discovered on his land with metal detectorists.
Sixty-eight-year-old retired English teacher who likes walking around in a big circle with 30 other pensioners, with a break for lunch in the middle to paint an inept watercolour and eat egg sandwiches that smell of ointment. She only discovered walking in the last two years since her husband died, and she has to point out that in the group (of which she is the self-appointed leader) there is one gentleman who is 93 and they have some babies in their late 50s, ha ha ha.
Most likely to say: “Right to roam...stop at the pub... access battles...oh look there’s the Devil’s Garlic Press...etc.”
Ego Issues: Believes walking is definitely a sign that she is middle class.
Fears: Cows, wind turbines, gamekeepers, trespass law.