Saturday, 19 July 2014

Class and Joanna Cannan

Whodunnit? Must have been a rank outsider!

Joanna Cannan (1898–1961) was the author of the influential children's story A Pony for Jean. It spawned a whole genre - largely written by Cannan and her daughters, Josephine, Diana and Christine Pullein-Thompson. The family were intensely horsey and ran their own stables. (A Pony for Jean was unusual in its time for being convincingly narrated by the girl heroine. The series is also funny: the usual plot about a girl who teaches herself to ride on an unpromising mount and then wins all the prizes is surrounded by some sly social observation. The ODNB says Cannan’s writing was “witty, satirical, even cynical”. I think they’re trying to say “critical”.)

Cannan also wrote detective stories. I was encouraged to read Murder Included by Clothes in Books who hinted that it was a guide to the English class system in the early 50s. And so it is.

The aristocratic d’Estray family have turned their country house into a hunting stables and private hotel (for “paying guests”) – on the urging of the latest Lady d’Estray, who is rather Bohemian and has been living in the South of France. (She has breakfast in her bedroom – imagine!) The police are called in when one of the guests (a horsey old lady who is also a d’Estray cousin) is found poisoned. The local fuzz request help from Scotland Yard, claiming that they can't be impartial as they are all either friends of Sir Charles d’Estray, or closely related to the staff.

They are sent Inspector Ronald Price, a solidly lower middle-class socialist who has the gall to live in Finchley and eat in a dining recess with folkweave curtains. His bathroom contains a mirror-fronted cupboard full of laxatives, and a cork-seated linen basket. His idea of a good meal is tinned soup, potato pie and trifle (stale cake and instant custard). He is also pompous, calling sleep “recuperative slumber”.

The whole book seethes with snobbery (and racism), mainly expressed by the cast – the contempt for Price and another character called Marvin seems to be entirely Cannan’s own.

Among the guests is a couple called Rose. Here’s the Chief Constable’s view: “Well, Mr Rose is a type that I daresay you’re familiar with, though it’s not common, thank the Lord, down here. A few years back his name was Rosengarten or Rosenberg.” (His wife, Sybella, calls the drawing room the “lounge” and her coat and skirt a “costume”. We’d now call it a suit. Sidney Rose’s hunting clothes are too new and too brightly coloured: chestnut tweed coat and socks; yellow tie, waistcoat and handkerchief. What’s more, his tie has a pattern of foxes’ masks and hunting whips, and his socks are cable-stitched.)

Inspector Price flinches when local cop Treadwell refers to the housemaid (who is also his aunt) as a “servant”. “Don’t they realise we’ve done away with masters and servants?” thinks Price. He winces again when the Chief Constable complains that he has to dine early to let the cook go home. “How well they were taking it, these doomed and done-for ladies and gentlemen – but dine early!”
Treadwell complains that the village was “pretty enough once, but spoiled by bungalows run up by retired Harborough tradesmen”. Price writes to his wife, Valerie, that he may have to remind everybody that “a few years have passed since we did away with the feudal system”.

Price ticks off the boot boy for saying “What?” rather than “Pardon?” but is put in his place – “Sir Charles won’t ’ave pardon in the ’ouse.” It’s “I beg your pardon” to the gentry and “What?” to equals.
Bunny (Lady d’Estray) is advised not to wear espadrilles in the presence of the police. Her conservative stepdaughter Patricia is wearing “trim Coolies”. (What can these be? Basketweave shoes?) “The more you wear sloppy shoes,” says Pat, “The more you have to.” (Espadrilles were a foreign import, and rather shocking.) Pat admits later that “ ‘what corners I had were duly knocked off at St Olaf’s'. She smiled, evidently recalling humorous incidents connected with the loss of her individuality.” She is a perpetual prefect, and has yet to discard the “snubbing manner” acquired at school.

One of the guests, Flight-Lieutenant Marvin, is described as a “temporary gentleman” by other characters. He has been taken up by Miss Hudson (the first corpse), and is probably after her money. Lisa, Bunny’s daughter, says that he’s “of the people”, and uses words like “perspiration and serviette and excuse me”. Cannan introduces his mother, apparently just so that she can sneer at her. She wears more than one ring, a tight corset and a frilly white blouse. She enjoys walking round shops, also “bridge, matinees, an occasional dress show”.

Beatrice, the housemaid, explains how servants’ halls have become more democratic: “Of course, in the old days the under-servants weren’t allowed to speak at table until the upper servants ’ad withdrawn, but me and Mr Benson and Mrs Capes decided that, within reason, we in the ’all should adapt ourselves to the spirit of the times.” Yes, I’m afraid the servants all drop their aitches, which makes their dialogue quite difficult to read.

I guessed who the murderer was, and the solution is quite shocking. I want to read more Cannans now...

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Decor Crimes 3

So much stuff. Looking back the other way, we can see Betty Boop as Lady Liberty. And if we step back some more, we see a suit of armour in the dining room. (

You can visit any historic building in Britain and find the same things: tea towels, mugs, 'local' biscuits, CDs of pseudo-Celtic music, small jars of preserves, a pewter replica of something, a book that's £5 cheaper on Amazon and some pencils. (Age of Uncertainty)

furniture in inappropriate places
– an antique dressing table mirror on the landing

linenfold panelling – on kitchen cabinets, or the front door of your 80s cottage

classical Adam Regency fireplace in an Art Deco block, plus a classical Regency-style bed surround with a cupboard over the top

exposed beams in a Georgian house (The Georgians would have a fit.)

Flintstones fireplace copied from a 15th century stone cottage (slate surround, beam or stone lintel) – in a Victorian villa

feature wall with big bold wallpaper – it’s always the same black flowers, leaves and scrolls on magenta, teal or coffee. Makes small rooms look smaller.

block of flats with huge windows on the stairwell, and tiny windows in the flats

stone effect cladding that comes in panels, on a terrace or ex-council house

toxic levels of good taste: every room done up to look like an abandoned servants’ wing in an Irish country house. Peeling plaster, iron bedsteads, distressed furniture, bare untreated floorboards (or treated to look “untreated”), no clutter or personal belongings, no object later than 1910, everything plain and never-fashionable

Victorian lamp standards in 60s shopping precincts (it was an 80s thing)

After the fake stripped Victorian furniture varnished a bit too orange, comes the fake recycled wood furniture in a plain blocky style, looking too new and varnished a bit too orange.

furniture blocking windows

engraved mirrors (but I rather like them)

deeply buttoned, very shiny leather sofas

nests of very shiny, dark brown mock Sheraton occasional tables

leather sofas that have been distressed to look 50 years old

overambitious conversion of a small ordinary house (not just marble, granite and downlighters but an avant garde spiral staircase in an added turret

More here, and links to the rest.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

What the Classes Read: Books and Media II

Suitable for shop-girls
An Upward saves money and despises the Americans in one fell swoop:

When it came to anniversaries, high days and holy days, my parents were non-believers. We worshipped at neither Hallmark nor Clinton. Immediate family birthdays were remembered; my mother would dig out a notelet from a pack of 12, a sheet of A4 folded into quarters, with a blue tit or wild flowers on it, and write “Happy birthday darling”, and on their wedding anniversary my father would give her a peck on the cheek. And that, more or less, was it. Easter, Valentine’s, Mother’s or Father’s Day cards, these things were entirely foreign. Cards for passing exams or driving tests, saying welcome to your new home or sorry you’re sick: these were unimaginable. If someone died or had a baby, she wrote on Basildon Bond. I suppose she was, in her own mild way, an unconscious card snob. Why don’t you care about Mother’s Day, I asked her, worried I was doing something wrong when I saw other children buying their mothers the obligatory outsized padded satin cards and flowers. Even then there was peer group pressure. Oh, that’s just a silly American thing, she said. They’re trying to make money out of you. Mothers don’t need a card to know you love them. In that regard, thankfully, our family didn’t do gush or guilt trips.
(Melanie Reid, Times April 11 2014)

It used to be terribly common to write letters on deckle-edged notepaper (Upwards called it "writing paper"), but some Weybridges in the 60s thought it was awfully grand. Ditto coloured writing paper, envelopes lined with blue tissue paper, purple ink, and linen-effect greetings cards.

Back then, Weybridges were the ones with pompous pen sets and blotters. They gave their children expensive Parker pens with gold-plated nibs for passing exams. Upwards bought antique sets. (My parents used to shower me with Victorian writing slopes and inkwells in the shape of Venetian gondolas in an attempt to improve my handwriting. Or did they just want me to write more letters?)

Some Upwards and Weybridges forbade their children to watch ITV when it appeared. (Coronation Street? It's about working-class people!) They probably forbade comics as well (will stop children learning to read). Now they forbid mobile phones or Facebook, or ration the use of “devices”.

When Upwards complain about the huge coverage given to sport or royal weddings/babies because they’re not interested in these things, they forget that they are the smallest segment of the population, and that people who care about sport and the royals far, far outnumber them. Is that why they moan about “materialism” and “celeb-worship”? Lord Reith would cringe at X Factor and Strictly.

Upwards have always whinged about news media and are always asking “How is this news!?”  Odd, when all Upwards want to work in publishing. If you are an Upward who works in publishing, other Upwards will assume you work in book publishing or on one of the broadsheets (EITHER the Times OR the Guardian). Their smiles become rather fixed when you explain you work in magazines – in fact, you love magazines! (One asked me once, rather crossly, “What are all these magazines that you love?” I wondered if she’d ever been inside a WH Smith, where you can choose between three different magazines on carp fishing. She was more of a Stow Crat, so perhaps she never had. Or perhaps “we” just don’t “see” magazines.)

In his day Edgar Wallace often was dismissed, with unabashed class condescension, as a writer of cheap thrills who appealed only to clerks, mechanics, shopgirls and house servants. (

Upwards love “funny” programmes that are not funny at all. Like Garrison Keillor and Twin Peaks. And The Office. Do they like watching people suffer agonies of embarrassment?

More here.

Friday, 20 June 2014

What to Wear III

A fur coat - with a swimsuit?
Posh Caro Stow Crat always dresses appropriately – she would never wear a fur coat in Florida, or over a swimsuit, or appear on breakfast television in a gold lamé dress, like JK Rowling. Here’s her guide to necklaces (also not to be worn with a swimsuit):

An evening necklace is loosely round your neck (double or triple strand).
Matinee length reaches the first couple of ribs below the collar bone.
Opera length reaches your bust.
A riviere is more fancy, with dangly bits.
Rope length is longer than opera.

“Dangly earrings should never be longer than your hair; only wear hoops in the summer, and enormous hoops are vulgar at any time. furthermore, we are all too good to wear fake diamond studs: either we get the real thing, or we choose another, cheaper option.”
Hilary Rose, Times June 2014

In the 60s and 70s, only lower-middle-class Teale men wore practical items of dress like plastic pocket protectors, sleeve restraints (elasticated armbands) and tie clips (in stainless steel and fake abalone). Upwards were supposed to wear gold and jewelled tie pins left over from the Edwardian age, but these too have disappeared.

In the 50s, ballet shoes were black, never pink or bronze. Plimsolls were white, never black. And middle-class Upwards never wore bronze party shoes. (Party shoes were white, black - but never patent leather - or coloured to match your outfit.) Those who let their daughters wear bronze party shoes would have shuddered with horror at silver or gold party shoes.

Virginia Woolf notes in her diary that Lady Abingdon described Princess Mary “dressed like the upper housemaid in peacock blue”. Vivid blue and green were common. If Woolf and her set wanted to put somebody down, they said they had “the mind of a housemaid”. (Mrs Woolf and the Servants, Alison Light)

There was a recent flap about a clothing trend called “normcore”: young people wearing generic downmarket clothing. Of course it’s shocking to Americans, because they are used to being able to tell who has “class”, ie money, and who hasn’t. They wear very conservative clothes, but of the right (expensive) brand. If middle class kids start dressing like common baseball fans, what are they to do? (In the 60s, people used to say “You can’t tell what class anyone is any more, because the young all wear jeans.”) The real snobbery of normcore is to source the perfect generic plain grey jersey from the hard-to-find, word-of-mouth, well-kept-secret prep school clothing catalogue (as we used to do in the 70s).

More here, and links to the rest.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Gentrification V

Church Street
Sure sign of gentrification is the anti-gentrification graffiti by the last generation of gentrifiers. (Huw Lemmey ‏@spitzenprodukte)

My Romanian taxi driver bizarrely complaining about... mass arrival of more Romanians next year. "They will work for less. Keep them out." (Sathnam Sanghera)

That’s me – complaining about all the middle classes moving into the area I… moved into 30 years ago. But I moved here because it was working class! Though looking back, there weren’t many decent pubs or cafes, there wasn’t much to do, and friends were scattered thinly.

We predicted the area would “come up”. And then it didn’t. Years passed. And now it has, but not in time for us. Damn!

And we were imagining a clean-up, a paint-job, some repairs, maybe a left-wing café/bookshop, a hippy vegan restaurant in a squat, and no more prostitutes in the park or crumbling houses full of crack addicts - not farmers’ markets in Clapton selling ethical escargots. Dalston has become Camden Market.

“The activists and hippies who once lived in cooperatives where everyone paid according to ability and parents sang Nkosi Sikelele Afrika to their white babies have largely gone.” (New York Times May 2014 on Brixton) In the 80s, the middle-class incomers were political activists, who deliberately took up activities that meant meeting working class people of all origins. It may have been a mixed blessing for the working classes, but I miss singing Give Peace a Chance in a marquee while everybody eats Caribbean food off paper plates.

People say Stoke Newington High Street is ALL gentrified now (a few cafes called “The Haberdashery”). But for the past 30 years the gentrifiers have managed to ignore the large Turkish community which is still the most prominent culture in Green Lanes and on the High Street. To my knowledge, Upwards don’t exclaim over darling little Lahmacun restaurants (and don’t go there), don’t learn the oud, don’t listen to Turkish music, don’t learn Turkish, don’t go to Turkey on holiday. They shop at Turkish corner shops and take trips in Turkish cabs but they study Buddhism, not Islam. And of course you couldn’t run workshops teaching easy Turkish songs when you’re surrounded by expert Turkish musicians (and Turkish music sounds pretty hard).

Hipster junk shops in Stokey have even caught up with 70s owls! That was MY thing.

If my 35-year-old self could see London as it is now, she’d be amazed to see flats above shops made habitable (they used to be left empty for some legal reason), coffee shops everywhere - and all the buildings so clean.

More here, and links to the rest.

Classy Areas

More of a hamlet, really.

Where you live in London says so much about you - acceptability vanishes within a few streets. And it changes so fast.

I can’t believe my daughter is now priced out of – Walthamstow!
(Middle-class Dad, Inside London, Jan 2014)

The chattering classes are furious at being priced out of Islington. They discovered the area in the 60s when it was grotty and working class, and beautiful Georgian houses were considered “slums” as they were divided up and whole families lived in single rooms and shared a bathroom.

Surely the way to tell whether your part of Croydon is going upmarket is to ask the question 'Is it in Croydon?' If yes, no. (Lee Jackson ‏@VictorianLondon)

Well-off homeowners in San Francisco object to affordable homes being built near them. “A strong organized opposition has emerged, called Grow Potrero Responsibly…. A resident states that she doesn’t like ‘the concrete jungles changing our quality neighborhoods.’ Another says ‘Too big for our sweet, quiet neighborhood’. Another homeowner said that the development would ‘surely tip the scale in favor of relocating to other counties.’ ‘You are seeing a real class protectionism where homeowners are trying to stop other people from coming into the neighbourhood.’” (

The premises — after a hiatus as a Filipino restaurant that didn’t sit easily in what estate agents in their wisdom once christened Brackenbury Village — are now in the ownership of Ossie Gray. (Fay Maschler, Evening Standard)

Is the latest middle-class thing complaining about people moving into your street and installing air-conditioning?

Do you live in a “real village”? Or is it “only a hamlet”, as my parents used to say about Linchmere. (Houses, church, farm, green, but no shops.)

Jilly Cooper describes upper middle-class couples who buy a country cottage as well as their city house, and spend hours every weekend in a traffic jam commuting between the two. (And the thing you want is always in the other house.)

Upmarket Caro Stow Crat thinks that because the Middletons are nouveau riche, Berkshire isn't really the country.

More here.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Snobbery in Love, Nina

Nina Stibbe's book Love, Nina purports to be a collection of letters she wrote her sister while working for a literary lady (MK) in grand Gloucester Crescent in the 80s. The funniest parts are about the snobbery shown by her employer (and others). Of course MK is an Upward.

MK looked at the ceiling (which in her language means “idiot”).

[The bin lid has been thrown away but] MK doesn’t care about having all our peelings and fag ends on display… MK never mentions the mess or seems to care.

MK mostly calls men fellow or chap, sometimes bloke, but never guy (or man, come to think of it).

MK asked what had happened to Sam’s hair – meaning it didn’t look very good.

MK’s very understanding of unreasonable behavior but quick to judge other types.

If you want to sit in the garden here, you just take a hard chair from the table and sit out there, bolt upright, alone, in a drainy area near the small blue shed. There’s no lounging.

MK: Do you have to say "tasty"?

I remember once asking MK if she’d had a nice weekend and I could see it didn’t go down well so never asked again.

There’s no way she’d have plastic wood however convenient or tough, she’d always want wood, however limited and useless.

MK has a good memory for certain things – things you wish she’d forget such as the first things you did/said on Day One… You can’t get away with anything. You can’t change your mind about a thing, otherwise it’s “I thought you said you hated daffodils” type thing.

Told MK and S&W about Gunter and his canary and they all thought I was being judgemental. They never slag people off (except me, for slagging people off).

[Another character] is just an ordinary posh person who’s been taught to share her opinions with all and sundry.

[At the polytechnic] The ones who went through sixth form don’t take sugar. The ones who left school before exams always take two sugars.