Sunday 3 November 2013

The Art of Blending In

Theatre and cinema seats used to be organised by class. Boxes for exclusivity and to be seen (upper class); the upper circle, where you had to wear evening dress; the stalls for the less well-off (but evening dress was still expected); the gallery for the plebs where you could wear what you liked. They had different entrances so the classes didn’t have to mingle. In early theatres there were no stalls with fixed seats: the ground floor was the “pit”, where commoners sat on benches and ate (gasp!) oranges, probably throwing the peel on the floor. The bar was also on this floor and you might expect to bump into some shady ladies.

A friend tells me that on cruise ships, restaurants on different decks act as a filter: some won't serve fried food for breakfast, or chips for lunch. These delicacies can all be found on the top deck.

And why do we have two “classes” of train travel?

A social mobility tsar was appointed in June 2013. Will he address the problem of people wishing to climb down the ladder? The working classes always seem to be having more fun, and the Teales have life sewn up. How do you become lower middle class? Save money and move to a suburb. Enjoy your garden and good local (free) schools. Make friends at the many organisations that exist for improving the area. Join whichever church has the most members. Sing in the choir. Raise money with crafternoons and cupcake decorating sessions. Research careers with your children and send them to catering college or hair and beauty school. Dress conservatively – copy your neighbours.

But if you want to pose as a member of another class, do your homework: on consumer TV programme Watchdog a researcher posed as a “post-modern artist” who’d created an installation out of fly-tipped rubbish. She talked very “posh” – almost an “OK, yah”, something no posh person has ever said and is a cliché from the 80s. She wore a back-combed pompadour held back by an elastic band, with a flowery silk bandeau, teamed with a long, flowery skirt. What was she aiming for? Did she think "artists = pretentious = posh"? Did someone tell her that posh girls wear headscarves and hairbands? (Again, 30 years out of date.) Why didn’t she go to Shoreditch and find out what artists really look like (and sound like)?

How to blend in

The upper-class Stow-Crats go in for bonkers cheese-paring methods – writer India Knight recommends making your own butter, David Cameron says he never buys budget bread, he has a breadmaking machine. In the 20s, they employed French chefs but made their guests hand over twopence if they used the phone.

The middle-middle Weybridges are looking for love online, claiming they are interested in evenings at the theatre or concerts, or long walks in the country. That should filter out common timewasters.

What to say about wind farms: Socialist – not in my backyard! And they’re part of this global warming conspiracy which is just common people telling us what to do.

What to say about fracking: It’s destructive, ugly, aggressive, bullying – what’s not to like? And it will only inconvenience people living in “desolate” parts of the northeast.

What to say about the badger cull: We’re all for it because the lefties are against it, and besides cruelty is somehow good for us.

The upper middle-class Upwards don’t believe in magic any more, but they are into mysticism: the kind that involves a lot of hard work and self-denial and harsh meditation weeks in India. They don’t like a philosophy to be too “utilitarian” – they prefer them to be completely useless.

The more downmarket Teales and Definitelies prefer magic, which is fun as long as you don’t end up handing over hundreds of pounds to Madame Sosostris.

Upwards and Weybridges get terribly wound up over how to ask for things in shops. “Can I get a latte” is a ghastly Americanism and everybody who uses it should be shot, or perhaps just horse-whipped. Can we say “I’ll take a…” No, no, no! And as for “Give us a…” or “Give us one of those”! You expect it to be followed by “dude”! Small children are tortured over “Can I get down?” or “Can I have a biscuit?” “You can – and you MAY,” answer their parents. So, how do we ask for things in shops, cafés and restaurants? I’ll take vanilla. I mean “May I have a…” (How do they feel about “Could I have a…” or “Just a latte, please”? Or “mine’s a pint”?)

Upwards think that they run the world and nobody tells them what to do, but look down on public service roles that are filled by Weybridges and Teales – parish councillors, aldermen, mayors, social workers, probation officers, the staff of town halls. These people are “petty bureaucrats”. A friend writes: “They’re always terribly snobbish about the councillor class, civic pride generally, because they've attained a distinction which has nothing to do with birth or breeding (or culture).”

Sometimes they go so far as to claim they want to abolish government, repeal all laws and get rid of science, because there are too many laws, politicians are all lying twisters, and Brian Cox smiles too much (telling us what to do, and knowing more than us). 

Moving with the times

Upwards frequently “muddle their values” (Margery Allingham). They don’t seem to know what’s really important.

In the kind of shabby-genteel family that I am talking about there is far more consciousness of poverty than in any working-class family above the level of the dole. Rent and clothes and school-bills are an unending nightmare, and every luxury, even a glass of beer, is an unwarrantable extravagance. Practically the whole family income goes in keeping up appearances. (George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier)

We were prepared to have a nurse and a servant as a necessary extravagance, but would never have dreamed of having a car. If we went to theatres it would be to the pit. I would have perhaps one evening dress, and that would be a black one so as not to show the dirt… We would never take a taxi anywhere… It made for less luxury, plainer food, clothes and all those things. (Agatha Christie, An Autobiography)

My parents tried gracious living on a too-small budget. They couldn’t afford to heat the house, which was too big anyway, so it was always freezing in the winter. Why didn’t we heat one room (apart from the kitchen), put the telly in it, and all live there? People were always being hived off into separate rooms. We ate off Georgian silver but our parents were stingy about butter, sugar and jam. Why didn’t they sack the nanny, sell the silver and buy lots of butter? Of course they had to pretend that it was common to eat lots of butter or put sugar in your tea or be warm enough! Every meal had to be formal, and they were one long opportunity for issuing orders and bullying. Silver items were brought out, not used, and put away again, twice a day. (And then my parents retired to a bungalow and put all the silver in a safe – and there it stayed.)

More here.


  1. I think it's the real difference between the UK and the USA - they are extremely class-conscious over there, however much they pretend they aren't, BUT it would be very unlikely for any rich person to live uncomfortably. They would not understand that at all - no shabby chic, no shivering and saving on the heating, no wonky antiques. They are completely mystified by the idea of the Queen with her two-bar electric fires and cereal in the Tupperware boxes.

    1. Of course, they are the New World vulgarians! Class in America means the material status; it is nowhere quite like that in Europe, thank God!

  2. Living uncomfortably seemed to be an end in itself!