Tuesday 7 April 2020

Class is Dead, Long Live Class 5

Friends tell me that class has entirely disappeared. That's after they redefine it as "barons, villeins, serfs", and "knowing which knife and fork to use when you meet the Queen".

Brits suffer from:
A sense that they are not posh but others are.
A fear that “the posh” know what to do and how to do it right and this knowledge is denied them.
A fear that their speech and manners will betray their inferiority.

Petite bourgeoisie: Semi-autonomous peasantry and small-scale merchants whose politico-economic ideological stance in times of socioeconomic stability [reflects] that of a haute bourgeoisie with which the petite bourgeoisie seeks to identify itself and whose morality it strives to imitate. (Wikipedia)

Attacks on “crap” towns are a long-standing internet genre. What makes them crap? They’re full of chavs, you see.

I belonged to a Facebook group called Architectural Crimes. It usually discussed UPVC windows on Tudor pubs, or the ill-conceived classical upgrade of a Georgian rectory. But given a plastic Greek doorway on an ex-council house and there was an outbreak of sneering. One member said it was a matter of taste, not class, which is a “vulgar preoccupation”. In other groups, “I’d like to shoot anybody who says ‘Can I get a latte’” is never far away, and everyone piles in when Diana’s funeral is mentioned. Moaning about Halloween swiftly segues to an attack on everything American. A Twitter discussion of the far right post-Brexit quickly became an attack on people who drink lager in Wetherspoons.

Lady Glenconner has written her autobiography The Times relates: At 16 she was sent to Powderham Castle, where Lady Devon ran a finishing school at which girls with good marital prospects were taught how to run large country houses. Her second finishing school, the House of Citizenship, taught the art of polite conversation. (So much for the idea that you can only pick up social skills "by osmosis".)

About 75 years ago, it was very damning to say of any woman “She’s not quite a lady”. A lady was “known by her gloves and her shoes”. Both should be expensive, and leather. Shoes should be clean and polished, but need not be new – just good, lasting quality. Patent leather, and shoes that clacked or squeaked, were out. According to Miss Marple, a lady doesn’t show emotion in public “however much she may break down in private”. And Katharine Whitehorn once said: "You can't afford to buy cheap shoes".

Some Americans honestly believe all English people live in Downton Abbey and obsess about napkins and teaspoons. They are always looking for the “real” English lady or gentleman.

In the 60s, if you complained about snobbery, you were told you were “just an inverted snob”.

The veganism I understand has its roots in the 1970s hippie version, where people grew their own vegetables, sprouted seeds, bulked it all up with then-obscure grains and were the only non-Asian people in the country who knew what tofu was. They did this out of a passionate concern for both the environment and animal welfare, even though everyone made fun of them, with their facial hair, Birkenstocks and love of houseplants and meditation (I do find it pleasing that the hippies have basically won). There was often a political angle – a contempt for, and rejection of, the capitalist economic system that, among other things, delivers food and staples. Yes, the hippies have won, but they’ve been ground up and reprocessed to make them safe for capitalism. (JP)

People are impressed by Boris and Rees-Mogg because they talk posh and wear suits. Someone on Facebook opined that Rees-Mogg is "well-spoken" and it would be a good thing if we all talked properly like him. I suspect that some people vote Tory to ally themselves with the upper classes.

We look back in horror at middle-class attitudes to servants in the 30s or the 50s. Women used to talk about “the servant problem” and, earlier, a lot of their conversation consisted of grumbling about servants. Virginia Woolf did the washing up once in her life, and her response was: “Now I know why servants take to drink.” (See Alison Light's Mrs Woolf and the Servants.)

Campaigner Jessica Eaton points out that “social mobility” is very hard work. To make it from the working class to university to a professional job and owning your own home, without inherited money, the right voice or the right contacts is next to impossible. And if you do make it, the middle classes will close ranks and mock your accent.

Pbs.org in the States ran a quiz that would tell you whether or not you lived in an “elite bubble”. One of the questions was “Have you ever bought Avon products?” (Others were “Have you ever worn a uniform at work” or “bought a pickup truck”. Somehow I don’t think elite bubblers do any of these things.)

I did nine years of retail. The worst, absolute worst, thing about it: customers who thought they were better people than the staff. (@WhenIsBirths)

The middle-middles and nouveau riches think they can buy into the aristocracy by sending their sons to a prep school in a converted stately home – with “grounds”. The Spectator thinks that the monks of Ampleforth and Downside took on aristocratic protective colouring from their Gothic (revival) surroundings. The school’s “old grey stones” were a feature of the fictional Greyfriars school, wrote George Orwell. (Now that we’re safely all Protestant, we can think of the Catholic past as somehow noble.) 

Caro Stow Crat’s grandmother raised cash by sponsoring debutantes and getting them invited to the right parties (so that they could marry someone with a title). She offered the same kind of service, discreetly, to newcomers to London, providing the personnel for big parties with lots of delicious food. (I once went to such a party in a marquee. It was the first time I’d ever seen a decorative cabbage in a flower arrangement, and I was so nervous I couldn’t eat anything. It may have been at this do that a friend addressed a French-speaking hostess as “Madame” and got the reply “Pas Madame! Princesse!”)

The middle classes have to work with their personalities, even if they lack one. They have to pretend to understand management’s poorly defined expectations and be friendly, outgoing, resourceful and passionate. (Rich Hall, paraphrase, Times 2018. By contrast, the upper classes don’t need to be ingratiating so they can be darned rude and get away with it. And remember that “passionate” in this context means “enthusiastic”, probably for other people’s schemes.)

More here, and links to the rest.

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