Thursday 13 September 2012

Proper Deportment

Poor middle-class Upwards and Weybridges are constantly hectored by parents and teachers: Stand up straight! Don't slouch! Don't touch your face! Don’t put your hands on your hips! Don't bite your nails! Chewing gum is a disgusting habit! Don't push your sleeves up! Walk tall, shoulders back, step out briskly! Look people in the eye! Always have a cheerful smile! Don't look like a dying duck in a thunderstorm! Sticking out your chin was known as “poking”. Some Upwards over-compensated so far that their chin is permanently pulled into the neck like a bridling horse. (And then they had the gall to tell you to “just be yourself”.)

White Van Man walks with the “Essex swagger”, and working class girls have a slouching, sexy gait. Sharon Definitely shows her bottom teeth when she talks, and doesn’t close her mouth when she’s not talking (Samantha Upward and posh Caro Stow Crat would say she speaks “sloppily”). Sharon’s gestures are relaxed too. Upward gestures are stiff and tense.

Lower middle-class Jen Teale and Sharon open their eyes widely without smiling. Sam thinks it makes them look idiotic, but actually it’s rather sexy. Sam opens her eyes wide but smiles maniacally at the same time, or else she fixes you with a frown and an unblinking stare as she goes on at great length about the hobby horse of the moment.

Middle-middle Weybridge females have to be sensible and outgoing. Teale girls are obliged to be bubbly and animated. They sometimes have a wistful smile – sad eyes but a wide smile with lots of teeth. It goes with a gentle, breathy voice. Upward women try hard to look cheerful and laugh like hyenas at nothing, but on the whole Upwards and Stow-Crats are far less ingratiating – they don’t have to be.

Stow Crat girls used to be sent to finishing school in Switzerland, or to the Lucy Clayton model school, to learn "deportment" – when you're wearing a ball gown, you can't stride as you do across a hockey field.

British upper lips really are stiff. A smile that shows a lot of upper teeth is too “stage school”. And it might look as if you were showing off your whitened, straightened gnashers. As children, we were constantly told to shut our mouths: “Are you catching flies?” (And doors: “Were you born in a barn?”) The rationale? An open mouth made you look moronic or adenoidal - but maybe it was just common.

If you do all the “wrong” things (poke, slouch, hunch, sneer, let eyelids and mouth corners droop) you look like a porn star. Actresses on East Enders are ostentatiously slack-jawed.