Saturday 26 October 2013

More Class in Angus Wilson


All from the short-story collection A Bit Off the Map.

"The polished yet wilting rubber plant which loomed above them had now the familiarity of the aspidistra – once, after all, also a modish exotic…

The unselfconscious dowdiness of the members of The Crowd… [not for them the] uniformity of elaborate male hair styles and female horsehair tails, of jeans and fishermen’s sweaters… But the clothes of The Crowd – the tired suits, the stained flannels and grubby corduroys; the jumpers and skirts, the pathetically dim brooches and ear-rings – were no conscious protests, only the ends of inherited and accepted taste, the necessities of penurious earnings… The Crowd were already taking off the numerous scarves and gloves which both sexes wore at all times of the year… In between was an insurmountable barrier of sports coats and duffle coats, woollen scarves and raincoats… The girls of The Crowd had naked faces and dirty hair… His eyes swept the hideous nakedness of the young women’s faces.

[These pseudo-intellectual young people of just post war have been long forgotten. They probably morphed into Beatniks. Wearing no makeup was very radical for the time. Rubber plants were a sign of modernity. The joke in this story is that these young people are not socialists but followers of Ayn Rand.]

Their protégé: “had been taken back to far grander places in his time – rooms with concealed cocktail cabinets and fitted-in bars.”

Here’s another milieu: "A small Edwardian house. The lawn was planted with standard roses. The half-timbered upper storey was a bold black and white, in the porch hung a wrought iron lantern… [It betrays the] rich Guildford business background that Sheila had tried so hard but had failed to shed…. Carola would admire the simplicity of Sheila’s table-setting, though she wondered strangely at the lack of doilies, of little mats and of colourfully arranged salads and fruit that she copied so carefully from women’s magazines. Sheila must praise Carola’s new blue dress, and wish that she could speak about the dreadful little doggy brooch."

A mother-in-law speaks: ‘There are standards – gracious living, you know – that are surely worth something. It seems terrible to throw it all away unless you’re very sure you’ve got something to put in its place.’  [I think this translates as: "We’re always in danger of sliding down the class system and if that happened it would be a disaster." Or else: "We must go on living as if we had servants even if we have to do all the work ourselves." This way of life was gradually phased out during the 50s and 60s, perhaps because it was unsustainable.]

Professional gardeners like: ‘Double begonias and calceolarias, they couldn’t have more ghastly taste.’

An embarrassing grandmother (a fashionable dressmaker made good) has: “saxe-blue spangles in the ornament that crowned her almost saxe-blue neatly waved hair”. [The middle classes never tinted their grey hair blue, mauve or pink. Saxe blue is grey-blue.] She eats a “canapé of prawns in aspic” and sits on a “striped period Regency couch”.

Her grandson Maurice drives off to visit his uncle’s deserted girlfriend, who lives in a downmarket house of multiple occupation: “a dirty mid-Victorian house with its peeling stucco and straggles of grimy Virginia creeper”. [What would it go for now?]

He is greeted by one of the lodgers: “She drew him into a little ill-lit hall and bent her long neck – yellow and grubby.” [Middle-class writers were always accusing girls of having dirty necks – but it was probably hard to keep clean when you had to share a bathroom.]

Sylvia’s room is barely furnished: “The walls were cream-distempered and dirty; someone had started to cover one of them with a cheap ‘modernistic’ wallpaper.” [Thirty years on, Cubism has been reduced to interior decoration.]

She quickly recovers: Her figure is emphasized by “her tight white sweater, and her hips seemed almost tyre-like beneath her tighter black skirt.”

A teacher who rather regrets she has become too “good” for her background adds one refined touch – beech leaves in a vase – and chews “very carefully with her front teeth”. She shudders at “the vulgarity, the terrible, clashing bright colours of the drawing-room at ‘The Laurels’”.

More here. And more nonconformists here.


  1. He is so good at those details isn't he? Sheer bliss. And yes, you're so right about the dirty necks, very much a period feature, it sounds so unlikely doesn't it?

  2. Did they lie in the bath, leaving a "tidemark" on their neck? Did they wash their face but not their neck? Did they just make up their face, creating a colour contrast? Just had a thought - this was before the Clean Air Act.