Monday 29 September 2014

Classy Quotes 18

Are you one of those weathergirls?

My daughter sounds uneducated because she says ‘like’ so much. (writer-in to Mariella Frostrup in the Obs, Sept 14. The girl is living abroad at the moment, but the writer wonders what will happen to her when she returns to the "real world".)

She had decided tastes and a long list of hates. These included: the sort of woman who wants to join a gentlemen’s club; the bits of paper that fall out of magazines; female weather forecasters; visitors to Chatsworth who complained that the countryside was ‘dirty’; the words ‘environment’, ‘conservation’ and ‘leisure’; supercilious assistants at make-up counters; dietary fads; skimmed milk; girls with slouching shoulders and Tony Blair. (Daily Mail obit of the Duchess of Devonshire)

I received little praise if things went well. I remember once saying this to her ladyship. ‘What do you expect me to do, Lee, keep patting you on the back?’ Given an answer like that I never laid myself open again. (If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home by Lucy Worsley, quoting from a butler’s memoirs)

A character in Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge says he has “risen from nothing” – he means his father was a butcher.

We were professional people; the other people who lived in our street were not and they were not asked to the party. Most of them were better off than we were but I was the only man who owned a dinner-jacket. Nora would have been shocked if I had suggested that she was a snob. She explained her attitude carefully. “It isn’t a matter of social standing, Tom. I haven’t anything in common with them.” (Change Here For Babylon, Nina Bawden)

She liked listening to the light programme and reading the popular women’s magazines – I would find them carefully hidden under the sofa cushions—and she was ashamed of these things. (Change Here For Babylon, Nina Bawden)

They were tremendous houses in Adelaide Crescent; they started off with a basement and went right up to an attic, there were 132 stairs in all, and the basements were dark and like dungeons. The front of the basement, with iron bars all down the bay windows, was the servants’ hall... We were ushered into a hall that I thought was the last word in opulence. There was a lovely carpet on the floor, and tremendously wide stairs carpeted right across, not like the tiny little bit of lino in the middle we had on our stairs. There was a great mahogany table in the hall and a mahogany hallstand, and huge mirrors with gilt frames. The whole thing breathed an aura of wealth to me. I thought they must be millionaires. (Below Stairs, Margaret Powell)

There are some very regrettable people come settling round here lately—people one can't dream of knowing. It's a great pity. (Non-combatants and Others, Rose Macaulay)

Clare Balding has written several books about her upper-crust, horsey family. The Times interviewed her. Hers is the traditional dysfunctional English family – where stinginess is championed and scorn a form of tenderness. Her father is “pouring sherry into his Cup a Soup while muttering disparagingly about people who drink at lunchtime”. Her brother Andrew is cast as the family idiot and gently bullied throughout.

When Balding introduces a new pet to her mother:
“A white dog? Good Lord, how London can you get?"

My mother is a firm believer in: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing,” Balding tells me. "She’s very 'stuff and nonsense. Crack on. Are you bleeding? No. Go on with you then. Are you concussed? No, you’re still talking. Crack on.'

Her mother agreed to join her on a radio ramble. Balding was thrilled, but didn’t let on:
That would be too close to being emotional or even “soppy”. And she might think I am going to give her a hug or something awful.

(Times September 2014-09-06)

Oh it is hard you will agree
To know your place in Britain's meritocracy
It's most important you should know
The people who're above you and the ones below

If Parliament's where you would be
Be sure you come from Oxford with a good degree
For then you may in your accent smooth
Persuade the shiftless workers to the polling booth

A redbrick university
Puts you on the lower branches of the tree
And even there you'll have a ball
Scorning those who never reach the tree at all

Lawyers, doctors, dentists pass
Their examination to the middle class

Especially if they just scraped through
I'll give you ten to one that they'll look down on you

If proper status you would win
Be sure to hang your curtains with the right side in
No one's below you, fancy that
Then your only consolation is to kick the cat

(Kick The Cat, by The Spinners)

When a middle-class man moved to Bruton in the West Country: "I was slightly traumatised. You couldn't get a decent coffee, a Bloody Mary or decent bread." (Times 2014-08-04)

Like many cities at that time, it was rigidly class-structured, with each class having its own way of life, diet and types of eating-house. (Amazon review of The Victorian City. Is it different now?)

The film is redolent of the class-consciousness characteristic of that period – there is little no possibility of anyone wanting to improve themselves. (Amazon reviewer of In Which We Serve uses “class-consciousness” to mean “once a villein, always a villein”, hinting that now we are modern and enlightened, we expect people to try and move up the class ladder. Who is happier, though? The working classes cosy in their tiny terrace house, the lower middles bickering in the parlour, or the toffs hiding their feelings over the tea table? They have more space, but it seems to have pushed them further apart emotionally.)

With funds channelled into private schooling and little to spare, we hovered between austerity and middle-class privilege. (Emma J Page, Times 2014-08-02 Oh, we did!)

More here, and links to the rest.

And more here.

Saturday 27 September 2014

Class and Noel Streatfeild

Hello, boys!

Noel Streatfeild, the children's novelist, came from a middle-class background, but worked as an actress for 10 years before starting to write. Ballet Shoes, her first children’s book, was published in 1936. She recalled, "The story poured off my pen, more or less telling itself ... I distrusted what came easily and so despised the book." But according to writer and playwright Samantha Ellis (and internal evidence), Ballet Shoes was a retread of an adult novel, The Whicharts. So much for the story “telling itself”.

To create the children’s book, she removed snobbery, cruelty, anti-Semitism – and sex – from the backstage story. The Whichart girls are three half-sisters, bastard children of a Brigadier, brought up by his devoted, discarded and childless mistress, Rose Howard. Though he leaves them some money and a house, they struggle financially until someone suggests to Rose that she send the children to stage school to learn to dance, and let out rooms to lodgers. (But they hang on to a nanny and a cook.)

From a young age, the three girls work in panto, and then the chorus of musical comedy – just as in Ballet Shoes. But they are not cute, innocent and whimsical – they are pettish, spiteful and amoral. Maimie, the eldest, quickly becomes the mistress of a theatrical impresario. When he drops her, she moves on to Herbert, who has made money in the garment trade. In the Ballet Shoes version, the girls live in a strange world in which they work, but don’t have boyfriends.

The Whicharts describes a world that has disappeared, in which children can work in the theatre from a very young age (eight?). After the war, rules became stricter, and dance academies trained children for a life that no longer existed.

Streatfeild stresses that the eldest two children’s mothers come from “nice” backgrounds, as does Rose. The youngest child’s mother was a dancer from Balham, and this fact is quite frequently cast in her teeth. Daisy is the most talented of the three, but ends up moving in with her real grandparents who have risen in the world and landed in Surbiton.

Through her characters, Streatfeild expresses her contempt of shabby theatrical lodgings and the people who stay in them. She has the prejudices of her era and class – despising “slop” (sentimentality) and “showing off”. The story is not aspirational, like Ballet Shoes – she does her best to make the life of the theatre sound unpleasant.

The eldest girl, Maimie, is pretty and a “show-off”, but not an inspired dancer. The middle child, Tania, is hard-working and competent, but would rather be a mechanic. Only the youngest, Daisy, is a natural dancer (those Balham genes). The other two sneer when she is marketed as a “child wonder”.

As the story becomes more about Tania, the "plain" one, it becomes a better read, especially when she falls in with some genial but incompetent Shakespeareans who are doomed forever to tour the provinces.

Streatfeild refutes some well-known platitudes. Tania ponders: “All that bunk people talked. ‘Life is what you make of it.’ All that muck!... Daisy would probably make money because she really could dance.”

As for Maimie, she becomes a chorus-girl and “This changed her.” (So much for “Change comes from within”.) She wishes she had more money. “Money can’t buy happiness, you know,” says Rose. “Oh, my God! Fancy handing that slop out to me... Look at us! Taking in boarders. Too few servants. Too few clothes. Us children dancing to help things out.” Brought up by the ladylike Rose, the children think of themselves as middle-class, like the other girls at their school.

When Maimie gets her hands on some money of her own, she buys “rubbishy, showy clothes”. But she wants a good time, and “a good time was going out with boys... in her new clothes she was a great success”. (So much for “inner beauty”.)

Tania “detests” going on tour. She “loathes” her lodgings. “...the woolly mats, the aspidistras, the enlargements of the landladies’ family, the curious smell of old food and dirty carpets, the shiny horsehair sofa with the stuffing coming out and all the springs broken... the bedrooms with the wallpaper hanging in shreds... the dreary row of equally awful little houses, the dirty paper blowing up the gutter...”

An aitch-dropping dresser (whose “humorous” speeches I skipped) notices that the sisters are "so obviously a cut above the other children.” Rose suggests some other careers to Tania: “Very nice people work in shops nowadays.” After Rose dies, Tania suggests pawning her jewellery to buy Daisy some audition clothes. “Nanny was really shocked. Pawn! Ladies and gentlemen didn’t pawn.” But she does.

Nanny’s name is Mrs Riggs, Daisy’s real family are Mr and Mrs Higgs – standard “working-class” names. Daisy describes the Higgs’ home: “Imagine! They’ve got the loveliest house with the neatest garden. All the flowers in rows – a different colour in each row – and such a pretty drawing-room – everything pink – and heaps of pink bows... And there were heaps of pictures all in bright gold frames... and lots of ferns – with green bows on them to match the carpet.”

Having discovered their granddaughter, the Higgs would “like to do well by her. Like her to have a chance of meeting really nice people. There were lots of nice boys growing up in the neighbourhood. Nice for Daisy to have a chance to meet nice boys...” Which is kind of them. We hope she meets and marries a nice boy. It’s suggested that Maimie turns down Herbert and breaks her heart over a married man. As for Tania... well, read it for yourself.

I would love to read Away from the Vicarage, the second volume of Streatfeild’s (fictional) autobiography, in which she becomes an actress in the 20s.

More literary snobbery here.

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Class and Joanna Cannan II

Joanna Cannan: All Is Discovered

There is not a single likeable person in this book, apart perhaps for the murdered woman, a "peasant type" who only ever wanted to work on a farm. It is all about class. Joanna Cannan uses her story to pour scorn on council house dwellers and farmers’ wives who want to climb up the social scale thanks to cheap wallpaper, manmade fibres, fridges and convenience foods. It is the early 60s.

The only halfway attractive character is Arthur, an elderly man who lives in a "cream and green" council house and grows his own vegetables. But even he has every dropped H notated.

His wife Edie has aspirations and a seersucker tablecloth. There are “sandwiches to cut and fill with a new recipe from Women’s Weekly Outlook – pineapple with a dab of mayonnaise – and then she must comb out her hair, at present set in curlers under a headscarf, and change into her Terylene skirt and Acrilan twin set.” The couple have just dined on “baked beans, tinned luncheon meat and processed cheese”.

Even worse is Sylvia Lumley, wife of a farmer. She “teeters” across the farmyard in stiletto heels. She owns a miniature poodle and a “baby” car, and wears a mohair stole, a black lacy nightdress and an apple-green corduroy housecoat. Not all at once.

She is not unfaithful, but likes to go on dates with men – usually her cousin Eddy – who take her out to dinner in a nearby town in posh restaurants like Antonio’s. She waits for her date sitting on the edge of a “couch” in a “niche”. The date is a frost – she is too “ingratiating and unsophisticated”. She chooses scampi followed by pressed duck, though “she would much have preferred vol-au-vent and chocolate mousse, and all the time she talked brightly, trying hard to please. She was unsuccessful and knew it.” She “had looked forward to a harvest of expensive entertainments in Sandbourne’s hotels, concert halls and theatre.”

When we see inside her house, we find that “the ‘lounge’ had recently been redecorated in one of Sylvia’s foolish attempts to follow a fleeting fashion with two wallpapers of cheap quality and unrelated design; roses rioted over the three-piece suite; the eye was further confused by patterned curtains, a patterned carpet, a rash of small brass objects...”

Cannan’s series tec is Detective-Superintendent Price – she loathes him. He wears “Strydeout” shoes that fall to bits in the rain. He has twin boys called Howard and Norman, and is married to Valerie, who has a “rat-like” face and is not interested in becoming more middle class. They holiday at Seaview, Ryde or the Pines Hotel, Budleigh Salterton. He uses words like “desirable”, refers to people as “that worthy”, and brags that he doesn’t read novels but “biography, travel, history and current affairs”. When he wants to let his hair down he takes off his tie, undoes the top button of his white shirt and spreads “its collar over that of his navy blue blazer”.

He has opinions like these: “I haven’t much sympathy with loneliness. I believe that it is almost invariably self-inflicted. Any man or woman of goodwill can find a niche in the community – only freaks and those who wilfully refuse to conform remain outside the human family.” And “This insidious ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude is spreading.”

The farmer’s daughters are “plain”, and behave like a parody of Cannan’s usual horsey girl heroines. They talk too much about their pets’ ailments, and rabbits with myxomatosis, and call things they approve of “jolly dee” (jolly decent).

About two-thirds through the book, Price drops out and we leave these scenes of provincial squalor. The murders are not local after all, but connected to rackets based in Soho – prostitution and what we’d now call people-trafficking. We meet a whole new set of characters who are repulsive but unreal. The case is taken over by one Frobisher, who seeks out a felon called Delano in a peeling Georgian boarding house. “He was in a passage carpeted with worn linoleum, smelling of gas, cabbage and old sins.” (They usually smelled of paraffin, incense and Alsatians, as well.)

Suddenly we’re in the world of 50s film noir as the story gallops to an end. Where is the witty and warm writer of A Pony for Jean?

Liz Jones met her daughters, the Pullein-Thompsons, who wrote many pony books between them: "The family never had any money; their parents believed that to worry about it was beneath them... ‘They had ideas above their station,’ says Josephine."

More here.