Monday 24 November 2014

Class is Dead, Long Live Class

Have you seen her curtains?
I think she's wearing them!

Ampersand Travel are offering this tour:

Learn how to be an English Gentleman on this six day tour of London and Berkshire. While in the capital stay at one of London's most quintessentially British hotels, The Connaught, well located in the heart of Mayfair. Go shopping with your private fashion expert to source the best of British hunting and shooting gear in some of London's most exclusive shopping streets, such as Bond Street, Jermyn Street and Savile Row. Once kitted out in style head to Coworth Park, a beautiful luxury country house hotel in Berkshire. At Coworth engage in a range of traditionally British country pursuits such as riding, polo, shooting, tennis and croquet. From Coworth Park you are well based to attend exclusive events on the British social summer calendar such as Royal Ascot, Wimbledon Tennis Championships, the Chelsea Flower Show, Epsom Derby, Henley Royal Regatta, Cartier International Polo Day and Last Night at The Proms. This tour includes luxury vehicles for all transfers and private Blue Badge guides for sightseeing tours. Anyone who books... will receive a complimentary copy of Debrett's 'Guide for the Modern Gentleman'.

Dad was also an alderman (guessing that's what the get-up is). Profoundly petit bourgeois. (‏@oitimesthree Comment on a picture of Margaret Thatcher with her family in the 40s.)

Quite recently, a group of friends told me that “class has disappeared”. But in the week of the Rochester white van England flags Twitterstorm, Reuters calls England “class-obsessed”.
And the Office of National Statistics (ONS) has produced the “National Statistics Socio-economic Classifications (NS-SEC)... the new occupational scale to replace the Registrar General's scale”.

If you want to say that something has “disappeared”, you can always redefine it very narrowly. You can also redefine “disappeared” so that it means “a bit less common than when I was young”. OK, so class doesn’t exist any more – in the “once a villein, always a villein” sense. There is, as people like to say, more “social mobility” now. I think this translates as “equality of opportunity”. If you get an education and work hard, you can climb up the class ladder. But that assumes there is a ladder for you to climb up.

I’ve always wanted to climb down. Weybridges, Teales and Definitelies have more fun. Nobody has said it out loud – but since the war and the disappearance of servants, the middle classes have learned to live more like the working classes. And they seem quite happy. (Except that they whinge all the time – but they’ll always do that.) What does that mean? They cook and clean for themselves, they eat fast food and takeaways and ready meals, they eat cheap food that’s easy and quick to prepare (often borrowed from European peasants). They live with their children - they’re involved with their children’s lives. They don’t eat meat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They no longer change three times a day into outfits that need hooking up at the back by a helper. In the 70s there was a fashion for living in your kitchen – time to bring it back.

I live in an area that has a reputation for being 'upper-class', but - having worked all over the country and with a wide mix of people in many different situations (from minor royalty to refuse operatives!) - I would say that the old ideas of class have more or less gone, but snobbery (and inverted snobbery) most certainly has not. I very rarely encounter anyone these days who gives a fig about what social class others come from, but that won't stop them decrying another's choice of curtains etc (or indeed partner!) as being beneath/above them etc. Personal experience does indeed confirm that the most vociferous supporters of the 'class' system are those who traditionally (like my decidedly 'middle-class', but with working-class roots, wife!) consider themselves 'working-class'. (A friend writes.)

Yes, this phenomenon has gone, it has completely disappeared, there is still this phenomenon that is very very like it, but it is something completely different.

Oh, I do see. The people who say “class doesn’t exist any more” mean that “nobody believes it’s hereditary any more – it’s all about socioeconomic groupings now”. Which it is. Which it always was. And perhaps nobody dares use class labels in public any more.

But there’s a lingering belief in some kind of hereditary principle – how could that possibly work? Unless we’re still pretending that Normans are genetically distinct from Saxons. Perhaps people fear they aren’t in the top layer (and unless you have a hereditary title you aren’t), and dread that anyone “above” them will despise them.

So perhaps when people say that the class system has disappeared, they mean they disapprove of it. Or rather, they want to be seen and heard to disapprove of it. And also, they fear that if they admit it exists, their hearers will assume that they place themselves quite high up the rankings, and look down on those “below”. Some assume that anyone who mentions class or writes about it thinks they are an aristocrat and despises everyone else as a pleb, and goes about wearing a tiara graciously waving at genuflecting serfs. (I never wear a tiara, and out of the list above, I have been to Bond Street and Jermyn Street. Anybody can. But they might move me on if I started busking.)

And if there’s no such thing as a class system any more (and how could such a thing just disappear?), why doesn’t Patsy Palmer get asked to narrate nature documentaries?

1 comment:

  1. When I lived in America, and friends there gave their views on class-obsessed UK and class-free USA, I used to say: 'when your son/daughter brings home the person they will marry, will you be interested to know his or her background, what kind of parents they have, where and how they grew up? Of course you will. That's going to be human nature till the end of time, and that's why there's no such thing as a classless society, and never will be, anywhere.'