Tuesday 22 September 2020

Class is Dead, Long Live Class: Definitions

To some, "posh" people went to a private school, however cheap and obscure. Their parents were teachers and business-people, rather than cleaners and lorry-drivers. But really posh people are aristocrats, who have old money, inherited land and stately homes. The category includes rich families who have always been friends of aristocrats.

In the US, it means well-off people who run the country. In the UK, it means people with a hereditary title who own large houses on country estates. (The Antiques Road Trip recently used “aristocracy” to mean “haute bourgeoisie” – the kind of people who went to the opera in the 19th century.)

Upper class: To tabloid (red-top) readers in the UK, it means upper middle class. They lump us with aristos, not caring about the vast disparity of wealth, power and land ownership.

Middle class:
In the US, it means working people who are doing OK at blue-collar jobs. In the UK, it means a snobbish elite obsessed with "clean eating" and being "woke".

George Orwell called himself a “striving exam-passer” – he was middle-middle-class, and had to pass exams because he couldn’t rely on powerful friends pulling strings to get him a job.

According to the National Readership Survey, the upper middles (Social Class A) are vastly outnumbered by the middle (Bs) and lower middles (C2s), and the aristos don’t even feature (despite owning half of Yorkshire). And the As, Bs and C1s are outnumbered almost two-to-one by the C2s, Ds and Es (skilled workers, unskilled workers and workless). No wonder the chaterati were so upset by the death of Diana, Princess of Wales: huge crowds appeared from nowhere, took over London, cried openly, tied teddy bears to trees, applauded Earl Spencer's address, laid a carpet of flowers in front of Kensington Palace, and then quietly disappeared again. The upper middles are still trying to forget that all these other people share the country with them. (What to say about Diana's funeral: "Of course I was sad, but I wasn't hysterical.")

I see the "exactly what is middle class" discussion is spreading! The Americans are right of course. The old British definition is silly. (@grodaeu)

I think the confusion is that in recent years we've accepted the American definition of middle class, i.e. everyone who isn't dirt poor, whereas the Telegraph still uses the traditional English definition, which is basically anyone who is rich but not traditional aristocracy. (@AndrejNkv)

In the early 90s, Louise Mensch claimed to be “upper-class, not middle”. Her father was a lawyer and her mother the headmistress of a prep school. Upper middle, I think, Louise.

It's confusing that the Guardian, among other publications, uses “middle class” to mean “upper middle class”. No wonder people think that anyone who “talks posh” must be enormously rich and privileged.

@mckellogs in the US wonders what working class people think of as “middle class”? She lists:

Gets desserts at restaurants
Has a specific hairdresser
Real butter
Fresh picked flowers
Lots of bed pillows

Dad’s parents were Scouse/Welsh/Irish – a miner and a former housemaid. Mum’s parents, on the other hand, were teachers, from Cambridge – and, therefore, posh: Gran had been to Egypt on holiday and wore berets. (Caitlin Moran, Times 2015)

In the past 50 years, the upper-middles have been forced to copy the lower-middles, and pass exams to get into university, get a job – though patronage and the Old Boy network still operates in the UK. An old schoolfriend agreed that when we were young nobody talked about careers, and besides there was a boom and any fool could get a job. If you were sacked there was always another job you could walk into. But then times changed swiftly – probably with the oil crisis and the end of the Summer of Love.

The Times in 2015 wrote a piece headlined: "Sloanes lose their place in society to the polite new Middleton class". The magazine Town and County started the rumour. Called after the family of the Duchess of Cambridge, the "Upper Middletons" have "neither vast wealth nor lineage". Instead they they value "close family relationships, loyalty, reliability and niceness". They send their children to co-ed boarding secondary schools like "Bradfield, Millfield or Marlborough". Says Town and Country: “Their children are perfectly turned out, polite and, dare we say it, slightly boring. They have nice manners, are popular, attend school parties with perfectly wrapped gifts and get decent grades.” The Upper Middletons live "in Battersea, Putney and Richmond" or “underwhelming” counties like Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Hertfordshire. They run "small businesses that can keep them close to home". "They prefer skiing and tennis to riding and hunting... they disdain bling and anything nouveau riche."  You can recognise them by their "high-street taste", white jeans and "nude" coloured shoes. Meow!

More here, and links to the rest.

Tuesday 15 September 2020

Boarding Schools 4

At my single-sex, convent boarding school we had an English teacher - let's call her Miss Watson. She was very good on the English language, and liked us to understand every word, phrase and metaphor of a Shakespeare passage.

But she managed to teach A Level English Literature without ever using an abstract noun. No hint that King Lear is “about hubris” or Howard’s End “about class”. And your essay couldn’t have a theme – it was about either language or character development. We were supposed to write – at great length – about the characters, and how their development was shown in the language, with copious quotes. Her only other topic was "atmosphere". ("How does Forster convey atmosphere in Chapter 9?")

We were forbidden to read around the subject, or read what critics had written, or research the historical background. One girl quoted from a book in an essay and was told off for "cheating". We might have found out that there are different points of view about everything, and that people can debate questions without the sky falling in. Plus, these commentators might have discussed "adult themes".

An ex-pupil agreed that we had to just pull those 40-page essays out of ourselves. "And what did we know?" Another Old Girl relates that the class were disappointed they did so badly in A Levels – for which they had not really been prepared. You can't write at that length in an exam.

In the Sixth Form, we had to write an essay on a general topic once a week. The best were read out at a ceremony known as "Thursday Morning Essay", that combined the Upper and Lower Sixth. We chose our own subjects, and I can't remember any of those essays – apart from one. I had been to the theatre to see a JB Priestley play. Its theme was the way the younger generation criticised the old, and then made the same mistakes and faced their own critical children. It was the late 60s and youth rebellion was in the air. I wasn't very sure what we were protesting about – perhaps we were rebelling against living in a closed society where we had no voice.

My essays tended to be short – I didn't waste words. At one point in my review of the play I said something like: "And so the younger generation rebels against the older, then becomes the older generation and its children rebel in their turn." I didn't think it was a particularly good piece of work, and my essays were never usually read out.

So I was surprised when I was called to the front. I read out my piece, and went back to my desk. When I'd sat down, Miss Watson laid into the essay, shouting at me for about ten minutes, and quoting the above sentence. I think she called it "glib" – something she was particularly against. But it was the theme of the play, and what's more it happens in real life. She had clearly planned this rant in advance.

I sobbed for the rest of the session. An older girl at the next desk lent me a handkerchief. (Thank you, Pippa.) Afterwards, everyone was sympathetic, even the older girls who normally never spoke to me, and said that Miss W shouldn't have attacked me like that, however bad the essay.

I can see now that the school – old-fashioned, hierarchical, authoritarian, snobbish – felt threatened by the Youthquake. Miss Watson hated anybody to be critical of anything. We feared her sarcastic tongue, but she didn't like competition. In the end, I became a journalist. I'm sure a critical attitude – and an in-depth knowledge of the English language – helped. Miss Watson would have been furious!

Times were changing. The Catholic Church's Second Vatican Council shook up the nuns. In a few years, they had shed their robes, and brought in more "lay" teachers. Many of the sisters went "out into the world" to work on social projects. Gradually the nuns ceased to run the place, and it became a regular school. I don't think Ofsted inspectors would approve of teachers who failed to prepare students for public exams.

I wanted to do Biology and Geography at A Level. They said we could do Zoology, but not Biology. They did not provide a teacher, but gave us a textbook and some old exam papers and told us we were on our own. I gave up after a few weeks. The Geography teacher was so inept that I think we all gave up. But why didn't the school suggest other subjects? I had a year in hand – I'd been fast-tracked aged ten. I'd been doing four A Levels, now I was doing two. Nobody said a word to me about it. We had a "Mistress of Studies". Where was she?

And for the rest of my life, people assumed I was "privileged", and hesitated to talk to me about their own education.

The school's history can be found here.

More here, and links to the rest.

Friday 11 September 2020

Boarding Schools 3

I went to a fee-paying convent school. I'm privileged. Thanks to the Old Girl network, doors opened for me throughout my life – or so people like to think.

We had a dinner monitor I didn't get on with – let's call her Deirdre – who struggled to keep us in line. One day we were playing up and she told me to take my elbow off the table, so I put it on my plate. She must have reported me to higher authority, because I was told my punishment was to eat with the older girls at the top table, for the rest of the term. They were much bigger than me and I was terrified of them. So I didn't turn up to meals - not even tea, where you could sit anywhere. I don't remember even drinking a glass of water. After 24 hours of this I was summoned by the Head Nun.

She turned on the charm and held my hand and persuaded me that I had to sit at the top table - I couldn't go on not eating. It was as horrible as I'd foreseen, and none of the top-tablers spoke a single word to me. (They might have been kind, don't you think? Especially after all that propaganda about the most important virtue being Charity.)

My mother met the parents of some schoolfriends and their immediate response was: "Lucy! Hunger strike!" It was the first she'd heard of it and she was mortified. She was still telling the story in her 80s – but it was always a story about her being embarrassed.

The school hadn't told my parents. And nobody ever said, "Actually, what was she being punished for?" She put her elbow on her plate.

To the nuns, this was disobedience, and nobody in the Catholic Church disobeyed. There was a chain of command right down from the Pope. And so I got a reputation, and eventually was expelled aged 16, mainly for making the Head Nun look a fool. That's another story. It wasn't difficult.

When I didn't turn up to lunch or dinner, nobody came after me. Nobody was sent to find me. One friend smuggled me some food, but I wouldn't eat it. I couldn't explain why. I wish I'd kept it up for longer - they'd have had to do something! Ring my parents, call the doctor, put me in the infirmary.

How did my behaviour appear to them? Just as a direct refusal to obey an order. It didn't matter what they were telling me to do, or why. And they never asked me my reasons or said another word about it. And it wasn't just that I defied them - it was so public. They couldn't be seen to lose, or to give ground.

In the end I ceased to believe in the concept of authority. As Falstaff said, it's just a word.
I rebelled in other ways – after a couple of years I never went to "games". But nobody said anything to me about it. We sometimes used to take off for whole days and our absence must have been noticed. Again, no reaction. And they were supposed to be looking after us.

More here, and links to the rest.