June 09, 2010
I was as polite to him as his breath would allow…
Thus wrote Jane Austen in a letter to her sister, displaying some of the withering insight and laughing bitchiness for which the British upper echelons are deservedly celebrated. Class is back on the agenda. It baffles our foreign friends and infuriates the liberal-left, but love them or loathe them—the toffs are once again in charge. Hell, it is their turn. David Cameron has variously been described by detractors as looking akin to a penis with a face drawn on it, buttocks with a pair of eyes, a well-oiled saveloy, and even Pillsbury Dough Boy. Cheap shots and a tad harsh and all because he went to Eton. Cameron might just prove to be one of the greats.
There is nothing wrong in class. Every society arranges itself, divides into tribes, measures its own by region, trade, education, wealth or accent. If it is done with humor and a light touch and does not stifle personal fulfillment, class can add color and richness to the national texture. From Monty Python onward, poking fun at ourselves through the prism of the British class system has become fair game. So it is a comedian can shudder at living in a middle-class enclave only a single post code away from where they sell white bread; so it is another comic can mock the middle-class shoplifters who only steal organic humus and fair-trade products. Everyone gets the joke.
With the use of a single word, a Brit will betray his class; how a girl wears her hair or holds a wine glass will in an instant reveal her social roots. Outdated snobbery, some might argue. Not a bit of it. In Britain, we measure or prejudge people on so much more than money alone. There is nuance and subtlety and that is refreshing.
As a self-confessed toff—condemned to my class by dint of circumstance, private education and a family tree littered with various aristos, country squire, and homes mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086—I have never felt compelled to apologize for my outlook, voice or background. My friends range from those worth several hundred million pounds to those with absolutely nothing. Yet they all know the code and speak in the shorthand and received-pronunciation of the upper class. I doubt such variety would exist anywhere else. It is the middle-classes that are far more guilt-laden for having escaped the class below. This is why they and not the workers provide the patronizing backbone of the liberal left.
My how the class thing rankles with the political left. It really matters to them. To the rest of us it is background noise, an amusing diversion. Without the toffs, the world would be more drab and monochrome and would never have read Nancy Mitford’s observation: “I like children, especially when they cry—for then someone comes to take them away.” Without toffs, I would not have heard of my mother’s crushing riposte to a large black African male who accosted her and rudely enquired “Hey granny, you want sex?” She answered: “And who pays whom?” The man bolted. So live and let live, embrace the differences, and allow the classes to breathe.
Naturally, those outside the toff strata tend to invest it with greater importance and impact than it strictly deserves. To the Left, the upper-classes represent a giant
and self-perpetuating cabal of influence and control. They conveniently forget the ghastliness of thirteen years of Labour and the toxicity of its own pervasive and chianti-swilling establishment. Misconception abounds. The non-toffs still suspect the progeny of the upper classes are sent away to boarding school in tea chests to endure a brutal regime of buggery, cold showers, and being toasted with muffins over an open hearth. Rites of passage have changed somewhat since the nineteenth-century, yet still the myths prevail.
A week ago, I attended the absurd theatre production (and pastiche of David Cameron’s undergraduate days) Posh at The Royal Court in London. Again, its basic premise”—of arrogant toffs seamlessly evolving from being drunken undergraduates into holding the levers of power—was utterly fatuous and flawed. The approach is no more convincing than the theory that America is run by a narrow handful of men armed with flaming torches and gathered round a giant wicker owl.
Outsiders will always get it wrong, for they are not part of the clan and approach it with their preconceptions, their clumsiness, and their large collective axe to grind. So it was the play Posh had its supposed toffs speaking in ways they in reality would eschew (no toff would say “toilet” or “thanks ever so much”). An absolute giveaway, along with those other Verboten words: “pardon,” “patio,” “lounge,” “settee,” “dessert,” “serviette,” and “condiments.” I told you it was nuanced. Yes, it’s a minefield out there for the nouveau riche.
Having enjoyed many of the parties thrown by the very dining clubs parodied in Posh, I can vouch they amounted to little more than the footling and alcohol-fueled antics of the young and relatively wealthy. True, some of their number have since done well and ended with moats, landscaped grounds, and the odd bank; others have crashed and burnt. Most are leading average and pretty unremarkable lives. Yet I will forever remember them vomiting, streaking, raising hell and even dressed as mediaeval executioners and remonstrating with a bemused police officer in the center of Oxford. It was the era of the Brideshead Revisited television series, after all.
Class has long ceased to be a reliable pointer to future success and personal achievement. Privilege is no guarantee of inheriting the earth. And rightly so. When the mockney diction of the younger royals wallows in slack vowels and glottal stops and the wife of the Prime Minister speaks more like a pearly queen than the toff she truly is, class distinction is obviously blurring. It would be a pity to lose it entirely, for something uglier and cheaper will surely take its place. The toffs should be celebrated, not as part of a rigid hierarchy but as one element in a sliding-scale of diversity. Somewhere, the old values—courage, understatement, humor, and a sense of duty and fair play—still exist. That is no small contribution. So forgive the toffs the mindless and bread-roll throwing antics of their misspent youth. They might come good.
A rather grand and ancient friend of my family once received an obscene phone-call. She listened unfazed for several minutes before finally giving reply. “Young man,” she told the pervert. “If you knew how old and fat I was—you wouldn”t want to fuck me at all…”
Now that’s class.