Wednesday, August 26, 2009

On Class

I dimly remember Roger Scruton writing somewhere that snobbery was a form of sanctity. This made certain meritocratic types of my acquaintance madder than wet hens, which, I assume, was Roger's intention. He's like that. But I know what he meant - snobbery sustains class divisions and aspirations which were the foundations of eighteenth century England, a kind of paradise. Unlike Roger, I can't go along with this. Not only am I an angry agnostic, I am also chippy middle class. This means I regard the working class with intense paranoia because I know they are out to rip me off and the upper class with burning resentment because all this bird-slaughter and condescension is plainly designed to conceal the fact that they aren't as clever and well-read as me.
But, to be honest, I think the worst aspects of the British class system are expressed in the idiotic strivings of the middle class. One becomes aware of these things if one spends too much of the summer in the country. There is, for example, the desperately fraught phenomenon of the house guest. Middle class house guests instinctively strip their beds before they leave and neatly fold the sheets, perhaps even putting them in the washing machine. Upper class guests leave their beds unmade and a tip for the cleaning lady. These are both perfectly respectable responses. What is not respectable is middle class types making a big show of leaving a cleaning lady pourboire just to demonstrate they know about upper class manners. Once you notice this, you see it everywhere. I was scanning a wedding magazine in a hairdresser's and I became oppressively aware that weddings have become an entire industry designed to extract money from the middle classes by telling them they must have flouncy marquees, poncey catering and daft clothes because that's what the upper classes do. And what did the middle class jerks in the City who made money out of dud mortgages and the misery of the poor spend their bonuses on? Purdey shot guns and the like.
I have come to the view that we should proudly be what we are. This means we should politely say to the uppers 'We don't do that, we read Marilynne Robinson' when they offer to take us bird murdering and to the lowers, 'Don't come the cheeky chappy with me, sunshine, I'm in trade myself' when they tell us fixing the toilet will cost exactly £999.99. Being non-striving middle class is, I have concluded, the most fun.

34 comments:

  1. For the benefit of Americans reading this, Class is like our version of Race.

    I don't think I've ever stayed in a private house where a cleaning lady makes the bed, so this particular etiquettical agnony hasn't come up. I kind of fold up the duvet a bit and clear up the worst of the vomit with either a doily or a piece of bog roll (depending on the quality of the host).

    The ones that annoy me most are the middle classers who pretend to be working class.

    I had an argument with a friend about this in a pub once. "I'm working class," he said. "You went to a boarding school and you have a neutral accent, you're as middle class as I am," I replied. "My father worked, he was a worker." "Your father is a dentist and you just called him your 'father'." "My family has working class origins though." "Go and get another bottle of Merlot in."

    I'm a Middle Class Hero.

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  2. You, as Ronnie Barker once said, know your place Bryan.
    Somewhere twixt chav and toff.

    As a tart on a horse once hissed at me "you, you, you...cyclist" I knew my place then already.

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  3. Mind you, I did suggest to her that her face bore a remarkable resemblance to the horses arse.

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  4. You can be a poor academic like me and sort of avoid the class issues. Your intellect impresses the upper middle class, though your wallet insures you're really at the poverty line. On this trip to the UK I've just read two very different books dealing with class, religion and education: Sylvia Warner Townsend's "The Corner that Held Them" about a medieval priory (Nige, if you are around, you would love this book) and Michael Dibdin's "Dirty Tricks" (recommended to me by a colleague who I am now wondering about).

    Personally, I think class inhibitions (fear of making a fool of oneself by doing the wrong thing) are just another form of civilization preventing people from a) doing whatever they want and feeling good about it, and b) becoming hedonistic barbarians which is what a) seems to lead to.

    Wish the rain would stop here in Stirling.,...

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  5. The rain never stops in Sterling.

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  6. Class. Don't you just love it? Its infinite variety offers far more sustenance for conversation than the usual topic of the weather. With the added opportunity to really piss people off. Just like religion, but more parochially English (not British).

    It is the middle class that is the problem - being upper class I can say that with confidence - with their attempted colonisation of all culture and behaviour. But let's be honest here: we really mean the lower-middle class, with their curtain-twitching pettiness and purse-lipped puritanism. Constantly terrified of being swamped by the working class from which they managed to extract themselves - but not far enough - and seethingly resentful of the assumed confidence and perceived disdain of the upper and upper-middle classes.

    If only they could just move one notch up and become middle-middle class with a nice house in Weybridge/Altringham, a Jag in the drive, a G&T in the hand and a nice pair of cavalry twills on the shanks, all would be perfect.

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  7. ...it just keeps on pounding.

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  8. It's raining on the silver? if it's any consolation Susan, it's tossing it down in Melrose at the moment, although it will be warm and sunny in America.

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  9. There's no point in whining about it Susan. My advice is get out of Sterling and into gold for the duration.

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  10. "more parochially English (not British)"

    This seems to reflect a common misapprehension: that the Class thing doesn't affect the other British nations. I can't speak of Scotland, but here's an enduring myth that Wales is somehow classless. Quite false (tho' Welsh people sometimes deliberately encourage it).

    Wales is far more class-conscious than England. The system here is subtler, however, and rather different - which is why English people tend to miss it.

    The Class Game in Wales is much more complex (and interesting), not least because in a small country it's very hard to get away from people who know your origins, family history, etc. (even if they're not actually related to you), but human nature being what it is this doesn't stop people trying to "better" themselves, etc. etc.

    It all makes Welsh snobbery endlessly entertaining (as both observer and particpant).

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  11. Malty - "somewhere twixt chav and toff". Choff?

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  12. As the token working class scum, I can confirm that I'm here to rip you all off.

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  13. It's been years since I thought much about class. Duke or dustman, I really couldn't care less. These days I suspect it's about tribes rather than class. There are only two tribes I can't get on with: first, the very fat, very violent one which parades around with angry Staffies done up in bondage gear; and second, the knuckle-duster-elbowed, four-wheel-drive one which hangs about in Marks & Spencer. If the k-d-e mob has one of those solid silver mascots screwed to the bonnet then I am filled with gloom. I suppose I don't like either because what they seem to stand for is violence. All else is copacetic.

    A brave man who admits to "scanning a wedding magazine in a hairdresser's". I'd hesitate to use that one as an excuse for being late.

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  14. Wonderfull noos Susan, tomorrow the sun will shine (between 9.06 AM and 9.08 AM) but only if you are upper class, plebs, forget it.

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  15. I leave the bed unmade, no tip and I clear out the free toiletries (at least i think they are free) ...and the biscuits, and chocolate.

    So what does this behavior make me?

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  16. Thanks for the funny post, which made me laugh. I like your descriptions of the class setup. One has to wonder, though, why the following:

    'I have come to the view that we should proudly be what we are'

    could ever and should ever have been doubted.

    It seems to me, though, that this perpetual, simultaneous sense both of aspiration and fear of decline, this lack of fixity and secure identity, defines what the middle class is pretty exactly. So how does the middle class go about being itself without challenging and doubting itself?

    Unless of course it stops calling itself middle class altogether and instead just becomes what it is, which would presumably then become something different from what it currently is....

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  17. I think snobbery is founded on humility. You believe there are people who are your 'betters' and you want to emulate them. You have to make a show of it because you want these better people to think you're one of them and the class you've left behind will not know you've left them unless you make a show of having done it.
    And I do not think it's all malevolent, as you imply Bryan, but is often a benign and civilising thing.
    'Be he ne'er so vile this day shall gentle his condition ...'

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  18. Ass or arse, Bryan? That is the question. 'appen.

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  19. Im with Mark on this one, I like everybody apart from professional chavs and lavender polo shirt wearing Hooray Henrys. Everyone in between is fine.

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  20. Being non-striving middle class is, I have concluded, the most fun.

    Thing is, sport, you're Bryan Appleyard, so you can be. Writers, academics, clerics, any kind of artisan, don't need status signifiers; they carry theirs around with them. Not everybody gets that privilege.

    And it really is a privilege. Look to America and the acres and acres of fake mansions packed against one another. It's difficult to believe that anybody actually wanted that. It had to be an anxious compulsion. Be grateful that it's never visited you.

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  21. I work near solihull. I am daily witness to mile after mile of mock tudorbethan loveliness. I imagine its what America must look like. And all the people around here seem to want to look American too.

    Eee, its all white teeth, blonde hair and silicon tits round my way, I tell thee

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  22. Looks like you've found one to beat science & religion.

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  23. Your question is, Bryan, just how early, and just why, yours shifted from meritocratic types. And have you drifted higher or lower from that Appleyard

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  24. Only peripherally on topic, but maybe Bryan would be happier living in Japan. It is, in my view, the least class-ist country I have ever visited.

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  25. ghostofelberry said…

    "Looks like you've found one to beat science & religion."

    Actually, a lot of the contempt felt towards the New Atheists found on this blog and elsewhere is rooted in kind of High Anglican disdain for the lower middle-classes and their frightful technical education. The problem is not so much the disbelief, which in essence they share, but for the vulgar way in which it is framed.

    Anyway, I'm sure Roger Scruton was aware of TS Eliot's views on class, in which he saw the Upper Classes as the custodians of High Culture, and as such their continued existence was necessary in order to prevent culture reverting to its lowest common denominator, which he saw as a inevitable consequence of excessive egalitarianism.

    So, snobbery, with all its attendant unpleasantness, is a price that we have to pay for preservation of our culture. And it’s a high price, not least because it’s a regressive tax, with the lower orders bearing the brunt of the cost.

    It ought to make us humble, but it rarely does....

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  26. Hairdresser gave it away. Neither men nor gentlemen go to a hairdresser. Btw, then what do you politely call the male of the middle class?

    It's good you know your station, more important than the religious thing, I think. I never knew my place in the class system, my folks where social climbers, I suppose, but they didn't mention how far they got. at best of times I feel I'm a class refugee, at worst an illegal immigrant. For this reason I despise the middle class but find it does contain some good people though not usually 'salt of the earth' types.

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  27. Anyone can play that game, Pat.

    New Atheists (well that's less irritating than Brights, but sounds somehow more sinisterly cultish) drip with snobbish disdain for the uneducated hicks and rednecks and their pathetic superstitions.

    And nobody is more High Anglican than Richard Dawkins.

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  28. Of course that is true, which just shows how much class affects attitudes to religion, which was my point, really.

    I always saw Dawkins as a more of a Methodist lay preacher type, myself.

    AC Grayling, on the other hand, would look positively spiffing in full Bishop's regalia...

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  29. Back across the big water and daren't go to sleep yet (it's only 6:40 p.m. here)....The comment about Japan intrigues me., especially as my son a) bought a japanese sword -- a *real* one at a flea market in Edinburgh and I kept waiting for it to get confiscated by airline security (not at all; they barely seemed to care who had what -- I could have gotten a howitzer through Glasgow Airport) and b) he told me that Japan has the most bizarre things imaginable for sale in vending machines including used female underwear, with a photo of who wore them included with the knickers.

    ISN"T THAT WEIRD????

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  30. New Atheists (well that's less irritating than Brights, but sounds somehow more sinisterly cultish) drip with snobbish disdain for the uneducated hicks and rednecks and their pathetic superstitions.

    Well, that may be true, but it remains likewise true that, when their critics accuse them of postulating a God in which no one actually believes, they mean no one whose opinion counts.

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  31. Thank-you, kynefski, for acknowledging that the New Atheists are not debating their intellectual peers, but rather are engaged in an elitist mocking of the lack of theological sophistication of theologically unsophisicated people. It's a turkey shoot, isn't it? Great fun.

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