The English – in a class of their own

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Cecily:  When I see a spade, I call it a spade.

Gwendolen:  I am glad to say I have never seen a spade. It is obvious that our social spheres have been widely different.

Oscar Wilde – The Importance of Being Earnest

It is fitting that one of the best-known examples of the English class system in action in literature should have been written by an Irishman.

For the English, ‘class’ is what Richard D. Lewis describes as a ‘cultural black hole’: an aspect of a culture so powerful that it sucks everything else in. The problem is that when you are in a black hole, it is hard to see clearly what is going on around you. An outsider may have a clearer perspective.

The current argument about social mobility that recently dominated the headlines in the UK goes to the heart of an inescapable part of understanding the English that is complex, and one of the biggest sources of both our angst and our humour.

When Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, declared that access to the most selective universities is too restricted to those from the most privileged backgrounds, and that internships at companies would in future have to be based on ‘what you know rather than who you know’, the reaction was fast and furious. One of the most cutting comments was from Charles Moore, former editor of The Daily Telegraph. He remarked that Clegg ought to have known that the phrase should have been ‘whom you know.’ Clegg’s Dutch mother may have given him a certain scepticism about class segregation, but woe betide anyone who tries to do something logical about it. It is beyond logic.

One fatal error is to assume that class is based on wealth. That may be the case in the USA, but in England the self-made man or woman can never really escape his or her roots. And in many cases may not want to. Though class may still be an irritant. The richest person I know – a multi-, multi-millionaire by his mid-thirties – told me that his working-class background means that there are still people who ‘cut him dead’ socially. And I will never forget my first seminar at Oxford University, when a class-mate (in more ways than one) from Lancashire was asked to read out his brilliant essay on the Victorian poets Tennyson and Browning. One of the girls suddenly walked out and never came back. Afterwards she told us she ‘had to go and vomit, as she couldn’t stand listening to that Northern, working-class accent.’

Accents, and the words you use, are the first indicator of class. Even the way the word ‘class’ is pronounced is an immediate give-away. A short ‘a’ rather than a long one, and you are immediately relegated to the lower rankings.  Use the word ‘toilet’ rather than ‘lavatory’ or ‘loo’, as Kate Middleton’s mother apparently did, and you could nearly cost your daughter the throne.

This language question is a source of great anxiety to politicians. Harold Wilson, former Labour Prime Minister, was famous for his strong Yorkshire accent and his cunning. However, as a student and later teacher of politics at Oxford, he assumed a clipped upper middle-class pronunciation. You can’t blame him. At that time, he would have had difficulty getting his students to trust his intellect otherwise. But on moving into politics, he reverted to his Yorkshire vowels. There is no way Labour’s traditional voters would have trusted his beliefs if he hadn’t. I am sure that David Cameron’s ‘posh’ voice, and appearance (a small chin is considered a sign of the upper classes in England) are at least partly to blame for the Conservative Party’s poor showing in the North of England, resulting in a Coalition Government.

A sort of reverse snobbery has emerged in the past 20 years or so, with some politicians – no names mentioned – deliberately making their naturally polished tones sound more like the man on the street, especially the streets of Essex: a county whose accent has become synonymous with the median voter.

Tony Blair also got into hot water for trying to play to all classes in other ways. He was ridiculed for two consecutive interviews where he was asked what his favourite food was.  In his Sedgefield constituency (a traditional mining community in the North East of England), he answered ‘fish and chips’ and in a trendy area of London ‘pasta and sun-dried tomatoes’.

Observing which foods people eat is a sure-fire indicator of class. Fish and chips, sausages (bangers) and mashed potatoes, frozen food, etc. for the working-class; foreign food – especially Italian – for the middle-class, and bangers and mash and English ‘nursery food’ for the upper-class.

Which brings me to my final point that the working-class and upper-class tend to have far more in common with each other, as D.H. Lawrence frequently observed, than either of them does with the middle class.

As well as a preference for plain, English food, the working-class and upper-class tend to have similar interests in sports (rugby, horse-racing, sports involving dogs); cars (tend to be older, and they are not so fussy about keeping them clean) and in many other areas beyond the scope of this blog, but described well in social anthropologist Kate Fox’s book ‘Watching the English’.

Above all, both working and upper-classes seem to be easier in their own skins than the middle-classes, who tend to be pre-occupied with what others think about them. Though the middle-class is essential to progress and, as Aristotle recognised, the basis of a successful society:

‘The most perfect political community must be amongst those who are in the middle rank, and those states are best instituted wherein these are a larger and more respectable part, if possible, than both the other; or, if that cannot be, at least than either of them separate.’

If you are not English, you have the luxury of by-passing the class issue in your dealings with us. You are not part of a game which is even more complicated than cricket. Yet to understand us, it is still relevant and important to get beneath the surface of this English obsession with where people are from and whom they know, not just what they know. But please do it in secret, and never ever mention it!

I am his Highness’ dog at Kew; pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?

Alexander Pope (1688-1744) English poet and satirist

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2 Responses

  1. nick vertigans says:

    Thanks Michael – great read.
    On the point of the working and upper classes having ‘far more in common with each other’, I’m imagining a greater display of enthusiasm from them towards the big wedding next week, while the middle classes make a point of polishing the new Lexus during the celebrations…
    -Nick

  2. Excellent post. Thank you very much. Happy Easter.

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