A man for all Seasons

PEOPLE LIKE US: A Season Among the Upper Classes by Charles Jennings Little, Brown pounds 16.99

As Scott Fitzgerald nearly said: "The toffs are different from you and me." To which Ernest Hemingway almost replied: "Yes, they are more stupid."

This is certainly the conclusion to be drawn from this wickedly hilarious book. Society beaux and belles are indubitably bone-headed when you consider the amount of money lavished on their upbringing. The Hooray Henrys and Hallooing Henriettas encountered by Charles Jennings can't all have been born that way; enormous effort was expended upon making them so terrible. Ascot Men: "Too red, covered in blotches, teeth missing, corpse-like pallor." Ascot Women: "Visibly paralysed upper lips, numb with permanent, unhappy smiles - which must have helped with the accent." The Upper Class Voice: "A braying quality, a snotty, officer-class timbre to their guttural cries." Their conversation requires subtitles or simultaneous translation: "strawdinreh" for "extraordinary" and "Quinmahthah" for "Queen Mother".

Loopy, too, with dialogue straight out of Pinter: "Where's your lady wife?" "Arabella?" "Arabella." "Arabella. She's over there." "Oh, right, she's over there." Jennings swears that he took it all down accurately. Without the silver spoon in the mouth at birth, some of these characters would be sleeping in cardboard boxes, not stepping over them on the way to the opera.

This is a mirror-image of George Orwell. Instead of an Old Etonian mingling with the down and out of Paris and London, this is a suburbanite looking up at the nobs: the road to Wigan peer. While Orwell was horrified at the conditions inflicted on the poor, Jennings is amazed at the conditions the rich inflict upon themselves.

The mission he set himself was to join in the class warfare as a an undercover agent. He had to infiltrate, like a plucky British agent sneaking into WWII Germany, the alien terrain of Tatler and Country Life. Hailing from a minor public school and Oxford, he is a middle-class suburbanite, mingling with the mighty performers in the social calendar. But this is no Marxist tract. Jennings merely calculates that hereditary peers make up one per 80,000 of the population, yet one in ten of the richest 500. The class of 1997 is very different from the class of 1897; but not as different as it might be.

The more he encounters People Like Us, the more he is made to feel he is not like them. Despite his academic degree, he lacks the social degree. He is physically outside looking into the Royal Enclosure and socially the wrong side of the invisible barrier that separates gentlefolk from players. Your heart goes out to him as he enters the gilded ballroom in his cut-price camouflage. He signs up for a shootin' party and ends up as a beater.

It may well be that the Harpers & Queen Book of the Season, through which he worked his way, was to blame. Somehow its Seasonal list was a little short of concerts given by counts, seminars on Wittgenstein led by Lloyds underwriters and weekend workshops on the arms trade in Scottish estates. Instead, he dutifully turned up at Cowes, Tattersalls Yearling Sales, uncharitable charity balls, polo matches and other Hooray events.

Even more depressing than the actual nobs themselves is the fact that they become role models for a new generation of jumped-up grocers and revved-up garage owners who want to buy themselves a bit of the class action. Parvenus splash out on a smart wife and beget children who are sent away to be snubbed at expensive boarding schools, eventually becoming role models for the next generation of garagistes.

Oddly enough, there are some perfectly agreeable members of the upper classes. Conversely, books could be written - and have been - mocking the foibles of the middle and working classes. It's just that aristocrats fancy themselves as several cuts above the rest.

Aristocracy means "rule by the best". Over the centuries there has been no lack of ruling; it's the bit about "best" that has always seemed dubious. People Like Us makes it rilly laughable, too.

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