Books: What a load of merchant bankers

Harry Pearson ticks off a toff-baiter
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People Like Us: a season among the upper classes by Charles Jennings, Little, Brown, pounds 15.99

Many years ago, I lived just around the corner from Lord's Cricket Ground. One weekend, when my father was down from the north-east on business, we went to the Eton vs Harrow match. The weather was not good and neither was the cricket, but the admission price was more than justified when, fortified by the endless supply of drink in the parental hampers, a group of 50 or so floppy-haired youths set up a raucous chant of "Eton are wankers". "Well," my dad said gleefully, "that's not something you'd ever hear at Headingley."

During the course of People Like Us, his odyssey through the world of the upper classes, Charles Jennings also visits the Eton vs Harrow match, directed there by Lady Celestria Noel's Harpers & Queen Book of the Season. This social Baedecker guides him to Royal Ascot, Henley, the Burghley Horse Trials and Queen Charlotte's Ball, among other events.

Jennings's experience at Lord's is similar to my own. The match proves to be that incontrovertibly blue-blooded mixture of impeccable manners and yobbishness which lends weight to the view that the difference between "horseplay" and "hooliganism" is whether the perpetrator pronounces his aitches or not. For Jennings, the afternoon culminates not in songs about onanism, but when his friend answers an upper-crust old coot's inquiry about the identity of the umpire with: "He's got a white coat on, and he's got a face as brown as a tinker's nut bag."

The match is the high point of People Like Us. Which is a pity, not only because it comes only a third of the way through this slim book, but also because what has preceded it is really very funny. The book begins brightly with Jennings neatly identifying the peculiar inverted snobbery of the English, to whom "Posh people ... start where I leave off". (Jennings indulges in quite a bit of this social self-deprecation himself, telling us, among other things, how he "tricked" his way into Oxford. But did you ever meet an Oxford or Cambridge graduate who got in on merit?)

There are some entertaining tales extracted from the diaries of James Lees-Milne. And a bizarre conversation with an upper-class woman about the bourgeois clanger of saying "some coffee" rather than "a cup of coffee" leads to a pin-sharp dissection of the high-class habit of dropping out in a way which only serves to further emphasise your privilege. It concludes with a deft filleting of Tony Benn: "If he'd really wanted to leave Viscount Stansgate behind, he'd have run a newsagents or found a position designing bituminised garages, instead of doing the obvious and becoming daffy officer material in the vanguard of the proletarian army. These patricians only give up the perks of high birth when they die."

There is a funny story, too, from a prep school master (who tells Jennings that the little boys' sports jackets were made of such stout tweed that they stood up on their own) and a stream of accurate and amusing observations about upper-class voices during a day at Ascot. After the trip to Lord's, however, the whole thing rather fizzles out. Jennings maintains an impressive level of outrage (despite a vague feeling of envy that begins to overtake him at a Sloane Ranger's birthday party) but the social events soon begin to blur into one another. The toffs, almost uniformly vacuous and repellent, work hard to confirm Henry Miller's assertion that only the great resemble one another.

The problem, I think, lies with Jennings's choice of subject. Ridicule, however well-aimed, can only carry a writer so far. In his first book, Up North, Jennings travelled beyond the Watford Gap and was rude about what he found. In People Like Us he takes a similar approach to the aristocracy. The result is not broad enough to sustain an entire book.

In being nasty first about northerners and now the upper classes, the author may think he is living dangerously. But in England - particularly educated, middle-class England - contempt is always the safest opinion to express. Jennings is a sharp-eyed and witty writer. Next time he should really take his life in his hands and write about something he likes.

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