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Getting in touch with my inner snob

IT IS always something of a surprise when the Britain's smoothest man pops up on TV, as if he were still at the centre of national life. Didn't he use to be Cecil Parkinson? Something rather big in the Eighties, a spot of bother with an affair? What on earth is he up to these days?

Yet his most recent appearance, striding self-consciously down a street in Bournemouth last week, offering a few drawled comments to journalists, proved that not only has Cecil survived while the Normans and Johns of yesteryear have faded like a bad memory, but he is utterly unchanged: the slicked-back hair, now a distinguished silvery grey, the effortfully plummy vocal tones, the trim hacking-jacket, too immaculate to be entirely convincing, the general air of a suburban type with hot squirearchical yearnings.

Snobbish? Of course. It's not Parkinson who shocks, but the reaction that he provokes. Here we are, in classless Britain, having outgrown the tiresome prejudices of the past, and yet, confronted by the innocent smarmy pretentiousness of a politician who simply wants to be a natural- born twiller in the Carrington/ Hurd/Clark mode, I find myself unable to concentrate on the man's finer qualities. I'm hobbled with class-consciousness.

Having always assumed that I was above such things, being as essentially classless as Paddy Ashdown or Peter Mandelson, I feel deeply ashamed. No doubt I should consider checking into a detox clinic for the elimination of inappropriate social attitudes, get in touch with my inner snob. Do I find it funny that Jeffrey Archer greets his guests with the words: "Have a glass of Krug champagne?" Yes, I do. Am I amused by the story of Enoch Powell earnestly following hounds, and having to be put back in the saddle at the tiniest obstacle? I'm afraid so. What about the picture of Evelyn Waugh, posing, pop-eyed and affronted, in what he presumably believed to be a lordly manner, wearing a hideous, loud check suit? Or the famous shot of AN Wilson in a self-consciously fogeyish wing-collar, riding a bike? Sorry. I just can't help it.

It's not class that interests me, but the attempt to escape from it. For good or ill, a person's wish to disguise or play down background is an unavoidable indicator of personality. Listen, for example, to Prince Charles and to Prince Edward, and you will quickly realise that, while one has elected to talk with the clenched inarticulacy of his forebears, the other, with precisely the same background, talks, well, normally. It is a decision that casts light on their respective characters.

Surely it is odd that social class still makes us uneasy. From Wilson to Thatcher to Blair, the political process has, quite rightly, broken down barriers, but now the very subject seems to have become taboo.

Several reviewers of Jeremy Paxman's new book, The English, have taken him to task for not tackling the issue, while at the same time paying lip-service to the new orthodoxy. "Class is the English pox," a pious Godfrey Smith wrote in The Sunday Times.

Class-phobia is most evident in contemporary fiction. When the best-selling writer Nicholas Evans last week told a reporter that the reason why The Horse Whisperer was located in America was that it "would have been class- dominated if I had set it in Britain", he joined an exclusive club. The two other most successful middle-class British writers of his generation, Louis de Bernieres and Sebastian Faulks, have similarly preferred to write about abroad or the past, and have given the same reason in interviews. Each needed to escape the oppression of class in British society.

Clearly, to judge by the success of their novels, it worked; readers, too, prefer stories set elsewhere. Other authors, from Pat Barker to Rose Tremain, have similarly achieved their greatest critical and commercial successes with historical fiction, where social attitudes are safely behind the glass display case of the past. Even Martin Amis casts his eyes longingly across the Atlantic and, in his fiction, seems happiest when he takes his characters abroad, preferably to America.

This nervousness is evident elsewhere: in the BBC's new obsession with regional presenters, which neatly sidesteps the problem of accent, and in the fondness of film and TV producers for costume dramas.

Yet a consciousness of the peculiar, ever-changing social make-up of Britain can enhance work. Amis proved it recently with State of England, by far the best short story from his new collection. Class discomfort, agony even, is central of the best and truest situation comedies, from Fawlty Towers to Rab C Nesbitt, just as it is an essential part of such drama series as Our Friends from the North. The fact is, class still pays a part in our lives; maybe it's time we learnt to live with it.