So, I buy my knickers at Bentalls
Thursday 08 October 1998
It was not hard to resist the offers but he did have a point. If you are, as I am, an immigrant, even if you grew up under the imperial sun where we were forced to learn not only much of Shakespeare but all Shaw's plays off by heart, (my English teacher took us to see the film, My Fair Lady, three times) the manifestations of class in this country are maddeningly hard to fathom and almost impossible to accept.
But I am convinced that although Prince Edward has declared the British class system dead, class underpins almost everything. Snobbery reinvents itself in different forms to keep this going. Just look at the last two decades, when meritocracy seemed finally to be replacing heredity. We had three Tory Prime Ministers in a row who were born of small grocers or circus folk yet snobs have continued to proliferate and pontificate. I sometimes think that John Major's utterance about a classless society is what made him lose all credibility not only with traditionalists but all the new yuppie upstarts who came from nowhere like him, but who wanted more than anything else to be the people who had acquired the right to join other snobs.
One has grown used to old snobs; a man like Alan Clarke who carries on as if he is born to pluck any rosy, peasant girl who takes his fancy. Or even those like the Peregrine Worsthorne and AN Wilson who have snobbery thrust upon them. But what I find much less palatable are those who set out to achieve snobbery and class distinction.
High amongst these I would put the irrepressible Jonathan Glancey, who wrote this week in The Guardian that those who buy food in supermarkets and their furniture in Ikea are beneath contempt. These are the cases who do not buy "chairs by Phillipe Starck or lamps by Ingo Maurer [because] they are too challenging or too expensive".
I stand condemned. I don't even know these designer names. What's more I buy my leggings from Dorothy Perkins and my plain white underwear from Bentalls. At a recent trendy seminar I was asked by a very thin woman artist what my "divine" jacket was. A little puzzled, I replied: "A jacket". Silence set in like a fog thereafter.
The snobs' snob among these style gurus is Stephen Bayley, the man who this week managed somehow to make Peter Mandelson appear open and democratic. Bayley, who thinks voodoo blood rites daily take place in Brixton, was arguing that the Dome project was doomed because it was aiming to be just too common for words.
Now snobbery is of course universal and, as Auden said, there's snobbery in every age. As an East African Asian I grew up with a community all too conscious of status. You are as significant as your bank balance, your Mercedes, the money you spend on the family weddings. As in the US, you can become a somebody and fall from grace but it is only money which can make either happen and the possibility for mobility exists. You can overtake the Joneses or Joshis and, if you do, you will win admiration.
What is so strange on this island is that it is not only money, or a private education, or your residential area but how successfully you can keep the Joneses and Joshis away from you which makes you a somebody. You see this new, ungenerous snobbery everywhere. Food snobs who cannot swallow a morsel unless they know that it cost a fortune; food writers who insist you must use eggs from chickens who have been taken on holiday to Provence just as ordinary punters begin to buy Delia Smith; television wallahs who endlessly film people from Essex on holiday; summer time Tuscans; those who laugh at Bill Gates; academics who deride the poly-turned-university. Goalposts are shamelessly moved, too. In 1997 a study showed that Oxbridge overtly discriminated against Asian children who went to public schools.
Worst of all though is the political snobbery which is infesting public life at the moment. People who matter include(d) jerks like Derek Draper and you learn to know them because they don't even engage with you at the level of prejudice or disdain. They do not see you, according to one who knows, those who have been deemed outsiders are dismissed as "below the radar".
Sadly in New Britain, lacking class consciousness does not make you wildly desirable; only a sorry old reject with no style or voice. Maybe I should have grabbed the chance when I had it.
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