BOOK REVIEW / The baroness and the elephant's trunk: 'The Middle Class: 1900-1950' - Alan A Jackson: David St John Thomas, 22.50 pounds

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HAVE YOU heard the one about the baroness and the elephant? Shortly be-

fore the outbreak of the Second World War that quintessentially middle-class worthy, the late Baroness Wootton, saw the prize elephant of the Zoological

Society of London giving rides to children, and collecting coins in its trunk in return.

She was told that the creature earned pounds 600 a year, exactly her salary as director of studies to the University of London Tutorial Classes Committee. A decade later, she discovered that the person then holding her former post was being paid pounds 1,350. The elephant was on pounds 677 10s.

The apparently arbitrary and unfair introduction of differentials provoked her to write the influential work The Social Foundations of Wage Policy, which she published in 1955. It became a key text in the disastrous Macmillan-Wilson-Heath campaigns to plan wages 'scientifically' and to create a just and meritocratic society. Memories of the baroness and the elephant provoked me to make a rather similar calculation based on tables in Alan Jackson's new book.

When I was born, around the time the baroness-to-be was observing the elephant, the chairman of the London Passenger Transport Board - deemed by Mr Jackson a top-of-the-range, middle-class job - was earning pounds 12,500 pa. 'Railway clerks' were on pounds 224 in 1939, unskilled labourers earned pounds 135. In other words, the chairman made approximately 60 times as much as the blokes who issued the tickets. They, in turn, earned almost twice as much as the chaps who laid the track.

Today, the earnings differential between the chairman and chief executive of the London Transport Board and that of his white-collar staff is perhaps seven to one, while that between LT's clerical staff and its manual workers has narrowed significantly.

Jackson's delightful and detailed work harks back to that lost society in which financial and social differentials were wide, clearly defined and rigorously maintained - though they were eroding fast even by the middle of the century. Not merely are we all better off, in absolute terms, than were our parents and grandparents earlier in the century; but we are, financially and socially, members of a much more egalitarian and mobile nation than they could have imagined.

My main reservation is that the author has attempted to paint on a canvas which has proved to be too large. The Middle Classes opens soon after Mr Pooter was writing his diary of a nobody in a Holloway semi, and while the Forsytes were living in baronial splendour in their Bayswater mansion. The book closes only five years before Rock Around the Clock had the newly discovered creature, the classless teenager, slashing cinema seats from Dagenham to Oxford.

In practice, Jackson concentrates on the suburban middle-middle class in southern England between the wars, and he is not much interested in turning over stones to expose the dirt beneath. There is next to nothing here about adultery in the suburbs, about prostitution or homosexuality, no mention of child abuse or battered wives. There is no examination of the appeal of fascism and marxism.

The author is an upwardly mobile north London grammar-school boy, who made a very successful career in the Treasury and then became an expert in transport and social history. Despite the slight blurring of focus I have described, his latest work combines meticulous scholarship, amateur enthusiasm and an engaging and slightly old-fashioned gaucheness. Like the class and period from which Jackson springs and which he celebrates here, it is all fearfully British.

Take the apologia with which he introduces the absolutely riveting section on women's underwear. 'No apology is offered for the detailed consideration given to underwear. In the past this subject has usually been treated facetiously or inadequately, quite often inaccurately'.

Facetious or not, this is good stuff. You can without shame take it to your agreeable, middle-class villa in Tuscany, or pack it in your rucksack prior to a more ambitious route march through the Peloponnese.