Brian Viner: Will the British ever break free of class?

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The Independent Online

A headline in Tuesday's Independent was arresting. "Miner's son invited to sing Otello by Placido Domingo," it said, and it struck only the pedants among us that a better headline might have been: "Miner's son invited by Placido Domingo to sing Otello." After all, it was not the Spanish tenor but the Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi who was responsible for the opera based on Shakespeare's play.

What the text revealed was that 49-year-old Ian Storey – who last month became the first British performer in many years to open the new season at La Scala in Milan, in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde – is actually the grandson of a miner. His father was a coal board clerk.

Nonetheless, Mr Storey's humble origins among the collieries of County Durham were plainly what gave the story its worth as a news item. And that brings me to the subject of Britishness, because in other countries, not least Italy, it would be neither here nor there that a fellow from a humble background had risen to sing – in front of six prime ministers and presidents, no less – at La Scala.

To cite an obvious example, the late Luciano Pavarotti was a baker's son. So what, even an Englishman might think. But only because he was Italian. Had Pavarotti come not from Modena but from Manchester or Minchinhampton or Merthyr Tydfil, his artisan antecedents would have defined him, almost more than his exquisite talent.

Of course, the British obsession with class has diminished since the days when John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett lampooned it so brilliantly on The Frost Report – "I look up to him because he is upper-class... but I look down on him because he is lower-class" – but not nearly as much as we like to think. It has also acquired a curious new dynamic, which might these days be represented by Corbett, standing on a large box, saying: "I look down on him because he is upper-class... and I look down on him because he is middle-class."

The Conservative leader David Cameron is a victim of this shift. He is an Old Etonian and by definition out of touch with the needs of ordinary people, remains the verdict of even some intelligent folk, who consider him the very embodiment of a class-ridden society. But it is they who are preoccupied with class, not he. There is now as much inverted snobbery in British society as the conventional sort, which admittedly may not be a bad thing, because it at least shows a society trying to address its traditional foibles and perhaps over-egging the pudding (which I'm quite sure Pavarotti's father never did).

A snob, incidentally, is defined in my Reader's Digest Universal Dictionary as "one who overvalues rank or status, and despises his supposed inferiors" and I am mindful that there might even be one or two people who feel a slight snobbish twinge towards me for owning a Reader's Digest Universal Dictionary. After all, snobbery comes in many forms: intellectual, social, racial, moral, political, even geographical.

I had not come across geographical snobbery until about six years ago, when I moved from London to the Welsh Marches. But it is an unexpectedly widespread form of prejudice, whereby country folk look down on city folk for being so damn metropolitan, and city folk turn up their noses at country-dwellers for being such bumpkins. These two groups have very little in common, except a disdain for England's vast swathes of suburbia.

It is metropolitan liberals, though, who are in many ways the worst snobs of all. To them, the notional land they call Middle England is a hotbed of reactionary conservatism, a land of Hyacinth Buckets and a deeply-held if rarely-articulated belief in the innate superiority of white over black, of Englishman over Frenchman, of St George over St Andrew.

But in sneering at Middle England they display precisely the traits they claim to despise; judging other people not by the colour of their skin but by where they choose to live, or whether they are members of golf clubs, or what newspapers they read. This is where the liberal claim on the moral high ground founders.

As for the actual high ground, I'm pleased to say that, like me (a bookie's son), "miner's son" Ian Storey lives out here in the Herefordshire hills. Not that he's going to be around too much these next few years. "Dubbed the Billy Elliot of opera, Storey now has engagements booked at opera houses around the world until 2013," Tuesday's paper informed us. Maybe, having already produced a musical of Billy Elliot, someone could now compose the opera, and Storey could play the dad. But that might be oddly unsettling. This class-fixated nation's interest in him as a news item derives from him getting away from his roots, not returning to them.