DJ Taylor: Social mobility's a dance that goes round in circles. Best not go compare...

Where you get to is largely decided by where you start, a situation that rising tuition fees will enforce. But the late Claire Rayner was an exception.

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The rich have always had their defenders.

You sometimes get the feeling that even when Our Lord was expounding the parable of Dives and Lazarus, there would have been somebody at hand to remark that actually Dives was a jolly good chap who gave lots of money to the Lower Hebron Distressed Streetsweepers' Fund but didn't like to brag about it in public. The curious thing about the praetorian guard that assembles around any wealthy person whenever there seems a faint chance that this wealth may be fractionally reduced, is that it tends to consist of people who are not particularly well-heeled themselves: genuinely disinterested forelock-tuggers, like the unemployed Americans featured on last week's BBC News at Ten complaining that the jobless get too many hand-outs. This being the case, it hasn't been in the least surprising, amid the banker-baiting clamour for "fairness" and everyone having to make sacrifices, to find a few reedy voices raised in the plutocrats' defence.

This kind of argument usually takes two forms. On the one hand, there is the trickle-down idea. Donald Trump, it is cautiously asserted, may be a bone-headed environmental despoiler, but at least his wretched luxury golf course will bring jobs to the blighted north-east of Scotland. On the other there is the high moral line which contends that people who complain about the fat incomes enjoyed by the topmost echelon of society are simply motivated by envy. Dominic Lawson, for example, offered an eloquent version of this approach in Tuesday's Independent, in which he talked of the "resentment which the public continues to feel towards those they feel to be unduly rewarded by good fortune".

But the "politics of envy" tag seems to me to misunderstand the principle on which so much modern life is based. It is not that the majority of the population dislikes rich people being rich: like the last-but-one prime minister, they are immensely relaxed about it, and the old sentimental-socialist theories of redistribution are dead in the water. What irks them is that the "equality of opportunity" that most politicians publicly promote is so conspicuously flawed that it might almost have been designed to deny most of that population any chance of social or economic advancement. To particularise, I was at college with several people who became stockbrokers, and one of the reasons they pursued this no doubt honourable calling was that their fathers were stockbrokers, or that they knew other people who were.

To particularise even further, Mr Lawson, a columnist on our sister paper, was an excellent editor of The Spectator and The Sunday Telegraph, but it can't be that his progress into the upper reaches of British journalism was exactly hampered by his father's being Chancellor of the Exchequer. A few self-made entrepreneurial mavericks aside, what one does in life is still pretty much, to borrow the title of that Anthony Powell novel, a question of upbringing. No one minds the rich man's Derby winner. What annoys other race-goers is the complex social process that denies their horses entry to the paddock.

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As the battle over undergraduate tuition fees continues to rage, and the nation's Lib Dem MPs sit coyly examining their consciences, there couldn't be a better time to ask a question that most educationists, and even so far-reaching a thinker as the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, disdain to answer: what is a university for? The traditional answer used to be to educate its students, but this now sounds horribly old-fashioned. The last vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia used to justify his establishment's continual expansion on economic grounds. The UEA brought money into Norwich: therefore it was a good thing. A cynic might contend that the last government's 50 per cent target for the number of young people in further education was a piece of sleight-of-hand designed to keep them off the dole queue. All these claims have their merits, but above all things universities are apparently there to promote social mobility.

And how is one to encourage aspiring teenagers from poor homes to apply to universities at a time when the £3,290 cap on tuition fees is being lifted, possibly to as much as £7,000? There is talk of variable interest rates for student loans, pegged to future earnings. The Prime Minister himself has remarked that "on all sides, those of us who want well-funded universities, bright children from poor homes being able to go to these universities, universities that can be the best in the world – we need change". One change we could really do with is for politicians to stop pretending that social mobility won't cost a great deal of money. If Mr Gove was really serious about it, he could start by selecting a few thousand bright but impoverished 18 year-olds, installing them in the UK's best universities and paying them full grants.

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The book I most enjoyed reading this week was Kiss Me Chudleigh, a selection from the writings of Auberon Waugh (1939-2001), chosen by William Cook. Its title, as Waugh-fanciers will know, refers to the words spoken by Waugh to a regimental sergeant-major as he sprawled in the dust having fired six machinegun bullets through his own chest. One of Mr Cook's achievements in assembling this compilation has been to select some of his hero's lesser-known journalism, and in particular a few of the pieces he wrote for the New Statesman in the early 1970s.

The NS was not, of course, Waugh's natural home, but he enjoyed the experience of "writing against the grain of the paper" as he put it, and composing articles which might interest its specimen reader, envisaged by Waugh as an unmarried schoolmistress living in Coventry. Sadly, Mr Cook doesn't print the famous article in which Waugh, ensconced in the first-class carriage of a crowded train with a second-class ticket, and noting the reluctance of the other second-class ticket-holders in the thronged corridor to join him, deduces that there can never be a revolution in England, but what he does include makes a good case for a journalistic maxim that the present age could advantageously revive.

Opening last Saturday's Guardian, for example, where the usual suspects were assembled to dilate on "the cuts", I decided that its singular drawback was that one knew in advance what everyone would be saying. What The Guardian needs are more against-the-grainers – if not a new Auberon Waugh then someone like the NS's other exponent of the form, the late Arthur Marshall, whose "Musings from Myrtlebank" survived well into the 1980s. Marshall was eventually sacked by the editor, Bruce Page, for greeting him with the words "Isn't Mrs Thatcher doing splendidly?"

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To read the obituaries of the agony aunt Claire Rayner, who died last week, was to be struck by a quality seldom displayed by agony aunts, or indeed journalists of any kind – reticence about one's own life. Born into a tough East End household, regularly beaten up by her termagant mother and, as a teenager, forced to endure many months in a psychiatric hospital, she kept quiet about her childhood traumas until an appearance on In the Psychiatrist's Chair. Even then, the tears remained on the cutting-room floor. Not until the publication of her autobiography, when she was in her early seventies, did she finally satisfy her public's curiosity.

The misery memoir is such a staple of the modern entertainer's repertoire that one wonders at this silence. A celebrity's reluctance to discuss his or her early life generally has two explanations: a) that they did something discreditable; or b) that it doesn't accord with the personal myth subsequently developed around them. Or as an incredulous Labour MP once remarked of the late Roy Jenkins: "If my father had been a Welsh miner imprisoned during the General Strike, you'd never have heard the last of it." With Ms Rayner it seems to have been a case of that increasingly rare thing, personal dignity.

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Watching the latest Go Compare advert, in which the twirly-moustached tenor can be found cavorting in Tutankhamen's tomb, I suddenly experienced an almost Proustian twinge of recognition, a twitch on the cultural thread leading back into an absolutely dust-covered cranny of past time. Then, noting the two mournful, tunic-clad, comic dancer sidekicks, I realised where it came from. In fact, the ad is a spirited homage to Wilson, Keppel and Betty, an inter-war variety act featuring Jack Wilson and Joe Keppel, along with nearly a dozen different "Bettys" – who were criticised by Goebbels, who thought their bare legs "bad for the morals of the Nazi youth". They retired from the stage as late as 1963. All of which confirms my long-held belief that, even now in the hi-tech 21st century, most of the roots of British entertainment curl up from the old-style variety hall.

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