DJ Taylor: We are all snobs

Evelyn Waugh and the subtle gradations of class ... the origins of slang ... a pick’n’mix Cabinet ... and conceding defeat disgracefully

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The reviews of Mad World, Paula Byrne's entertaining study of the origins of Brideshead Revisited, have tended to dwell on two questions: whether Evelyn Waugh was a snob; and – the first question not delaying anyone for very long – what kind of a snob was he? This, after all, was a man who, when a viscount was thought to be keen on marrying one of his daughters, instructed her to "accept unless he is positively repellent to you".

But Waugh's social climbing was not clear cut. Neither was he over-awed by certain figures before whom most social climbers would cheerfully abase themselves in the dirt. There is a wonderful story of his being invited, sometime in the late 1940s, to meet Queen Elizabeth, then wife of the reigning monarch George VI, who had expressed admiration for his work. The meeting took place in the house of a mutual friend who, defying the constraints of post-war privation, offered champagne to drink. "Champagne," the Queen enthused, "what luxury!" It was all too much for Waugh. Outraged by royalty's failure to match the exalted standards he expected from them (that is, having champagne on tap), he is said to have bellowed the single word "Luxury?" and then fallen silent, thereby blowing his chance of preferment.

As Waugh's reaction demonstrates, British social life is not so much class-based as governed by a series of minute distinctions, more or less impenetrable to anyone not in the know.

I was having dinner with an earl's son not long back when he embarked on the arresting thesis that the present Queen is "middle class". Should that sound ridiculous, then the same point was repeatedly made a century and a half ago of Queen Victoria. In the same way, it is perfectly possible to talk about a "middle-class baronet" or a "smart jockey" – gradations of status that left-wing analyses of the class system have rarely been able to comprehend.

Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time sequence has a pair of characters named General and Mrs Conyers who are said to live "unpretentiously" in circles connected with the 1930s court. On one level the words "unpretentious courtier" sound as oxymoronic as "soft-spoken reality TV star" or "sagacious supermodel", but once Powell has defined his terms of reference, the description is entirely plausible. The beauty of this search for exact social placement is that it extends right down to society's lower rungs. My father always implied that the council-estate housewives of his childhood were as obsessed with status as any penniless Spanish duke.

***

As a connoisseur of slang, I followed this week's debate about the high-octane US TV import The Wire with keen interest. Kicking off with a suggestion that the series ought to have subtitles, owing to the incomprehensibility of its dialogue, the controversy had now blossomed into a full-scale argument about the unfamiliar idiom. One US viewer went so far as to assure readers of The Independent that most Americans didn't use a "burner" but a cellphone. Neither did they "crew up" or "re-up", whatever that means. In fact, "the language used ... is as foreign to us as, say, looking right before crossing the street or asking for the 'loo' when one would like to use the restroom".

All this ought to remind anyone interested in the roots of slang that whereas some of it originates spontaneously on street corners or in pub doorways ("chav", "pram-face", etc) a whole lot more of it is dragged on to the printed page by people who have expressly sat down to fabricate it. One or two of the early critics of Martin Amis's Money, in which the hero John Self sashays out of his "sock" (ie, flat) for a "rug rethink" (a haircut), wondered who exactly spoke like that and what kind of outré circles Amis had been mixing in to enable him to disinter it. The answer is that nobody did, except Amis and his friend Christopher Hitchens. It was the same with the American detective Kinky Friedman, who used to "nail a checker right out of the bat", which I always assumed to mean "took the first taxi available from the rank".

The intensely hard-boiled thrillers of the 1930s novelist James Curtis (The Gilt Kid, They Drive By Night and others) rate several hundred citations in Eric Partridge's slang dictionaries – "ackamaracka" for tea, "galloping the antelope" for masturbation, and so on. The curious thing about these dazzling additions to the word hoard is that, by and large, they are the only citations. The suspicion is that Curtis simply made them up to give colour to his books.

***

With Parliament in recess, the newspapers have been full of their customary seasonal complaints about the calibre of the modern political establishment. Ominously, this year's laments have extended way beyond the competence of the present government to take in the political class as a whole. Their conclusions have not generally been very edifying. Labour, everyone seems agreed, is dying on its feet, bereft of ideas and energy. The Tories are not much better, well led by a sharp operator but full of dead wood and backbench embarrassments. Next summer's intake of new MPs – which some estimates put as high as 250 – clearly can't come soon enough.

At a time when the average MP is regarded as a kind of nest-feathering halfwit, it is worth asking what that mythical "government of all the talents", which well-meaning people sometimes go on about, might look like in practice – a succession of ministerial appointments made, against all political precedent, purely on merit. Here am I, for example, trying desperately to find a reason for voting Labour in 2010, but darkly conscious that Michael Gove would make a much better secretary of state for education than the present incumbent, and Vince Cable a much better chancellor than his current vis-à-vis. David Willetts, a Tory, can't be given the university system to look after soon enough, while any incoming prime minister worth his salt would bring back Frank Field (invited to "think the unthinkable" by Tony Blair in 1997 and sacked for doing exactly that) as minister for pensions and social security.

If the cherry-picker principle sounds alien to orthodox conceptions of government, then it should be remembered that there are hardly any genuine ideological separations left in British politics and that people are happy enough using it in other parts of their lives, reading one newspaper for its sport, say, and another for its politics. The novelist William Cooper used to cause a sensation in his Putney newsagent in the 1990s by buying a copy of The Sunday Times, detaching the books section, and then ostentatiously tipping the rest into the bin.

***

Without wanting to sound like A S Byatt, as featured in the "Summer Reading" spoof of the current edition of Private Eye, the narratives of sport – showcased in TV coverage of the World Athletics Championships from Berlin – are endlessly contested. Like politics, sport's great fascination is that it never stops, is always being re-populated, redefined and reconfigured into tantalising new shapes. One incidental amusement of the Berlin coverage has been the faint air of prickliness discernible in the reaction of certain grand eminences to the tide of emerging new talent.

Traditionally, former world champions are expected to offer polite encouragement to the rising generation: "promising material", "could go right to the top". With the now-retired world triple-jump record holder Jonathan Edwards and new world champion Phillips Idowu, though, I detected just the faintest hint of needle, the thought that it was time to "walk the walk" as well as "talk the talk". Michael Johnson, the former world 200 metres record holder, confronted with the spectacle of Usain Bolt, was even less conciliatory. Would he have liked to race against Bolt, somebody wondered. Sure, and Bolt wouldn't have won all the races either, Johnson fizzed back. For a moment the narratives of the sporting commentary box seemed quite as contested as the sport itself.

***

The "revolt into style" – the poet Thom Gunn's shorthand for the process whereby the biz chews up, commercialises and renders harmless any nascent rebellion in the world of rock 'n'roll – was never nearer to hand than in this week's electricity bill. "Down" began a highlighted E.On flyer advertising some price adjustment or other, "Down". A line of rubric followed, then the highlighted word "Cheaper". More lines of copy, then "And Down".

What do we have here? Why, nothing less than a version of Status Quo's number one single "Down Down" from 1975, over which Francis, Rick and the boys, fresh from their appearance at Glastonbury, must be warmly congratulating themselves. By a sad coincidence, Blur's "Girls and Boys" is currently being used to plug the gender-separated schedules of weekend CITV. I don't suppose anyone is taking bets, but John Lydon's knighthood can't be far off.

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