Now Princess Margaret is seen as the Posh Alternative

'The middle classes move on, neurotically seeking one version after another of the vulgar pleasures'
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The Independent Online

The posh Alternative put in two particularly good appearances this week. The phenomenon is a familiar one, and not very difficult to predict or to identify. You can guarantee that any really large-scale popular event will first attract, then repel, the Posh. Rather than drop it altogether, however, the ingenious solution is always to find some other, very similar version, which the lower classes won't see the point of. They watch EastEnders; we listen to The Archers. That's quite different.

It's rather fascinating, because it displays an urge both to belong and to distinguish yourself from everyone else; to be both discerning and to display the same approved tastes. It also demonstrates, in a week when questions of snobbery and class distinctions were much on our minds, quite how pervasive social class is, and how strongly it directs even the most trivial judgements and thoughts.

For anyone except her family and friends, Princess Margaret's death was not really an occasion for great mourning; she had been ill for some time and had withdrawn from what had never been a very extensive public life to such a degree that, really, this was not to be considered any of our business. She was an upper-class woman, whose life may or may not have been what she would have wished, but so removed from the throne that her death had almost no public implications. I believe that Lord Linley is now 11th in line to the throne, rather than 12th, and there are some questions of public expenditure roughly equivalent to the closing of a social security office in Guildford, but that is about it. Immensely sad for her family and friends; and for the rest of us, nothing but an excuse for large quantities of prurient and impertinent speculation about whether she had sex with Peter Sellers or not.

That, however, is to overlook the power of the Posh Alternative. On the death of the Princess of Wales, there was a crucial feeling of outrage among the upper middle classes that the whole event had been hijacked by the great unwashed, and an unspoken feeling of how-dare-they. Forgetting that a royal funeral, as much as a wedding, is a brilliant edition of a universal fact, they openly resented the fact that they could not express their sentiment then for fear of being thought vulgar.

Princess Margaret, however, is a terrific Posh Alternative, since the lower classes are plainly not that bothered about her. In the last week, one has heard and read a lot of people talking effusively about what a marvellous woman she was, how kind and easy and hardworking. No doubt true in part, but it is difficult to reconcile with previous coverage.

My only Princess Margaret story is more traditional; a friend, on a sofa with her after dinner, was slowly lured by her charm into being rather too relaxed. Suddenly the smile disappeared, the shutters came down. "Could you move six inches in that direction," the daughter of the Emperor of India said. "It's rather hot in here."

The point is not whether she was nice or nasty, or, like most people, a bit of both, but that now she serves the fabulous end of being the Posh Alternative. If, of course, the lower classes ever did take up Princess Margaret, social climbers would all have to move on to something else – probably batter the Duchess of Gloucester to death with General Trading Company bags or something. Pop Idol, the search-for-a-star show, did seem to have produced one fine example of the phenomenon in William Young; he went to public school and university, he had an educated accent, and, best of all, he couldn't stand Abba. But the crucial point was everyone thought he was going to lose.

Alas, he won. The working classes, it turned out, liked him perfectly well, and the newspapers and chattering classes which, not entirely ironically, had been rooting for him had to drop him like a hot brick. It was OK to watch television as low as Pop Idol because you were doing it ironically, and, besides, you had a posh candidate whom no one else had noticed.

The middle classes move on like locusts, neurotically seeking one version after another of the vulgar pleasures they'd rather like to indulge in. Italy was posh Spain; Turkey was posh Greece; Kerala was posh Goa; Cézanne was posh Monet; cocaine was posh speed; and Blur was posh Oasis. But, damn them, the lower orders keep catching up; the middle classes have been chased from Tuscany to Umbria to the Marches and pretty soon will be falling into the sea like a lot of social-climbing lemmings.

The only way forward, I fear, is to admit that your tastes and enthusiasms are just as vulgar and awful as everyone else's and go and enjoy them without feeling embarrassed about it. The alternative is to develop some interests of your own and read books and see films for some reason other than wanting the approval of a dinner party, but that's obviously not going to happen. Oh, and just stop saying what a marvellous woman Princess Margaret was – you didn't know her, for Christ's sake.

hensherp@dircon.co.uk

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