Simon Carr: Without the right contacts, you'll never get Graham Norton on the phone

In networking terms, you wouldn’t ask a networker for a celebrity’s number

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No one likes a networker. It's like "courtier". That's a word never used positively in Britain. And yet the bourgeoisie is at it like knives, and presumably we always have been.

Though it's worth saying at the outset that the Old Boy network wasn't quite a network as currently understood. That, I think, was more like a neighbourhood; more of a community than a trading floor. Before my time. Out of my ken too, if truth be told. I might have watched it resentfully, from my strictly defined place in the system, just out of reach.

No, the modern network was what we used to call having "contacts". Some people were "useful contacts". You might meet them for a drink if you were passing by after work. Or one of the regulars worked in the Passport Office. That could be handy if you came to grief in Cairo.

But I don't think you'd want to be the "contact" yourself. If someone with a drawl were to introduce you to Muff or Dandy as "a contact of mine" – you'd flick his nose, wouldn't you? "Ah, Oofy dear boy, let me introduce you to a contact of mine ... Ow! You damned oik! Let go of my nose!"

Anyway, a judge recently told the Radio 4 programme PM that the middle classes had it easier in the professions because they had the networks already in place to work with. Working-class lawyers had it harder because their fathers hadn't been to school with the higher benches.

And it must be true – it must be easier getting started when you have godfathers, colleagues of parents already in the profession, school friends out there. It does help. It may only open the door, but it does open the door. You get work experience and you need that sort of thing because these days, people don't talk to you unless they know you. And that personal exclusivity might be worse than it used to be.

Back in the early 1980s, for instance, I rang up Enoch Powell's house for reasons I no longer remember. A very starchy voice answered the phone. It barked, "Yes?" I said what I wanted. She didn't ask who I was. She bellowed up the stairs, "ENOCHHHH!" and then returned to me, with no softening, "He's just coming," and put the phone down on the table.

Twenty-five years later, after the modernisation and democratisation of Britain, I wanted Graham Norton to do some voice work for a project. Knowing I'd never be able to speak to him directly I rang up his agent. I didn't realise his agent wouldn't speak to me directly either. Not having my own agent to speak to his agent I rang up the agency number – and didn't get past the switchboard. "What do you want to speak to him for?" the girl asked. (She meant Norton's agent.) "It's some voice work," I said. She covered the phone for a moment and came back, "It's £20,000." And when I protested that she didn't know what the voice work was I was asking for, she said, "It's £20,000 whatever it is."

A network would have helped that a bit, you'd think? You'd think it would help. "Tell Graham's agent that a friend of Gary Farrow is calling." But she'd know that an actual friend of Gary Farrow wouldn't be ringing Graham's agent's switchboard line. Even putting such a call through to an answering machine would have her sacked.

I must know people who know Graham Norton. That would be just two degrees of separation. But in networking terms, you wouldn't ask a networker for a celebrity's phone number. I happen to know someone who knows Hugh Grant. But imagine the faux pas of asking for Hugh's mobile. I'm not sure I could even ask for Hugh Grant's agent's number. Because there is a terrible question the agent might rebuff you with: "Who gave you this number?"

So there are modern variations on the old horrors. "Ah, you're Reggie's boy, are you? Where were you at school again?" That was then. And now it's "Where did you get my number? Oh, that's fine! How is Elton these days?"

So no one should be snooty about the judge's remarks about middle-class networking. We should recognise what she says because we can only forget how we get turned over and rebuffed ourselves. We can be humiliated, objectified and excluded too, wherever we've come from and wherever we've got to.

I've been to very few properly glamorous parties in my life, but on Liberty Island I made my debut walking in just behind Liz Hurley. The cameramen all looked at me and for two-tenths of a second there was a light in their faces, thinking I might be someone. The light went out when they realised I wasn't.

Closer to home, one of my colleagues as a young newspaper diarist made the mistake of talking to the guests at his editor's garden party. He was pulled out of a conversation and told to desist. He wasn't there socially; he was there to get celebrity stories. "Who on earth do you think you are?" was the reverberating message he was left with.

It must be easier than it used to be. Top of the Pops was hosted by Pete Murray, who sounded then like Nigel Havers sounds now. Your voice was the first thing about you. Everyone was a Henry Higgins – within three sentences you revealed the size of your house and whether your mother had or was a maid. And that mattered in a way I simply refuse to believe matters today.

The middle class has never been more open, more accessible, more permeable. The money is available; the jobs are available; the lives are available – the only thing you have to do to become middle class is to do what the middle class does. Grammar. Spelling. Latin. Manners. You need three out of four of those. The belief that education matters. The desire to know things. The desire to get on in life. The urge to have your children do better than you have done. That's what the middle class wants, and if working people want that, they get drawn into the middle class whether they want it or not.

And therein lies a deeper difficulty. Not everybody does want these things. Not everyone wants to get on and do better than their parents, and leave their origins, their school friends and family – and join a network. Because a better house and car, and grammar lessons and a legal career – these things do draw people onwards, upwards and away. And the journey has no ending, we should point that out too. Because once you've started moving, there's no obvious place to stop.

simoncarr@sketch.sc

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