The gentle art of vocal climbing Beware the language hooligans

FOR THE SAKE of argument, let's try to defend Dr Eric Griffiths, a lecturer at Cambridge who mocked the accent and ambitions of Tracy Playle, a girl from Harlow who wanted to study English at Trinity. His mockery was so cruel that her headmaster complained to the college.

Dr Griffiths is obviously a prat, but his conduct does raise the question of what a Cambridge lecturer is supposed to do when confronted with someone from Harlow. Is she supposed to leave the university with the same accent as she had on entering it? It is part of the point of elite universities that they should transform their students; and you cannot change your character and world view in England without changing your accent, too.

Dr Griffiths himself is a testimony to the regenerative power of Cambridge. His father was a docker in Liverpool and his mother, still living, is a former shop assistant who has defended him vigorously. Perhaps this background explains why he has been described by one former pupil as a right-wing intellectual and social snob. It is certainly possible that he is simply overcompensating for the prejudice that he must himself have felt and come to share towards the people he grew up with.

But there are other possible explanations. The real problem for poor Tracy Playle is not that she was too poor and uneducated but that she was insufficiently so. Everyone admires the student who struggles up from the bottom of society to a university. Grandees such as Lord Jenkins, the son of a miner, and Lord Runcie, whose mother was a ship's hairdresser, are presumed to be free of snobbery. Well, Lord Runcie is, at any rate. But to come from the suburbs, as Tracy does, is ineradicably comic and naff because this marks your parents out as having tried, without sufficient success, to better themselves. Better never to make the attempt and stay in Liverpool. Whatever the revolutions of taste that bring accents in and out of style you can be certain that the language used in Harlow, in Basingstoke or Epsom will always mark its users down. Perhaps in 30 years' time the Prime Minister and the Archbishop of Canterbury will sound exactly as Ms Playle does now. But by that time they will speak different in Essex.

The whole point about snobbery is that it is a positional good. The guiding principle of such things was succinctly put by Gore Vidal: "It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail." A friend of mine moved to a large and expensive house in Epsom; and when I asked her what life was like there, she replied: "It's a terrible thing to say, but all our new neighbours seem to be rather LMC except for one couple - but I have an awful feeling that they think we're LMCs." It is not enough to live in Ladbroke Grove. Others must live in Pinner.

This use of snobbery as a ranking device within any society explains why it is ineradicable and possibly even useful. I've never heard of a country where it was unknown. But, even so, England seems to have more than its fair share. My father, brought up with a thick Belfast accent which he could resume at will, saw nothing extraordinary in the fact that he normally sounded as if he had spent his life in north Oxford, or that he taught his children to regard a common accent as a kind of mouth cancer. The rewards of received pronunciation were too real to mock.

What's changed since then is that the English governing classes have less and less to govern. Snobbery becomes ridiculous only when it is disconnected from real power. So long as it was true that a public school man could always find some corner of the world to run, there was nothing ridiculous about adopting his shibboleths. As soon as the disappearance of the empire was a fact, other tokens were needed to mark out members of a new and smaller, ruling class. The new model is not the officer and gentleman, but the manager: the process of transition can be clearly heard in the twisted vowel sounds of two poor boys who changed their aim in mid-flight, Edward Heath and George Carey. Neither finds anything intrinsically ridiculous in Harlow.

The final irony is supplied by the fact that it is neither gentleman nor manager who represents the real aristocracy today. The demigod we would all like to imitate, to be mistaken for, and finally to become, is a rock star; it would be good even to have been someone who once played with John Lennon in his first group, the Quarrymen. In fact someone called Eric Griffiths did just that. The age is right. Perhaps he was the same man, and sometimes thinks, in the calm of Trinity College, that he made the wrong choice.