Friday, January 29, 2010

"Harriet Harman: I dropped my cut-glass accent for Labour"

This was the shocker of a headline in the Evening Standard yesterday. Inside was an interview with HH, public-school educated, niece of Lord Longford, who agreed that she had lost her accent along the way because "I sounded like Lady Diana". (Of course, everyone thinks this is fine. Imagine the furore if George Osborne was revealed to have had diction like an extra on Eastenders as a teenager.)

Posh family links, a public school education etc should not preclude you from voting Labour, being left-wing or even becoming a Labour MP. But what I object to is the continuing belief that poshness equals snobbery, rather than it simply being a tribal description. The accent I have in no way prescribes my ethics, political beliefs or moral values. Those things are shaped by my social environment, my own intellectual curiosity, the people I talk to, the work I do.....there's a myriad of influences.

And yet, those who could be effective in striving for a meritocratic society - ie Labour MPs in power - do nothing to help the cause.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

How to address an envelope

A good friend called me up the other day and she said: "Thank you for your Christmas card. I was so pleased because you're the only person I know who knows how to address envelopes properly. I'm always trying to explain and no one understands." I was thrilled, of course – always good to know that Posh Bird's reputation remains intact – but also surprised as this friend is not at all posh. But she is, however, another generation. Born before 1950, this perhaps explains her knowledge of envelope addressing. Although why her generation chose not to tell their children how to do it is another story. (Largely, I suspect, because throughout the 1960s and 1970s they thought that things like titles, or 'handles', would cease to exist, so why should anyone know how to use them properly?)

In fact, I didn't know how to address an envelope correctly until I was 19 years old. I knew the basics but wouldn't have written to a duchess with confidence. It was only when my grandfather called me up one day, shouting "I am NOT an American!" that the error of my ways was rectified. He resented being addressed as 'Mr', feeling that years of good breeding and Britishness entitled him to be an 'Esq.'. So I was tutored in the ways of envelope etiquette and once learned, it can never be forgotten or relaxed.

For those who want to know - these are the basic rules.

1. To a man, you write: Rupert Fotherington-Smythe, Esq.
(Strictly speaking, you write this to all men except Americans and tradesmen, whom you address as 'Mr' but I don't make that distinction.)
2. To a single woman you write: Miss Arabella Toffington-Love
3. To a married (and widowed) woman, you write: Mrs Rupert Fotherington-Smythe.
4. To a divorced woman, you write: Mrs Arabella Fotherington-Smythe.
5. To a Baronet or knight, you write: Sir Giles Poppy.
6. To an Earl, you write: Lord Poppy.
7. To the wife of a knight, baronet or earl, you write: Lady Poppy.
8. To the daughter of an earl or duke, you write: Lady Celestria Poppy.
9. To the married daughter of an earl or duke, you write: Lady Celestria Fowler.
10. That's it for now. There are further complicated permutations (the daughter of a daughter of an earl or duke is The Hon. An MP is The Rt. Hon. Plus all the Royal stuff) but I'll save those for a rainy day.

The only other thing to note is that even when writing to a couple (eg, Christmas card, invitation or thank you note), the envelope is addressed to the wife only. This is because traditionally the wife organised the husband's diary, and if you stayed with a couple for the weekend she is the one who would have done all the work. As to the question of whether one should stick with the format although the tradition has changed: the answer is yes. After all, I still say please to the bus conductor when asking for my ticket, even though he has long dropped the tradition of saying thank you.

The only problem I find is with rule no.3 as so many women now prefer not to take their husbands names on marriage. Does this mean that they have to be addressed as 'Miss' - when that is ridiculous, surely? And to write Mrs Arabella Fotherington-Smythe makes them look divorced. The only solution, I think, is to drop the prefixes of Miss or Mrs altogether. Although, of course, doing that makes Posh Bird start hyperventilating and there isn't always a brown paper bag handy when doing one's Christmas cards.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Harriet Harman to announce that class is the decisive factor in social immobility

Harriet Harman is expected to announce today that class is the decisive factor in social immobility.

“Persistent inequality of socio-economic status — of class — overarches the discrimination or disadvantage that can come from your gender, race or disability,” the deputy Labour leader will say.

HH makes two mistakes here: first, she confuses 'socio-economic status' with class. (What class you are has borne little relation to – certainly not some kind of inevitable consequence of – the money you have for at least two generations now.) Secondly, she seeks to accuse our society (institutional?) racism, sexism and prejudice against the disabled.

While I don't seek to deny that there are still strides to be made before we reach a true balance of power between the genders, races and the disabled and able-bodied, what really makes my blood boil is that she is deliberately using this incendiary argument to gloss over the true inequalities that her government has brought about.

Her speech does one good thing: it shows that Labour are at last acknowledging that under their government, social mobility is the worst its ever been. Those born disadvantaged have a steeper mountain to climb if they wish to escape than ever before: poor diets, high crime rates, depressed morale, poor education and a severe lack of positive role models all contribute. Low-income areas and their residents have become ever more segregated as the middle classes have barricaded themselves apart with gated communities and enormous SUVs with blacked out windows. Money spent by the high earners has been channelled straight back into their own communities with few government incentives offered (as in America) for charitable giving. Not to mention that Labour encouraged vast amounts of non-doms to reside here - bringing their cash to spend on Bond Street but with no sense of community responsibility.

But to suggest that all this is the fault of class is the kind of blinkered, inverted-snobbery response that makes me want to perform acupuncture with toothpicks on Harriet Hardup. In fact, you could argue that in the last century, where class divisions were strictly observed and very obvious, social mobility was not only easier but actively encouraged. It was, then, after all, that the welfare state was introduced, the practice of better education for all for longer was brought in and meritocracy was the buzzword.

Any capitalist society will contain, sadly, the indolent poor and the indifferent rich as well as the self-obsessed middle classes. And in Britain, hundreds of years of dialect and a class structure has left its imprint - we notice the way a knife is held, the h's that are dropped. But these things do not in themselves lead to ghettos, a crippling stealth tax, the reward of greedy, thick bankers and a fearful population afraid to cross over to the 'wrong' side of the street. No, Harriet, those things are the fault of the government - your government. When will you say sorry?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Royals in Oz

When even Australia starts feting the royals, you can't help but think that not so much a tide has been turned as a tsunami. Before Prince William's storming visit in New South Wales this week, the idea of a British Royal getting a warm welcome was about as likely as the Democrats losing their safe seat in Massachussets......Oh, whoops. Mind you, the feeling was probably mutual - what with the Queen and Prince Phillip having suffered an alleged assassination attempt down under in 1970. But ol' Prince William's ("call me charming") ability to not only shoot impeccably on a rifle range but shoot the breeze about rap with a 'disadvantaged youngster' (one of those phrases never used in real life but only in the papers, like 'searingly honest' or 'achingly hip') has apparently won the hearts of Sheilas and Bruces everywhere.

And so say all of us. But I still can't help feeling that this young man, nice though he is, has got an awfully long way to go before he can take over the Palace. While Charlie boy may be fed up of his long wait to be King it's better that the more recent public memory has images of him growing organic biscuits and than of cavorting (yes, another of those words again) on the beach with a model. William needs to do some hard work to put some distance between him and the nightclubs before the country feels he has earned his natural right to prime acreage in London. Better get chatting rap down in Deptford next, eh?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A good retort to a posh remark

 I was reading in the bath this morning (Posh Bird and the ilk always have baths in the morning, preferably with lemon verbena scented soap, rose oils and a toga clad youth to hand over the queen-sized fluffy white towel*), and just about the time I was trying to turn the hot tap with my big toe to warm up a bit, I came across this in Rachel Cusk's novel, 'The Country Life'. It quite put me off my stroke. In this scene, Stella Benson, a paranoid and tricksy 29 year old has moved to the country to work as an au-pair for a disabled, bright, teenager.

   'There you are.' Martin folded his arms with satisfaction. 'That's why things are better off in our hands. We know how these things ought to be done.'
   'Who is "we"?' I enquired. 
   'The upper classes,' said Martin, his face crumpled and white, like something botched and screwed into a ball. I caught a glimpse of the cavity of his mouth, dark and moist. 
   'I do apologize,' I said sarcastically. 'I didn't realize that was who you were.'
   'Our family,' intoned Martin, 'has lived in this house since the seventeenth century, and in this area since long before that.'
   'Does that make you upper class?' I was becoming quite irritated, in a desultory fashion. 'I'd have thought it just makes you local.'

* (No. Really posh baths mean brown water out of the tap, the hot water running out after half an inch and small, scratchy towels that are frequently mistaken for the dog bed lining.)

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A spot of pro-posh marketing, 'Posh Brother' and a play called 'Posh'

So, how posh is 2010? With a tv show, a marketing campaign and a play - I'd say, very.

First up is a picture released by Royal Ascot (posh people never call it 'Royal Ascot' by the way, just 'Ascot', and it is pronounced Asket, never never As-cot) which has the Daily Mail frothing. Allegedly due to be sent out with invitations to members of the Royal Enclosure, the snap, taken at Cliveden, has the Duke of Devonshire at the centre, flanked by Bruce Forsyth, Ronnie Corbett, Lisa Snowden, model Lady Martha Sitwell, BBC presenter Claire Balding and socialist, I mean, socialite, Jake Warren (son of the Queen's racing manager). In other words - where's the poshos? Are celebrities allowed in the Enclosure these days? Well, yes. It's not been hard for some years now to find a way to finagle yourself in there and the fun of it is all about the hats and mixing up slebs and Dukes. I'm rather encouraged that modern posh, 2010 poshness, is not about old-fashioned posh rules but about everyone enjoying a posh event. It's just an excuse to dress up, pretend that all one really cares about is the filly at 2.10 and how simply marvellous and practically ordinary it is to be hobnobbing and drinking champagne on a Tuesday. Anyway - more of that in the summer.

Next up is what will come to be known as 'Posh Brother' - Endemol, the production company behind Big Brother, have started advertising in Country Life magazine for families "with historic links" to stately homes in need of restoration for a new programme commissioned by the BBC. Francis Fulford and his wife Kishanda, who had a moment in the spotlight with 'The F-ing Fulfords' on Channel 4 a few years ago are already allegedly "champing at the bit" to take part, hoping that the fee might get them a new roof. This would be highly desirable for a lot of families with stately homes but to anyone I know living in one my advice would be - don't do it. Invariably, those who are unable to pay for roofs because they haven't had the nous to work for a bank, open it up to the public, sell it off to the National Trust, are going to be in some way quite mad - as if posh people in vast houses weren't mad at some level anyway - and will in no way come out of a programme made by Endemol without wanting to smash everyone's television sets before transmission.

Lastly, the Royal Court is staging a play from 2 April called, simply, 'Posh'. It's written by Laura Wade, who is probably not unduly unposh herself - she went to a fairly posh sounding school (Lady Manners in Bakewell), did drama at Bristol Uni (pretty posh) and lives with actor Samuel West, son of Prunella Scales ("BASIL!!") and Timothy West, who are quite posh. So Laura probably knows what she's talking about. I'll get more details in due course.

Right. Now Posh Bird needs to battle through the snow. In my poshest snow outfit - big furry hat, fur-trimmed (fake, guys, FAKE) coat and er, Nike trainers. Red Hunter wellies look so much better but have no grip. Be safe out there.