Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The death of aristocracy?

The Duke of Devonshire, one of the poshest dukes around still living in the ancient family estate (the gorgeous – and ginormous – Chatsworth) has declared: "The aristocracy is not dying. It is dead. Coffin's nailed down, it's in the ground. It doesn't exist."

This was made in response to Labour's plans to axe the remaining 90 hereditary peers before the General Election. If they manage to do this in the next few weeks, the Duke has pledged to drop his title. "Because then it would be clear-cut what the people wanted, and it would be confusing to maintain hereditary titles. So, finish that, go back to being called Cavendish."

Of course, this remark shows just how out of touch the Duke is - it's been a long time since any of Labour's plans represented "what the people wanted". But I do see his point. From the Duke's point of view, the 'aristocracy' means - or meant - power, prestige, wealth. All of these things have long since vanished from any association with titles and once you strip away the very last element of an aristocrat's ability to run the country - then yes, of course, you may as well drop the whole thing. Dropping the title would also get rid of the general view that aristocratic means titled and eliminate any presumptions on any side that being a Duke entitles one to privileges.

But of course, even locking out all the hereditary peers, scratching out all the titles and burning the Debrett's Guide to Etiquette and Burke's Peerage on the pyre would not signal the end of class. Each individual British psyche is too deeply ingrained with a sense of natural pride/injustice (delete as appropriate) in its own class to be able to simply forget it.

This has reminded me of a holiday I took in France when I was 17 years old. It was a week with a family, to brush up on my French before taking my A'levels. They were an old family and before the Revolution had titles and land. All this had now gone but their society still mimicked the rules of Les Liasons Dangereuses, only with slightly fewer curtains worn as dresses. The daughter of the family was permitted to mix only with other boys and girls of her class. I joined them halfway through their debutante season. Each night there would be a party in a different house - the parents would sit upstairs, hoping their watered down punch didn't cause any riots. Meanwhile, in a cold, large room, the girls would stand on one side, the boys on the other and to the rhythm of terrible pop songs (Sinitta's "Boys, Boys, Boys" was a hit that year) we would dance formal waltzes. I tried to break out once, dancing on my own in red crushed velvet trousers and three girls looked as if they might faint. Three hundred years of republicanism - you call that progress?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The perfect posh response to a lightbulb in your handbag

I was reminded last night of a good story about perfect posh manners...

A few years ago I took part in a vintage car rally from London to Paris via Reims, where we drank vast amounts of Ruinart champagne. The journey home was on the Orient Express, which would have been wonderful had we not all been suffering hangovers on a scale not seen since the days of Court of Versailles. Well, all of us bar one person. Lady Shawcross, the widow of Lord Shawcross, the chief prosecutor of Nazi leaders in the Nuremberg trials, was one of the drivers. She was a surprising entry (everyone else came from the City, on the whole) but a very welcome one for the spectacle she created. She was small and slightly stout but always beautifully, immaculately dressed, with gloves and a hat and a well-pressed suit. She was accompanied everywhere by a rather quiet paid companion, who sat mutely in the passenger seat while Lady Shawcross drove her ancient Mini at speed.

Most of us were simply content to observe her in awe and amusement but one wag on the trip home thought it would be a good wheeze – and a distraction from the pain of our thick heads and sandpaper tongues – to steal a lightbulb from the train and put it in her handbag when she wasn't looking. This duly done, everyone in the carriage watched her for what felt like the length of long courtroom session until she needed to delve into her bag. At last, she lifted it from the floor to the table. We watched agog. Her hand went in and pulled out the offending and, surely, mysterious, glass object.

"A lightbulb," she said, in Lady Bracknell tones. "How useful." And replaced it into her bag.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Posh Bird speaks!

I'll be giving a short talk this week about the pleasures and pains of wearing stilettos in the country, navigating muddy paths and how to overtake a tractor (take the train) at a Literary Salon organised by the truly brilliant Damian Barr  (of Shoreditch Salon fame). It's at Aubin & Wills on Westbourne Grove on Thurs 18 Feb. Free but there are limited places so go to the Facebook page if you want to be on the guestlist.

You can buy Mud & the City: Dos & Don'ts of Townies in the Country on Amazon for a bargainous £6.49.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Recollections of a naughty grandmother

An old friend of mine came round for supper last week and was reminding me of stories about my very naughty maternal grandmother. Far from baking cakes, Kate used to give me whisky and cigarettes when I was a small child and my bed time stories would be about antics in nightclubs where waiters were bitten by pet tigers, or lovers that tried to double cross her and failed. She was tall and glamorous, never with a snag in her tights or safety pin for a button. Even at 80 years old, her legs would be the best in the room and she'd sit in the corner while people flocked to talk to her.

In her earlier years, for almost two decades, she had an affair with an Earl in Scotland. They wrote to each other daily and he gave her an owl. He promised he would wait for her to divorce so they could marry but then suddenly he met someone else and arranged to marry her within three months. She said later she was demented with heartbreak – which means that perhaps we may forgive her the next part of the story. But perhaps not.

On the eve of the wedding, she wrote two letters. One, to her former lover, said: "Darling R–, I am so sorry that you have been forced into marriage with this terribly plain girl...How awful it will be for you to be forced to look upon her plain face when you wake in the morning...What terrible circumstances have brought you to this. My poor love. Etc." The second said: "Dear M–, What simply wonderful news of your marriage. How happy you will be. With very best wishes, Kate."

And then she put them in the wrong envelopes.

Deliberately? But, of course.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

U and Non-U: some things never change

With reference to blogs passim about how hard it is to find distinguishing marks of the posh, I'd like to draw your attention to this little snippet I found:

", a member of the upper class is, for instance, not necessarily better educated, cleaner, or richer than someone not of this class. Nor, in general, is he likely to play a greater part in public affairs, be supported by other trades or professions, or engage in other pursuits or pastimes than his fellow of another class. There are, it is true, still a few minor points of life which may serve to demarcate the upper class, but they are only minor ones."

Oddly enough, this was not written last week but in 1956 by Alan S.C.Ross in his academic paper for the University of Birmingham: 'U and Non-U – An Essay in Sociological Linguistics.'

It was from this that Nancy Mitford wrote her own article on 'The English Aristocracy', for which she was revered and reviled in equal measure. (So, in fact, it wasn't Mitford who coined U - meaning upper class speaker, and Non-U, meaning not. I'd be pretty cross if I was Ross. But then again, he nearly was.)

Lots of the U and Non-U markers still hold today, although some of the "minor marks" of the upper classes, which include things such as the wearing of braces for tennis, use of the word wireless and how they hold their drink (gentlemen would, apparently, vomit in public but never be truculent when drunk) are no longer noticeable, shall we say.

Ross focuses on the addressing of envelopes (hah!), Mitford is more concerned with the definition of aristocracy (which she boils down almost entirely simply to having a title) and those linguistic things which mark out a Non-U. Those which still exist include:
Sweet: non-U for U pudding
Dinner: non-U for U luncheon (although hardly anyone says luncheon, they do say lunch)
Wealthy: non-U for U rich

Some I always used but didn't know I was being U in saying them:
Britain: non-U for U England (although I do know when to be sensitive about this. One has to move with the times. As you might have thought Liz Hurley would when she recently wrote an article headlined 'A Guide to Mumbai' and insisted on calling it 'Bombay' throughout.)
Home: non-U – 'they have a lovely home'; U - 'they've a very nice house'

But some I didn't know (and henceforth of course will pretend that that was what I always said):
Greens is non-U for U vegetables
Mental: non-U for U mad
Glasses: non U for U spectacles
Dentures: non-U for U false teeth 
Ill: non-U against U sick

To confuse things further, Mitford admits that some U-speakers will deliberately employ non-U phrases in an ironic manner (or perhaps in memory of their darling Nanny. It is a truism that the upper classes of the past were entirely brought up by the working classes, which is why they share so many characteristics even now). Also, of course, U and non-U markers change over the years.

Is it time for a 21st century version? Posh Bird throws her hat into the ring...