Sunday, February 28, 2010


Fitfully, the matter of class appears to be playing a part in the elongated build-up to the 2010 general election. Whether its intrusion is helping Labour is pretty hard to discern. Certainly – and, I have argued, predictably – the opinion poll lead enjoyed by the Tories for so long has begun to erode. Whether class has contributed to that erosion or whether Labour would have gained more without class rearing its head is moot.

The class profile of Britain has clearly developed a great deal over the 65 years since World War II. On entering Downing Street at the end of 1990, John Major declared: “I want changes to produce across the whole of this country a genuinely classless society so people can rise to whatever level from whatever level they started”. In the last year of the last millennium, his successor, Tony Blair, reckoned that “the class struggle is over”. The former failed in his aim, the latter spoke prematurely.

Class is still a palpable contributor to any description of British society – though, of course, that clearly class-conscious prime minister Margaret Thatcher announced in a 1987 interview with Women’s Own magazine that “there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families”. Thatcher was speaking to the matter of scaling down government, a perennial Tory topic. It helped her case for cutting benefits that she could discount government’s social responsibility. In the same interview, she went on: “It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then also to look after our neighbours. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There’s no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation”. You sense that the bit about “looking after our neighbours” was something she thought she ought to add rather than something she really believed.

Right-wingers from time immemorial have complained that state benefits create a sense of entitlement. In the free market beloved of Tories, “the weakest go to the wall” in the old phrase and that’s simply the nature of things. The Labour movement was born to protect the weakest from such a fate, particularly when the weakest were those obliged to sell their labour cheaply and to fail to enjoy the fruits of that labour, while those whose income was not dependent on their physical application – inheritors, investors, speculators, owners and managers – kept the rich pickings for themselves. When the wealth was passed from generation to generation, the pleasures of leisure became traditions that were enjoyed and cultivated – selective education, culture, high society, intellectual pursuits, jealously guarded rituals – and those without the means to partake of such delights were “kept down”. Anyone who, by luck or effort or talent or sharp practice or perceived indispensability, graduated to the income level expected by the moneyed classes was liable to be disdained as nouveau riche, just as wealth built up over generations of successful business practice was sneered at by those who inherited landed wealth as “trade”.

As recently as the 1980s, according to the diary of Alan Clark, one of Thatcher’s ministers, the “gentleman farmer” Michael Jopling, could say of his fellow minister, self-made millionaire Michael Heseltine: “The trouble with Michael is that he had to buy his own furniture”. The fine distinctions made by members of the society whose existence Thatcher denied may be judged by the fact that, like Jopling, Heseltine was sent to a public school – which is to say that his parents paid for his education – though of course Shrewsbury, even though numbered among the celebrated “nine great schools of England”, would be looked down on by Clark, who went to Eton, and Jopling, even though the latter’s alma mater Cheltenham College was not among the original noble nine.

Ten days ago, the backbench Tory MP Nicholas Winterton was complaining to BBC Radio about the proposed limitation on first-class rail travel claimed as expenses. Sir Nicholas was pressed on the matter and delivered himself of the opinion that standard class carriages are inhabited by a “totally different type of people, there’s lots of children, there’s noise, there’s activity and all I can say is I like to have peace and quiet when I travel because more often than not I am working and I want to concentrate”. Scorn was poured upon the Winterton head, including from his own party, whose spokesman discounted these as “the out-of-touch views of a soon-to-retire backbench MP”.

I find I have a great deal of sympathy for Winterton’s position. It is indeed maddening to be trying to read or work on a train when people are yelling into their mobiles, vainly trying to control their children, playing their personal stereos so loud that much of the sound leaks or simply yakking away oblivious to the presence of others. In practice, you can find all these delights in first class carriages too. This is why the quiet carriages provided on some lines – in both first and standard class – are such a boon, even though their restrictions frequently have to be pointed out to the chronically insensitive. Where Winterton egregiously blotted his copybook was in his phrase “totally different type of people”. This implies a subtext of snobbery, as if he meant that people in standard class have the misfortune to buy their own furniture.

What is simply not to be tolerated in present day thinking is any suggestion that anybody is somehow “better” than anybody else, particularly through an accident of birth. I think a sense has taken root, justly or not, that the Old Etonian Cameron and his Old Pauline (and heir to a baronetcy) Shadow Chancellor and their old Bullingdon Club cronies (Boris Johnson, Nat Rothschild) don’t really have the breadth of experience and understanding to represent a nation that even Tory leaders have declared classless.

Paradoxically, at the same time, there is a standard by which people are widely deemed to be “better” – at least, more important, worthy to be listened to, licensed to be entrusted with any opinion or special dispensation. That standard is celebrity. Famous people have wholly supplanted the aristocracy in the role of being the privileged in the sense that “Unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance” [Matthew 25:29]. In this area, the Tories are at a disadvantage. It has yet to become truly fashionable among soap opera actors, pop singers and Big Brother house residents to be Conservatives.

Last weekend, we had an unexpected display of pure, unadulterated class in all its senses. Endowed with the fellowship of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, Vanessa Redgrave, despite having needed a little hand to mount the steps to the podium, proceeded to execute the most comprehensive curtsy seen in public for many a year. This was directed at the new president of BAFTA, His Royal Highness Prince William of Wales, who clearly coloured up as this batty old crone, of whose work he doubtless knows nothing, clutched both his besuited forearms in order almost to buss his patent leather shoes. It was electrifying, bizarre and magnificent in equal proportions.

Redgrave’s history of Trotskyism seemed to many to sit ill with both this grandiloquent gesture and her subsequent unprompted remarks about the prince’s father’s “intelligence, humility and kindness”. But it makes perfect sense to me. Redgrave is of the generation that was brought up to respect correct forms of behaviour, old enough even to have “come out” as a debutante. She always refers to her late father as “Sir Michael”. Her convictions concerning, for example, the rights of the Palestinian people, are of a piece with that. She understands what is “the right thing to do”, both socially and politically.

This brings us to the different meaning attached to “class” in American English. Here it alludes not so much to a stratum of society as to a mode of behaviour that Americans think of as quintessentially English, even while most of the terms that describe such behaviour are French rather than English: sang-froid, élan, nonchalance, a certain je ne sais quoi. At another awards events, the 2000 Academy Awards, host Billy Crystal spoke of Michael Caine’s “class”, by which he meant those qualities better expressed in French. Most English film-goers are more likely to be fed up with Sir Michael’s whingeing about how little he is valued in Britain and to speak of him, in an old class-conscious saying, as “having a chip on his shoulder”. Some people, we think, are never satisfied, no matter how wealthy and successful they are. And that, in British English, is an example of having no class.

Historically, class distinctions have been pretty subtle in Britain, especially in England. My parents, born just before World War I, were apt to exhibit a fair bit of the class anxiety particularly felt by their generation. They and their contemporaries lived through periods that had a far-reaching impact on the class structure – both world wars, the rise of the Labour Party, the growth of mass media and the spread of easier and cheaper travel, the astonishing social changes of the 1960s and the triumph of capitalism.

My father was a businessman whose grandfather, once a market-trader known as The Orange King, established himself in the growth industry of the part of England where we lived, boots and shoes. The two wars were very good for that industry and my grandfather was one of the wealthiest men of the town, the first there to own a chauffeur-driven car. His younger son went to the local public school but my father, who lacked self-confidence, was indulged in his fear of such a place. Much afflicted by asthma as a child and certainly coddled by a doting mother, he was allowed to leave school at 14 and learn the shoe industry from the ground up. In later years, he bitterly regretted what he thought of as his mistake – “it gives you confidence, boy” he would say – and rather resented the easy manner of his more shiftless brother. So he was determined that I would attend the public school come what may and then, because by the ‘60s it had become the thing to do, to go to university. What he did not calculate was that, by putting me through a very different educational curve from his own, he would find a very different person from himself emerging at the other end.

My mother was the only child of village teachers so her roots lay in the professional class. What I never asked her – or, if I did, I have forgotten – was what work she took between leaving school and marrying at 27, quite a long stretch. It certainly wasn’t teaching. I fancy it was something conventional, probably secretarial. My mother was more apt to be twitchy about perceived nuances of class difference than my father. Her social circle was largely defined by her membership of the local golf club. She was a handy player but, more important, the class of person she encountered on the course suited her. Father, soon coming into his management inheritance but still working all day in a factory, would return home with the local accent in his speech, to the horror of both my “nicely-spoken” mother and her aspiring intellectual son.

But my privileged education never deeply divided me from other social strata. More than once, I developed an intense friendship with some local boy whose circumstances gave my poor mother the vapours. Happily for her, such friendships characteristically withered as abruptly as they flowered, without any parental intervention. Meanwhile, there was an on-going stand-off with the husband of my father’s kid sister. According to my father, who could be outspoken, my uncle’s people were “no better than gypos” and the fact that he had a succession of jobs (including – horrors! – selling vacuum-cleaners door-to-door) was evidence of his unreliability. I held aloof from mentioning the multitude of jobs taken by my great-grandfather, The Orange King. In any case, I liked my cousin and his parents too and I couldn’t see that the errant father was so bad, although it was certainly true that, at family gatherings, he always bagged the comfiest chair and sought out the largest cake and had the most to drink.

These family spats eased off over the years but I recall one incident that taught me something about class expectations. One day late in my school career, I was striding down the Long Walk to the sports field in my claret prefect’s gown (an affectation of the headmaster of the day), when I encountered my black-sheep uncle in his motley, coming in the other direction. He was then working as a builder’s mate. “Hello, Uncle Frank” I cried. “How are you?’ It never for a moment occurred to me to do otherwise, but it reached me later than my uncle was deeply touched that I had so fulsomely saluted him. He had been braced for a comprehensive snub. Perhaps it was to turn out as precisely that “class-unconscious” person that my dear dad sent me to that school.

Friday, February 12, 2010


If there’s one thing the World Wide Web allows you to do it is to contact your inner child. I don’t necessarily refer to the plethora of games available for download or for on-line play, though they of course make their contribution to the sense of the web being a seemingly infinitely large toyshop. It’s rather that the web encourages you to skip around and to indulge intense but brief enthusiasms in a very childlike way.

Looking down my lists of bookmarked sites, I am struck by the unfamiliarity of some of them and the nostalgia of others. In the latter category are those sites that I happened upon and for a time thought were indispensable. I guess such sites also appear in the former category. At any rate, I certainly remember being drawn into threads of argument on some of these sites and imagining that the attraction of such jousting would never subside. Equally there are sites from which I eagerly downloaded stuff – music, programs, information, gewgaws of various kinds – and to which, capriciously, I have not returned.

I don’t think this is because, in my old age, I am becoming – or reverting to being – a total flibbertigibbet (though that may well be the case). Rather, I think it is because the web and its delights are incorporeal. If you are a collector of objects in the real physical world, they only go out of sight and then perhaps out of mind if you pack them away. In other words, you make a conscious effort to relegate their status for whatever reason. On your computer desktop, you have various means of storing material, programs, links and other notional acquisitions but these storage places – bookmarks, icons, files and folders – can easily slip out of sight without you necessarily meaning to mislay them.

I am occasionally haunted by a childhood experience that ought to have taught me something about human responsibility but probably didn’t. Living within easy access of relative countryside, I was always exploring various natural habitats and often catching creatures. One day, I brought home a frog in a jam-jar, which I placed on a shelf in the conservatory. I don’t have any sense of how long it was before I thought again of the frog and remembered that Mummy had said I would need to attend to its needs if I intended to keep it. Needless to say, it was dead, having expired upside down in the jam-jar. It was the ignominy of dying upside down that most mortified me. I remember feeling bereft that no way was left to me to make it up to the forlorn creature, save to give it a decent burial.

My iMac is stiff with inverted frogs in jam-jars. Maybe if they beeped to be fed, like a Tamagotchi, I would remember their existence. Perhaps if they ever start to threaten the memory capacity of my iMac, I will release them back into the wild. But the reproach that they embody is quite as keen as the reproach presented to my childhood self by the deceased frog. For, forgotten and neglected as they are, these footprints of past computing activity represent hours of time spent in some pursuit that, by any objective standard, was and still is futile. When I was young, television still seemed quite a big deal and my parents’ generation, who had grown up without television, were very apt to consider “looking in” (as we called it then) a terrible waste of precious time that could and should be spent on something considerably more significant/creative/personal/ dutiful/productive/respectable. Now we gleefully swap early telly memories and sigh about the golden age of broadcasting that we were lucky enough to have consumed.

I fear that the time-frittering to which vestiges of old web-surfing activity attest is unlikely ever to be parlayed into rosy memory. Like all screens, the computer is a terrible enticement to become dazzled by lights and moving images. As we all develop curvature of the spine, cauterize our eyesight and lose the use of our legs, we are still too enthralled by the magic of the web to see that what we are doing, most of our waking hours, is utterly fruitless.

Friday, February 05, 2010


The former Hitler Youth conscript, Ratzinger, has given further life to the notion of papal bull. Announcing his intention to impose on the British taxpayer a bill of some £20m by deigning to visit these shores, the Pope simultaneously tore up the usual protocols observed by imminently visiting heads of state and set about the British government’s sovereign authority. His specific target is the equality legislation presently passing through parliament which, claims Ben XVI, would “impose unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs … [and] … violates the natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is grounded and by which it is guaranteed”.

What Joe Ratzo means is that Catholics want to be able to continue to impose unjust limitations on the freedom of lay people (specifically gay people) to seek gainful employment. The notion is that the British legislation would be liable to overrule, say, a parish priest not wishing to hire the best (only?) candidate for a church cleaning job because that applicant happened to be gay. One can perfectly well understand that no cleric would be comfortable with such a cleaner who is in a position, perhaps during choir practice, correctly to interpret the look in the cleric’s eye every time the choristers process. But his discomfort would not – and should not – give him the right to deny the cleaner the job.

Ratzo tries not to catch the eye of a member of the notorious Swiss Guard ...

... and then wonders if he's been found out

One is bound to ask what is this “natural law” Ratzo evokes that, he seems to think, absolves him of endorsing what, in his account, this natural law achieves, that is to “ground” and “guarantee” human equality. Clearly Ratzo doesn’t want equality enshrined in civil law because then British Catholics would have to do more than pay lip service to it. The natural law business is a mere smokescreen.

Westminster’s still shiny new Cardinal, Vincent Nichols, would have to be a serial killer crossed with a cheat on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? to be worse news than his predecessor Cormac Murphy-O’Connor. But Vinnie too showed himself to be no novice at Vatican doublespeak. After the massed British cardinals had been addressed by Pope Joe-Benedict, he stepped up to support the latest expression of the public, formal homophobia: “We do not support the notion of discrimination. But you have to distinguish between people”. So is that “yes, we do discriminate” or “no, we don’t discriminate”, Vin? It’s make-up-your-mind time.

Archbishop Vinnie looks for guidance (as well he might)

One of the main attractions of espousing supernatural delusion is the centuries-old tradition by which the delusional claim that they are permitted to say or do anything they might wish, however brutal, outlandish, fantastical or plainly untrue, because they can always find some justification in some more or less incomprehensible ancient text. Thus Muslim fundamentalists justify sending children as young as seven to kill themselves and random others with bombs strapped to their bodies and – there was a case of this in Turkey in the last few days – burying alive a teenaged girl because she “dishonoured” her family by talking to (talking to) boys.

Benedict models a jaunty item for the cross-dressing man ...

Ratzo’s Weltanschauung is no less cruel, perverse or disordered than this. If every member of the Catholic communion who had ever mentally or physically abused a child were cast into jail, there would be no cell place left for parliamentarians found guilty of false accounting and not enough priests, monks, nuns and lay teachers to keep Catholicism in the business of indoctrination. Pope Joe knows this perfectly well but it would be far too damaging publicly to concede it. Those who were abused are too dispersed – and many of them too traumatised or simply grateful to put it behind them – for a sufficiently concerted effort to be mounted to make the church pay (in any sense) for its representatives’ sins.

... and a natty example of the 'Village People' range of millinery

Meanwhile, the way you do, His Hollowness attempted to pre-empt his critics in the same address to British cardinals: “it is important to recognise dissent for what it is and not to mistake it for a mature contribution to a balanced and wide-ranging debate”. No pontiff in my lifetime – not even that patently good man John XXIII – has shown the remotest readiness to partake in any kind of debate. Rather, they all deliver pronouncements – or, as they call them, edicts – which are certainly not designed to have comment threads attached. What’s more, we could argue (although it wouldn’t do anybody any good) about how far the term “wide-ranging” could be used to describe such edicts. Shutting down debate altogether is far more to pontiffs’ taste and that is just what Ratzinger is attempting to do here.

Cartoon in The Times twitting Ratzinger's policy on contraception

But of course it is he, the wholly egregious father, who is doing the dissenting. The equality legislation is the proposition. The only people opposing it are the supernaturally deluded who, as always, want to control everyone else and to discriminate against (sorry, Vin-boy, distinguish between) people. This dissent is certainly, as Ratzinger suggests, immature. Supernatural delusion is indeed infantile. If I may purloin a (frequently misquoted) line from that fascinating Catholic writer Hilaire Belloc, the believer’s creed might be “And always keep a hold of Nurse/For fear of finding something worse” [Cautionary Tales], wherein “Nurse” is the deity that the deluded imagine commands their fealty. You can hardly expect such under-developed minds to feel confident about coping with a world in which their intellectual superiors are prepared to treat them as their equals.

"Are you a gay dog, Bernard, or are you perhaps a saint?"