Keeping it Classy

23 April 2017

I have a secret. Not a particularly well-concealed secret, what with the significant height and the significant nose, both of which lend themselves so effectively to peering down when the situation requires it. However, it’s one of those secrets that, especially in today’s society, in which tolerance and acceptance are so desperately needed, probably isn’t something to be proud of (for the record, I’m not). But, there’s no point in denying it.

I am a honking great snob.

As with all sweeping declarations about anything, this one may require a little clarification. Much as it may be regarded as the ultimate social suicide, I can’t say that the way someone holds their knife is of any concern to me. I’m rather more concerned with whether the person holding that knife has at any point uttered the words ‘I’m not racist, but…’ The same goes for the way you address your envelopes – if you’re thanking me for a gift, or inviting me to your wedding, whether you’ve used the correct form seems a bit irrelevant. And, who exactly would I be to judge this anyway?

As a bloody forriner, with the accent to match, I have found my viewpoint as an outsider to the British class system really rather fascinating. In my 15 years in London and Wiltshire, I have concluded that the English way across the board (with obvious exceptions, which the Daily Mail then use to prove the rule) is actually far from one of insularity and hostility to those who are different, or of a different (perceived) social standing. In fact, the only ones who do give you a hard time are those who are anxious about their own position in the pecking order, wherever that may be. I’m always intrigued by people at cocktail parties who open with the line ‘Where did you go to school?’ As the Johannesburg school I was at the longest happens to be an offshoot of a desperately posh public school here in England, I always sail through that question. My husband, on the other hand, relishes adopting his deepest Afrikaans accent to announce the name of his small, strict Afrikaans school in a tiny town in South Africa, finished off with a wide-eyed ‘And you?’ The person who’s asked him this most tedious question then tends to adopt that bewildered look of a big game hunter who’s suddenly found himself smothered in BBQ sauce.

The bottom line is that some of the kindest, most relaxed people I’ve met have either been so titled up to the hilt, they don’t have the slightest inclination to worry about whether or not someone eats their asparagus with a fork; or rightly proud of what they’ve achieved on their own merit, however modest it may seem to anyone else, that they likewise have more interesting things to think about. They may well notice the small details that Debrett’s would have something to say about, but they don’t use it as a measure of someone’s entire worth. My inner snob starts hoiking up her judgy pants when people think that either money, or the fact they are 476th in line to the throne, makes them immune to the most basic elements of manners and human decency. If your only claim to importance is that 475 other people have to pop their clogs to make you king or queen (and, let’s face it, that would suggest a far graver situation of either plague or nuclear apocalypse to worry about), then you need to evaluate how much more important you are than the barista who brews your morning flat white, or the cab driver who deposits you safely outside Chiltern Fire House.

I will never forget one kitchen supper I attended in my first year in London. It was at the home of a girl my age that I hadn’t met before, but she’d kindly invited me after an introduction by a mutual friend. She was still living in her parents’ enormous house in Kensington, and we sat down to a lovely meal with some of her friends. It became clear pretty quickly that my role was that of audience member, as they reminisced about drunken adventures and planned for their upcoming ski trip. It was all rather entertaining, so I was happy to sit back and listen. However, talk then turned to their favourite game to play when away on country house weekends – and I cringe while I type this – Hide and Seek, but with a ‘number two’ twist. This game pretty much does what it says on the tin, and the ‘like, most classic hide’ was so utterly revolting I can’t actually bring myself to share it (I live in a house with two small boys, so you can imagine how grim it really was). Much as I tried to compose my features, I have a face of glass, and they all seemed delighted with the reaction they’d gotten.

The purpose of their sharing this anecdote, whether even true or not, was as transparent as my face. While these 22-year-olds obviously derived no end of Freudian glee from the nature of this game (let’s file this under ‘Lifelong Scatological Fascination When Potty Training Goes Horribly Wrong’, shall we?), they took great delight in shocking this particular, ahem, prole from the colonies. The clarification that this game only ever took place in the grandest country houses, along with the absolute hilarity of imagining their friends’ housekeepers dealing with the resultant mess, was all designed to cement their status as daddy’s-credit-card-carrying members of the Trust Fund Club. As soon as my role as shocked observer to this story was over, I was shuffled out the door pretty much mid-pudding, the door quite literally hitting me in the backside.

The take-away for me from this experience was not ‘all rich/posh/rich-and-posh people are arseholes’ (sorry, Jeremy Corbyn), but rather validation of the fact that birth, breeding, and boarding school are truly no guarantees of class. There is a strong argument to be made for manners being a way for us to all navigate our way confidently and considerately through our daily interactions with the people we encounter, ensuring that no-one ever need feel uncomfortable. Manners are subjective, and cultural, but as long as you’re trying your bloody best, you’re showing respect for those around you and should expect the same in return. Believing that being born into a certain name or tax bracket bestows you with the right to be dismissive or even downright rude to people around you suggests that you’ve missed the point of what being ‘one of us’ really means.

My mother roared with laughter when I told her about my proposed topic for this blog post, asking whether I was going to say I learnt to be a raging snob from her. And, yes, I will lay this particular brand of snobbery squarely at her feet. My mother knows all the correct ‘form’ like the back of her hand, but I have witnessed how her base level of genuine friendliness and openness never changes, whether she’s interacting with the security guards in her office parking lot or royalty at a boat race (clarification: my parents are neither titled nor obscenely wealthy, but they do an enviable amount of interesting travelling and are bloody good fun – that gets you invited places). But, woe be-fucking-tide anyone who gets their kicks from being rude or condescending, to her or anyone else. For such a petite woman, she has a hard stare that would make Paddington Bear crap his duffle coat, and her use of it is terrifying to behold. Watching her take down a misogynist CEO at a dinner party is pure poetry, like a cashmere-clad cheetah tearing the throat out of a large impala in a David Attenborough documentary. Queen of the classy smackdown, that’s my mother.

We all have our moments of being a bit of a dick, whether intentionally or not (no? just me then?), but assuming you’ve ever earned the right to be patronising or unkind to anyone because of a supposed superiority is really not what it’s about. Whether your version of a bad day is when the butler calls in sick, or you work two jobs to keep your kids in school shoes, if you treat everyone you come across with genuine respect for their humanity and their own value in the world, you’re a class act.

C x