Henry and Caroline

W.G. Runciman

  • The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook: The First Guide to What Really Matters in Life by Ann Barr and Peter York
    Ebury, 160 pp, £4.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 85223 236 5

Anthropological method, as classically practised by Malinowski among the Trobriand Islanders, depends in the first instance on patient scrutiny of the details of the daily life of the community under study. But it depends also on the detection in, or behind, those details of what Malinowski himself called ‘the natives’ Weltanschauung’ – that is, the whole unspoken complex of myths, prejudices, values and assumptions through which they interpret the meaning of the world to themselves. It is not easy to do as well as Malinowski did (and he wasn’t perfect). It depends, not on compiling statistics or transcribing official documents or handing out questionnaires, but on knowing how to identify and dissect the archetypal codes and customs, the revealing turns of speech and manner, and the almost imperceptible nuances of life-style, by which the community defines itself in relation to its environment and its past. Where the anthropologist is working in an exotic and alien culture, the task, however daunting at the outset, is made much less so at the point of publication by the simple fact that the audience to whom the reported findings are addressed has no means of checking them against what the natives themselves might have to say. But where the fieldwork has been done in the anthropologist’s very own milieu for dissemination to, as well as about, the natives themselves, publication is a much more hazardous affair. How can you dare pretend to be telling it like it is if the natives are going to turn round and tell you it isn’t?

This test is, however, triumphantly passed by Ann Barr, Peter York and the intrepid and diligent team of assistant fieldworkers with whom they have penetrated far and deep into the rose-red canyons of SW3, 1, 7, 10, 6 and 5 – correctly ranked in that order – and the near- and far-flung outposts where there continue to flourish the eponymous Henrys and Carolines and the eternal state of mind by which Sloane Rangerdom maintains its undying faith in What Really Matters in Life. The observations that, for example, Henry and Caroline never cry at funerals, but only at carols, that Sloanes never ‘go’ anywhere but always ‘whizz’, ‘toddle’, ‘rush’, ‘beetle’, ‘tear’ or ‘zoom’, and that ‘Hooray Henrys’ Get Pretty Pissed, not to show they can hold their liquor, but, on the contrary, to get drunk enough to do some crazy thing which will go down in the Hooray annals as a Historic Act of Hilarity, command instant recognition and assent. The tones of voice are meticulously registered: to this reviewer’s ear, at least, Caroline’s cry of ‘absoLOOtly’ is ABsolutely right. The favourite jokes are well chosen: ‘scene but not herd’, ‘in the days when England was a White’s man’s country’, ‘christened her Marigold and hoped she would’. So are the photographs, particularly of Sloanes at play. The maxims are both valid and pithy: ‘A Sloanie has a pony,’ ‘Anyone who has read Proust is not a Sloane Ranger.’ Best of all, in its way, is the opening map on which the symbolic geography of Rangerland is set out in accordance with the best structuralist principles. Rangerland extends in longitude from Vancouver (‘Just like England’) and Martha’s Vineyard (‘Edward’s boss has a boat’) to Delhi (‘Where we lost Johnnie during his hippie phase’) and Hong Kong (‘Dumfries on Sea’), and in latitude from Cape Town (‘Henry’s cousin has a farm here – wonderful black people bringing cold drinks!’) to ‘ “The Dreaded North of the Park”, Yorkshire Moors, Dumfriesshire, Inverness (in that order)’.

But dedicated fieldwork by itself is not enough. Ungenerous as it may seem to carp at the fruits of so much painstaking scholarship, it has to be said that the Handbook rests on solider empirical than theoretical ground. The back cover suggests that it can be read as a guide to ‘upper-class’ life. But this is misleading. As the text itself makes clear, Henry and Caroline are not, and are not about to become, either owners or controllers of any significant proportion of the means of production. Sloane Rangers are the subalterns and field officers, not the major-generals commanding, of the fortress heights of the economy and the state. They are not the rapacious financiers or the galvanic industrialists or the power-hungry politicos. Henry’s job in the City or the wine trade and Caroline’s little Trust can keep them safely afloat at the level of public-school fees, a (Dreaded) Au Pair, Supertravel skiing holidays, Hermes scarves, General Trading Company ice-buckets, engraved writing paper, hunt bollock tickets, teeny silver thimbles for the dowryette, and the Volvo Estate car with bars for the Labrador. But it’s Blanquette de Limeaux, not Moët, in the Buck’s Fizz, it’s the Royal Thames, not the Squadron, for Henry’s boat, the 12-bore is a Spanish AYA, not a Purdy (unless Henry’s been lucky enough to inherit his grandfather’s), and the cost of maintaining the Old Vicarage, Blogton, Berkshire (which is really the Old Vicarage, Tiggleton Road, Blogton, Hungerford, Berkshire RG17 OTL) is almost, although never quite, ruinous.

In any case, Sloanes are not, in the technical sense, a class at all. They are a classic example of a Stand, or ‘status-group’, as defined by Max Weber himself – that is, an amorphous but exclusive community distinguished by a common life-style whose characteristic features are both positively evaluated and strictly ritualised. Status-group differences are, of course, closely bound up with class differences. But they are not to be equated with them. Status-groups seek to acquire and defend monopolies of consumption, not production, and the barriers by which they surround themselves are barriers of standing, not wealth. Superiors are openly acknowledged as such, and inferiors are excluded by avoidance, ridicule, refusal of hospitality, and, above all, the denial of intermarriage. On every one of these criteria, Sloane Rangers are an almost pure example of a Stand. They are no more patrician than they are bohemian. They are not to be located anywhere in the raffish circles where Arts, Barts, Smarts, Tarts and Upstarts meet and mingle for mutual exploitation and pleasure. They worship the Royals, revere the Aristos, detest the Parvenus, despise the Charlies, ignore the Bolshies and take a positive pride, as the Handbook correctly points out, in refusing to acknowledge as real whole TV regions of Britain and regarding as wildly humorous and unlikely such things as social work departments and computer graphics. Above all, they deploy what the authors rightly acknowledge to be an ‘extremely subtle and secret verbal culture’ to keep safely at bay any threatened intrusion by trendies, tradesmen, swots, pooves, ponces, proles, peasants, Jews, media types, lefties, yobbos, jerks, Mayfair Mercenaries or International White Trash.

Yet it would be unfair to the authors to judge them innocent of theory altogether. If in method they are the disciples of Malinowski, in approach they are the disciples of Veblen. This is not because they are satirists, any more than Veblen was: although Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class is widely supposed by people who know it only by its title to be a denunciation of the conspicuous consumption of the idle rich, it is in fact an earnest social-Darwinian exercise in the analysis of the survival and function of archaic behavioural traits. But this approach is exactly what is needed to account for some of the most distinctive characteristics of Henry’s and Caroline’s life-style. Take shooting, for example, about which Veblen observed that ‘even very mild-mannered and matter-of-fact men who go out shooting are apt to carry an excess of arms and accoutrements in order to impress upon their own imagination the seriousness of their undertaking.’ Isn’t this precisely Henry in his plus-fours and Husky and flat cap and cartridge bag and what the Handbook calls ‘military/historical/symbolic’ accessories, toddling up the moor to enact ‘the ritual perfected for the defence of men against birds’? Even better, take Henry’s walking-stick. Here is the Handbook: ‘watch Henry with his stick – how he likes to lightly change his grip on it, tap the ground as he walks along, point things out with it, slash at a weed. You can see it’s a sword.’ And here is Veblen: ‘taken simply as a feature of modern life, the habit of carrying a walking-stick may seem at best a trivial detail; but the usage has a significance for the point in question ... The walking-stick serves the purpose that the bearer’s hands are employed otherwise than in useful effort, and it therefore has utility as an evidence of leisure. But it is also a weapon, and it meets a felt need of barbarian man on that ground.’ Snap!

The fundamental sociological point that the Handbook makes, and Veblen would wholeheartedly endorse, is that Sloanes are ‘a living museum of old modes of behaviour’. The authors have rightly discerned that what the accoutrements and appurtenances of Sloane life unwittingly reveal is a 19th-century view of the 18th century, sustained and exemplified by token symbols of warrior/landowner gentrydom, which would be quite unrecognisable to a real Fielding squire. The obsession with the ubiquitous Horse Motif, the quasi-military trophies and table-mats, the taste for archaic breakfast food, the staunch preference for Georgian wood and silver, the too-prominent placing of the dog-basket, the Fields and Horse and Hounds in the downstairs loo, Caroline’s incurable addiction to Debrett, Henry’s thin, gold, oval, engraved, not swivel-backed cufflinks, the nostalgic love of dhurries and Mogul hangings and Indian bedspreads (even if Grandfather wasn’t in the Indian Army or ICS), the silk shirts ‘copied by Sam on a business trip to Hong Kong’, even the Sloanes’ ‘keen as bloodhounds’ sensitivity to the smells of boats, bonfires, leather and high-octane petrol (good) and aeroplanes, old vase-water, imitation leather and diesel oil (bad), are all symptoms of a half-conscious ideology whose deep structure is explicable only by reference to an unbreakable attachment to tradition: ‘Sloanes put tradition top because it keeps them top’ – or near enough to it to keep them happy.

There is, to be sure, a Darker Side. But true to the spirit of Malinowski, the authors do not shrink from revealing it, too (if only because it turns out to be almost touchingly harmless). Sloanes do commit a lot of traffic offences, and not infrequently cheat on their income tax. A few Henrys are unmistakable ‘four-letter men’, even if they seldom qualify as roaring shits on the full-blooded patrician and/or bohemian scale. There may well be a naughty uncle living in Marrakesh with ‘others of his ilk’, and another being dried out at the Priory in Roehampton or the Crichton in Dumfries. Sloane marriages do quite often come unstuck, whether just because Henry’s ‘moved into his dressing-room’ or because he’s decamped with his secretary, the nanny or his best friend’s wife, in which case Caroline (unless she’s the best friend’s wife in question) goes vengefully off on a Serenissima culture tour. Sloanes are not, on the whole, very charitable. Caroline can be not only meaninglessly gushing, but unpleasantly callous. (The authors are a little ambivalent about this: they are right that Ranger understatement is sometimes misinterpreted by outsiders as callousness, but they also recognise that ‘other Sloanes can be cruel if someone’s “a bit of a mess” ’ – i.e. a ‘fermented boozy’ who’s gone ‘well and truly off the rails’). More of them than are aware of it themselves are intermittent and sometimes chronic depressives, but it’s out of the question to go to a Shrink in (Dreaded) Hampstead or even to admit to the possibility of a need for one (‘You would be a behaviourist – if you knew what it meant’). The real trouble is that Sloanes are not merely ineducably complacent, but indefatigably resistant to any remote possibility of seeing themselves as others see them.

So come the Revolution, what then? Nothing recorded in the Handbook will redeem Henry and Caroline in the eyes of Bolshie Scargill, class-traitor Benn and the enragés of the Lumpen Polytechniat. Hauled by Red Guards before a People’s Court, they will at once be condemned as parasites, exploiters, racists, sexists, imperialists, warmongers and lackeys of international capitalism. The Old Vicarage will be taken over by a free-loving trade-union commune of braless women and bearded men in gungey dungarees, growing ecological vegetables and Marching for Peace. Gone will be the income from Caroline’s (badly-invested) little Trust, gone Henry’s salary from the merchant wank, gone the hard-earned joys of the ski-slope and the hunting-field, gone Ludgrove and Lady Eden’s and the St Andrew’s Day Wall Game (‘No goals have been scored since the First World War, but Henry is always hoping’), gone the Bullingdon point-to-point, gone Glyndebourne, gone the Norland Nannies, gone the teeny silver thimbles, gone the favourite watering-hole ‘where Toby practically lives’, gone Turnbull & Asser and Swaine Adeney, Brigg & Sons and the Burlington Arcade. Will posterity shed a tear? Probably not. But then posterity only keeps a soft spot for the seriously grand, the romantically wicked and the authentically doomed. Henry and Caroline are neither saints nor sinners. Their ambitions are modest, their snobberies venial, their vices innocuous, their loyalties genuine, and their tastes as much their own affair as are the tastes of those either richer or poorer than they.

In any case, none of that come-the-Revolution business is (‘actually’) going to happen. Like it or not, Henry and Caroline have a long innings ahead of them during which to savour the Handbook’s authoritative account of their sacred passion for the Status Quo (‘not the pop group’). Indeed, the only mystery is that such perspicacious participant-observers apparently failed to realise, or to persuade their publisher, that they had a bigger bestseller on their hands than even Malinowski’s Sexual Life of Savages in NW Melanesia. Did they really not foresee how many eager students of form both inside the stable and outside the fence would be queuing for copies of the Ranger Guide to WRM in L?