I once found a copy of Jilly Cooper’s Class (1979) in the bargain box outside a friend’s second-hand bookshop. When I asked how much it was he winced visibly and said: ‘Just take it, I can’t bear to have it in the shop.’ Subtitled ‘A View from Middle England’ and written in Cooper’s usual rollicking style, it’s a witty read spiked with detailed observations of life in the 1970s and based on the good-natured assumption that everyone is a snob about something and to that extent we are all ridiculous. The bookseller was a snob about snobbery and thought it was vulgar to talk about class. D.J. Taylor is perhaps a literary snob for Cooper gets no mention in his much less enjoyable The New Book of Snobs: A Definitive Guide to Modern Snobbery (Little, Brown, £16.99).
His first mistake is to attempt a definition rather than rely on examples. He suggests that a snob is someone who observes ‘a distinction made for the wrong reason’ or makes judgments based on ‘false values’ but this is a circular argument because it’s the variability of values that gives rise to snobbery in the first place. It is disappointing that there is not more about truly modern snobbery: the disdain of the cool Mac user for the PC plodder, Prince William’s friends’ hilarity when they found that Carole Middleton kept her tomatoes in the fridge, the fact that people who post pictures of their lunch on social media are generally looked down on by those who don’t. Most of Taylor’s literary examples come from Thackeray, whose Book of Snobs appeared in 1848, and George Orwell – he has written biographies of both. Alan Bennett, who has the finest antennae for social nuance, is absent. So is Muriel Spark whose short story, ‘You Should Have Seen the Mess’, is a forensic analysis of the subject. It is narrated by a woman who has based every decision in her life on considerations of hygiene since, at the age of 11, she chose the smart new secondary modern over the down-at-heel grammar school. Her snobbery bounces off the mirror-image snobbery Spark assumes in her readers to make a perfect Newton’s cradle of mutual contempt.
Class snobbery depends on collusion and in England it is the upper and lower middle classes who form the firmest alliance. The social aspirations of the English lower middle class are finely calibrated. It was impressed on me by my mother before I started school that where we lived was ‘a chalet-style house’, not, under any circumstances, a bungalow. The corollary to this, as generations of exasperated Marxists have discovered, is pride in knowing your place and respecting your superiors. John Osborne’s autobiography A Better Class of Person (1981) is a sustained assault on that attitude in general and his mother in particular. It is no accident that, as Taylor quotes John Vincent saying, Margaret Thatcher was ‘the point at which all snobberies meet’, for she represented the compacted prejudices of the nation.
The dislike she aroused was couched in terms of condescension that had nothing to do with policy. Mary Warnock objected to her clothes, her Oxford tutor Dorothy Hodgkin famously brushed her off as ‘a perfectly good second-class chemist’, while on the social front Tatler captioned pictures of the prime minister ‘Mrs Denis Thatcher’. Accused of snobbery the magazine explained that this was the correct form since she was neither a widow nor a divorcée. There was an actual ‘Mrs Margaret Thatcher’ who was Denis’s first wife, an answer which was accurate as far as it went but left nobody in any doubt that Tatler did in fact look down on the provincial premier in her Marks and Spencer cardigans.
One of the more recent sources to which Taylor has frequent recourse is Anthony Powell, the snob’s snob, whose obsession in his fiction and his life with heredity and recondite forms of etiquette was epitomised by his insistence that his name was pronounced ‘poel’. As his Telegraph obituary explained, this was because the family had been traced back to ‘the early kings and princes of Wales’, albeit with the deflationary qualifier that it had been traced only ‘by himself’. This sort of old-fashioned snobbery is remarkably resistant to change. The London freesheet City A.M., which runs a monthly advice feature called ‘Debrett’s: Ask the Expert’, turned its attention last September to the question of what to wear to interviews. Debrett’s answer, citing a recent report by the Social Mobility Commission, strongly recommended against ‘brown shoes, ill-fitting suits, garish ties and poor haircuts’ which were looked at askance as part of ‘a wider bias against applicants from less privileged backgrounds who may be lacking the “polish” of their upper-middle-class, Russell Group-educated contemporaries’. The justification for this, as old as snobbery itself, is that the brown-shoe wearer would simply not ‘fit in’.
Snobbery works like Chinese boxes. The teenager who gets good enough A-levels aims for the desirable Russell Group universities only to discover that there are hierarchies within them. Even a place in the sunlit uplands of Oxford or Cambridge provides only momentary reassurance before the fresher discovers that some colleges are better than others and some subjects are considered more respectable. I was put off going to lectures on the history and philosophy of science, which I thought sounded interesting, by the fact it was always referred to in the English faculty as ‘hiss and piss’. Almost a quarter of a century has passed since John Major announced that all polytechnics were now universities, but everyone still knows which were which. When the train pulls into Cambridge station beside a sign announcing ‘Cambridge: Home of Anglia Ruskin University’, passengers have been known to snort.
As a waiter once sagely remarked to Jilly Cooper, ‘artichokes are a great leveller’ and food, whether in a restaurant or at home, is the snob’s obstacle race. For all but the poorest there is now so much choice that what we put on our tables can be taken as a personal statement and since most people cook for themselves, the host’s status hangs on the execution as well as the menu. An appearance of effortless sophistication is the middle-class ideal. Elizabeth David not only brightened postwar Britain with the flavours of the Mediterranean, she wrote in a way that reassured the large number of women and some men who were learning to cook for themselves that there was nothing demeaning about it. Her books are captivating reading but make grandly flattering assumptions about the reader’s knowledge and experience. Instructions are allusive rather than detailed. Delia Smith, who explains everything properly and appeared on television looking businesslike in her own fitted kitchen, is regarded as unsophisticated and suburban in comparison. Many a host has been known to shove Delia’s Complete Cookery Course back on the shelf when the doorbell goes, leaving David’s French Country Cooking lying casually by the stove.
David’s heir is arguably Yotam Ottolenghi whose healthy yet exotic recipes appear in colour magazines with lists of ingredients that run into double figures and among which there are usually at least two that most people won’t be able to find locally and one they’ve never heard of. But while the ambitious home cook is getting to grips with his Membrillo and Stilton Quiche the smart set has already shot past in the opposite direction. At the peak of his heroic social climbing Jeffrey Archer’s annual Christmas party invited politicians and film stars to tuck into shepherd’s pie. The Ivy prides itself on its fish pie; Marie-Antoinette wears a milkmaid’s smock: it takes the confidence of an aristocrat to carry off such simplicity.
Taylor includes several mentions of the LRB in his account as a byword for intellectual elitism and the haunt of ‘“expert”’ reviewers so he will no doubt think it snobbish of me to suggest that his book appears to have been somewhat thrown together out of material he had already researched and accuse me of inverse snobbery if I say I prefer Jilly Cooper.