Chapter 2 – The Class System
Over 60 years have passed since George Orwell described England as ‘the most class-ridden country under the sun’ and he would be as disappointed as I am that the class system is still alive and well both north and south of Hadrian’s Wall. For centuries now, whether they be working class, middle class, down and out, up and coming, a toff, or an obscenely rich banker who could do with my sister’s sort of back-hander (which are not delivered in envelopes), the English and the Scots have grown up understanding where they fit into society.
The aristocracy of both England and Scotland is made up of people who have forgotten the humiliating lengths their distant ancestors went to achieve power and position. I was once unfortunate enough to find myself in the Royal Enclosure at Epsom on Derby Day, in an attempt to study the upper classes, only to hear one very well spoken lady say to another, ‘well, of course, we all know the Royal Family are naff.’ Maybe so, madam, but can we assume you live on your sprawling country estate because one of your ancestors wiped a royal bottom every day for twenty years? Or had sex with it?
Because that is how the class system of England was developed in the first place. Peerages and other noble honours have been handed out in England to royal favourites since King Edward III initiated the first English Dukedoms by naming his eldest son, Edward the Black Prince, the Duke of Cornwall in 1337. Ever since then the reigning monarch of England has been creating Viscounts, Earls, Marquises and Barons out of his or her favourite lackey, loafer or lover. Meanwhile, north of the border, our neighbours were looking enviously over the fence.
And perhaps that’s why the reveal has not emerged throughout the language there as it has in England over the centuries. The reveal, by the way, is what I call the words that can always tell me as much as I need to know about a person’s background. For example, when I hear somebody asking for directions to the lavatory I know they are from the upper classes because any normal person would ask for the bathroom, or toilet. Of course, asking for the loo or the bog reveals something entirely different. And do you take a spot of lunch at lunch time or is that dinner time? Perhaps you make a point of having afternoon tea instead of a can of lager as they prefer in Caledonia. I know I do. And then there is the last meal of the day. For some people that is called dinner whilst others are asked what they want for their tea. When I hear these words I know who you are, and where you come from.
If you say to me, when we meet, ‘how do you do,’ then I know how to reply. But if you say ‘alright mate’ then you can expect a different one. If you react to a surprise by saying ‘good gosh’ you are one kind of Englishman and if you say ‘bloody hell’ you are another, completely different kind. Either way you are not Scottish who would say something along the lines of ‘ohh ach the nach nook.’ You may be a huntsman or a saboteur. And you will be different Englishmen. It took an Irishman to sum up that peculiar noble pastime when Oscar Wilde dismissed it as ‘the unspeakable in full pursuit of the inedible.’
Is it balderdash or bullshit, fiddlesticks or fish hooks, blimey o’rielly, jeepers or cripes? Do you say ‘for crying out loud’ or ‘gor blimey?’ Am I a gentleman, bloke, geezer or a bonnie lad? If you use these words you reveal your background and where you come from in a manner that only another Englishman would instinctively understand whilst, at the same time, would confuse the Scottish. The class system and the way we reveal it is inherent in England. What is peculiar is that both the upper class and the working class appear proud of their status whilst those in the middle aspire, or pretend, to be one or the other.
My folks were English . . . we were too poor to be British. ~ Bob Hope, My Life in Jokes
The English country gentleman galloping after a fox – the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable. ~ Oscar Wilde
He would not allow Scotland to derive any credit from Lord Mansfield; for he was educated in England. ‘Much’, said he, ‘may be made of a Scotchman, if he be caught young.’ ~ James Boswell, speech at the House of Commons, 1828
In England only uneducated people show off their knowledge; nobody quotes Latin or Greek authors in the course of conversation, unless he has never read them. ~ George Mikes
It is not that the Englishman can’t feel…it is that he is afraid to feel. He has been taught at his public school that feeling is bad form. He must not express great joy or sorrow, or even open his mouth too wide when he talks… his pipe might fall out if he did. ~ E.M. Forster
English clubs are very exclusive. I played Royal Foxshire and they made me wear a suit and tie. . . in the shower. ~ Bob Hope, Confessions of a Hooker
Here was my first lesson on the resolutely maintained untidiness and ill-health of the English upper orders. In baggy evening dress and old before their time, they displayed gapped and tangled teeth in loosely open mouths. Gently shedding dandruff, they lurched across the lawn. ~ Clive James, Falling towards England
What class am I? All three! ~ Grayson Perry
I was once naïve enough to ask the late Duke of Devonshire why he liked the town of Eastbourne. He replied with a self-deprecating shrug that one of the things he liked was that he owned it. ~ A N Wilson
One has often wondered whether, upon the whole earth, there is anything so unintelligent, so unapt to perceive how the world is really going, as an ordinary young Englishman of our upper class. ~ Matthew Arnold
Class is something bred into us like a religious faith. We drink in our aesthetic heritage with our mother’s milk, with our mates at the pub, or on the playing fields of Eton. We learn the texture of our place in the world from the curlicue of a neck tattoo, the clank of a Le Creuset casserole dish, or the scent of a mouldering hunting print. A childhood spent marinating in the material culture of one’s class means taste is soaked right through you. Cut me and, beneath the thick crust of Islington, it still says “Essex” all the way through. ~ Grayson Perry
Dennis: Come and see the violence inherent in the system. Help! Help! I’m being repressed!
King Arthur: Bloody peasant!
Dennis: Oh, what a giveaway! Did you hear that? Did you hear that, eh? That’s what I’m on about! Did you see him repressing me? You saw him, didn’t you?
~ Monty Python and the Holy Grail
If someone is very upper-class, you have a stereotype of him which is probably true. If someone has a working-class accent, you have no idea who you’re talking to. ~ Michael Caine
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