Monday, 19 January 2015

In which I get grumpy about cheap labels.

I pause, in my work, and have a quick look at the internet. A huge class war has broken out, as James Blunt and Chris Bryant knock seven bells out of each other.

I hate class war. It is such a blunt instrument, and it contains so many cheap assumptions and category errors. It has no room for nuance or humanity. People on all sides of the political divide seem to adore it. They bash the idiot chavs who don’t know how to cook and spend all their benefits on televisions and cheap lager. They denigrate the ghastly metropolitan middle-class, the do-gooding bleeding hearts, who have never peered beyond the smug confines of Hampstead in their lives. They lambast the horrid public school cohort who only want to bray at their rich friends and think the poor should not have shoes.

The really odd thing is that no class is safe. The bourgeoisie are dull and unimaginative; the lower middles still twitch their curtains and talk about serviettes and put on airs; the upper middles insist on wearing garish corduroy trousers and think the world ends at Waitrose; the academy is so far up its own arse that it is looking at the world through its nostrils. There is a faint nostalgia across the sociological divide for what might be called the respectable working class, the one that epitomised stoicism and striving and bettering oneself, the very best of British, and which people seem to think does not exist any more.

Class itself, and the British obsession with it, is interesting as a sociological and anthropological subject, but it is the least interesting thing about an individual. (Apart, perhaps, from their star sign.) Just think of how you feel when you meet someone stimulating and fascinating and charming. Do you go home and say, I met a really interesting middle-class person today? Of course not. You remember that they know all about astrophysics or dry-stone walling or how to make bread. They made you laugh, they made you think, they made you feel better about yourself. They knew things you did not. They were kind; they knew how to listen. Do you really give a bugger what school they went to or what their parents did?

I sometimes think that arguments about privilege start from the wrong premise. I’m not sure that privilege is necessarily a fat salary and a seat on the board. Years ago, I went to a place where the very rich go. I don’t mean the well-off. I mean the ones who have not flown commercial since the old queen died. I never saw so many discontented faces in my life. I thought I might be intimidated, surrounded by plutocrats and captains of industry. Instead, I wanted to make them all soup. The real privilege, which no amount of cash or jobs or schooling can buy, is to love and be loved, and to have a sense of ease in your own skin. The real privilege comes with things that no rarefied education can provide – a sense of humour, resilience, a humane heart. I know this sounds like my hippy meter has gone off the scale, but I believe it to be true.

To understand privilege, I think one has to understand consolation. James Blunt went to public school. He then served in the Balkans. There are veterans I know who are still so haunted by the Balkans that they sometimes find it hard to function. It held a particularly poisonous combination of horrors seen and a sense of impotence, since the forces were there not to fight, but to observe. I don’t know what James Blunt saw there. I can pretty much guarantee that if he stood on the edge of a mass grave, he would not have consoled himself with the words: at least I went to Harrow.

Stephen Fry is another one who is routinely bashed with the privilege stick. There he is, with his expensive education, and his Oxbridge friends, and his mammoth erudition, and his cut-glass vowels. In a rushing media world, he is the ne plus ultra, the new aristocracy. À la lantérne les aristos! Let the baying mob chop him down, watched by beady rows of Mesdames Defarges. Fry battles with bipolar disorder, a particularly nasty form of mental affliction about which he has written eloquently. When he is in the midst of an attack, when the drugs don’t work, I very much doubt he might cheer himself up by dwelling on which university he went to.

A loving family, a good education, a warm house, opposable thumbs, enough to eat, water coming out of the tap, books to read, a view to look at, living in a free democracy where there are no religious police or state oppression are profound, uncountable privileges, to be keenly appreciated. In Saudi Arabia, women may not drive a car and a blogger is currently being given one thousand lashes. The lashes are being staggered, fifty at a time, so that the wounds may heal. (There is something particularly macabre about that.) In Turkmenistan, you can be arbitrarily thrown into jail if you are a journalist, human rights activist or even if you sing a song the president for life does not care for. In Cuba, the prisons are full of randomly arrested doctors, journalists, librarians and homosexuals. Juan Carlos González Leiva wrote of Cuba: ‘Day and night, the screams of tormented women in panic and desperation who cry for God's mercy fall upon the deaf ears of prison authorities. They are confined to narrow cells with no sunlight called "drawers" that have cement beds, a hole on the ground for their bodily needs, and are infested with a multitude of rodents, roaches, and other insects. In these "drawers" the women remain weeks and months. When they scream in terror due to the darkness (blackouts are common) and the heat, they are injected with sedatives that keep them half-drugged.’

Compared to that, the daily life of almost any free Briton is a verdant paradise.

I think it is the thoughtless herding into boxes that I find dismaying. Humans are individuals, whatever tribe they come from. Slap a label on them, reduce them to some crude sociological mark, and you deny their intrinsic humanity. Apart from anything else, it is lazy thinking. It has no utility. It does not get anyone anywhere.

As I get older, I start to think I’m going to ban the word typical from my vocabulary. Typical woman, typical thoroughbred, typical posh bloke, typical Scot, typical Geordie – none of these tell me anything much. All humans judge; it’s almost impossible not to. And many humans dearly love a category, and a list, and a dividing line. But I’d love people to be judged on what they do, not what accent they have. Are you funny, are you kind, are you generous? Do you try? Do you add some increment to the sum total of human happiness? Do you take your privilege, and do something useful with it?

As I look for a good place to stop, a final, ringing sentence, I think: oh, bugger it. Why wade in? Perhaps people are really enjoying themselves, with their sociological cudgels. Nobody cares what I think. James Blunt can take care of himself. He is trained in mortal combat and has an advanced sense of the ridiculous. But reductive labels make me crazy in the head, so I suppose I must publish and be damned.


Today’s pictures:

It was minus six today and glittering with sun, but I did not have time for the camera. Here is a motley selection of pictures from the archive instead:

19 Jan 1-001

19 Jan 1-002

19 Jan 1-003

19 Jan 2

19 Jan 3

19 Jan 4

19 Jan 4-001

19 Jan 5

19 Jan 5-001

19 Jan 7

19 Jan 11


  1. You never fail to amaze me. Poor people have shoes? Who knew?

  2. Thank you for this. Putting words in my mouth (and mind, and heart) as you do so often.

  3. Fantastic piece of writing. Thank you.

  4. Brilliant writing - thank you, Rachel

  5. Stanley is looking particularly fine today.


  6. How incredibly kind you all are. You know that I terrify myself witless when I address any serious subject. So much easier to stick to the absurd equine obsession and not put a foolish head above the parapet. I am vastly reassured by the generosity of the Dear Readers.

  7. Brilliantly put! And generous and kind. x

  8. I love Stanley's ears. They are so dear. I find gratitude and kindness to be hallmarks of good people. These good people are found everywhere. Thank you Tania.

  9. People who define and/ or deal with other people according to some (cocked up, in my opinion!) notion of "class" are, well, rather classless....I find.

    As k says, good, kind, compassionate people are to be found everywhere.


  10. I find your words inspirational. You tell things as they are and do not hold back. I suppose in a way I was one of the privileged few. Public school education (although I often why my parents bothered paying extortionate fees for my education) and then university, where I must add I was amased at getting first class honors in economics and then a 2/1 in management from Open University. Like James Blunt in between my my education at Aberdeen Grammar School and University I too saw the horrors of conflict, which I may add lives with me daily. Does my education mean I am a member of the elite? No I am as common as muck, enjoy getting my hands ,winding up the author of this blog when I get the chance, and helping other veterans who like myself have been broken by the system. I am unsure where this is going so I will stop now.

  11. I don't know who James Blunt is, but I know that being upper middle class will make some people get agressive towards you. I've never felt inclined to hide a simple fact - why and how ? Who should I try to enact - a medieval maiden ?
    Having been in science all my life I look just the person that I am, in corduroys actually. I could tell a retired teacher, pharmacist, person managing a farm - they look like me. Nobody can disguise where they come from, even less when they try too hard. I feel sorry for a person when they do it. Would I get on with everybody ? Apparently not. (and sorry, but the latin and french quotes are both wrong)

  12. More wonderfully kind comments; thank you all. And Christiane - it is incredibly generous of you to take the time to point out mistakes. I always make them when I write a long post and I am tired and my copy-editing skills desert me. I'm slightly baffled though, as I understood 'ne plus ultra' to mean the ultimate, the highest point, which is what I meant. Perhaps I have been wrong about this all my life. My Latin is absolute buggery bollocks. And with the French one I was trying to say aristos to the lamposts, or string 'em up, although I freely admit that there should have been a comma. (Blogger is awful for editing, since it reformats all the paragraphs, so I'm going to leave the errant comma out, if you will forgive me.) But I'd love it if you would elucidate. Should it have been Les aristocrates á la lanterne? I'm now avid for the correct versions of both. I have often had angst about tumbling into the elephant traps of misappropriation and misquotation and am enchanted to find a fellow pedant.

  13. Dear Tanya ! Had I known how to delete my comment I would have right after hitting the button. I got carried away and want to apologize. I am reading your blog because you can actually relate to your dear readers on many levels and we love it. This isn't going to happen again - should probably refrain from 'comments' sections for a while.

  14. Christiane - please don't refrain! I love comments and I am always pleased to be corrected because I type this fast and often when quite tired and live in terror of howlers. Many of the Dear Readers save me from shame weekly. :)


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