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.
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: