Saturday, 19 October 2013

Class War Yarg

I am late to the blog this morning because I have been defending the so-called middle class in a combox on England's The Catholic Herald. I think it was Peter Hitchens who said that the poor old so-called "lower middle class" was the most despised group in England.

"So-called" is my favourite word today because class is by its very nature a social construct and I think it is ridiculous. However, complaining that the English are obsessed with class is like saying that the Americans are obsessed with race, i.e. not something an outsider, e.g. a Canadian, should say.

I first came across the whole concept of class from British books. I found it interesting, as I loved categories, so I asked my mother what class we belonged to. My mother, who was probably in her early 30s at the time, very cleverly told me my family was exempt from the class system because my father was an intellectual. Being a froward child, I took this to mean that we were super-special, beyond aristocrats and royalty, because my father was an intellectual. So I became a bit of an intellectual snob. I even once referred to myself (on TV, how horrible) as an intellectual, and my father laughed quite a lot. So I shall never do that again.

When I got to Britain, I noticed that the class system, from which my ancestors fled, was still in effect, so I brightly asked B.A. what class we belonged to, and he shrieked like a tea kettle because that's not something one is ever supposed to think about. He also told me that being a foreigner I am exempt from such stuff, and how lucky I am.

This turns out not to be true, exactly, because although the English and, to a certain extent, the Scots still identify and classify everyone by their accents (and the wary Scots have learned that very often American-sounding people are actually Canadians), people here also judge you by your clothes, your address and your chosen form of transportation. And, rather horribly for me, there exists a form of class-conscious chippiness that wants to take down anyone who seems to be "putting on airs." Putting on airs can mean wearing snazzy vintage clothes, including (and especially) ladies' hats.

I suppose I could "get away with it" if I had the right car for the hat, but I don't know how to drive. I take the bus and because between the New Town and the Historical House lies a great swath of slum, B.A. sometimes makes me take my hat off, or leave behind Casimir (my fox fur stole), or exchange my glorious mohair cape for my green tweed coat with the hem that keeps falling down. The English are said to love eccentrics; the Scots, I suspect, not so much.

What I dislike most about class-consciousness is being hassled by drunk people about my clothes. When I was a child in Toronto, the other children made fun of my clothes because they didn't think they were fashionable enough. Now I get hassled for my clothes because they look funny or fall in the distressing category "too posh and yet not posh enough."

But that aside--and it can be really frightening--what I dislike next is moaning about the wicked "middle-class" with "their" terribly unchristian values, like jockeying to find a good salary and repeating ideas they learned from books and the Guardian/Telegraph and forcing their children to speak clearly.

The bit of British letters I have ever seen with the same venom shown towards the so-called working classes (as opposed to the so-called "socially excluded" (generational welfare recipients) as I recently read about the so-called middle classes, was a story by Muriel Spark, who was working class herself but went to a very good school before training as a secretary. In this story, the working class secretary comes from a home that is absolutely obsessed with germs, and would rather have new easy-to-clean furniture than antique furniture any day of the week. She is a nice girl and befriends some middle-classy bohemian people who shock her with their untidy ways, and she is terribly disappointed by a posh suitor because he is simply grubby. Oh woe!

Spark is having fun at the expense of the working-class, which may have been rather daring. Spark was not exempt from the reverse-snobbery of critics who, quite to find snobbery in others, have protested that Spark was not from "posh" Morningside (a neighbourhood in Edinburgh) as she is claimed to have claimed, but from humbler Bruntsfield (the Edinburgh neighbourhood right beside Morningside.)

As a matter of fact, Spark was born in a flat in Bruntsfield, and you could still see "Spark" on the doorbell until two years ago or so when her son (presumably) took it off. But she certainly went to the Mary Erskine James Gillespie's School, which is not that long of a walk away and is indeed in Morningside. I think such fretting over Spark's supposed class pretensions an affront to human dignity. It says more about the fretters than it does about Spark.

My own attitude is that, unlike gender, class is entirely a social contract and will disappear once people stop needing to snarl at those they think are looking down on them, and giggle at those they think are indeed below them, and sucking up to those they think will help them get into the coolest parties, wherever they may be. There is so much social mobility in the United Kingdom now that class distinctions don't really make any sense. Every British adult citizen (and the Irish resident in the UK, and Canadians, too) have exactly one vote--except the Queen. The Queen can't vote. So therefore the Queen is in a class of her own. And when I examine my beliefs about the Queen, I really do believe she is in a special relationship with God on behalf of the British Commonwealth. So, yes, I would certainly curtsey to the Queen--and to any other Christian Queen. Of course, the Queen of Poland outranks all the others.

Obviously there will always be poor people (the goalposts keep shifting on what "poor" is) and there will always be richer people, but I don't think one group is thereby better than another. I think cheery, friendly people who go out of their way to make others happy are the natural aristocracy, if aristocracy there must be.

9 comments:

Julia said...

'This turns out not to be true, exactly, because although the English and, to a certain extent, the Scots still identify and classify everyone by their accents (and the wary Scots have learned that very often American-sounding people are actually Canadians), people here also judge you by your clothes, your address and your chosen form of transportation. And, rather horribly for me, there exists a form of class-conscious chippiness that wants to take down anyone who seems to be "putting on airs." Putting on airs can mean wearing snazzy vintage clothes, including (and especially) ladies' hats.'

This is pretty much true in Australia as well. Australians have a thing called "Tall Poppy Syndrome". Vintage accessories probably wouldn't be an issue anywhere other than the roughest of neighbourhoods though.

Australians love to pretend that we don't have a class system. Okay, we don't have an official aristocracy, but there is certainly an awareness of class. If we didn't have that, the programme "Kath and Kim" would never have happened.

'And when I examine my beliefs about the Queen, I really do believe she is in a special relationship with God on behalf of the British Commonwealth.'

I'm interested in this. Why so?

Seraphic said...

Because she made the Coronation Oath, and she meant it. The Coronation Service, which includes special chrism from the Vatican, is pretty solemn stuff. And everyone knows the Queen is a serious Christian.

Julia said...

Backstory: I'm not in favour of Australia becoming a republic. There isn't much of a push for a republic in Australia, despite the best efforts of the self-anointed intelligentsia. Most people just don't care at all, or they are wary of Australia developing a USA-style presidential system. The royal family visits pretty frequently, and many people attend the public events, although I would personally never bother. In general, the royals are well-liked by Australians. I don't personally feel much affection for the Windsors (I don't really think about them that much), but I'm in favour of Australia remaining a Constitutional Monarchy and staying part of the Commonwealth.

The Queen is the head of the Church of England, and so, well, she has no choice but to be a Christian, and I believe she meant it when she took her Oath. But how is approving laws that have legalised gay marriage and abortion all over the Commonwealth (sometimes via Governors-General) consistent with being a serious Christian?

Also, why is chrism from the Vatican used in the Service?

N.B. These are genuinely things I'm wondering about, and I'm not trying to be snarky.

Julia said...

Well, okay, I'm not 'genuinely wondering about' how passing laws legalising gay marriage and abortion can be consistent with being a serious Christian, because it can't be. But I'm still not being snarky, and I do want to know why you think the Queen is a serious Christian.

I'd have abdicated rather than pass those laws.

MariaLouisa said...

To echo Julia, I'd add that King Baudouin of Belgium resigned for the day rather than sign an abortion bill. It's not quite the full abdication Julia recommended (and with which I'd agree) but it's certainly preferable to what happened in Britain. I have to say, I always thought she'd sign them but I thought she might put up some resistance. I had a lot more respect for her previously, but I found her signing those laws shocking considering that she is widely considered to be a serious Christian.

Seraphic said...

I was shocked by those things, too (although she must have signed the amended abortion laws before I was born). I don't really know what to say about that beyond the facts that she is a Protestant monarch and that it really is Parliament who calls the shots.

In the UK, there is some talk of churches getting out of the "marriage business" and embracing the system (as in Germany) of a civil marriage followed by an optional religious marriage. Maybe the Queen was thinking along those lines herself. I couldn't say for sure.

Aussie girl in NZ said...

I suspect that the Queen simply respects the system of democracy and government and does not seek to impose her point of view on the law of the land. That is just my guess.

Seraphic said...

Okay. That's the last comment on the Queen, peoples.

Sheila said...

Hm. Here in the US I can't say I ever think about class. Well, hardly ever. There are moments, like in private school where most of the kids were richer than me and made fun of my cheap clothes and school supplies. At public school no one did this; I never knew who was or wasn't rich. Probably no one. Our neighborhood was pretty poor.

And when I was a nanny, I found the wealth gap between my employer and myself rather uncomfortable. I'd never seen a house that nice. And my boss gave me her handmedowns. It was awkward.

But other than that, I think people are almost TOO unaware of class. Like if I complain about something on Facebook, someone's always got to comment with a recommendation for some expensive product to fix it. Why do they assume I can afford that?

I have to admit, though, that deep down I have a bit of disdain for people who spend money like water. I feel that being frugal is a virtue, albeit a virtue that rich people rarely have any need to practice. I wonder why, if they're so rich they don't have to worry about money, why don't they live like I do and then give the rest to the poor? I know I would.