Saturday, 19 June 2010

Port out, starboard home (via Waitrose, dahling!)

A recent opinion poll conducted by Opinium Research asked participants to comment on what makes a person "posh". I chanced upon this in an article in Waitrose Weekend

The poll was commented on by MSN UK:

Employing a cleaner, saying "supper" instead of "dinner" and owning an Aga are among the current indicators that one is posh, according to a study. A quarter of those questioned consider spending more than £10 on a bottle of wine to be posh... Other markers include telling others what school you went to while in your 30s, doing the weekly shop at Waitrose and drinking Earl Grey tea... Almost two in three people (63%) would not want to be considered posh but just 11% said they would not marry a posh person.

Quite apart from finding this alarmingly twentieth century, it was disappointingly self-congratulatory that Waitrose - a nice supermarket - featured an article by one of its contributors on this very topic. We should all be terribly pleased that by shopping there we are by definition posh (weekly shops only, note!). I am, as ever, struck, by the on-going fascination that British people have for their class system.

First, who did Opinium ask these questions of? Second, why "posh"? Is posh not a terribly antiquated concept? Third, does the Earl Grey have to be Twinings or Waitrose brand or can any wannabe-pretender shop for tea at Lidl and qualify? Fourth, many of the cleaners flourish due to the long hours their employers spend at work. Fifth, have you met anyone who does not mention their school? Schools seem to be the one topic one can safely rely on as an icebreaker these days. Do I only know posh people?

It seems almost Victorian to know (let alone care) whether the tea one drinks makes one a better class of person. What does lapsang souchong or orange pekoe say for one? For the uninitiated - like the unwary Australian who may have gone to the best schools and had opera season tickets - there are many pitfalls involved in this national preoccupation. How terrible to meet the admission criteria for Oxbridge but come unstuck when accidentally and unwittingly referring to the Ladies as anything other than the Loo.

I grew up thinking loo a rather horrid word, you see. Indeed, toilet is not great, but finding out that loo is the only acceptable middle class nomenclature took me somewhat by surprise. That was before I discovered that the room in which one sits and entertains friends, watches tv (if one is not so nouveau riche as to have a "media" room) listens to radio plays and "Just a Minute" on Radio 4 and sips one's prosecco also has a particular name. 

Choose the unacceptable working class names from the following:

drawing room
sitting room
living room
reception room

I was initiated into the vagaries of the class system when fresh off the boat from the colonies. It was all explained to me by my posh Cambridge (!) chums (this was 1995, not 1925, mind you). Naturally, the underlying assumption was that one wants to be perceived as posh or at least middle class (and not lower MC or recently joined the MC). Reading the correct newspapers and magazines will help create an image. As does allegiance to sporting teams and codes. The music acts or writers one follows can also be important. As can one's neighbourhood, pub, referred food and drink, holiday destinations, shops and ways of dressing. 

Over the past 15 years I can point to several rules that have been broken, flouted or abandoned by the MC. Discretion, being one that springs to mind. Hence, I dare say, this new poll and its futile attempt to reclassify the criteria for admission to the ranks of the posh. The ground has shifted and people need to know where they fit in.

Correct me if I am wrong, dear Aussie reader, but where we come from we seem to be less concerned with such ideas. Is ours a virtually classless society? Certainly, there are "haves" and "have-lesses" and the "right" schools, shops and brands have always been around, but we tend to prefer to view one another as mates, do we not? Success, energy and a smile for our neighbour carry more weight than the tea we favour. That is not to say that old school ties and clubbishness does not abound. But would we call such prejudices middle class? Perhaps we have more colourful terms for people that don't drink Earl Grey, than "working class". Or perhaps these sorts of distinctions have become blurred so much that the criteria applied in the UK would not really sort the toffs from the louts at all, down under. 

I accept that people love to know where they sit in the pecking order. But do one's proclivities towards eating crisps, rather than hummus, or camembert over beer nuts tells one very much?

Indeed, many of the best bred young fellows follow "working class" sports, anyone can find someone to sponsor their membership of the Turf Club, sit on a board or two or buy a boat. 

So I wonder if the selection criteria ought not to be challenged and changed. Assuming of course, that it mattered an iota.

It seems that being of a "class" is itself rather outdated. Very old world - old tech - if you like.

In a time when we have at our fingertips the means to discover not only what prosecco is, but God forbid, buy it from the comfort of our Reception Room, while watching football highlights or catching up on what Posh said to Becks in Hello, book a flight in "Upper Class", sip imported lager and special blends of tea flown in from Latin America via India and gain a university degree remotely, concepts such as class seem to have no currency at all.

The classrooms in the better public schools are a melange of second generation Brits whose parents have toiled night and day in off-licences, children of civil servants, surgeons and media dahlings and the cherubs of lingerie models and pizza franchise owners and made-it-big before the GFC city traders. 

Are we not all "middle class"? Do we not all aspire to holiday anywhere that makes a "Hottest" or "best" list? Don't we all want to give our children the best of everything? While it may not be a completely level playing field, all the privilege that the middle classes of yesteryear enjoyed are now easily attained. Indeed, with a limited supply of talent or good looks, plenty of luck and a rich pinch of connections, not even a parlous lack of education, intelligence or conversation can get in the way of the enviable celebrities of this generation. The privileges that the lower classes once aspired to? Mulitple tvs, annual holidays abroad, private school, straight (white) teeth? Hardly a big deal these days. 

How can foie gras or Rigoletto rate a mention these days?

It is time for a new poll. Class questionnaires are truly a thing of the past. 

The issues today are more substantial and heavy hitting. Try these for example:

Are you cool? 
Are you tech-savvy?
Are you green?
Are you organic, aruvedic, yogic or charmic?
Do you smoke?
Do you have a purpose?
Have you adopted a child from the developing world?
Have you posted a DVD on You Tube?
Do you know the lyrics of all the Lady Ga-ga songs?
Are you obese?
Do you drive a small or a large car?
Are you a domestic god/goddess?
Are you conservative?
Do you pay taxes?
Have you ever suffered from depression?
Are you extrinsically motivated?
Do you work?
Do you believe in (a) God?
Do you care who wins the World Cup?
Are you a Coke Zero or Diet Coke person?
Apple or PC?
Can you think for yourself?

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