Pissed-off Toff ponders on a question of some importance …
Many years ago, at Eton, I became friends with a chap called Alexander Elliot. Later, at Oxford, he threw himself under a high-speed train as it passed through the station, thus eliminating himself and traumatising the train-driver.
Alexander was in the year below me. He was good looking and unusual, with a particular charm and presence. His father was a member of White’s and his mother was an Esterhazy. The world lay at his feet. Now, forty years after the event, I remember something he said, and I remember it for one reason only: honesty.
“You know what,” he said, “I’m fed up with upper class people like us saying that we’re middle class. We’re not. We’re upper class.”
* * * * *
My own mother was quite clear on this point. Like many women of her background, she was almost completely uneducated, and after a number of years at St Mary’s Ascot she knew the prayer book inside out and had the most intimate knowledge of who was related to whom. Of politics and economics and ‘social’ history, as opposed to the sort of history that revolves around kings and queens, with special reference to our ancestor King Charles II … of these things she knew nothing. But she was fun, and intelligent. And she was also aware of being upper-class, or should I say half-aristocratic; just as a rich person is aware of being rich, or as a beautiful person is aware of being beautiful. In other words, she was aware of being something that she would have been stupid not to be aware of.
Like anyone from her background, she knew how titles work. A single episode related to this sticks in my mind. Despite his film-star good looks as a young man, and despite having been in the Grenadier Guards, my father was of a lesser class than my mother, and untrained in what she took to be basic knowledge. One day she caught sight of a letter he had written, and which was waiting to go to the post, addressed to a certain ‘Lady Mary Gordon-Lennox’. My mother was horrified. “She isn’t Lady Mary Gordon-Lennox,” she told my father. “She’s Lady Nicholas Gordon-Lennox.”
My father looked at her in a way that would nowadays be described as ‘whatever’. So my mother explained. The woman he was writing to was the wife of Lord Nicholas Gordon-Lennox. As everyone knew, Lord Nicholas was the younger son of the Duke of Richmond. On any envelope, the correct form of address for him was, of course, ‘Lord Nicholas Gordon-Lennox’; and the correct form of address for his wife was, of course, ‘Lady Nicholas Gordon-Lennox’. Only if the wife of Lord Nicholas had herself been the daughter of an earl or better … only then would ‘Lady Mary’ have been correct. Did she really have to explain such things?
My father was persuaded to post his letter in an envelope with the correct name on it. As a boy, I absorbed all this; so that to this day I am a stickler for correct form … which, however unfashionable it might be, is much appreciated by the recipients of such rare courtesy. And even now, I can’t bear to meet someone and for that person to say I’m Harry or Freddy or Flora or Olivia. I want to know Harry who? Or Freddy who? It’s ingrained.
Anyhow. To return to our question, of vital importance:
Am I upper class?
* * * * *
This question has recently occupied my thoughts more than a little.
On the one hand, by upbringing and by formation, my experience of life (or at any rate those parts of my life that I care to dwell on) has been quite exceptionally privileged. Whereas on the other hand, I have no money. Worse still, I am at the moment quite close to being homeless. And yet nothing is going to persuade me that I am anything other than upper-class.
One isn’t meant to say these things, I know. But what the hell! Directly descended from Charles II and from Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (le Prince de Bénévent, in the Napoleonic order of things, which hardly counts; but far more importantly, son of one of the most revered houses of the ancien régime); cousin of one of the grander marquesses, who loved my mother and stood godfather to a brother of mine; educ. Summerfields, Eton and Oxford; plus, half the people I know have inherited titles and estates with more or less impressive fortunes attached; oh, and I speak – or used to speak – French and Italian like a native, and not bad Russan either …
No subsequent experience – no revolution, no turmoil, no reversal of fortunes – can change that. That is one reason why I particularly liked Alexander Elliot, may his soul rest in peace: for his unfashionable honesty. Born of an aristocratic Middle-European mother and of an upper-class British father, he was proud of it and was not going to pretend otherwise. Good for him.
And that is also why I rather despise worms like ‘Dave’ Cameron, who describes himself as ‘middle class’. As upper class goes, he barely qualifies, it is true. But nor is he common. So why the pretence? Why the squirming ‘Oh-I’m-middle-class’ thing?
And while I’m at it, I’ve got a good story about ‘Dave’ Cameron. When it suited him to describe himself as ‘middle-class’ and to pretend that he was a man of the people, which he patently is not, he resigned from White’s, the grandest club in St James’s. Then when the charade was over, he tried to get back in. But he was roundly snubbed. Fuck you, they said; although the exact formula used might have been different.
* * * * *
All this was rather on my mind the other day, when I received an invitation from Eton to go and break a crust with the people who left the school in the same year in which I left it … that is to say in 1979. There, I was placed on the top table, with the Provost and various heavy-hitters, most of them with deep pockets which my old school wished to pick. I’m still trying to work out how this came about. But it did leave me with the idea that whatever happens, I am ineradicably upper-class. And yet not far off being a tramp either.
It is deeply unfashionable, nowadays, to express any pride in where one comes from. It is still more unfashionable to suggest that one cares about class in any way. But this is a modern aberration; and if the ancients worshipped their ancestors, they were not wrong to do so.
In a renewed bid to escape the absurdity of the modern world, I thus raise a glass to the past and go to play a Chopin prelude on the grand piano in the aisle of the church which is my temporary sanctuary. And I think that after that I’ll listen to a little Abba, at high volume.
Now there’s class for you …