Friday, 28 November 2014

Arrested development

So I'm in this reading group and our book of the month has been Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes, the Downton Abbey guy. It's mostly about very posh people and class, so it did put some rather interesting context round the presumably trending topics of Plebgate and David Mellor's taxi rant.

In very brief outline,  Past Imperfect is set around now. The life of the late middle-aged narrator (a  moderately successful novelist from an upper-class background) is changed when an old acquaintance, Damian Baxter, who is dying, gets in touch about something that had happened when they were both young together.

Back around the turn of the 1960s/70s, the youthful narrator had introduced Baxter, whose parents were ordinary folk, to his smart set of posh/aristocratic friends who were stuck in a sort of time warp, doing their own DIY version of the debutante season, even though the official version of "The Season" with the monarch receiving debs at Court had finished by the end of the '50s.

Although low-born, Baxter was handsome, clever and charming, so was, at first, a great success at the marriage market-cum-networking event that was The Season. Hearts were broken, social snubs were variously avoided and delivered, but by the end of the season, the poshos had closed ranks against Baxter, who eventually reacted to their snubs with an action too dreadful to be mentioned in polite circles (spoiler - it's not really that bad), broke with the toffs, but being a very clever chap went on to make shedloads of money and ended up richer than most of the people who were looking down their noses at him.

Many years later, Baxter received an anonymous letter that made him think he made one of the deb gels preggers during that frantic season. As he's now dying, he wants the narrator to find out who bore his unacknowledged child, so that he can bestow his fortune on his own flesh and blood (following an adult case of mumps, Baxter became infertile around the time he split with his posh friends, hence the lack of other heirs to his immense wealth).

The rest of the book is the story of the narrator's attempt to identify the mother and child, which inevitably involves him revisiting the friendships and emotions of his lost youth and meditating on things like youth and maturity, the passage of time, loss, disappointment, the nature of love and friendship and so on.

It's not a bad read, good enough at least to keep you turning the pages and not worrying too much about some of the pieces of plotting that seem a bit contrived. And, more to the point here, I presume that it's a reasonably accurate picture of that gilded upper-class world, given Fellowes' own background (son of a diplomat, childhood home in South Kensington, thence to prep school, Ampleforth College, before reading Eng Lit at Magdalene, where his career in the arts was launched at the Footlights, then marriage to the impeccably upper-crust Emma Joy Kitchener LVO, former Lady-in-Waiting to HRH Princess Michael of Kent and great-grandniece of Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener).

One thing that struck me forcibly, what with all the stuff in the media about toffs behaving badly, is that in Fellowes' world some of the toffs are terrible, boorish snobs, but even the gracious ones are horribly condescending. It's like the difference between the cringe-making embarrassment of a Mitchell/Mellor "do you know who I am?" rant and the habitual condescension of a David Cameron, who has the savoir faire to condescend to the oiks, whilst staying just the right side of identifiable rudeness (apart from the odd lapse like 'calm down dear'). In this world, good manners isn't about being considerate and kind, so much as being able to remind one's inferiors who's boss without anything so frightfully ill-bred as raising one's voice or losing control.

The other thing that struck me was how timeless the truly privileged are, and not in a good way. The book has a lot to say about growing older, growing up, mellowing, dealing with life's sorrows, setbacks and disappointments and maybe finding a little wisdom and humility along the way. But the whole structure of the exclusive, cliquey world of privilege militates against that sort of maturity.

A lot of otherwise ordinary people reach peak tribalism and get completely up themselves around adolescence. I would say we've all been there, but I'm only speaking from personal experience and maybe there are some people who don't pass through this difficult phase and inflict it on others, but it's still quite common. You're young, you know it all, and certain other types of people just aren't where it's at. Maybe it's people who wear the wrong sort of clothes, or listen to the wrong sort of music, or older people ('hope I die before I get old'), or people whose taste in this that or the other is naff, or you find any one of a million other trivial reasons for celebrating your own tribal or individual identity and looking down on people who don't get it and insist on being hopelessly and unforgivably unlike yourself and daring to like stuff you don't like.

Then you grow up a bit. Life takes you down a peg or two and you realise that you're not that special and that a lot of  people and things you'd previously dismissed for no very good reason are actually quite good and worthwhile. Then you cringe for a bit, at how you were a bit of a prat, maybe forgive yourself to the extent that it's all part of the process of carving out your own identity and, after having had the grace to be embarrassed about having occasionally been an insufferable brat, you move on and get on with the rest of your life.

Unless you belong to an elite that teaches you from an early age that you are special and that other people are, and aways will be, your inferiors in any number of tiny but irredeemable ways (having appalling taste, as defined by elite standards, saying the wrong thing - for example I discovered from this book that saying 'pleased to meet you' is apparently a terrible social faux pas in really posh circles - I don't know or care why). Being incredibly posh, it seems, is like being perpetually nineteen and just knowing that you're cooler and objectively better than the other kids because they're on the wrong side of some arbitrary fence (jock/nerd, mod/rocker, punk/new romantic Star Wars/Star Trek, or any other youthful division of People Like Me versus The Others - I'm sure that younger readers, if there be any, can think of more up-to-date examples).

As a posh person, you are brought up to believe in the very core of your being that you are objectively better than the plebs and, if the conditioning works, you stay that way for the rest of your life. Sometimes the exasperation caused by some mere policeman or taxi driver not realising their own essential uncoolness must be too much for an overgrown spoiled adolescent to bear. It's moments like this that separate the true lady or gent, who has completely internalised that impenetrable sense of superiority from the insecure bounder who lets the side down by letting fly with the stuff that one is just supposed to think.

Which is why Pleb/taxigate is so "toxic" for our more privileged rulers. Remember that old Conservative party slogan - "Are you thinking what we're thinking?"  Updated, it could read, "Is Cameron thinking what Mitchell's saying?" IMHO, probably, although his smooth poker face is unlikely to give him away quite so catastrophically.