Last weekend, I enjoyed the book, Confessions, the autobiography of the broadcaster and journalist, Edward Stourton. You may recall my mentioning him with regard to accents a couple of months ago.
Amid all of the tales of his early years spent in various British colonies on the cusp of independence, his prep school (the now defunct Avisford), his public school (Ampleforth College), his time at university (Trinity College, Cambridge), and his illustrious career at both ITN and the BBC, Stourton made a linguistic point which particularly struck me. He remarks on the shift in meaning of the words “posh” and “elite”.
When he was growing up in the 1960s, and for that matter, when I was growing up two decades later, “posh” meant smart or glamourous. A particularly fine shirt, or a fountain pen, or a car, might be described as “posh”.
Similarly, “elite” meant the best. A national cricket or rugby team would be made up of an elite group of players taken from various clubs. Special forces were elite troops.
But these days, both words have taken on negative connotations. Posh people are derided as a group of people totally out of touch with reality. Depending on a person’s politics, either the “ruling Tory elite” or the “woke metropolitan elite”, must be distrusted and despised. Ownership of posh cars isn’t a sign of success any more, but rather that the owner is terribly pretentious, and has more money than sense. Elite schools are no longer outstanding places of learning to which parents can send their academically gifted children, but are evil hothouses for the sons and daughters of the rich where they will be taught how to maintain a downward tread upon the masses.
The two meanings of both words caused me to think about snobbery. In particular, its universality.
We are all familiar with the fact that there are those people who dismiss others, because they’re not from the “right sort of family”, or didn’t go to the “right kind of school”. Similarly, we are familiar with aspirational snobs, as lampooned to brilliant effect by Roy Clarke through his character, the appalling social climber, Hyacinth Bucket, in the sitcom, Keeping Up Appearances.
But of course, snobbery goes the other way too. So-called “reverse snobbery” is that which derides the “posh” and “elite”, as mentioned above. The Daily Mail, then later other newspapers, referred to Edward Stourton as “Posh Ed”. It wasn’t intended to flatter, but to pander to those who objected to well-educated, well-spoken people. The well-educated are, indeed, despised in certain quarters. Years ago, I knew someone who wouldn’t allow his daughter to accept a full scholarship to a private school. Such a school would, in his opinion, “make her forget who she is, and where she comes from”.
We all consider snobbery to be a deeply unpleasant human characteristic. It either angers us, or we have to laugh at the likes of Hyacinth Bucket, or the quip made by the one-time England cricket captain, the late Ray Illingworth about Jim Swanton, the distinguished cricket correspondent for The Daily Telegraph. “Jim’s such a snob that he won’t even travel in the same car as his chauffeur.”
Yet although we are all revolted by the snobbery of others, we fail to recognise it in ourselves. The music we listen to, the books and newspapers we read, the films and television programmes we watch, the clothes we wear, the food and drink we buy, the shops we patronise, the schools we choose for our children, and the cars we drive are just a few of the things that contribute to our own views of ourselves and our standing (whether that be cultural, intellectual or social), how we view other people, and how we are perceived, believe we are perceived, or would like to be perceived, by others. None of it should matter. But it does. Terribly.
Why are we all snobs, even though we believe that we abhor snobbery in all its forms? Perhaps it gives us a sense of belonging? If we adopt the manners, views and tastes of our chosen group, we will fit in better. Perhaps we need to feel superior to someone? If we are, or feel, superior to some, it compensates for being, or feeling, inferior to others. Or perhaps, it is simply that deep down, whether we like it or not, life conspires to make hypocrites of us all?
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