Whether terrestrial television is dying or trying to kill itself, there is now nothing to watch for whole evenings or even whole days at a time, while BBC and ITV compete as to who can be most disappointing over a public holiday. Never mind that we have paid for this service and the default is regular rather than unusual. Making do (when did I ever think I would have to make do with television ?) I watched reruns of Cranford. It is 10 years old, well made, actors/costumes/settings – all a delight. And somewhere in there a young woman asks “What is lunch ?” to be answered by her brother “A cooked meal in the middle of the day.” So we all had it but we called it dinner and I wondered when I started calling it lunch and what I hoped to achieve thereby.
This isn’t a set of value judgements about snobberies. Most of us have them. My mother’s made me laugh because I otherwise only met them in books. Ma looking deep into her triple mirror at herself in a favourite dress and muttering “Good God ! I must stop wearing this – iron grey hair and navy blue – I look as yellow as a Chinee !” was Captain Marryat and Robert Louis Stevenson brought to life and it made me giggle. Like my father’s dismissive “God rest his soul, he was a bad ‘un”, it placed them both pre WWI. But any definition by class was more difficult.
I don’t remember being told to be friends with this one instead of that one. I don’t recall an eyebrow raised or a lip curled. I do remember vivid unPC references to colouring, habits and personality but only in the sense of description and discussion. The message of my childhood was that the world was infinitely various, endlessly interesting, “nowt so queer as folk” and the truth was always stranger than fiction. But there were no particular value judgements other than preference. School echoed it. My mother, ironing, remarked one day that it was always easier for women to “climb” (in the sense of social aspiration) than men. Where that came from, I cannot tell you. Why, I think I asked, and only remember the outline of the reply, not its particulars, that “up” was as easy as “down” and you learned more on the way.
According to the battered Dictionary of Historical Slang, snobbery was to do with a military man repairing boots for extra money. But how we got from there to social pretension is unclear for words travel like touring rock bands.
Snobbery used to be evidenced by the “done” and the “not done” (see Gosford Park for Maggie Smith’s recoil from commercially produced marmalade, not at all what a country weekend used to involve) but now it’s to do with money. It’s what you spend your money on and the mass bourgeois orgasm occasioned by the word “cheap”.
To assist a makeup artist checking over my face in a tv studio, I upended the cosmetic bag to look for the eye colour. “Well” she said through pursed lips” you don’t stint yourself !” I asked what made her say that ? “Those are all expensive brands” she explained (wasn’t this an odd conversation to be having with somebody 40 years younger than me). “How often do you buy makeup ?” I inquired. “Nearly every week” she said. And where ? She named a national chain. I said I had funny skin, bought rarely, used every last bit and had what I like. Was that young woman’s attitude inverted snobbery ? My mother’s answer would be a resounding “yes”.
I don’t think I ever had ideas above my station but I never knew quite what that position was. My parents were older and times change. My family was foreign and I hid in that modest exoticism. I’d like to say I had no pretensions but I deeply and enduringly wanted to be elegant and glamorous. And the glamorous and the elegant had lunch not dinner even if I learned to call it that from movie magazines and luncheon vouchers. My mother encouraged me to dream and anchored my feet to the floor. I celebrate my snobberies – they are all mine.