A German’s fresh take on the English class system? No… it’s as dated as its 85-year-old cover photo
England: A Class Of Its Own – An Outsider’s View
Detlev Piltz Bloomsbury £20
The photograph on the cover of this, the most recent book about the English class system – two young Harrovians in top hats and pinstripes standing snootily outside Lords cricket ground, while three scruffs regard them mischievously – has been used on book covers countless times before.
In 1993, it was the cover illustration for The Psychology Of Social Class by Michael Argyle, and, five years later, for David Cannadine’s Class In Britain. And it has long been the go-to photograph for newspaper articles on the subject of class.
My friend, the journalist Ian Jack, noted a while ago that in the space of a couple of years, 2008 and 2009, it had accompanied a Guardian feature on modern educational inequalities, a Daily Telegraph piece about Eton (they got the wrong school) and a Sunday Telegraph column headlined ‘That old class system is still manufacturing bourgeois guilt.’
The photograph on the cover of this (above), the most recent book about the English class system has been used on book covers countless times before
In 2010, the Daily Telegraph employed the photograph yet again, to illustrate a piece about the widening gap between rich and poor.
Detlev Piltz is a German lawyer, so I had been expecting England: A Class Of Its Own to present a fresh perspective on the endlessly evolving world of the English class system.
You only have to think of Zara Phillips and Mike Tindall to realise the extent to which the class system has changed over the past 50 years. But I’m afraid his book is as dated as its cover photograph.
In fact, it is more useful as a guide to class in England back in 1937, when the photograph was taken, than to England as it is now.
Piltz gets countless factual details wrong. He calls Viscount Hambledon ‘Viscount Harbledon’, Virginia Bottomley ‘Victoria Bottomley’ and Princess Margaret’s spouse ‘Anthony Snowden’ rather than ‘Antony Snowdon’.
Detlev Piltz thinks that the upper classes still wear ‘bowlers on occasion’, when no one has worn a bowler for a half-century or more (above, Lord Snooty from The Beano)
When it comes to hats, he thinks that the upper classes still wear ‘bowlers on occasion’, when no one, with the exception of Arthur Lowe in Dad’s Army, has worn a bowler for a half-century or more.
He observes that ‘the pub is a bastion of egalitarian culture’, without seeming to have noticed the growth of the doggedly middle-class gastropub, or ever to have registered the sharp class division between the saloon bar and the public bar of old.
He has read plenty of books on class, all dutifully listed in the back, but most of those he mentions were written decades ago, back in the age of the Ealing comedy, or earlier.
For instance, on 15 different pages he quotes the Hungarian humorist, George Mikes. But Mikes published his most popular book on England, How To Be An Alien, back in 1946, and died 35 years ago.
His generalisations are, for the most part, either off-track or out-of-date, or both. He is convinced, for instance, that ‘the upper echelons are still bound by the golden rules of conversation that religion, politics, money, illness and sex are all a no-no’.
I doubt this was ever true – the diaries of everyone from Samuel Pepys to Chips Channon tell another story – but it certainly isn’t now.
‘If a school class or university cohort includes a viscount, and a pecking order is created among pupils or students, the viscount is certain to be at the top,’ he writes. He fails to offer any sort of evidence for this notion, presumably because it is a figment of his imagination.
On the next page, he notes, ‘Now as before, lords are approached to become chairman, president or patron of institutions or charities without any investigation of their qualification or suitability. If the lord in question suggests that someone else might be a better choice, having greater interest or knowledge, the inquirer inevitably dismisses the idea on the grounds that they do not have a title.’
Did Piltz fall and bang his head while binge-watching Downton Abbey? This is the only explanation I can imagine for his desperately creaky, and, for the most part, unashamedly snobbish view of England.
His book is peppered with long lists of the specific differences between the upper and the lower classes, with upper class preferences on the right hand side and lower class preferences on the left.
In his mind, the upper classes go to St Tropez on holiday, while the lower classes go to the Amalfi coast; the upper classes drink gin and tonic and the lower classes drink pink gin; the upper classes never complain while the lower classes ‘sob and weep in public’.
He would probably have hit more targets with a pin and a blindfold. The upper classes ‘rarely make jokes’ while the lower classes ‘make jokes compulsively’; the upper classes say ‘boating jacket’ and the lower classes say ‘blazer’; the upper classes say ‘spiffing’, ‘bottoms up!’, ‘pip pip’ and ‘dash it!’, and the lower classes say ‘fantastic’, ‘down the hatch’, ‘goodbye’ and ‘damn!’
Many of his divisions are bound not in reality but in a peculiarly unpleasant type of snobbery. The upper classes ‘eat slowly with composure’ while the lower classes ‘eat in a hurry and greedily’.
The upper classes are ‘polite to shop assistants and waiters’ while the lower classes ‘bully shop assistants and waiters’. The upper classes prefer an ‘activity holiday’, while the lower classes prefer ‘binge-drinking and getting sunburned’.
A number of his observations are so off-target as to be incomprehensible. He thinks that the upper classes eat Cadbury’s chocolate while the lower classes eat Fry’s. In fact, the two companies merged over 100 years ago, and are now both owned by Kraft.
He considers Buckinghamshire an upper-class county, which will come as welcome news to estate agents in Milton Keynes, Aylesbury and Newport Pagnell. He also goes along with the idea that ‘a pair of brilliantly shined shoes…is the signature of a true gent’, when they are, more often than not, the signature of a conman.
You might have imagined that a German lawyer – ‘a senior partner in the German law firm of Flick Gocke und Schaumburg’, it says on the dustjacket – would be particularly rigorous in his writing and research.
Yet the book is riddled with repetitions and contradictions. He repeats the story of Tony Benn’s fight to renounce his hereditary peerage three times, while never mentioning why.
‘The English know about class. Otherwise why would the phrase “It depends on your class” be heard so much?’ he asks on the second page. A couple of pages later, he asks the same question again: ‘Why is the phrase “It depends on your class’ heard so often?”’
On that same page, he says ‘Class is the elephant in the room’. And 12 pages later, ‘Class is the elephant in the room.’
So, twice over, he claims that in England a) everyone talks about class and b) no one talks about class. His own view is firmly in favour of the status quo: time and again, he derides critics of privilege and inequality as hypocrites.
‘Regrettably,’ he says, ‘many anti-elitists are insincere.’ He goes on to argue that ‘The anti-elitist naturally wishes to be operated on by an elite surgeon, or flown to their holiday destination by an elite pilot…’
But isn’t he here confusing two words – ‘elite’ and ‘skilled’? Surely, only a nutcase would prefer to fly in a plane piloted by someone who didn’t know how?
His charge of hypocrisy extends to anyone in the House of Lords who continues to vote Labour: he even thinks that Denis Healey ‘became upper class’ when he accepted a peerage.
But, then again, his definition of upper class seems strangely elastic: he thinks that both Boris Johnson and Stephen Kinnock are upper class, and that Oscar Wilde was upper class, when in fact he was the bohemian son of Irish aesthetes.
‘The tragedy of the working class is that a not-insubstantial proportion of the politicians it has elected as its leaders… secretly despise the working class,’ he writes.
Unfortunately, Detlev Piltz barely touches on his own German background. It would have been interesting to know about the class system in Germany, or his own experience navigating the English class system.
Right at the end, he reminisces about coming from Germany as a 16-year-old to stay with an English family – a vicar, his wife and six-year-old daughter – in the summer of 1961, and the generosity they showed to him.
It so happens that the little girl was Theresa May, and she grew up to become Prime Minister. But, though he saves it till last, he isn’t able to extract any larger lesson from this funny little coinicidence, preferring to rely on dusty old books, wonky text books to a world of long ago.
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