It takes a confident journalist to write about class and Harry Wallop, a feature writer for the Daily Telegraph, certainly doesn’t lack confidence. The reason most authors steer clear of the subject is because nothing is more guaranteed to reveal their own class prejudices. It’s one of the peculiarities of the English Class system that your views on the topic are almost entirely dictated by your own class background. More often than not, this is obvious to everyone except the person holding forth.
Harry Wallop is a case in point. His contention is that class is no longer determined by your family background, education, the way you talk, etc, but by how you spend your money. “It is about the little things – where you buy your jeans, the thickness of froth on your coffee, the thinness of your bresaola.”
Taking this as his starting point, he’s invented a whole new vocabulary to describe the various tribes that make up modern Britain based on their shopping habits. Out go such old-fashioned terms as “upper class” and “working class”, and in come “Sun Skittlers” (read the Sun and play skittles), “Asda Mums” (poor but aspirational), “Wood Burning Stovers” (Guardian readers) and “Portland Privateers” (residents of Notting Hill and Kensington, who have their babies at the private Portland Hospital).
This is all quite fun. But Wallop’s underlying thesis is plainly bonkers. What we choose to spend our money on is undoubtedly a strong class indicator, but it’s not a determinant of class status.
Here he is, for instance, writing about the upwardly-mobile post-war generation: “Much of their journey upwards was thanks to Britons enjoying significant amounts of disposable income during this period, allowing them to make purchases and choices that were just not available to the previous generation.”
Come again? Their “journey upwards” was not “thanks to” the fact that they had “significant amounts of disposable income”. Rather, they earned more money as a result of the massive expansion of white-collar jobs. The fact that they chose to buy their furniture at Habitat was not the cause of their upward social mobility, but one of its effects.
Reading between the lines, it’s clear that Wallop doesn’t really believe that the fundamental determinants of class status have changed, because he’s constantly reminding us how posh he is. If family background no longer matters, why does he repeatedly tell us that his grandfather was the Earl of Portsmouth and that the Wallop family still owns 4,000 acres in Hampshire?
He makes a laughable attempt at the beginning of the book to disavow his own aristocratic lineage, claiming he’s spent his entire life “having strived to squash my pheasant-plucking background”.
In almost the next breath, he tells us he attended prep school with a Royal Duke, progressed to Radley and, from there, went up to Oxford clutching a bag of sheets that had been used on “the servants’ beds” at the family seat in Hampshire.
Wallop doesn’t seem to notice this fundamental contradiction at the heart of the book and this leads to plenty of inadvertent comedy. For instance, he claims that Nancy Mitford’s famous distinction between U and Non-U linguistic usage (Upper Class and Non-Upper class) is now hopelessly out of date. “My children say ‘Pardon’, and I shrug my shoulders,” he says.
A few pages later, he’s pointing out that “lavatory” is every bit as vulgar as the word “toilet” and the correct term is “loo”.
“Every time I have to type the word lavatory, I slightly shudder,” he writes.
Wallop is a decent journalist and he’s done a good deal of research. The section on how the supermarket chains break down their customers according to their postcode is fascinating. But I can’t help feeling he would have done better to avoid this subject altogether. When it comes to the dreaded English class system, fools rush in where angels fear to tread.