From Nancy Mitford to Jilly Cooper, class has always been a British obsession. Flic Everett takes on the modern vernacular
Judging anyone else’s place on the class spectrum is now considered appalling snobbishness. In fact, it always was, but that didn’t stop most of Britain doing so, punching up and down the social scale as the fancy took them. But what do common people look like now?
While judging ‘class’ might be passé now, what is still eternally acceptable is judging other peoples’ taste. A tale as old as time, from cave dwellers snorting at the ostentatious stick-buffalo drawings of their neighbours (“Cute. We prefer to do something subtle with pigment”) to the self-styled arbiter of modern taste, interior designer and old Etonian Nicky Haslam, 84, who regularly produces his list of what’s ‘common’, helpfully printed on a tea-towel and available to purchase.
…I too am a secret snob, and like nothing better than judging my fellow humans
But while ‘common’ used to mean ‘unacceptably working class’, it now means both ‘too popular’ and ‘too basic’ – ie, in poor taste. On Haslam’s list this year is ‘the northern lights’ – presumably wanting to see them, rather than actually being a refracting particle – Aperol (can’t disagree, any drink that looks radioactive and is served in a fishbowl reminds me too strongly for comfort of Coco Savannah, Stockport, 1991), strawberries, lobster (so arriviste!), Grayson Perry (too ubiquitous), and the phrase ‘hundred and ten per cent.’ I entirely agree with the last one. Partly because it’s always pronounced ‘hunjantenpsen, babe’, partly because it’s not an actual mathematical concept, but mostly because I too am a secret snob, and like nothing better than judging my fellow humans.
I read Nancy Mitford’s U and Non-U when I was a teenager…
…in which the Edwardian-born aristocrat listed words that were acceptably upper-class, (‘U’) and those which were decidedly not so.
U was ‘bike, or bicycle’ whereas saying ‘cycle’ would mark you out as a social misfit. U was ‘jam’, non-U was ‘preserve’. And toasting was always ‘your good health’, never ‘cheers.’
She pointed out that while the upper classes, like the working classes, use the bluntest name for things, the middle tend to euphemise and skirt around anything possibly ‘unpleasant’.
Hence, Prince Philip would always bark the aristocratic ‘How d’you do?’ rather than the grovelling ‘pleased to meet you,’ because he might shortly discover that he wasn’t pleased.
Basically, if your furniture is 900 years old, inherited, and covered in old whisky stains, you’re acceptably posh
Nouveau riche taste, too, has always been the great horror of the U set. Basically, if your furniture is 900 years old, inherited, and covered in old whisky stains, you’re acceptably posh. If you bought it new from Harrods, you’re trying far too hard.
Equally, teacup dogs or pampered cats are deeply common. The upper classes have gun-dogs, who bed down in the boot room. And they keep nameless cats only for catching mice around the stables.
In the ‘70s, (a very non-U decade), Jilly Cooper, who has now ascended from upper middle class to ‘kitchen supper friends with the king and queen’, wrote Class, a book which purported to examine the class structure of Britain at the time, but was fundamentally an entertaining compendium of her own prejudices and anecdotes.
“Black Labradors are much grander than yellow,” she writes, confidently. And “it is very vulgar (for them) to have anything other than brown leather collars.” It’s also worth noting that according to Cooper, the fewer words written in your Christmas card, the posher you are.
In 2019, society bible Tatler updated the U-list and added ‘dietary requirements’, ‘mouthwash’, ‘being friends with your parents,’ and ‘elaborate gin and tonics.’ We’re back to rattling fishbowls again, with sprigs of thyme and juniper, and it’s all a bit Girls’ Night Out. Which is, obviously, an extremely common event to attend.
The upper classes do not explain anything, as matters are simply understood between them, from war to wellingtons
It’s all absolute nonsense, of course – but that didn’t stop me, inspired by Haslam’s triumphant pride in his impeccable judgment, making my own list and posting it on social media. I would say ‘tongue in cheek’, but I suspect that’s a very common expression, implying as it does that something needs explaining. The upper classes do not explain anything, as matters are simply understood between them, from war to wellingtons (both wearing of and acceptable brands) and nobody else’s opinion counts.
I based my ‘what’s common’ choices on things that really annoy me on social media (everyone, everything, all the time). Including the bleak basic-ness of advertising, and things that have irritated me this year for their sanctimonious, live-laugh-love lack of irony.
I included flavoured coffee, which obviously encompasses all the ‘pumpkin spice’ and ‘gingerbread latte’ oomska sold in the name of hot drinks, piled with ‘squirty cream’ (even the phrase…) and minuscule marshmallows. Basically, if you need to post your drink on Instagram in the hope that people will reply ‘get in ma belly’ and ‘love it!!!’ you’re a bit common.
I also mentioned scented candles that smell of more than two things, or claim to smell of a concept (Malibu Night, etc). I am not a great fan, partly because my house once burned down. And partly because they mostly smell like Lynx Africa pot pourri and cost £60. I see no problem with a house smelling of house. (Never say ‘home’, it’s non-U).
Also included – to vast online consternation – was buying Haribo and Pringles ‘for the car journey.’ And M&S cocktail cans ‘for the train.’ Can nobody manage to travel three miles without eating and drinking like the Ghost of Christmas Past? My Grandma was very strict on ‘eating in the street.’ I’ll accept it when it’s an actual mealtime – but this is the 15.11 to Marple, it’s not the rolling buffet at Caesar’s Palace.
Christmas should last a week, maximum. Anything else is very, very common
I also decreed tiny, decorative bed pillows common – piles of sequinned beanbags, what are they for? Also having the TV on when you’re not in the room (because while silence is golden for me, for some, a house isn’t complete without a daytime quiz theme tune jangling in the distance), and asking if you’re ‘ready for Christmas.’ I loathe this question and it’s only ever asked by basic hunnies who did all their shopping in the January sales at Dunelm and had it wrapped by July because they’re ‘excited for the festive season,’ and start playing Wonderful Christmastime on November 1st. Christmas should last a week, maximum. Anything else is very, very common.
I know I’m a snob. Coming from a lower middle class bit of Manchester, I’m far from rich. I live in a two-bed cottage, I’m friends with my parents, and my cat sleeps on the bed, so what do I know?
Feel free to judge me right back. Hunjantenpsen, babe.
WHAT’S COMMON NOW, ACCORDING TO FLIC
- Flavoured coffee
- Being ‘excited for’ things
- Tiny cross-bred portmanteau dogs (‘Pomchi’ ‘Doodlehuahua’)
- Cushions with anything written on them
- Toys that make an electronic noise
- Going for ‘a big walk’ with friends and children and making a fuss about it with thermoses and waterproofs
- Tea-towels featuring a map of somewhere you’ve been
- Scented candles that smell of more than two things, or claim to smell of a concept (Malibu Night, etc)
- Pasta tongs
- Plastic sippy cups
- Tiny, decorative bed pillows
- Books about little seashore/Christmas/Springtime cafes/shops/holiday houses
- Buying Haribo and Pringles for the journey
- Loafers with white socks
- Sparkly ‘strappy shoes’
- Shortie pyjamas with anything written on them
- Large photographic prints of flowers on block canvas, especially if they form a triptych
- Saying your feet ache
- Asking if you’re ready for Christmas
- Drinking M&S cocktail cans on the train
- Calling pudding ‘dessert’
- Having a tennis ball on a string to stop you bumping the garage wall
- Having X-box controllers on display
- Having the TV on when you’re not in the room
Flic Everett is a Mancunian writer who now lives in a cottage in the beautiful West Highlands with her patient husband and two deranged cocker spaniels. She still misses Manchester, and returns like a homing pigeon every month to see family and friends. She spends a lot of time writing on trains.
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