Last night I was at a loose end browsing my father-in-law’s bookshelves. He no longer reads, which is sad, because over the decades he’s accumulated yards and yards of old Penguins and Pelicans (the blue, non-fiction ones). I love Penguin books and as a child I was reared on Puffins, their junior choice (so to speak). There was a lot of stuff I didn’t care to read but then I came upon John Braine’s ‘Room at the Top’:
This handbook-of-the-working-class-lad-who-makes-good was published in the late fifties, though it savours much more of the sixties: but what struck me in the first chapter was the obsession with clothes, manners and food; these markers of class which he must learn to mimic if he is to ‘pass’ for middle-class. (He hasn’t yet mentioned his accent though, which I’d have thought was the primary marker: as Professor Higgins says, he can tell as soon as someone opens their mouth, where they come from ‘within six miles’:
This preoccupation with clothes reminded me of George Orwell who, in ‘Down and Out in Paris and London,’ was making the opposite journey by being born into a relatively privileged family and wanting to experience the life of a down-and-out. Downwards mobility is always easier than upwards; no-one questions him as a tramp but when he tries to get work as a waiter he has to use boot-black on his heels to cover up the holes in his socks. Presumably he didn’t change his accent though, unlike lots of posh people today who use the fake glottal stop when they want to sound ‘down with the people’:
Orwell was writing in the ’30’s; the cities he describes seem very distant from us now, but you’d expect that. What’s extraordinary is how social classes have broken down since ‘Room at the Top’ was written. In theory we now have much more social mobility; but now what we’re seeing is the soaring rise of a super-privileged, super-rich class who are, ironically, the untouchables of our age. The government doesn’t even try to curb top people’s pay and though Labour will give it their best shot when they get into government (yes, when) it remains to be seen how far those efforts will succeed. After all, the first task of the rich is after all to hold on to their wealth: the second is to increase it.
The pay of people at the top is out of control; the pay of people at the bottom oozes and stagnates, which makes the death of Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, Leicester City’s owner, all the more tragic. There are no further updates as yet and no indication of foul play, unless you suspect a malevolent universe of keeping Phillip Green alive and murdering a generous and supportive man.