THE NEW BOOK OF SNOBS
A Definitive Guide to Modern Snobbery
By D.J. Taylor
Illustrated. 275 pages. Constable.
The New Book of Snobs by DJ Taylor review – what is the new snobbery?
There are film snobs, garden snobs and inverse snobs, not just people who send their children to elite private schools. Snobbery is in all classes and is a very human failing
Thu 27 Oct 2016 06.59 BST Last modified on Wed 29 Nov 2017 10.11 GMT
“I’m afraid we’ve become terrible salt snobs,” joked the late food writer Alan Davidson when he and his wife Jane had me round for lunch one day in the early 2000s. On the table were a panoply of special salts, from pink Himalayan to damp, grey fleur de sel from France. Announcing himself as a salt snob was a form of gentle self-mockery, something Alan was good at. He knew how absurd it was to have all these salts, when he could have made do with a cheap tub of Saxa. But it was also a modest kind of boastfulness. Alan wanted me to notice how superior his salt collection was, which I duly did.
The concept of snobbery is deeply complex, as the literary critic and biographer DJ Taylor cleverly explores in his “definitive guide” to snobs. Snobbery is a form of social superiority, but it can also be a moral failing. Snobs may laud it over others, but we, in turn, despise and punish them for it. Taylor starts his book with the “Plebgate” affair of 2012, in which the government chief whip Andrew Mitchell was forced to resign his official post, and later pay substantial damages, after it emerged that he had rebuked a police officer who asked him not to cycle through the gates of 10 Downing Street with the words: “Best you learn your fucking place … You’re fucking plebs.” As Taylor notes, Mitchell’s sin was not to swear, but his use of the word “plebs”, which, in ancient Rome, simply meant the common people.
In modern times, very few snobs are snobs all the time. To be a salt snob does not necessarily mean that you will be a snob in any other area of your life. Taylor confesses that he becomes a snob whenever he hears Adele on the radio or hears a Channel 4 presenter “tumbling over her glottal stops”, but hopes that he is not a snob per se. He is the son of a grammar school boy from a council estate and feels that he knew “all about petty social distinctions from an early age”. He is fascinated by the many forms snobbery takes, from the garden snobs who despise hanging baskets and patios (the correct word, apparently, is terrace) to the inverse snobs who feel superior to anything that smacks too much of “middle-class” behaviour. Taylor also identifies the film snob, a perverse individual who may consider Brian de Palma’s Body Double wildly underrated and sees no point in Meryl Streep.
In his The Book of Snobs (1846-7), the novelist WM Thackeray noted that some people were snobs “only in certain circumstances and relations of life”. Others, however, were what Thackeray called positive snobs, who were “snobs everywhere, in all companies, from morning to night, from youth to grave”. Thackeray argued that in the Victorian society in which he lived, many people could not help being positive snobs, because the whole of British national life was founded on the principle of hereditary privilege. The true snob, in Thackeray’s book, would find, as Taylor explains, that “his entire existence is governed by its logic: wife, house, career, recreations”. The Victorian snobs depicted by Thackeray might ruin themselves to pay for a fashionable hat or a pianoforte in the back parlour or an absurdly expensive truffle-laden dinner. This was because they felt it was social death to dine with people of the wrong class, such as doctors or lawyers, instead of “the country families”.
Maybe I move in the wrong circles (or do I mean the right circles?), but I wonder how many people in modern Britain, even posh people, still think or act like this. Taylor, the author of a biography of Thackeray, aspires to update The Book of Snobs to modern Britain. But for much of the book, it feels as if he has hardly updated it at all, writing as if all snobs were people who necessarily went to elite public schools and who insist, like Nancy Mitford, on being “U” and not “non-U”. Taylor anatomises many varieties of current snob: school snobs, country snobs, property snobs and so on, in novelistic sketches. But many of his different snobs end up sounding rather similar, and I don’t recognise much of contemporary society in his book.
By the end, Taylor’s snob seems to have become a very specific class of person, one who keeps labradors, eats potted shrimps and cares about whether someone went to Winchester or Eton. Such a snob is rather like the Sloane Ranger of the 1980s (his acknowledgments cite Ann Barr and Peter York’s The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook, on which he seems to have modelled some of his style). Snobs, Taylor writes, are “fond of mangling or truncating personal pronouns”. The “diehard snob doesn’t have a bath, he ‘takes his tub’”. Late middle-age snobs “talk artlessly of having ‘made a bish’”. The snob, Taylor airily claims, “is a person who uses a title ostentatiously”.
Yet we can all think of plenty of snobs, of one kind or another, who base their snobbery neither on title nor ostentation. And so can Taylor. What makes this book a missed opportunity is that he has taken what could have been a panoramic meditation on the place of snobbery in British society and crammed it into a needlessly narrow and archaic framework, giving the impression that snobs only belong to that class of people who are found on the grouse moor or in Debrett’s.
Taylor is an intelligent writer, however, and the best parts of this uneven book suggest that snobbery is far from limited to the upper classes. “Snobbery is universal,” he argues at one point. ‘“No social class, intellectual category or art form is immune to the snob virus.” The essence of all snobbery, Taylor says, is the making of arbitrary distinctions. It consists of “imposing yourself on a social situation, pulling rank, indicating, with varying degrees of subtlety, your own detachment from the people in whose presence you find yourself”. As such, it is both an unlikable characteristic and a very human one. Whether we are eating salt or deciding where our child goes to school, the person has not yet been born who never once secretly felt that his or her way of doing things was better. The snob is someone who hasn’t yet realised when to keep these feelings to himself.
‘The New Book of Snobs’ Updates the Shifting Science of Social Cues
By Dwight Garner
April 18, 2017
The English writer William Golding (“Lord of the Flies”) had a longstanding sense of social inadequacy. When he applied to Oxford University, the admissions interviewer noted that he was “N.T.S.” — not top shelf.
Golding wrote that he would like to sneak up on Eton, the elite private school, as if he were a cartoon villain, “with a mile or two of wire, a few hundred tons of TNT and one of those plunger-detonating machines which makes the user feel like Jehovah.”
There’s no sting like a class sting. There’s a bit of Golding, an imagined status-anarchist, in most of us. Who doesn’t hate snobs? Yet we’re all snobs about some things.
It’s among the contentions of D. J. Taylor’s clever and timely “The New Book of Snobs” that the world would be a poorer place without a bit of insolence and ostentation. “The cultivation of an arbitrary superiority,” he writes — whether we are in a refugee camp or a manor house — “is a vital part of the curious behavioral compound that makes us who we are.”
Often enough, you’d need a hydraulic rescue tool, a Jaws of Life, to pry apart snobbery from a simple human desire to get ahead. As Taylor puts it, “not all social aspiration is snobbish” and “to want to succeed and to delight in your success is not necessarily to betray a moral failing.”
Taylor’s book takes its title and inspiration from William Makepeace Thackeray’s “The Book of Snobs” (1848), in which that Victorian novelist defined a snob as one “who meanly admires mean things.”
Snobbery is no longer so easy to define. As in a string of binary code, the ones and zeros keep flipping. In a world in which reverse snobbery is often the cruelest sort, it can be hard for the tyro to keep up.
This is where Taylor’s book comes in. “The New Book of Snobs” will not help you navigate the American status system. It’s a very British book; so British that there are currently no plans to publish it in the United States. (I’m reviewing it because it’s new and interesting, and because copies can be easily found online.)
To understand Taylor fully, it will help to be conversant with the humor magazine Viz, as well as with the humor magazine Punch; with the reality-TV star Katie Price as well as with the writer Nancy Mitford; and with the Kray twins and the rapper Tinie Tempah, as well as with Evelyn Waugh and Beau Brummell.
Writing is hard because thinking is hard. Writing about class and snobbery, in particular, is so hard that doing it well bumps you a rung up the class ladder. In America, no one has made a serious attempt to unpick the multiple meanings of status cues since Paul Fussell did in his wicked book “Class” (1983).
As a myriad-minded social critic, Taylor is not quite on Fussell’s level. (Almost no human is.) But he’s astute, supremely well read and frequently very funny. In its combination of impact with effervescence, his book puts me in mind of a Black Velvet, that curious cocktail made from Guinness stout and champagne.
The English class system, with its hereditary titles, is vastly different from ours. But snobbery — class’s meddlesome twin — is a lingua franca. There’s plenty for an attentive student to learn here.
We are in the age of Trump, and, clearly, some forms of attempted snobbery will always take the form of conspicuous consumption. Taylor correctly points out, however, that the wiliest snobs “pursue their craft by stealth.”
He’s excellent on the distinctions that can be conveyed “by an agency as subtle as an undone button, a gesture, a glance, an intonation, the pronunciation of a certain word.” In England, it’s possible to be crushed by the sound of an attenuated vowel.
Americans in Britain, Taylor suggests, must remain on alert. Upper-class Brits like to ridicule American vernacular by stressing our usages, as in (the italics are his) “I think she’s gone to the restroom,” or “We’ll have to take a rain check on that.”
Don’t think you can escape this sort of game. “The man who most loudly proclaims his lack of snobbishness,” Taylor writes, “is most likely to be a snob.”
Taylor’s book is filled with small, tart taxonomies. He lists the great snob heroes of fiction, including Lady Catherine de Bourgh in “Pride and Prejudice.”
He offers tidy profiles of notable snobs, including the journalist and politician Tom Driberg (1905-1976), who would write the managers of hotels in advance, “demanding an assurance that there would be no sauce bottles or other condiments on the dining tables during his stay.”
The author probes some of the class resentment behind Brexit, Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. President Trump is not mentioned in this book. But leaning on George Orwell and Charles Dickens, Taylor discusses nationalism as “an extreme form of snobbery.”
A great deal of strong writing about class has been emerging from Britain in recent years. I’m thinking, in particular, of Owen Jones’s book “Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class” (2011). Taylor’s book is vastly different from Jones’s, but, in a sense, these men are climbing the same mountain from different sides.
To linger on the topic of class can seem like a sign of a sick soul. The subject can make us touchy, whether we are highborn or low or someplace in the middle. The critic Dwight Macdonald was a man of the radical left, yet a descendant of the old Dwight family of New England. In one grouchy 1947 letter, he wrote, “We can’t all be proletarians, you know.”
With nearly all status signifiers in flux, books like Taylor’s are more important than ever. Snobbery and immense learning, he makes plain, do not always walk hand in hand.
But in 2017, it pays to heed the advice of Ian McEwan, who wrote: “It is quite impossible these days to assume anything about people’s educational level from the way they talk or dress or from their taste in music. Safest to treat everyone you meet as a distinguished intellectual.”
Follow Dwight Garner on Twitter: @DwightGarner
Andrew Mitchell and the Plebgate affair explained for non-Brits
Why is ‘pleb’ a toxic word? How can a judge calling you a bit dim be a good thing? And how can two people sue each other at the same time? A guide for non-British readers
Thu 27 Nov 2014 18.33 GMT Last modified on Thu 21 Sep 2017 00.35 BST
Andrew Mitchell, who resigned as chief whip over the 'plebgate' affair
A senior British politician, Andrew Mitchell, has lost a high-profile libel action against the publishers of the biggest-selling daily newspaper, the Sun. That’s the easy bit.
For non-Britons, or indeed anyone who has not been following each twist and turn in a two-year saga which takes in politics, policing, law, the media, language, class snobbery and the intricacies of who can use which gate at Downing Street, everything else gets a bit complex.
We’re here to help. Below is a handy guide to what happened and what it all means.
So what did happen?
It all began on the evening of 19 September 2012 when Mitchell, then chief whip of the government – effectively the enforcer for the ruling party, the person who keeps discipline and makes sure ministers vote as they are ordered – tried to cycle out of Downing Street. He was in a rush, en route to an engagement, and wanted to ride directly out of the main vehicle gates.
But to Mitchell’s displeasure, he was told to dismount and walk his bike through a pedestrian entrance. He argued with the officer on duty, PC Toby Rowland and, according to the officer’s account of the exchange, told him:
Best you learn your fucking place – you don’t run this fucking government – you’re fucking plebs.
All this was gleefully recounted in the next day’s Sun newspaper, and even though Mitchell denied using the word “plebs”, the continued bad publicity led him to resign just over a month later.
The row has rumbled on ever since, including minute examination of CCTV footage from the evening in question, and culminating in a legal case which finished on Thursday that saw Mitchell sue the Sun for libel over its story, while at the same time Mitchell was sued by PC Rowland for calling the policeman a liar.
The judge, Mr Justice Mitting, released a complex ruling, but one that concluded Mitchell did use “the words alleged or something so close”, including the word pleb.
What’s the big problem with pleb?
Meaning a common, or lower-class person, pleb is a largely outdated piece of slang in Britain, rarely heard by most in recent years before Mitchell inadvertently brought it back to prominence.
As insults go, pleb is relatively mild, and has a distinguished etymology, being derived from the Latin term plebeian, a member of the lower orders in ancient Rome. However, it is a class-based slur, and despite weekly newspaper articles decreeing the end of class, Britons remain obsessed by social status, especially the idea a compatriot might be judging them in connection with it.
This obsession is all the more the case in the government in which Mitchell served, which is dominated by the products of England’s top private schools, which are, confusingly, known as public schools. Chief among these is Eton, attended by David Cameron. Mitchell went to the very marginally less posh Rugby – current fees for boarders about £32,000 (just over $50,000) a year – but was later an army officer and investment banker, which makes him very posh.
The idea of a government minister using a class-laden insult to demean an ordinary policeman was seen as especially toxic. It didn’t help Mitchell’s case that he was annoyed at being held up while heading to the Carlton Club, an old and hugely posh private members’ club.
Who did people believe?
It depends who you asked, and when you asked them. Mitchell has something of a reputation for anger and blunt speaking – OK, for being very rude. The just-finished libel trial heard testimony about him calling one security officer “a little shit” and telling another, charmingly:
That’s a bit above your pay grade Mr Plod.
But there were also claims the police exaggerated the complaints, in part as a political manoeuvre targeting a government which has sought major restructuring of policing. The Plebgate affair, as it was inevitably know, was used as a campaign tool in fighting police cuts. Eventually, two officers were sacked, one for passing information to the Sun.
For about two days Mitchell was a semi-popular cause célèbre among British leftwing Twitter users, who liked to argue that if he could be fitted up by the police, what hope was there for young black men from the inner city. This didn’t last long.
Why did the judge decide against Mitchell?
In what might count as a slightly mixed verdict for PC Rowland, the judge ruled in part that he thought it unlikely the officer had invented the “pleb” exchange because he seemingly did not have the imagination to do so.
Not only did Rowland lack wit, inclination imagination to fabricate, neither did he inclination for pantomime invention needed #plebgate
Is Mitchell uniquely rude among British ex-cabinet ministers?
No. Not even this week. David Mellor, who served in government in the early 1990s, was in the news this week for raging at a London taxi driver he thought had taken the wrong route. Among the choice sentences recorded by the driver on his mobile phone was this volley:
You’ve been driving a cab for 10 years, I’ve been in the cabinet, I’m an award-winning broadcaster, I’m a Queen’s Counsel. You think that your experiences are anything compared to mine?
What’s the lesson from all this?
Don’t be rude to the police. And be wary of trying to take them on in the courts – the police trade union, the Police Federation, has spent a reported £1m ($660,000) backing Rowland’s case. And if you must be rude as a British politician – as Emily Thornberry also knows only too well – just don’t bring class into things.
Patricia Routledge as the snob Hyacinth Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances