Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Kate and Di may be beyond our aspirations, and some of us know it

Train travel continues to enthral me with the vignettes of English life it provides.

Yesterday I shared a table with a young man and woman who kept up a lively conversation all the way into London. Not a couple, just colleagues and friends travelling on the same train.
She wasn’t looking forward to the day, because she was going to be working with a group women she simply couldn’t bear.

‘We’re all such a different class,’ she announced, ‘they’re really nice but there’s this one that goes out on a different date each night. So she just sits there talking about her dates, with her fake tan and her impossibly high heels, and in a voice you can hear across the whole office. She’s nice but she’s really not my cup of tea.’
The picture forming in my mind was one of the classic ‘Essex girl’. In case you don’t know that image, let me just say that the answer to the question ‘how does an Essex girl turn on the light after sex?’ is ‘she pushes open the car door.’ This is, I’m sure, an unworthy calumny on the fine old county of Essex and the tens of thousands of irreproachable women from there, a slur promoted no doubt by the surrounding counties who’d like to pretend that they are strangers to anything remotely like sluttishness.

Meanwhile, there was more to come about the tiresome colleague.

‘I don’t think she gets it. I mean it’s her first job, working with us as an intern... I mean she’s just out of university...’

My ears pricked up. A degree? Essex girl has many fine assets but educational attainment isn’t generally one of them.

‘I mean, good on her, I think she’ll make it because she’s the right social class.’

Really? This didn't sound like the snobbery I was expecting.

‘I’ve never talked to her but I know a lot about her,’ she went on.

‘You’ve had to listen enough,’ commiserated her companion.

‘Exactly. She had fourteen people to dinner the other day and she takes a taxi to work. I’ll bet she doesn’t live in some little flat share with people she doesn’t know, I bet it’s her own, which her parents bought her.’

And there we have it. Not a cheap but cheeky Essex girl at all. More like a Sloane Ranger.

You don’t know what a Sloaney is? The name is derived from their tendency to congregate around London’s glorious Sloane Square and the elegant districts of Kensington and Chelsea nearby.

What’s the first thing a Sloaney makes when she’s laying on dinner for her friends? A call to a caterer.

Sloaneys also have their own special way with English vowels, so a ‘Kensington crèche’ is not a fashionable place to leave the children, it’s what leads to a dent on the Range Rover when the nanny’s taking them to school.

Now the young lady being complained of probably isn’t quite a Sloaney, the social category made famous by Princess Di in the eighties and revived recently by our new Princess Kate. No true Sloaney would have a fake tan – it would all be genuine, from St Moritz in the winter and somewhere exclusive in the Caribbean in the summer. But obviously the woman being complained of was somewhat closer to those exalted circles than the one complaining.

Sloaneys present and past: Kate and Di
So I’d got it exactly wrong. The problem was class, certainly, but the speaker regarded herself not as superior to the other woman but as her social inferior.

Instructive, I thought. It seems to me that the dividing linees between classes are sharpening  in England at the moment, and the recent street disturbances shows how they can explosively transform into battle lines. And that conversation in the train showed how heavily they weigh on our general consciousness.

Between the two friends there had been that cordiality and ease that the French sum up so eloquently as ‘complicity’. Their gender difference wasn’t a problem. Nor was racial difference: he was white and she, while her command of the language showed her to be entirely English, belonged to the group that we lazily refer to as ‘Indian’. Which suggests that a religious distinction also separated them, but seemed to affect them no more than the others.

So is that the nature of the moment we’re going through? Gender, racial and cultural differences are fading in importance in comparison to that age-old bitterness we call class division?

Sounds like a simplification. Though not one that will make our lives any easier.

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