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Books

Of snobs, nobs and plebs

24 September 2012

5:17 PM

24 September 2012

5:17 PM

The muggles of Tutshill, Gloucestershire, have a bone to pick with J.K. Rowling. Tutshill is where Rowling spent her unhappy teens and apparently it is the model for Pagford, the snob-ridden village in Rowling’s anticipated foray into “grown-up fiction”, The Casual Vacancy. The villagers (who I assume cannot have seen an advance copy of the book, which is in solitary confinement until its release on Thursday) are livid at the rumoured insult they are about to be paid. One resident quipped: ‘She is a fantasy writer after all. This sounds like another of her fantasies.’

Rowling’s fantasies, though, have usually contained a small measure of social realism. Hogwarts is recognisably a stereotype of the public school: with its absurd colloquialisms, meaningless inter-house rivalries and the inherited distinction between wizards and muggles. With this in mind, it’s no great surprise that Rowling has turned a satirical eye at the ‘pretension’ of our ‘phenomenally snobby society’, as she described it in an interview with the Guardian.

Snobs and nobs are in vogue. The world’s media became fixated on a pair of royal breasts last week; it was a pair of royal buttocks a few weeks before that. The escapist nonsense of Downton Abbey is back on the box, and an adaptation of Parade’s End has just finished – complete with a doomed man of true nobility beset by an assortment of rapacious hangers-on. Present fashion is not solely a case of bowing and scraping. The new film version of Anna Karenina is set largely in an empty theatre to emphasise that Tolstoy’s aristocrats are actors in a play for which there is no wider audience.

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Beyond popular culture and high art, the politics of envy is in rude health at the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton. The party has resuscitated its Mansions Tax and introduced a few more choice ideas, one of which is to impose yet heavier taxes on those who earn more than £50,500 per year. I’m sure you’ll agree that £50,500 is riches beyond dreams of avarice – only 20 years to reach the theoretical million.

On the other side of the divide, the Conservatives continue to sustain the caricature that being a heartless millionaire is a condition of membership. Andrew Mitchell’s recent outburst at a copper on Downing Street appears to have been a variation on the eternal question of the entitled: ‘Do you know who I am?’ (To which the best response is surely: Yes, so what?).

Mitchell is reported to have called the policeman, though he denies it strenuously, a ‘moron’ and a ‘pleb’. ‘Moron’ is quite common in everyday speech, and not in a classist sense; but the reverse is true of ‘pleb’. I first heard the word at prep school 20-odd years ago, where it was slang for the plain school tie. The ‘pleb’ contrasted with flashier numbers that were awarded for excellence at sport and occasionally academia. The dark social connotations of the word ‘pleb’ were obvious even then, and I’m certain that no one would have considered using it beyond the cushioned confines of the playground. In hindsight, it is strange that boys who were supposed to be growing-up in a classless society were indulging old antagonisms among themselves. (Then again, I can’t decide if it is comic or tragic that an institution could be so outdated as to mark attainment by dolling out ties; especially as most of the boys, both plebeians and citizens, could scarcely tie the bloody things in any case.)

Perhaps it suggests that judgments are harshest among classes rather than between them. J.K. Rowling told the Guardian that the middle class is ‘so funny’ because it’s the class she knows best. No wonder the good folk of Tutshill are holding their breath.

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