‘The New Book of Snobs’ updates the shifting science of social cues
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NEW YORK, April 19 — The English writer William Golding (Lord of the Flies) had a long-standing 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 behavioural 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 cruellest 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 humour magazine Viz, as well as with the humour 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 journalist and politician Tom Driberg (1905-76), 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 Donald 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’ book Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class (2011). Taylor’s book is vastly different from Jones’, 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.”
The New Book of Snobs: A Definitive Guide to Modern Snobbery
By D.J. Taylor.
Illustrated. 275 pages. Constable. About US$21 (RM93). — The New York Times