by Ronald Frame

Behind Wicket Gate

October 29, 2009 | by Ronald Frame

LAWRENCE JAMES’ The Middle Class announces its own significance before you’ve even opened it. It’s very, very solid, a big object: and, as we know, the middle-class (for such the book is about, title in large CAPS) like to get something for their money.

Is it – another vital question – value for money? That is less easy to determine.

But here it is, in plenty of time for Christ-mas.

The publishers must imagine they’re on to a good thing: a truly engrossing portrait of a sprawling and complex social group, so familiar to many of us and yet so often misunderstood and unappreciated.

Precisely.

Even if third- or fourth-generation middle-classers, knowing themselves, might balk at that bulk – arrivistes will love it.

No, perhaps they won’t read all the way through, not just now, but time for that later. What does the blurb say? It is a masterpiece of popular history – which means it’s not too recondite; although not so journalistic/racy/downmarket either that a word like masterpiece would be inapt – that will be read for generations to come.

(Wow! Every writer’s dream.)

No footnotes, thank goodness. Clean pages. But I do feel obliged to warn you. There are references, called ‘Notes’, placed after the text. 34 pages of them. Those are followed by the ‘Sources’ (bibliography). 29 denser pages of those.

So much preparatory reading by the author, it’s quite intimidating. As are the cover quotes for three of James’s six previous books: the ones dealing with some very solemn and grand-sounding abstractions (British EMPIRE, Anglo-Indian RAJ, Britons in time of WAR). Excited panegyrics (“masterpiece”) from A N Wilson (who also read this book in advance), Jan Morris, John Keegan et al. Five of the crew at Little, Brown publishers are credited for their “generous encouragement, help and forbearance”; similarly the staff of the Bodleian and British Libraries are given their due, ditto the National Library of Scotland.

So much work. Countless hours of reading, and all to save us the trouble. That’s what the current raft of history books are so adept at: warming up past times for us, and it’s as easy as cook-from-frozen.

The book is chock-full of facts and figures, crowded with quotes and statistics (immaculately credited, of course). The book isn’t selling itself short, it is what it says on the flyleaf: scholarly yet entertaining. It’s also claimed to be often highly amusing. But I couldn’t help feeling that I was wearing a pair of padded boxing gloves as I read, groping to find the thing-thinginess of whatever the middle-class condition is or was. As the blurb prefers to put it: Lawrence James has searched high and low to find the heartbeat of his subject. Over six centuries indeed.

The author also mentions somewhere the middling sort, to refer to his subject matter: less pithy of course than middle-class with its suggestions of regimentation but perhaps nearer the mark. It’s not going to look good on a book cover, however.

(If this truly is the first book devoted to the subject, one could ask why it hasn’t been done before. Did other people know something which even the illustrious James didn’t?)

There’s inevitably a problem of definition. For instance, it’s hard to know where to place those Victorian philanthropists, bequeathing everything from municipal fountains and bandstands to libraries and scholarships. Some were lads o’ pairts made good, others had an easier start in life; their cash wealth made them richer than much of the aristocracy.

2006. City brokers giving it up to become plumbers. East End boys in Chester Barrie suits, BlackBerrying. Oh, how complicated it all is.

I recall having had conversations with a Guardian ‘name’ journalist. She’s from Liver-pool, early-1950s born as I am, and we found we’d been brought up in our different corners of the provinces to esteem very similar notions – images – of Britishness, with a distinctly Southern English stamp.

For boys I suppose it was a Hornby-Dublo world. For girls the template was laid out on the pages of the Chalet School books and ‘Princess’.

I envisage as its epicentre somewhere like Crowborough in Sussex, which I’ve tramped round a few times. High hedges, wood pigeons chortling in cedar trees. William and the Brown family might have occupied any of those desirable houses. Up the road in the Ashdown Forest lived Winnie-the-Pooh with his motley friends. It was only on my last perambulation that someone told me one of that Philby-Maclean-Burgess trio (I forget which) had conducted a seemingly model existence behind a wicket gate.

Crowborough is real, the houses are real. The AA Milne Estate sold millions of books before Disney secured the licence, and I don’t doubt John Betjeman knew the spot well. But what it celebrates is a myth, an ideal, held within not very clear parameters.

In Scotland, at our northerly latitude, we’re at something of a tangent to all that.

We’re not comfortable with the concept of middle-classness. This is a more homogeneous society, socially enmeshed, and it seems (or it has seemed) like bad taste to corral ourselves into groups like that. What in part has connected everyone is an irritation with English airs and ersatz graces. Owning up to being middle-class has been, in Nancy Mitford-ese, non-U.

I’m slipping into the past tense. A decade ago I made a radio programme, which became a TV film, about growing up in Scottish suburbia. It occurred to me then that while – ahem – ‘middle-classness’ (very inverted commas) has come to be equated with material well-being, it used to mean something else: an old-school education (free and easy with the tawse) taught me that it was a value system – about endeavour and industry, taking pride in your work, not drawing attention to yourself, thinking of others first. If I mentioned this to journalists – about self-discipline, public service – their eyes glazed over.

Back to the book.

Lots of facts. But what threads them? It’s hard not to feel that they’re being forced chapter by chapter to confirm one theory or another.

The fill title is The Middle Class: A History. ‘A History’ is the let-out clause. The self-evident comes before imaginative risk, as in much contemporary historical writing. Today’s ‘heritage’ industry in all its manifestations is a response to middle-class demand. There is still something within the psyche of a wide segment of the middle-class which finds reassurance in being surrounded by objects from the past, whether original or not.

Hmm.

I want to learn about middle-classness during my lifetime.

Let’s look at a photo, and its caption. The middle-class island in the sun: Tony and Cherie Blair take a break from their holiday for an official ceremony in Barbados, one of the many exotic destinations favoured by the middle-classes.

Look and learn.
(That must be the same Old Fettesian Tony Blair I once watched on TV meeting the people on a walkabout in Glasgow’s Argyle Street, adopting a faux-patois to talk in sentimental mode about his ‘Aun’ie’.)

Via another illustration, a commercial artist’s painting of a bright young couple, he reading a newspaper and she cheerily wielding knitting needles : Two of Harold Macmillan’s middle classes: perhaps considering their wants in 1959. On closer inspection the man is wearing a suit but is sockless – in Britain? His wife has a look of Jean Seberg, with gamine haircut – not very Acacia Avenue.

I know about being on the receiving end of knocks for the advertising industry – my father was in that line of work. Gone now are the days when advertising was considered louche. I’ve noticed it has become seriously cool and hip in America to be able to claim your father’s occupation as ‘advertising executive’. So I’m aware that advertising is a canny discipline (minimum number of words to achieve maximum effect), which intends to be entertaining/distracting as well as instructive. Copies of cutting-edge Design sat around our home, and I ached to be a modernist – an architect, if I could, a la Oscar ‘Brasilia’ Niemeyer.

But back to Part Four Chapter 8. ‘Bella Vista: The Suburban Universe’.

I’m mystified. Why does James choose to quote ‘Superwoman’ Shirley Conran on 1965 décor crazes – and not give a single mention to her erstwhile husband, entrepreneur Terence Conran, who perhaps more than any other individual has helped shape ‘middle class’ taste in the last fifty years? No, I did look up ‘Habitat’ to double-check I hadn’t missed even a fleeting reference. The Shirley Conran quote is one of many drawn from a job-lot of trendy colour supplements of the time.

Lots and lots of details. But, guiltily, I longed for some more original insights.

It seems to me that the point of a book, either as long as this one or one a modest quarter of its length, is to offer the reader new viewpoints: not just for us to acquire historical facts shut away in inaccessible manuscripts and in other writers’ books, but to be shown what we realise we didn’t know.

Modern history as a bookshop commodity has been tailored to these times: we live in an age of information before knowledge or understanding.

James recognises that since the eighteenth century a middle-class enlightenment has evinced itself as a questioning spirit, a tendency to measure all human institutions by their usefulness, a faith in reason as the key to solving any problem and a belief in individual freedom.

That is his very valid argument.

It seems to me we’re currently living in an age of depleted liberties, when ‘government by consent’ is far from the case. Perhaps the middle-class is just another victim of New Labour’s vandalising tendencies: by opening it to all, it’s devalued, and loses its worth. And so a nostalgic air hangs over the author’s treatment of the later twentieth century.

I’d guess James is more comfortable with the earlier periods. It occurs to me now that the words ‘A History’ appendaged on the cover may be a political comment he’s making. In that case he won’t thank me for concentrating on the last post-War section, which he himself admits requires the use of ‘generalisations’ to refer back to the glory days.

The book is too long to be read as a developing narrative. It exists, I’d say, as one of those works to be dipped into: for the magpie mind to snatch at ‘facts’ when the hunger is upon them.

It’s a subject which I suspect is just too general and too amorphous for any compelling narrative to be possible.

A book for which another two or three books will have to give up space on a shelf. A coffee table book. Certainly not light, but ultimately history-lite. A book heavy enough in fact to hold open a door while friends gather, to discuss everything under the sun except what it might mean to be middle-class.

(Incidentally, on the reading tastes of his chosen subject, James writes, “There are still some among the educated middle classes who are willing to risk accusations of mandarin superiority when it comes to artistic judgements.” Followed by mention of Jeffrey Archer’s novels. The paragraph concludes, “That class [the middle class] has always read trite, banal and sensationalist fiction”. Ouch!)

The other day I was browsing in a Glasgow bookshop when a breathless red-cheeked gent in tweed and corduroy hurried past, pounced on an assistant and barked in stentorian tones ‘Lawrence James’s book – The Middle Class – oh, there it is – God, what a weight! – just going to take a wee look t-h-r-o-u-g-h it – yeah, okay, if I take one without a sticker, can I still get five quid off it?’

Damn so-called reviewers. The book has found its audience.


THE MIDDLE CLASS: A HISTORY
by Lawrence James
Little, Brown, £25.00
pp704 ISBN 0316861200

From this Issue

A Tale of Two Books

by Iain MacWhirter

Resurrecting Haig

by T. M. Devine

Anyone Seen Rilke?

by Michael Schmidt

Behind Wicket Gate

by Ronald Frame

North Briton

by Ian Bell

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