Sunday, October 30, 2005


An interesting article by Helen Rumbelow in yesterday's Times which mischievously asks the question of whether David Cameron has overcome the barrier of being "upper class" in order to get to be a potential Tory leader. For her James Bond is the last bona fide literary character who is unashamedly posh. Our heroes, according to this reading, can be many things, but not posh. There's an element of truth in all of this, and its a great little article, with her concentration on the thriller market being somewhat appropriate - since thrillers and detective stories develop in line with the times. Cath Staincliffe's single mum detective Sal Kilkenny is the more likely current model. The gentleman detective, the retired admiral turned sleuth, these are of a different time. Bond was apparently too posh for Clive Owen to play; and maybe the signing of Daniel Craig to the role is a sense of toning this down (perhaps they should have gone all the way and got David Thewliss in?). Class of course gets hazy when in a newspaper op-ed. I'm reminded of the sketch with John Cleese and Ronnie Corbett in - "I'm upper class and I look down on him because he's middle class" etc. The aristocracy are so few (have always been so few), that our fascination is as with a rare beast. I don't recall Bond's origins - was he really so upper class? Of course, the English institutions of the upper classes, Eton, Oxbridge et al, if not quite open to all, are quite amenable to arrivistes these days. There's always a Wickham around to fool a few people into thinking him a Darcy. In many ways, the upper middle classes are what we have got for a realistic aristocracy these days - they've the money for the start, and the cronyist culture of modern boardroom and political life kind of helps. It seems that David Cameron has had an easy life of it; being a "communications executive" or whatever it was he was before being an MP, sounds like the kind of nice sinecure secured for younger sons of Baronets. In literature these changes are still there. Ian McEwan, for instance, is increasingly only happy around posh characters; in his recent novels, there's the professional classes - surgeons, politicians, successful writers and film producers perhaps - at the top of the heap; then a rag taggle of the middle class (who he seems to despise in the way that Forster despised Leonard Bast in Howard's End) - you know, senior lecturers at minor universities, that type; and then the underclass (mentally ill; thugs and thieves.) Whole areas of British contemporary life are absent. An intriguing programme about Dennis Wheatley on BBC4 last night, showed him as both arriviste and snob. I watched a little of "The Devil Rides Out" afterwardsl; and its a world of opulent houses, Barons and Duchesses - a little bit Henry James, a little bit Alasteir Crowley. Class remains such a defining thing in British society, and such a signifier in its arts and literature (and don't even get me on the subject of "opportunity") that every article that states it no longer matters, only shows how much it still does. That it changes with time; that it has no fixed coordinates is as its always been - just look at how many of our Royal "traditions" are either made up to suit the circumstance, or recent inventions. It remains - I'm afraid - the English writers' subject.

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