The birthday girl’s mother stood up. “Tiny Pony wants to make a little speech,” she said. And so she did.
We were at the White Horse in Putney, also known as the Sloaney Pony (pronounced Slaney Painy.) I was Simon’s date in the college friends’ corral, where they explained that though it was Cambridge, Churchill college took mostly state school kids, and was not at all posh, really. Unlike the rest of the guests. This distinction seemed important to them, and I believed them. Simon isn’t posh. He speaks with the new Tony Blair Establishment accent, full of democratic glottal stops. Our corral bonded as the yahs and brays increased down-table; we swapped compensating stories of council estate beatings and jam sandwiches.
I get infected with interest in this stuff as soon as I get to a British Airways check-in queue. I start listening and classifying, and watching others do it faster than me. Words and and accent peg you here, and they’ll always piss someone off. If you’re uncomfortable being having your origins and aspirations dissected, try an Irish accent. Thug? Posh totty? Only Dublin knows for sure.
I keep asking my friends about this obsession, sure that I’m exaggerating as usual. But maybe not. Elly tells me about her friend whose boyfriend wouldn’t take her to the May Ball, in case she might embarrass herself because she doesn’t speak properly. “She might say ‘toilet’ instead of ‘loo’ or something.” The friend reported this to Elly as proof of his consideration for her.
That class boorishness is dying. Nobody would coach Margaret Thatcher on a fake upper-class accent these days; the plummy Tories are a joke. Piers Morgan looks and sounds like a flabby young Roger Moore, but he edits
Rottweiler tabloid The Sun. Little England tabloid The Daily Mail. The Daily Mirror*. The old BBC accent , which I’ve always liked, is being phased out, replaced by regional voices and the estuary English that’s becoming the new standard. No single class, identified by accent or schooling, seems to have a lock on a given industry or profession any more. Maybe classification is mostly a leisure activity now, social Tetris.
“In America, though,” they tell me when I ask about class in Britain, “they treat you like shit when you don’t have money or a flash job.”
*I’ve been annoying my English friends with my sloppy reporting. Last time I lived here, Piers Morgan was editor of The Sun. Now he edits the Daily Mirror, apparently, a fact that won’t stick in my brain even though somebody posted this in my comments a week ago. Simon writes: “Under his editorship it’s become a left-wing tabloid and a much “better” competitor to The Sun, unfortunately he has remained an odious toad.”
So there you go. I stand gratefully corrected.