Last night in the pub with SC. I refer to someone as 'a literary gent'. Her face contorts into a grimace between pain and disgust. She doesn't like 'gent'. She has even less affection for 'toff'.
I don't know of any visceral class loathing quite as intense as the English. It is not as if SC herself were working class, it's just that she is not of gent- or toff-land. The palpable fury briefly has the effect of turning me back into a foreigner of the democratic rationalist sort to whom the entire human species, and especially the English, is a kind of extraordinary zoo. I look at the photo of the author William Fiennes,for example in today's Guardian, a handsome gent of the aristocractic class complete with castle and moat, and think, "Yes, he must be one." Yes, but which? Gent or toff? And all those chaps in Evelyn Waugh likely to be played by Anthony Andrews. And David Cameron and George Osborne. Landed gents, and Eton boys. Toffs. Lord Snooty and his pals.
I imagined the derivation of the 'toff' must be from 'toffee-nosed' but the online etymological dictionary (I write away from home and my books) offers the following:
Lower-class British slang for "stylish dresser, member of the smart set," 1851, probably an alteration of tuft, formerly an Oxford Univ. term for a nobleman or gentleman-commoner (1755), in ref. to the gold ornamental tassel worn on the caps of undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge whose fathers were peers with votes in the House of Lords.
Working class hero and absolute disgrace SF also hates toffs, as does authentic Will of the Popinjays. They hate them with the same visceral intensity that led Nye Bevan to call the Tories 'lower than vermin'. You probably need an early industrialised society to produce such hatred. You need those unspoken, unarticulated, unmentionable insecurities, that aggregate of slipping-and-sliding-and-climbing, Snakes-and-Ladders, class winners and losers, where the working class is at the very bottom with everyone sitting and scrambling about on top. Hatred up is the reward for contempt down.
Where I come from we had peasants and workers and students and the intelligentsia.* By the time I arrived to any kind of consciousness the ranks of the higher bourgeoisie and petit bourgeoisie had, in so far as they had a firm existence, been wiped away, leaving behind a sea of sad bourgeois kitsch. There remained an aristocracy among the intelligentsia: professors who were the sons of professors who themselves were the sons of professors, with a stage- or film-actress or a scientific genius thrown in. And there was the old bloodline aristocracy who had bent in the Stalinist wind and somehow survived, sadder and wiser, liberal, left-leaning, but still aristocrats. Like lovely, elderly M, who is as close to my definition of a good man as anyone could be and who has as fine a contempt for fascists, and for the idiocies of the old landed gentry as anyone but who keeps a portrait of his ancestor the patriotic General of 1848 on the wall of his none-too-grand Budapest flat.
Would the existence of M make any sense to a working class hero and absolute disgrace or to an ideological Popinjay, or indeed to SC, young as she is, with her roots somewhere in the hard-working English lower middle class? Do I care?
I am not sufficiently English to care. It is, if you like, a lack in me. Well, tough. The democratic rationalist in me only asks: What are these person's ideas and sympathies? What kind of mind and heart? There's plenty of room in the zoo of the imagination (in my fathers house, etc...), nor am I stupid enough to think that I am uncaged. I'm in the foreigners' cage - just out of sight there. I can't myself read the label.
I am reading the young Australian poet, Emma Jones's book The Striped World for review. That woman can write! She talks in one poem of her mother as a 'ten-pound pom', meaning one who takes the £10 assisted passage to Australia, just as my own family meant to. "Her fine, pale, English, / cigarette-paper skin was frail, untouched by the sun or the Mersey, / was nourished in Ireland, imported by famine...' Mother, in fact, takes the plane not the boat. Jones then returns to the subject of her mother's skin, which, she now adds, "...was as pale as the lashed cliffs of Dover.... and goes on:
It had a quality. It had a ring to it. And I was stitched in:
an alleged convict-celt, with a bland facade
like an Anglican chapel, and with secularized, mild,
deferential, careful, middle-class good manners,,,
It seems an honourable enough thing to be.
*And the Party, of course. The political class.