Noblesse Oblige – or Does It?

Noblesse Oblige – or Does It?

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The Tenacity of English Tribal Markings

Over a century ago, when George Bernard Shaw was appearing on an Edwardian equivalent of a TV chat show to promote his new play, Pygmalion, he said, probably in an Irish growl, that ‘it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.’

Britain has often described as ‘class-ridden’ and ‘heritage obsessed’. Curiously, large numbers of people outside Britain are also obsessed with our heritage, and they flock here in their millions to experience it. While our class system is too nuanced and arcane for most outsiders to understand, smart foreigners are quick to recognise the advantages of adopting appropriate tribal standards to enhance their perceived standing. They may have observed the strange anomaly that in the prevailing state of social flux in Britain, membership of the upper stratum of society doesn’t require wealth, intelligence, talent, any particular skill or plain hard work and they recognise that the easiest tribal indicators to acquire are knowing how to hold your knife, and how to talk.  

Shaw had the advantage of an outsider’s perspective and, while he was engaging in a little Irish overstatement, what he said was broadly true, and a hundred years on, it still is, although perhaps not quite as much, especially in view of the fact that to have what is generally considered to be an upper class accent can be a positive obstruction to advancement in certain professions.

For instance (and forgive me if I have grumbled about this before), about 25 years ago I proposed to the BBC a programme, provisionally entitled Walking Talking in which I would wander around obscure corners of rural England, chattering with eager curiosity to people who had their own particular perspective or knowledge of the places where we would be walking. A Grande Fromage at Radio 4 liked the idea and I was asked to produce a pilot. The proposal was taken-up, I was paid a small sum for the concept but was told that I wouldn’t be able to present it myself because they favoured a voice with a more identifiably regional accent than I possessed. I understood their point of view, insofar as they have ambitions to broaden the potential audience of Radio 4, however, I was adamant that the listener would be far more interested in the content of my script than the accent in which it was delivered. The programme has been broadcast regularly ever since on Radio 4 under the title Ramblings presented by Clare Balding, whose accent does not betray her origins in, I believe, the Berkshire Downs.

But what I want to talk about here is the perceived divisiveness of the various ways in which English is still spoken in Britain. There’s no question that there is still a clear extent of social inequality in Britain – more so than in, say, Sweden; a great deal less so than in caste-divided India. Generally, there are few societies on earth that aren’t hierarchical in some way, and until mankind has learned to survive without tribalism it will persist to some degree for centuries to come. However, the divisions in England are less pronounced than they were. There is a commendable degree of movement up and down the structure of English society which is far more porous in that respect than most people acknowledge. In republican France aristocrats still exist in their own little unchanging cocoon, but count for little and are not in any sense a source of great interest to the public at large, whereas in England, largely driven by our obsession with the Royal Family,  there still is interest in the old fashioned aristocratic families, albeit less than there used to be. Fifty years ago, columnists in the middlebrow/class press like Nigel Dempster and Ross Benson filled their space with stories about the younger sons of dukes, and earls’ daughters. Jo Public has lost interest in these people and is far more fascinated by media-generated celebrities, or people of great self-made wealth whose families have yet to acquire the trappings of the upper classes.

Nevertheless, a small, quiet and dwindling minority of English people still cling onto a tenuous toehold on the upper rungs by making sure they retain their single tribal asset – their language. Written in 1956, the publication which has perhaps caused more anxiety and paranoia than any similar social guide has been the notorious aspiring snobs’ bible – Noblesse Oblige. With their tongues only a little ironically in their cheeks, the contributors – Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh, John Betjeman and Christopher Sykes gazetted the correct way to speak, the terms to use and behaviour to follow as tribal markings of the upper-middle classes – a set of instructions clung to slavishly by those who determined to hang onto what they perceived as their deserved social standing at all costs – where it was preferable to be poor, and spend every available penny sending their children to public schools, rather than have them come home saying ‘toilet’ instead of ‘loo’.

To those who deplore the continuing social divisions caused by the variations in spoken English, Noblesse Oblige – conceived by its authors, I suspect, as a bit of a superior jape – could reasonably be considered one of the most socially damaging publications to have appeared in Britain since the Second World war

Picture Credit: Inti Runa Viajero

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