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Where the social gulf is now – thoughts after a Christmas Party – and on long-distance bus travel

Last night I attended the Adam Smith Institute Christmas Party, and I was once again struck by what seems to me to be a major fact of modern social life, and a major difference between the times we now live in and the times in which people lived in earlier times, say two or three hundred years ago.

Present at the party were some hundred or more people, ranging from posh and clever schoolgirls enticed only a few hours earlier with the promise of free food and a rest from schoolwork, to opposition front benchers, and assorted policy wonks, friends of the ASI of extremely variable wealth, and of course a decent sprinkling of bloggers, ditto. And what I noticed, again, was that when you are in a gathering like this, it is impossible to tell at a glance how grand the person you are talking to is, unless you happen already to know.

Take the nice chap I found myself talking to. Fifty-ish, matching jacket and trousers (that’s pants if you’re American), educated somewhere, you know, good. Pleasant, a job being Something in the City which I didn’t quite hear properly because the din was a bit loud and nuances got lost. And as I said to the man himself in my bonharmonious liven-up-the-party way, I simply had no idea how important a chap he might be. Dressed like that, I said, you could by anything from a wage slave to a billionaire, from a failing journalist to a major media player, from a pathetic wannabe politician to a Bilderberg Commissioner. I wasn’t that eloquent, but that was my point, and he got it well enough and with no offence meant or taken. Indeed, he amplified the point, by saying that me being dressed as I was (vomit coloured corduroy jacket, red cardigan, no tie, black corduroy trousers with safety pins to keep the improvised turn-ups turned up), I too could be anyone or anything. He reminisced about the various ultra-grand personages he had met in his time who dressed in a similarly down-market way.

The big immediately visible social gulf, now, it seems to me, is the one at the lower end of society, between those who are just about clinging on, and those who have fallen off the social edge into the untermenchen class. Dressing as I do, in a socially concerned manner (i.e. badly), I get a lot of attention from the street begging variant of these people, and I can tell at once what sort of person I’m dealing with. I don’t know this person. Certainly not. But I do know exactly which side of the great divide he or she is on, and he or she is on the wrong side of it. Sorry. No. Two or three centuries ago, I’m guessing, when even averagely nice clothes were about as cheap as an averagely nice house might be today, things were very different. Social nuances all up and down the tree were more visible, and the people at the top who could simply have the best, all day and every day, damn the cost, stuck out way above everyone else. Being one of the elite who could have the absolute best clothing there was were the ones whom you could in those days spot most easily. And the gap between the top people and the rest was the one that was most obvious.

Maybe it’s just that I am personally very bad at spotting the nuances of people’s clothing and appearance, and maybe that’s all part of why I choose to operate in a social milieu (the intellectual end of politics) which is relatively indifferent to how you dress (so long as there is no actual vomit on your clothes). Maybe in other settings the matter of what brand your shirt is, how well your suit fits, how well your last bout of plastic surgery went, etc. etc., are all very visible-at-a-glance. And, people whom I’ve floated this theory at have argued that in my part of London, if you aren’t fairly high off the bottom of the social ladder, your only business in town would be begging, hence what I think of as a huge social cleavage. London SW1 creates the illusion of a social gulf between the nearly bottom and very bottom of society.

But I sincerely don’t think this is true. I don’t think my belief in this particular piece of sociology is a mere trick of my neighbourhood, or a defect in my own personal social antennae. After all, I do know the difference, at once, between the people at the very bottom, and everyone above them. That I can see. So, if I can’t tell the difference between a super-market manager and Rupert Murdoch, that’s because this difference is genuinely much harder to spot.

Would you know who Steven Spielberg ‘is’, if you didn’t recognise him, just by looking at the guy at one of his parties? Aren’t those jeans pretty much like the ones you and I wear?

And actually, my part of London, which either is or is right next to Pimlico depending on how you define Pimlico (Pimlico by any definition being where I do most of my regular shopping), is a ‘real’ enough area, by which I mean that it contains many rather poor, but very hard-working and respectable people, working away in their shops and their offices (many of whom, I surmise, are not nearly as poor as they choose to seem). There are lots of council estates around here, with their quota of struggling single mums. And almost all of these people are on the good side of the social barrier I’m talking about. For many, I’m sure it’s one hell of a battle, but they manage it. They wash every day. They have an address. They have TVs and phones. Most of them work. They pay their bills, and whenever they want to look smart they can manage that, for the price of a few new CDs.

And in among them, crouching in the boarded-up doorways and in the otherwise meaningless little triangles and nooks of space created by modern architecture, are to be seen the Miserables, who do not wash, who do not pay bills, who do not have fixed abodes, and who absolutely do not look smart, no matter how hard they may be trying on any particular day.

These Miserables are made even more miserable by the fact that, unlike in former times, they don’t even have weight of numbers on their side. In the nineteenth century, entire social philosophies were erected on top of the worry about what might happen if the Miserables ever got really, really angry. Now, if our modern Miserables get angry, which individually they do quite frequently (a lot more than in the past I should guess), they merely get a talking-to from sympathetic but firm police persons. In the past the luckier people were scared of Miserable anger, so if the Miserables did get angry they’d be clubbed back into subservience by riot police. But now, the combined anger of the Miserables counts for nothing and the Miserables know it, which is why we feel no need to see the police hurting them any more than they are hurt in the normal course of their lives.

One conceptual clarification here: noting the existence of this crucial social line between this way of life and that one is absolutely not the same as saying that no one ever crosses it. I’m not saying that. People fall below the line, and they climb above it, and they climb back above it. The point is: it’s a line. It takes a hell of an effort to cross upwards and then to stay above, but it can be done and it is done, a lot. Social stratification and social mobility are two different things. I recall from my sociology studies that Britain has always had and still has a lot of both, and the social mobility probably makes us more aware of social gradationss, on account of us moving up and down through them and past them, than we’d be in a society with less social mobility.

Another clarification: I’m not saying that all the social gradations within the Great Washed are now of no consequence, that the differences between me and Rupert Murdoch doesn’t matter. Far from it. They matter a hell of a lot, once you find out about them. I am merely saying that they are not things we can now tell from each other at a glance.

Faced with this circumstance, the Marxists have had a dilemma. Marxism used to depend on the Miserables outnumbering the Toffs at the top, but this doesn’t happen any more. The most visible upper class is the majority. The most visible lower class is a minority. So, having dumped their reliance on the old Working Class, many ex- or post- or neo-Marxists have tried instead to stitch together a new coalition of the Miserable, mostly involving the more put-upon of the ethnic minorities. But alas for the Marxists, the ethnic minorities are just as anxious to avoid Miserable status as white people are, and are just as capable of doing so. One of the reasons why multi-culturalism bothers me rather less than it seems to bother many others in my part of the political landscape is that to me, the enormous anti-centrifugal gravitational pressures on everyone – regardless of race, colour or creed – to join the Respectable Mono-Culture are so massively strong that they can over-ride any amount of Marxist and post-Marxist mischief-making.

Other left-inclined strategists, including not a few former hardline Marxists by the way, have simply made the jump. A lot of the story of New Labour is the realisation that they had to let the Miserables go hang, and concentrate all of their electoral and propaganda efforts on the Great Washed.

(This is one of the many strands that has been woven into that complex thing know as Political Correctness. PC means lefty memes being divided up and spread separately among a class traditionally unimpressed by leftism in any form.)

Before backing off and letting commenters pick up whatever threads of argument they are inclined to pick up from all of this, let me mention one other little social tit-bit straw in the wind which I found out about in connection with my Transport Blog activities. On TV a week or two ago, they did a bit about some new British bus companies which are getting into their stride, which do two things. First: they charge very, very little for their tickets. But second, and in apparent defiance of this first policy: they insist that all tickets much be purchased over the internet.

The obvious explanation, and I’m sure the public one, for this policy is that this is more efficient. The driver doesn’t have to bother with messing about with change, etc. etc. But I wonder if there might also be something else even more important than mere efficiency going on here. If you can only buy on the internet, that keeps out the Miserables. At present, travelling by bus in Britain isn’t that weird and scary, probably because it’s not that cheap, all things considered, the way it is the USA. But if in Britain it now does get seriously cheap, how do you then keep out the Miserables? Answer, by making it an internet only deal. None of this is spelt out in any of the bus sales chat, which is partly why this social exclusion point never occurred to me while I was writing my original posting about these companies. I only got to thinking about it in a subsequent comment. But I think it’s a thought deserving of somewhat more prominence than that.

In the USA, as I say, cheap bus services, especially cheap inter-city bus services, are famously the haunt of weird people, at any rate if the movies and TV are anything to go by. Inter-city bus stations are famously the places where TV detectives trawl the lower depths of society, and learn of the most gruesome yet socially insignificant crimes. Buses and Miserables go together, in other words. As a result, the Great Washed are inclined to shun buses, and to pay extra to go by train or even air. How do you make Michelle Pfeiffer in Frankie and Johnny look like a seriously miserable sympathy case whose life is going nowhere, while still having her look like Michelle Pfeiffer? ? not easy, God knows. Answer: stick her in a long-distance bus for the opening credits. Any American woman who has to endure this ordeal is in trouble. In fact it occurs to me that this movie is all about living just above the Big Drop, so to speak. And in Johnny’s (Al Pacino’s) case it’s all about climbing back up again after you have suffered the Big Drop ? see above re social mobility.

Final final thought. I love the Heinecken TV adverts we have in Britain just now which imply that asking for lager which is not Heinecken will, in Holland, get you tossed out of respectable majority of Dutch society and into the Dutch Underclass. (“Weirdo!”) You can see that lager sellers would have a, er, demographic problem not unlike the problems faced by the sellers of extremely cheap inter-city bus services. This advert tackles this problem head on. Clever.

38 comments to Where the social gulf is now – thoughts after a Christmas Party – and on long-distance bus travel

  • Jim

    Fascinating topic but rather a huge one.

    Last night I watched a DVD of Stephen Norrington’s “The Last Minute” and I kept flashing on scenes from that movie when you talk about the Miserables. (Side note: if you haven’t seen that film, it’s worth checking out, there were moments when it felt as if I were watching a movie version of a Neil Gaiman novel.)

    You are quite right about inter-city bus travel in the U.S.; it’s strictly for those without automobiles and this is a country where almost everyone has a car. There are four of us living in our house — two college age children, my wife, myself — and four cars (okay, three cars and a pickup truck). That’s just about true for anyone who except for those who live in the middle of large cities. (For example, my eldest, who lives in Manhattan, is 35 yrs old and has never owned an automobile.)

    Brian — this topic is just too big — you’re going to have to write a book about it. (We’ll all check back on Monday to see if you’ve finished it by then.)

  • Doug Collins

    I will not venture to comment on British class distinctions, but I have had years of experience with American buses. I used them a lot, for cheap cross continent and local travel in the late 60’s and early 70’s and occasionally since then to fill in gaps in the train and air networks.

    Buses in the rural areas are often the only non-auto means of transport between towns and cities. We used to have an excellent rail system prior to the 1950’s. There were good local routes that covered much of the country. The passenger routes became less and less profitable in the late 50’s and early 60’s, with the system eroding as routes were dropped. Amtrak, a government monopoly, took over finally and completed the destruction of the system. During the same period, jets replaced propeller airplanes and large regional airports replaced smaller city airports through the country. Large airlines concentrated on the bigger cities and the smaller towns were left with no air service, or very expensive air service.

    The result: Over most of the US, you either have an auto or else must ride the bus to travel any distance less than a couple of hundred miles. The result is that prices have stayed a bit high, and the riders tend to be elderly or dignified poor. The Amtrak rail passengers, in the few places where there is service, send to be similar, with the added condition that they are not in a hurry to get where they are going, as the inconvenient connections make the trains even slower than the buses.

    In the urban areas, where competition has forced down bus prices, I think the Miserables make up a bigger part of the bus population. Out in the rural areas they seem to travel largely by hitch-hiking and simply hiking. There is a large migrant population visible on the highways in the warmer months.

    Also, many of our Miserables are suffering from various natural and chemically induced psychoses. We used to have asylums where they could be cared for and protected, but a while ago – I think during those oh-so-moral Carter years – in a happy coincidence of concern for their rights and concern for lowering politically non productive government expenses – we turned them out on the street. Most of them are not too interested in travel, except perhaps because of climatic pressures as winter approaches.

    On previewing what I have written above, I am struck by the similarity of the situation to the situation in rural retailing, an opportunity that was very profitably exploited by Wal-Mart. I imagine there are regulatory obstacles, strongly supported by the established players, but if someone could get around them there could be a lot of money to be made.

  • Awfully good post.

    I think there is a lot more at-a-glance class distinction still going on in America. Well-to-do people are skinny, middle and lower-middle class people are fat or at least out of shape. This is apparent at a glance. Watch the female lawyers and secretaries arriving at a downtown law firm in the morning — they don’t leave at the same time — they are like eloi and morlocks. I am an outlier, upper middle class income, body like a forklift operator, but the trend is not with me. Also, there are still subtle but noticeable regional differences in appearance and dress in this country. There are solidly middle-class people in medium-sized cities in Indiana who do not look like anything you will see even a hundred miles away in suburban Chicago.

    Still, your basic insight about the Left trying to find some substitute for the Proles among the less successful communities is a process which has been ongoing for a while and will continue.

    The predicted merger of the Left and Islam (the would be champion finding the ultimate “loser” community) is the logical end point, since the Islamic world is the bottom of the barrel in terms of economic and political development and likely doomed to stay that way — and both they and the Left want to blame someone else for the problem.

  • Greyhound is the main bus company here in America. It has been in and out of bankruptcy several times. It is a very badly managed company, a fact that I think is proven by the several smaller competitors that keep cropping up around it and charging less and yet making more profit. Few companies deserve to die as much Greyhound, yet lives on, perhaps because it still has a monopoly position in wide areas of the country. As clear a case of market failure as any I’ve ever seen.

    I’ve now reached a phase of my life where I’ve a little more money than before, and can afford to take the train or plane and not the bus. But while I was still young and poor and taking the bus, I saw a lot of Greyhound, and I saw behavior that one wouldn’t expect from a for-profit corporation. Twice I saw bus drivers get into fights with their managers and stand outside the bus screaming at their manager, while the manager screamed back. It hardly made a good impression on us customers, sitting inside the bus. Then the fight over, the bus driver gets on the bus and pulls out and starts driving, and is clearly in a bad mood. I’ve been on Greyhound buses perhaps 150 times, and perhaps 50 of those times I saw bus drivers in very bad moods. Often they would take it out on the customers, sometimes by being hyper-strict about enforcing rules about cell phones, radios or even normal conversation.

  • ernest young

    And this is the sort of nonsense that you discuss at the intellectual end of politics?.

    God help us all, no wonder the whole shooting match is going to hell in a handcart….

    And I bet you don’t even blink when your pay check comes through….

  • “so long as there is no actual vomit on your clothes”. Oh well, that’s me cast out into the wilderness then. Or is it ok if it’s not mine but my six month old son’s?

  • Alfred E. Neuman

    In the US, if you don’t have a car and you want to go somewhere like Bumfuck, Idaho, you have two options. Fly as close as possible, rent a car, and drive there. Or you take the bus. That’s it. Most people who can afford it will rent the car, unless they really don’t feel like driving.

  • rkb

    It’s probably worth saying explicitly that in the US, long-distance bus travel is a very different matter from mass transit buses in and around cities and towns.

    For our non-US readers, Greyhound is a long-distance bus company only. As mentioned above, their clientele is usually poorer or elderly.

    The mass transit bus systems are generally run by a local or regional authority which also may have responsibility for the urban / suburban commuter train system as well (in those larger cities which have trains). For instance WMATA runs both the bus system in Washington DC and also the Metro train system that extends into suburban Maryland and northern Virginia. In addition, the commuter bus systems in those beltway areas are run by the local county authorities, but all of these agencies coordinate to some degree.

    A similar arrangement is in place around San Francisco and other major cities here.

    These commuting systems are used by many middle and uppermiddle class professionals, as well as by the working class and the poor (especially the bus systems in the cities proper). They are usually clean, reliable and keep good schedules.

    Greyhound bus stations are usually located in poor neighborhoods – appropriate for their clientele, but also making them magnets for Miserables who want to use the bathrooms or sleep on the benches there. That makes them useful for TV and movie script writers. 😉

    The other bus experience in the US is one that many elderly enjoy, namely pre-arranged bus coach trips to shop in factory outlet malls, to view scenic areas or to attend a major cultural event. These are usually modestly priced, safe and pleasant affairs much enjoyed by their regular patrons.

  • Ted Schuerzinger

    Just so you know, we Americans do use the word “trousers”. 🙂

  • Earnest,

    Unless there’s a joke there that I didn’t get, your comment seems to imply surprise that we in the intellectual end of politics should discuss such a trivial matter as class.

    Well, I think the drastic blurring of the above-the-line class structure, which I also observe, is a big political story. All through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries politicians and political people have obsessed on class. It is respectable to exalt a particular class although it is not respectable to exalt a particular race and only semi-respectable to exalt a particular religion. If this major concern of our political culture is being eroded, it is a very significant fact.

    I’m no expert but women’s clothes (not just fashionable clothes, day to day wear as well) also seem to be far less clearly class-coded than they used to be.

  • H.

    I think you’re making rather too much of the fact that clothes, for clearly obvious economic reasons, are not the marker of wealth and class that they once were. That’s not to say that other markers have not stepped into the breach. I don’t suppose we see too many struggling wage slaves wearing Rolexes, driving Ferraris, flying first class, dining at the Ivy or Garrick, drying out at the Priory, seeing Harley St specialists, living in Mayfair, etc., etc.

  • J S Allison

    So, do I see an opportunity here? I have internet access. I buy up lots of bus passes, turn around and resell them to les Miserables for a nominal markup. Perhaps not a mainline business but a useful sideline. Or I just make my self available to les Mis and buy passes as they approach me, thus avoiding anti-mass-purchasing efforts by the bus line in question.

  • Verity

    Natalie, regarding women’s wear – yes and no. Nice conservative business clothes are within everyone’s reach now and designer knock-offs are in the chain stores days after they’re shown on the catwalk.

    However, interesting thing … there is still a self-imposed divide. Professional women tend to wear suits or tailored dresses and jackets. Clerical and other types – I hope I’m not offending anyone here; I’m making a broad general observation – seem to dress more “girly”. I’ve seen female support personnel in business situations wearing clothes that were obviously designed for clubbing. In other words, the intention is to catch the male eye. But the lawyers and the corporate execs stay buttoned up and businesslike. So status still differentiates women’s clothes in the workplace, but it’s self-imposed.

  • Kelli

    I’m surprised no one has pointed this out yet, so here goes. You, Brian, are a guy. You cannot tell a slob with money from a slob with none (though you are able to distinguish, god bless, between street urchins and respectable folk). This says nothing about class, everything about gender.

    Women, even those of us less adept at fashion than say Paris Hilton, can tell. Sure, H&M has brought disposable clothing to the masses and grunge has given us girls trying desperately to look like heroin addicts. Still, we can tell. We can tell by the hair (permed or straight? badly dyed or natural?), we can tell by the fit (is butt crack showing on those low riders, or do they just leave that much to imagination?), we can tell by body (this has been mentioned by earlier posters, I agree), finally we can tell by aura (supremely confident or semi-embarrassed by own style? do they get the details right–shoes, bag, makeup, jewelry?). Girls know. Boys don’t (unless, that is, they have done “madeover” by the Queer Eye guys or are queer themselves). Keep an eye out, Brian; this wonderfully entertaining show is coming across the pond soon. Sign up now!

  • Verity

    Kelli – I agree somewhat if it’s just limited to women. But if you were standing in line next to Steven Spielberg, would you know he was a squillionaire?

    And I believe that Michael Portillo, and many another, is capable of judging another man to the penny by what he is wearing and how he is wearing it. And they do, they do.

    Further on women, a woman wearing expensive clothes can admire another woman’s sense of style, even if that other women’s clothes are much cheaper. Women often admire how another woman has put herself together and are generous about complimenting it.

  • ernest young


    What surprised me was that you are all so concerned with ‘class’, in a day and age where ‘class’ is supposed to be a rapidily diminshing fact of life.

    Do you really use a ‘class’ criteria in determining to whom you are prepared to converse with?. If you meet a person at one of your soirees, and you spend a pleasant time discussing the ways of the world, or whatever, does it really make a difference whether he or she is a ‘captain of industry’, or a garbage collector, if you find their company congenial in the first place, what difference does it make?.

    Do you adjust your behaviour accordingly, as in, tug your forelock to one and put on the condescending tone with the other?, It really shouldn’t make a lot of difference, if you find that person interesting enough to talk to in the first place.

    In my personal experience people have long ago accepted ‘other people’, strangers, or whatever you care to call them, on a ‘take them as you find them’ basis, it seems that the ideas of ‘class’ only seems to have validity or meaning among certain professions e.g. politics, media and academia, or as they like to regard themselves, – ‘the New Age movers and shakers’.

    Most ordinary folk just do not care whether you are a prince or a pauper, at least not to the extent that used to be. The admiration of the wealthy is a thing of the past, as is pity for the poor.

    Never realised quite how ‘old fashioned’, passe, or out -of -date, you intellectuals really are….:-)

  • Kelli


    Portillo is gay, isn’t he? Naturally, this is a horrid stereotype, but here in the States at any rate, the gay community has decided to (sort of) embrace the idea that they are more chic than straights and run with the ball. Anything that gets men out of dingy sweatpants is a good thing.

    I also agree with your point about women being generous (to a point) about one anothers’ style, even if it isn’t shared. But we can be extremely harsh on members of our own sex who “let themselves go,” can’t we? Speaking for myself, since I moved to a tonier neighborhood a couple of years ago, I have gradually shed the grad student aesthetic and a few of the post-partum pounds just to keep my self-esteem out of the gutter. This is not a bad thing, just something I might not feel inclined to do were I living in rural Indiana.

    As for you, Ernest, I’d like to know where you are writing from, as you seem to have found a mystical class-free zone. While I’m very happy for you, I don’t think it’s just “intellectuals” who notice the existence of a class structure and its peculiar manifestations from country to country and one era to another. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go keep on eye on the help, make sure they’re not stealing the family silver.

  • ed


    Clothes do not make the man.

    It might make the woman but definitely not the man. Not if he’s a *nerd*. You can take as an example Bill Gates. A more hapless example there never was. Other examples spring instantly to mind ranging from hirsute obnoxious UNIX fruitcakes to overly corporate Microsoft weenies. All in all if you’re judgin nerds by their fashion sense and ability to project an “aura” I think you’d be vastly disappointed. Frankly the term “Great Unwashed” could easily apply to many of the most accomplished and expert nerds.

    A story:
    Amusingly enough about 10 years ago I attended a huge computer show here in New Jersey at the Raritan Center. There were about a thousand or more fully stocked tables filled with software and hardware of all descriptions. From a few hours before it opened to hours after it closed there are massed thousands of people, largely men, intent on that latest video card, that very best deal on a memory chip.

    Into this ragout of humanity were placed a few < a href="http://www.dallascowboys.com/cheerleaders/home.cfm">Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders set aside in a separate area. The whole day they were in that area and pretty much alone. I spent some time there but it was fairly strange. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a situation where beautiful women were sitting around bored while thousands of men were rushing by intent on their shopping. So I spent some time talking, got a few autographs and some pictures (which I have long since lost).

    Pity my time with them was rather limited. I had to leave in order to complete my shopping list.

  • ernest young


    Don’t make the mistake of categorising ‘peer envy’ as ‘class’, snobbery – yes, class – no.

    My mystical ‘class-free’ zone?, well, it is not so much a zone, as a state of mind. It is something that comes with maturity (i.e. ‘old-age). I’ll tell anyone to bugger off……:-)

  • ernest young

    cont/…. Sorry, hit the wrong key…

    Class is an out-dated concept, nowadays it should, (but isn’t), be replaced with ‘respect’, which is something that is earned and doesn’t rely on the thickness of the wallet.

    In these days, where most of our ‘pillars of society’ seem to have ‘feet of clay’, it is quite difficult to have much in the way of respect for any of them…

  • ernest young


    I suppose you could call that ‘classy’, in some strange way……

    Class, these days isn’t about dress, more about demeanour…..

  • Kelli

    Ed brings up an interesting point. Computer geeks (male and female) do seem to exist in an alternate universe. Your story brings to mind the tv ad where two nerds try to pick up the supermodels at a party, and they quickly get rid of them by turning the tv to Star Trek reruns. Even so, I’d hazard a guess that Gates is less sartorially challenged since marrying, and that Melissa knows how to dress herself.

    To Ernest I would say you have at least half a point. We’re not speaking of “class” in the historical sense. This is all much more fluid and dynamic. People learn to dress (or not) at college, in the workplace, etc. There is a uniform for each subgroup, according to age, income and region. You can opt out, of course, but there are consequences (e.g. if I wore a “goth” babe outfit and had multiple piercings I dare say playdates for my kids would dry up quite suddenly and my husband would refuse me access to his office and/or parties–no great loss that).

    Actually, I would say that the growing drive toward one, media-driven standard of taste and beauty (all done, of course, in the interest of everyone expressing their “personal style”) is driving all classes to neurotic hell. The old class-based model had the virtue of simplicity and low expectations.

  • Matthew O'Keeffe

    Interesting stuff Brian.

    I remember in the 90’s Virgin Atlantic made a big inroad into British Airways business class custom by specifically targeting the new “scruffy rich”.

    Where do the scruffy rich come from?

    A minor factor, I think, has been the culture of dress down Fridays etcetera in the square mile. This has made the old pin-striped city gent an almost extinct creature.

    A more major factor, I think, has been the effects of rapid wealth creation in our cities. This is striking in Notting Hill where I live. This was a poverty stricken area when my grandfather lived here and it still has its rough parts. But the process of gentrification has brought the affluent bankers and poor bohemians together in ways that have probably affected the appearance and behaviour of both sides. I doubt that this would have happened in older, more socially-demarcated times

  • ernest young

    The whole idea of ‘fashion’ is just another way of labelling everyone. Designer labels and accessories, – might as well be branded with the insignia of our own particular herd.

    It all just seems so trivial, that I was surprised that it even registered on the intellectual radar as a subject for discussion.

    I thought that society in general had learned to accept differences in dress and behaviour. Simple old me thought that this dressing according to peer pressure was a feature of being a teenager, and that one grew out of it as you matured.

    Mind you – it would be rather hilarious to see the MD dressed as a Hell’s Angel at a board meeting, might be OK if it a had a Versacci label?. No – I don’t think so…..

  • Verity

    Oh Kelli – your post just after mine above was funny and hit the spot. Yes, we can be genuinely kind and admiring of someone who’s put herself together to great effect but without much money. And it’s genuine generosity of spirit. Equally, who is the first (after gay men) to notice ‘trout lips’ and other signs of tragic surgical intervention? And how right you are! We have to stay as thin as we can so no one can say we let ourselves go. But what a great motivator! Men don’t do this for each other!

    Gosh, I don’t know whether Michael Portillo is gay or not. He admitted a tiny foray as an undergraduate. Even if that was a passing fad all that time ago, he does have gay-ish sense of style and presentation, which straight men may be surprised to learn, appeals to women.

    At the risk of offending all the Samizdata ladies in rural Indiana, I think I am the thinner for not living there.

    Thank you for a very funny post!

  • Verity

    Also, I don’t think it’s “class” any more because no one gives a monkey’s. But savvy, nous … yes. I think that’s the great divide in Britain now. For example, how many Brit Samizdatas would invite the wife of a million pound a year soccer player to dine in their home? I rest my case.

  • Abby

    Class uniforms are a thing of the distant past — and thank God for that! In one side of my closet I have lots of smart, grown-up things for work; but on the other side are the fun toy clothes I love. This side is quite diverse. It runs the gamut from rags to riches, and I can slum with the best of them.

  • Brian

    I’d recommend Paul Fussell’s Class: A Guide Through The American Status System for mindset as well as John T. Molloy’s Dress For Success books for appearance. And yes, I can tell that Spielberg is rich.

  • Nancy

    Brian – you may not have been able to discern the relative grandness of your acquaintance by his clothes, but I notice that you still got a fairly good idea from his voice.

    The British sort each other incredibly efficiently and quickly through their voices. If they didn’t matter, families would not beggar themselves for decades so that their children might escape the local proletarian accent. Far more important than clothes.

  • Brian Micklethwait


    British voices tell you background. They do not tell you foreground.

    Parents are right to worry about it, because a good voice is a good start, but it’s only a start. The British elite is now and always has been full of many different voices, most of them posh, yes, but many not.

  • Rike

    Clothes are still rather important – for women as for men – in the professional sphere. I remember a might-be-colleague who worked as an IT consultant in the department. To put him on the payroll would have reduced cost by more than 30 per cent. But the head of department couldn’t stand ‘a guy who doesn’t even own a suit’. Two month later, the guy had bought a suit to attend a relative’s funeral, was never again seen inside the bank wearing jeans, and now refused to be hired. Good decision btw.

    But I wanted to come back to bus tickets via the internet. Brian, could it be there is a distinction between *young and poor* as in students, who usually have access to the internet anyway, and *too old and not well enough off to have a private secretary* where simply skills might be missing?

  • ed

    “British voices tell you background. They do not tell you foreground.”

    This is very correct.

    As a child I was born in South Korea and didn’t know how to speak English. It wasn’t until I was 7 years old that I started speaking any English at all. My first year of school in New Hampshire, USA, I had to have my mother present to translate (an awkward situation beyond all imaginings). So I determined to apply myself to learning English by mimicry. I basically spent every moment I had endlessly repeating English words and phrases that I heard, something that drove my father and mother to extremes of irritation.

    So to save their sanity and to continue my education I spent my time repeating what I heard on the radio. After a few months I tried out my new English skills on my fellow students.

    Alas! I had been listening to the damn BBC! I had picked up an *English* accent! :/ I can laugh about it now but I remember doing a lot of swearing and cussing in Korean. It took more work but I eventually lost the accent and I’ve long since learned to speak perfect English.

    Just goes to show you cannot tell from first appearances and that you should always doublecheck prior to making any singular efforts in anything.

  • Verity

    ed – It’s good that you were born in S Korea as a child. Being born is not the sort of thing one should put off until adolescence.

  • ernest young

    The consensus of this thread seems to be that we all like to know something about folk we meet, and are quite prepared to use whatever information we can glean about new aquaintances. Voice, clothes, and general manner all olay a part, – isn’t this called ‘profiling’?.

    Just shows, we all do it on a personal level, but it is wrong to do it when it comes to the Government trying to protect our collective security.

    Is this hypocracy, or stupidity?>

  • Ernest,

    Thanks for the sermon, but you are preaching to the converted.

    You say, “What surprised me was that you are all so concerned with ‘class’, in a day and age where ‘class’ is supposed to be a rapidily diminshing fact of life….”


    “Do you adjust your behaviour accordingly, as in, tug your forelock to one and put on the condescending tone with the other?, It really shouldn’t make a lot of difference, if you find that person interesting enough to talk to in the first place.”


    “In my personal experience people have long ago accepted ‘other people’, strangers, or whatever you care to call them, on a ‘take them as you find them’ basis” and “Never realised quite how ‘old fashioned’, passe, or out -of -date, you intellectuals really are….:-)”

    Yes, class is receding in importance (although it will never die; human beings are addicted to categorising one another). Where once there was a whole hierarchy that strictly determined who you could marry, how you would be educated, what your job would be, and how you would pass your time, we now tend towards having just one big divide: underclass versus the rest. This is an interesting and striking phenomenon. The blurring of class distinctions is broadly a good thing. It is a pity that there is still an underclass. That was the point of Brian’s post. That was the point of my comments.

    Your comments to me and to others seem to assume that anyone who observes the sociology of class therefore wants to preserve class distinctions. That is a non-sequitur. An observer of a phenomenon might want to preserve it, but equally might want to destroy it (he would study it to know how best to do so) or the observer might consider the phenomenon academically interesting without having a strong opinion as to whether it was good or bad.

  • David Gillies

    I think one of the problems with the ‘hirsute UNIX nerd’ stereotype is that it presupposes that the nerds don’t know how to dress themselves, behave in polite company etc. They do – it’s just that some of the weirder ones don’t care. And not caring is evidence of poor social skills. I’ve been a UNIX hacker for nigh on fifteen years now. At work, I wear shorts, a T-shirt and sandals year round (I live in the tropics). I am dressed for the beach, essentially. Why? Because I find this mode of dress the most congenial to work in, and there is absolutely no reason why a back-room boy like me should have to do any differently. Consequently, I look like a beach bum. I make three to five times as much money as the majority of my friends (even the ex-pats). Almost to a man (or woman) they dress more smartly than me. However, I would never be so obtuse as to dress like this for a formal occasion. If I have to wear a suit I will. But if you saw me in my native habitat (the pub), it would be impossible (as Brian hypothesises) to place me in any sort of rank order of class, income, education etc.,until, as Nancy points out, I start talking – my Received Southern Pronunciation is a bit of a giveaway.

  • The old classes of birth and wealth are giving way to a class of well-read and not. (Although, of course, wealth will always create its own class.)

    One of my best friends works as a stock clerk in a large chain store. He’s far from wealthy, lives quite modestly in a small town and has no errrr “lineage” as such.

    Yet he’s fantastically erudite, spends all his time reading and writing, and I’d rather spend ten minutes with him than an hour with the average rich guy or Hooray Henry type.

    Oh and about the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders: they were ignored because they were a.) in New Jersey and b.) in Nerd Central. Duh.

    Had the same cheerleaders been at a gun show in Red America (not just Texas), they’d have been mobbed.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Ernest Young gets sniffy about Brian talking about anything so vulgar as clothes at a party hosted by the ASI. Surely he misses a point – the whole point about achieving a free society is that politics will not be the be-all of conversation!

    Can we talk about rugby now?