Middle-Class Pretensions

When I was growing up in England 50 years ago, the newspapers still periodically caused a certain amount of mirth by “outing” a national figure as not some impeccably Eton-reared patrician, as his public image seemed to imply, but a horny-handed son of the soil who had gone to the local state school and taken elocution lessons before relaunching himself as a smooth-talking toff.  I can vividly recall the ill-concealed glee when the Daily Express informed us that Noel Coward had been born in the unprepossessing London suburb of Teddington, and that his father had been a traveling piano salesman known for his ripe dialect.  Or, a bit later, there was the case of Norman St. John-Stevas, ultimately Lord St. John of Fawsley, the superbly shod Conservative politician who was leader of the House of Commons under Margaret Thatcher.  It seemed almost endearing to learn that St. John-Stevas was born in London on May 18, 1929 (“the same birthday as his late Martyred Imperial Majesty Nicholas II,” as he told us), and had taken his surname from eliding that of his Greek pub-owning father with the middle name of his Irish mother.  Good luck to him, too, but as I say there was a certain degree of public hilarity that a rank outsider from the artisan classes could have successfully reinvented himself as a mannered, self-applauding pillar of the establishment with that thin...

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