The New Book of Snobs
D. J. Taylor (Constable, £16.99)
AWARE AS I was of D. J. Taylor’s impressive biography of Thackeray, I didn’t know that its author was, like myself, a Norfolk man. His wittily unsparing dissection of his own background in the Norwich council estates, leading to a subsequent place at Oxford University, is the (to me, therefore, pleasantly familiar) kick-off for this vade mecum for snobs and a solid vantage from which to survey the glorious part played by snobbery in 21st-century Britain.
Like Nancy Mitford’s Noblesse Oblige, to which it pays tribute, it is a patchwork volume, a bran tub into which to dip. Thackeray, ‘the great Snobographer’, is revisited and we encounter along the way brief essays on historical snobs: Brummell, Driberg, W. G. Grace. He updates the snob
The volume concludes with a series of elegant fictional portraits, originally published in The Independent, of contemporary types: property snobs, film snobs (‘who won’t hear a word in favour of Meryl Streep’), City snobs and sporting snobs.
So much, so familiar. However, Mr Taylor truly hits bullseye in his analysis of snob watersheds of recent history: Andrew Mitchell’s ‘Plebgate’, Emily Thornberry’s tweet of the Rochester white-van owner, David Mellor’s diatribe to his cabbie.
Reactions to Mrs Thatcher (‘a perfectly adequate chemist’) are shrewdly exhumed, as are those to (in my view, magnificent) Katie Price, whom I once witnessed carried shoulder-high by the whooping scholars of Eton College. His demolition of James Lees-milne, who maintained that ‘an ounce of heredity is worth a pound of merit’, consigns that old fraud to anachronism.
Most intriguing is Mr Taylor’s insight into the recent phenomenon of inverted snobbery. The Guardian, he accurately notes, is ‘the most snobbish newspaper in the country’ and his riff on my beloved Lord Prescott (‘caught between a rock—new Labour—and a hard place—the tradition that bred him’) is virtuosic. Nor is it confined to the upper classes, as Viz magazine proves.
Although concluding that snobbery is as ubiquitous and as Hydra-headed as ever, he cautions that we should ‘disentangle snobbery from straightforward social aspiration’ and that, ‘without snobbery, the English novel would more or less cease to exist’ (ditto, I would add, the Great British TV sitcom).
‘The best snob anatomists’— among whom he numbers Julian Fellowes, Evelyn Waugh, Simon Raven and Anthony Powell— ‘are snobs themselves’. That he himself is prepared ruefully to plead guilty is the chief delight of this enjoyable and possibly valuable book. Kit Hesketh Harvey