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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

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