What’s classy if you are rich and trashy if you are poor? Drinking during the day — totally classy if you are indulging in a post-lunch session at an upmarket restaurant, pretty trashy if you are spending all afternoon outside the local boozer, putting away half pints. How about hard drugs? Grotty and criminal if you live on a council estate, but devil-may-care cool if you are a hollow-cheeked baronet with a fancy pad bought for you by your dad. Ditto speaking two languages, tax avoidance, hooking up with your cousin, having children with multiple partners, not working…
These, at least, are just some of the suggestions offered by the various ‘classy/trashy’ listicle memes that have periodically surfaced on social media ever since the New Zealand columnist Ana Samways sought advice on the subject from Twitter in 2016. One conclusion might be that the rich and the poor are unexpectedly similar, at least when it comes to their preferred pursuits (indiscriminate shagging, boozing, lazing about), the only difference being how these indulgences are regarded by society.
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There will of course be local variations to this. I’m no expert on the codes that dictate class (or lack thereof) in the smarter post-codes of Wellington, NZ, but the idea does echo a concept long familiar in the British media, that the upper classes and the lower classes have a good deal common when it comes to knowing how to have a good time, largely because they aren’t hobbled by the guilt and social ambition that besets the middle classes, for whom fun is never the point.
I’ve even witnessed this trope in real life, in my very own sitting room. My father was a working-class boy from Bromley who left school at 14 to take up a hairdressing apprenticeship at a Mayfair salon. He was good looking and good with an up-do. He rose fast, and always said that being hairdresser meant that he could get on with anyone “from a dustman to a duke”; but it wasn’t the dustmen who turned him on to drugs in the 1970s, it was the posh kids he met at clubs like Sybilla’s and the Aretusa.
Dad started taking heroin, and then he started selling it. To aristocrats. By the time he was in his mid-thirties and I was not yet ten the hairdressing wasn’t going so well (junkies and day-jobs don’t mix) so the dealing was paying the bills. Which meant every night Chelsea’s loucher denizens would find their way across the river to our mansion flat in Battersea to buy drugs, while I performed ancillary services like refilling wineglasses and so on. The denizens usually couldn’t be bothered to go back home to sample their purchases, so stayed at ours, sometimes all night. I would often find a stoned marquess passed out on the carpet when I got up for my morning Rice Krispies (scooped direct from the packet into my mouth).
They seemed to have so much in common, my dad and these men who had been educated at Eton and would one day inherit castles. They dressed the same, liked the same music, could stay up all night chatting. We were even invited to Jamie Blandford’s wedding at Blenheim Castle. So classy! (For us at least, probably quite trashy that the future Duke of Marlborough invited his dealer, and his dealer’s daughter, to his wedding).
My dad may have been a drug-dealing hairdresser, and my mum an alcoholic model from Wanstead, but I got in to a posh school, followed by a posh university, which led ultimately to a posh job, as deputy editor of Tatler where I got to witness, first hand the way these posh/not posh lists are created by the publications that position themselves as the ultimate arbiter of such things. There is no science to these lists, no research, they are made up. I remember one amusing Christmas features meeting in which we brain-stormed the list of the poshest baby names for 2017. The aim was to make them absurd as possible — Quail, Ra, Gethsemene, Npeter (with a silent n) — but also to include a few ‘normal’ names — David, John, Kenneth — for the veneer of veracity. The joke was on the people who took these lists seriously.
Because it’s all just banter, isn’t it, this taxonomy of rich/poor, classy/trashy, posh/not. The genre finds its acme in Nicky Haslam and his ‘Common Crimes’ tea-towel. Most of the things Haslam finds common are things that most people (in their stolid middle-class befuddlement) might think were posh — Farrow and Ball, Henley, knighthoods and sorbet. The snobbish reverse logic is the point. Things that were posh are now common because the mercurial posh people have now moved on, and you will never be able to keep up. You don’t find this funny? How dull.
These codifications of rich and poor, masquerading as harmless fun, on social media, in magazines, on tea-towels, serve only to reaffirm the privilege of the privileged. Classy/trashy tells us that even the shoddiest behaviour looks glittery with enough cash and the poor can’t get away with anything. Posh/not posh lists only serve to maintain the line separating the upper classes from all the other classes. And the idea that uppers and lowers have so much in common is ridiculous. My dad always knew that the relationship he had with the landed junkies was transactional, he always knew his place, as did they. And their parents never had to sell cocaine to pay the school fees.
That is not to say that culture cannot say something interesting about class. When I was growing up my favourite film was Trading Places, in which two mean millionaire grandpas try to resolve a dispute about the differences/similarities between the rich and the poor. They did this by switching the lives of a Wasp banker and a street hustler. Humanity wins the bet and the characters who occupy the moral high ground are a butler and a prostitute.
In my twenties the song Common People by Pulp offered a brilliantly elegant narrative appraisal of the transactional relationship between the classes, and of how things look so very different depending on your perspective. It is all too easy for the upper classes to make tourist forays into the lives of the lower classes, and jump to assumptions about their similarities, but the fundamental difference is that for the loaded girl in the cockroach-infested flat, it’s all a game, which she can step out of at any moment.
In The Line of Beauty Alan Hollinghurst meticulously observes the opaque sign-postings of privilege; how in certain worlds every choice you make — furnishings, food, phrases — advertises whether you belong or not, and how impossible it is to get it right if you are not already accepted. The moralities in the book are muddy, but that is a truer reflection of real life than the binary lists that currently populate culture.
We no longer live in a time of high social mobility. What made the difference to my life was education. After my dad went bankrupt and left my mum for a girl my own age, I was offered an assisted place so I could stay at my school and do my A-levels. Assisted places were abolished by Tony Blair’s government in 1997. When I went to Cambridge I did not have to pay fees, because these would not be introduced until 1998; and I was eligible for a maintenance grant from my local council, which were abolished in 1999, reintroduced in 2006 and abolished again in 2015. I left university with a very small amount of debt, which allowed me to take unpaid internships, and ultimately get a job in the industry that I was interested in. The experience of graduates who do not come from wealthy backgrounds today is very different.
But this is not just about someone like me being able to study classics at Cambridge, or about getting a job in an industry that is difficult to access without the right credentials and contacts. There are more fundamental issues at stake. The decrease in social mobility is illustrated by growing health inequalities — in the least-deprived areas a person can expect to live 19 years longer than someone in the most deprived areas. And this is a situation that the Covid-19 pandemic is making more perilous. Those gaps that people on the edge of their economic capacity can fall through are getting wider and wider.
Let’s not make this all seem OK by reducing disadvantage to a pithy listicle. We need to remember that these are individuals and not just cultural clichés. We need to care about inequality and not just laugh it off.