I’m currently writing a tract On Snobbery. 4,000 words on the slate; I think I’m about halfway. But it keeps burgeoning; it’s such a vast topic. Snobbery is everywhere! I can hardly remember what set me off. I think it might have been a consciousness of the vast difference in the experience of living in New Zealand and living in the UK. That’s not to say snobbery doesn’t exist in New Zealand. But the snobs are fewer in number and for that reason more easily identifiable. They have an obsolete aura of empire and colonialism about them that make them easier to parody. Crucially, they are really not part of the mainstream. The really big difference between NZ and UK is that, while in NZ you can prosper as an individual, in the UK, if you want to get on, you had better be part of a group. As an Aberdeen gastroenterologist friend of mine puts it, “We hunt in packs.”
My Snobbery tract spends much time and effort trying to identify what exactly snobbery is, so for the purpose of this commentary I will assume that you have a sense that a snob is somebody who is excessively preoccupied with notions of rank or class. It’s like that famous sketch by the Two Ronnies and John Cleese which took advantage of Ronnie Corbett’s diminutive stature and John Cleese’s height; Ronnie Barker was in the middle. “I look up to him because… and I look down on him because…” And Ronnie Corbett would say, “I know my place.” It’s a quintessentially British sketch; it would hardly make sense anywhere else.
For myself, I’m Ronnie Corbett. I’m a peasant. I daren’t say that with any sense of pride or I will be accused of “inverted snobbery”. Yet I think it’s true. I think of myself as a churl and a serf. My grandfather was a dynamiter in Ardeer Factory, working with Irishmen whose method of assessing the concentration of nitroglycerine was to taste it. They suffered terrible headaches. My father’s first job, when he left school at 14, entailed going round bomb sites identifying body parts when the manufacturing process went wrong. It’s health and safety gone mad I tell you. In the evening he would trawl the Ayrshire beaches collecting “duff”, a mix of sand and coal dust which, with some difficulty, you could burn. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a publican. But he was a Gael. In the Gaidhealtachd, everybody is an aristocrat.
My father was clever. He was dux of his primary school. He went on to Ardrossan Academy but he left when he was 14. I had always understood it was because the family (he was second eldest of seven children) needed him to be a bread winner, but now I don’t believe this was so. He wanted to leave. He didn’t feel comfortable in the company of the sons of gentlemen. But he always retained a great respect for higher education and it was never in doubt that I in my turn would go to university and that I would practise some sort of profession.
Yet I am my father’s son. I didn’t have much notion of class until I became a medical student in Edinburgh and I discovered most of my classmates had attended private schools. On the ward consultants would ask me, “What does your father do?” I was too naïve to realise I was being interviewed for a job. Over the years I came to realise that people of rank would generally misinterpret my station; they thought I was posher than I really was. Whether the process of disillusionment was bitter to them I cannot say.
After spending fifteen years in the rough-and-tumble of the Antipodes I was somewhat disconcerted on my return to the UK to find that I was afforded a deference on account of my physicianly status. People of low rank would take trouble to dress up and look their best for the benefit of the doctor. Not so the aristocrats; they would come in from their boats and their gardens dressed in rags and covered in mud. I suppose they thought it was “democratic”. Actually the fact was, they just didn’t give a damn.