11 January 2015

Egalitarians and those ‘beneath’ them

When I was an undergraduate at Somerville College, Oxford, in the mid-1950s, feminist ideas were very much on an uptrend.

‘Feminism’ is usually taken to mean gender egalitarianism, i.e. that women are or should be the equals of men. This idea could, however, be interpreted in very different ways.

While I was at Somerville, a male undergraduate said to one of my college friends that women were ‘equal but different’, and this seemed to mean ‘equal but inferior’. Women could never have strong enough wrists to play tennis properly against a man, and there were various other things which they would never be able to do well.

Nowadays, it is often suggested that there should be equal numbers of men and women on the boards of companies.

Mary Adams OBE, a well-known ‘fellow traveller’ (communist sympathiser), was one of the first women to have a fairly high position in the BBC, and was also the mother of a college friend of mine. I was the top scholar at Somerville College, and her daughter was a commoner (non-scholarship student). I frequently visited Mary Adams’s Regents Park apartment.

On one occasion, my father came by car to pick me up from the apartment, and Mary Adams said about his voice on the telephone, ‘He sounds very common’. At least, this was what her daughter relayed to me a little later. I was surprised that Mary Adams, as an influential leader of thought at the BBC, did not find it necessary to demonstrate her social egalitarianism by asking my father up for a sherry, and taking an interest in his experience of education in working-class areas of London. After all, he was the headmaster of a school in the East End.

Lord Longford
When I told this story to Lord Longford* (a Labour peer) at the House of Lords, where he had invited me to visit him after I sent him an appeal to support my work, he looked taken aback by the accuracy of the wording. In fact I had not, at the time, known that ‘common’ was the word an upper-class person would use in talking about a social inferior. ‘Did you hear her say that?’ he asked. ‘No,’ I said, ‘her daughter, who did hear it, told me afterwards’. ‘She should not have told you’, Lord Longford said, laughingly.

One may notice that he did not say, ‘Mary Adams should not have said that’, in line with the socialist egalitarian ideas which both Lord Longford and Mary Adams professed in public. Instead, it appeared he thought that her daughter’s loyalty should have been to her own (upper) class, and to her influential mother, rather than to someone of a lower social class but, probably, higher IQ (i.e. both me and my father).

At the same meeting, Lord Longford looked at me curiously, as if he were trying to work out my social provenance. He said to me, ‘You don’t sound working-class. You could be a peeress.’ He continued to look at me. I must have said something, and he then said, ‘I see it is an Oxford accent’.

I cannot recall my college contemporaries, or any more senior person, ever expressing admiration of my achievement in getting the top scholarship, or even any Oxford scholarship, coming as I did from a relatively disadvantaged background. People appeared to be impressed only by social institutions. Mary Adams seemed to be bowled over when I first told her of meeting Dr Charles McCreery, an undergraduate at that time. I mentioned that he had been to Eton, and Mary Adams went into church with admiration, breathing, ‘Eton is the best school’.

A similar reaction was shown by Oxford physiology lecturer Graham Weddell (later Professor of Human Anatomy), when speaking about Charles’s father, General Sir Richard McCreery, before he had even met Charles. ‘His father is a great man’, he said, although General McCreery had (it appeared) been slandering Charles.**

* Frank Pakenham, the 7th Earl of Longford, was a Labour politician who became Leader of the House of Lords in 1964. Photograph by Allan Warren.
** Further details can be found here.