17 January 2015

It’s not what you know, but who you know

The lower middle class does not exist in official statistics, nor in conversational contexts, but in practice, when I was at Somerville College, Oxford, in the early to mid 1950s, I encountered several students who seemed to be being treated as belonging to a despised underclass, determined by social status rather than ability or achievement.

My impression that this was so was confirmed when I was living in digs in Oxford with two other postgraduate students, working for higher degrees. One of the other students was Margaret Eastman, and the third was the daughter of Mary Adams of the BBC. Margaret and I were of what might be called lower middle class origins, having won scholarships to Somerville, but coming from respectable middle class families which had sent us to State schools.

The daughter of Mary Adams, on the other hand, had gone to the Francis Holland School, a prestigious fee-paying school which had once been considered a possibility for Princess Anne, and had gone on to Somerville as a commoner (a non-scholarship student).

The digs, as was frequently the case with lodgings inhabited by Oxford students, were unhygienic and insalubrious. Among other things, the draining board in the kitchen was rotting. Mary Adams, visiting her daughter, and in the presence of Margaret and myself, expressed horror at the filthy surroundings. ‘This sort of thing may be good enough for Celia and Margaret’, she declaimed, ‘But my daughter was brought up to be a lady’. I was amazed that this should be said by an egalitarian socialist.

It would seem that she was not only voicing her own private views, but those which underlay the attitude of the Oxford University administration. I knew a postgraduate student who lived in lodgings where the lavatories were never cleaned, so that tenants would wish, if possible, to go out into the garden when they needed to use them. Less unhygienic lodgings were likely to have higher rents, so only those who could afford it could remove themselves from such unpleasantness. It must be supposed that the administration was aware of this situation, and so implicitly expressed the view that filthy lodgings were good enough for most students, but of course those who were rich enough could maintain the standards to which they had been brought up.

Other people who seemed to have similar underlying attitudes were the friends of Mary Adams, drawn from a population which hobnobbed with champagne socialists, even if not perhaps every one of them could be classified in this way.

I would certainly have expected, on the basis of the way my own family would have behaved, that on visiting a student living together with two other students, the visitors would all ask to be introduced to the friends of their friend, or have just entered the apartment and got to know the others in a less formal way. This, however, did not happen, whether or not they feared the apartment might be too filthy to be safely entered. Friends of Mary Adams would come to the door and take her daughter out with them without meeting anyone else.

This went on happening over a period of years, and on at least one occasion the daughter of Mary Adams said to her, ‘When your friends visit me, they take me out for a meal, but not Celia and Margaret. When Celia’s aunt Emmie visits us, she takes all three of us out for lunch’. Mary Adams responded, ‘Celia’s aunt must be a very rich woman then’. My aunt Emmie was retired and on a pension. Like all members of my mother’s family, she had a very high IQ, and she had become a highly skilled shorthand typist. However, as a member of a lower social class than the champagne socialists, my aunt had never had a salary approaching the BBC salary of Mary Adams.

On one occasion, as the daughter of Mary Adams told me, some of the visiting friends said they would like to buy her a birthday present, but they wanted to be sure it was something which she herself could use and which would be of no use to any other inhabitants of the apartment. ‘How about slippers?’ they had said, ‘We could buy you some, but do assure us that your feet are much smaller than Celia’s and Margaret’s, so they could not possibly use any slippers we buy for you’.