Mitfordians and class observers, be advised that Noblesse Oblige produced a sequel. That 1956 collection of essays edited by Nancy Mitford, subtitled ‘An Enquiry into the Identifiable Characteristics of the English Aristocracy’, spawned a sequel in 1969 called What Are U?, edited by her collaborator, Professor Alan Ross. Nancy Mitford’s contributors were semi-serious and strongly literary, including John Betjeman and his immortal poem ‘How To Get On In Society’, and Evelyn Waugh’s frank attack on anyone different to himself. Professor Ross – whose original scholarly article in an intimidating Finnish philology journal (with a German title) caused the whole fuss about U and non-U in the first place – went for the sociology angle.
Here’s a taster of the contents: ‘U and the Joneses’, ‘The horse and U’, ‘The working man: “Rough” and “Respectable”’, ‘What’s the Welsh for U?’, and ‘U-Irish’. The contributors range from media-savvy – an editor of a woman’s magazine and the celebrated menswear designer Mr Fish – to thoroughly upper-crust and revelling in it. I laughed out loud while reading ‘Remnants of Scottish life and character’ by Charles Gore, because not much seems to have changed. He describes the Scottish Nationalists (in 1969 they were terribly in vogue, as now) as ‘a group of people who tend to exaggerate the cultural differences of Scotland for political reasons’. He does a mean Morningside impression in phonetics. His analysis of the characteristics of the ruling classes in Scotland is fascinating for still being anthropologically relevant forty-five years later.
The Scottish essay and the essays about the Welsh and the Irish are a remarkable set of descriptions of society, stuck in amber. They’re also an irresistible contrast to novels written at the same time. Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt would be a perfect accompaniment, as would Barbara Pym’s later novels, or even Molly Keane. What Are U? is a core-sampling of British attitudes and language use (‘they’re blowing their minds’), written as light reading on that most serious of subjects: oneself. If there’s one subject that journalists and commentators have to get right, it’s telling the reading public who they are and why they are like that, because if they get it wrong, they’ll hear about it and so will their editor. The sheer nerve of Dennis Marsden in writing at length about how working-class people could be classified as ‘rough’ or ‘respectable’ is quite breath-taking, but he was writing about what he knew.
Michael Fish’s piece about clothes and how men choose them is a joyous highlight of this book. He talks about offering men the chance to transform their lives by wearing a yellow or purple shirt with their normal grey suit, because
these little men have got to realise that after making a breakthrough and wearing a pink shirt in the City, they are likely to follow through. If you start wearing a pink shirt, you’ve got to be prepared to criticise your wife’s cooking when you get home – and be prepared for what follows. If you start wearing clothes that aren’t dreary, you begin to question what other aspects of life are about.
That’s a voice from the counter-culture mediated through layers of tweed and poplin, but nonetheless authoritative. Mr Fish gives fashion history tips as a specialist, helpfully explaining why there is a little loop on the back yoke on men’s shirts (it involves cravats and the evolution of the collar).
Patricia Brougham writes as a woman’s magazine editor, so her essay gives the reality of life as journalists sold it to their readers at the very end of the Swinging Sixties; it is hardly swinging at all, and feminism has not yet happened. Cooking and the home are the inevitable reading for women. I was dumbfounded at the idea of a housewife reader having to be encouraged by her magazine to feel confident, to have neighbours over for a drink, or the boss for a meal. The sadness of not having that social confidence, and the dreariness of being trapped in these conventions, is a chilly reminder of the gulfs that used to exist between the classes that we barely think about now. This editor was a taboo breaker and a beneficent force for change, encouraging women not to be afraid: not just in breaking entertainment boundaries and braving class-bound sneering, but not to be afraid of going for a cervical smear, or of being pregnant. Public information and negotiating class signals were bundled together as education for women who wanted to know.
Learning how to be U was not necessarily what magazine-reading women wanted (unless they were ‘respectable’, which seems to mean being permanently anxious about status). Being U was a state of normal existence for a shatteringly confident sector of the population. Knowing what being U meant meant non-U readers could identify the U classes and know to stay well away, until one assumed Uness oneself. The Mitford legacy of caring about U boundaries took a long time dying.
Ed. This is NOT an April Fool.