England’s Upper ClassesA Dangerous Cult
Otto English shares the story of his late mother’s ‘double life’ and explores how class continues to define British society in damaging, limiting ways
For much of her adult life, my mother hid a dark secret and most of the people she met never even noticed.
To neighbours, villagers and colleagues, she was a respectable, upper-middle class, home counties woman who commuted up to London and who loved to hold dinner parties and fill our family home with guests.
She arranged the flowers in church; was the backbone of the local tennis club the local action group and the parish magazine; and, for years, the local Conservative Party.
She was very particular about ways of addressing people and the right way of doing things – some might say too particular.
She had a habit of befriending aristocratic people and, when we were children, we would sometimes find ourselves playing at grand houses owned by grand people with unwieldy double-barrelled names who had nannies, stables of ponies, and whole wings of smug, self-satisfied, social superiority. Sometimes Mum would play tennis with their mothers and put on a peculiar upper-class accent as she did.
All of this, although I did not realise it at the time, was her cover. But often, unwittingly, she would blow it.
Downed RAF pilots in wartime France often gave themselves away by stealing bicycles before setting off through French towns on the wrong side of the road smoking English cigarettes. Mum’s Achilles heel was her innate sociability. She was irrepressibly gregarious and, despite those put-on airs and graces, treated everyone the same.
She gave herself away because she was too funny and full of life to ever fit in with the women whose class she so desperately craved to join. For Hannah’s secret was this: she was a social imposter.
The sixth of seven children and born into a working-class Staffordshire family, her upbringing was the very antithesis of the upper-middle class, home counties woman that she later played.
In the pit village she was born into in the 1930s, there was no money and no such thing as social mobility. She loved her family but, from an early age, aspired to lead a different life.
Aged 11, she got into grammar school. From there she went to secretarial college, took elocution lessons (to rid herself of that accent) and, having evinced the transformation, moved south, where she landed a job with an MP at the House of Commons.
The new Hannah wore designer outfits, would fend-off the advances of a young Geoffrey Howe, danced with Harold Macmillan at the Conservative Party Conference and eventually met and married my father.
Several years later, they moved to Essex with my sister. Several years after that, I was born. And, some years after that, I began to notice the peculiarities of her double life.
In Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw wrote that the “it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him”. My mother had a different accent for all of her life’s scenarios – just in case that eventuality should arise.
When she spoke to her sisters on the phone, she would be northern. When we went up to visit family, she would start calling everyone “duck”. But, as soon as we were in the car and heading down the motorway to Essex, the Staffordshire accent would disappear and she would start banging on about those people with the double-barrelled names again.
She was forever balancing out the two Hannahs.
If the subject of her childhood came up in so-called polite company, she would insist that her grandfather had been a big deal in Staffordshire; that he had owned land and farm – and it was true. But he was hardly the Duke of Westminster. The farm was a smallholding on the outskirts of the pit village and he had earned his keep as a school-teacher.
Why did she do it? Why did she expend so much sweat and effort on hiding who she was? On pretending that she had come from a different class and on sucking up to people who were not a patch on her?
As time wore on, and as we all grew older together, I would often tease her about it.
Oh, such and such is from a very old family! she would say. And, when I pointed out that ‘such and such’s’ family could not, by the laws of nature, be any older than ours, she would double-down and start claiming that they came here on the boat with William the Conqueror!
England’s self-styled upper classes like to propagate stories like that. Some will even go to great effort and expense and draw up elaborate family trees to prove it. But, as I explain in my book Fake History, if you have any European heritage at all, you too are undoubtedly descended from the same people on those boats and quite likely William himself. Your family has simply forgotten it.
The cult of English aristocracy hasn’t. And the cult has a long memory – which is exclusively about itself to the exclusion of the 99% of other people on these isles. Like all cults, it is wrapped up in itself and wedded to a series of self-serving myths and fantasies that set it apart.
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‘The Better People’
For centuries, these ‘elite’ families have been as effective at spinning their own inimitability even as they have been at clinging onto their money, power and influence. The origins of that wealth are usually kept deliberately opaque and with good reason: nobody ever got fabulously wealthy on altruism.
Many of Britain’s poshest families built their fortunes on the suffering of others.
The exploitation of the nation’s working people (including my mother’s family) could be seen down the pits; or through land clearances (which were very far from being a uniquely Scottish phenomenon); and, of course, in slavery. But good luck finding someone who will admit that. The history of Britain’s slave trade in particular has been politely and deliberately buried by the descendants of those who are still benefitting from its legacy today.
The story of slavery has been deliberately edited out of those grand families’ narratives because the sheen of the grand family piles wears a little thin when you realise that they were built on the wealth of human suffering. That is why all attempts by the National Trust to tell those stories are resisted – they undermine the whole ghastly conceit of blue blood and entitlement and the credibility of the upper-class cult.
Of course, there’s no such thing as ‘blue blood’ any more than there is such a thing as ‘breeding’, but dip into the pages of the Telegraph, Tatler, the Spectator, or any of the other old establishment publications and you will find people still shoring up the myth of it.
Centuries of grooming left millions of people – including my mother – believing that some families were inherently better than others; that their wealth and family seats were magicked into being by dint of that inherent superiority and not built off the back of the vicious and murderous exploitation of other people; that they were more inherently fascinating than anyone else; that their lives mattered more.
In the last years of her life, before Alzheimer’s took hold, Mum mellowed a lot. She would laughingly refer to herself as “that Bucket woman” – in self-deprecating reference to the central character in the sitcom Keeping Up Appearances. And increasingly she began to dismiss her haughtier acquaintances and their inherent snobbery. But, she never shook it completely and never fully accepted that they were not better than her.
She would be aghast that I have told you her story and revealed her truth. I tell it because I am proud of her. Hannah rose on her own efforts and her own toil. Nobody gave her a leg up or made a call on her behalf to an old school chum. She had no ‘old tie’ network to fall back on. She got herself into grammar school through her own hard efforts and could, in other circumstances, have got herself to university.
But she felt obliged by the stifling conditioning of her era to hide who she was. She looked up to people who had been handed every advantage because she had been conditioned to think that they were her betters.
Far too many people in this country remain wedded to the cult of the upper class – a cult that should long ago have withered to a death, but which is instead enabled by the media, by stealth, and by a fawning faith in aristocracy that still prevails. Its bastard by-product, nepotism, remains rife – elevating those of little talent, charm or ability to some of the top gigs in the land.
We should have long ago outgrown this stuff and we need greater acknowledgement of the fundamental truth it exposes about our land. This country could do with a lot more Hannahs and far fewer Jacob Rees-Moggs.
Otto English’s book, ‘Fake History’, is out now