Ann Barr — who created the Sloane Ranger with Peter York in 1982 — died in May at the age of 85. But the co-author of The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook lived long enough to see the birth of a sad new imitation: the Pretend Sloane. They come in many shapes and sizes, but you can spot the PS everywhere. One such is that awkward, plump boy in the bowler hat admiring the collars in Jermyn Street shop windows and wondering which one to buy, or hovering nervously in his tweeds outside the East India Club. And then there are the sleeker members of the PS tribe: the Made in Chelsea Sloanes — with long, thick hair (for both sexes), equally at ease in New York, the Bahamas and Klosters, but educated at Britain’s most expensive schools. The PS worships at the battered brogues of the original Sloane. They imitate their clothes: Barbours, tailored suits, cords. But the PS drawls the Queen’s English where the original Sloane brayed his; an infinitesimal difference to most, but glaring to any contemporary Henry Higgins.
In their hearts and souls, there is a yawning gulf between the original Sloane and Sloane 2.0. Sequels lose quality — The Godfather Part II notwithstanding — and the rule applies to Sloanes. Like most imitations, they try too hard. They have carefully picked and chosen the aspects of Sloanedom they worship: Eton, yes; dog hair on the pillow, no. Quilted waistcoat, yes; wearing your boyfriend’s frayed M&S Tattersall check shirt, no way.
The PS may have many outward Sloane signifiers, in accent and appearance. But they don’t possess the essential Sloaniness of Sloanes — an amalgam of contradictory qualities: confident, awkward, energetic, idle, crazily over-spending, rackety and cheese-paring, outrageously funny, appallingly offensive, keen on beautiful suits and gorilla suits. As Barr and York pointed out, contradiction was all: ‘Cry when you sing carols; do not cry at funerals,’ advised The Sloane Ranger Handbook.
Sloanes certainly weren’t geniuses; in fact, they were suspicious of dangerous things like books and art galleries. ‘Lots of them were members of Densa,’ says writer and social commentator Mary Killen. ‘They were emotional oafs; dull but loyal — the sort of friends who’d visit you in jail, the ones you’d want at your deathbed. They might have been interchangeable but they were a good sort.’
Their teasing, contradictory humour — combined with laughing at each other’s jokes loudly — was bred into them over generations. ‘Sloanes were trained to laugh all the time, even if they couldn’t contribute,’ says Killen. The originals were Sloanes down to their fingertips — fingertips caked in mud after a morning’s weeding round the staddle stones in the rain. They never had to think about their Sloaniness, unlike that poor boy staring into the window in Jermyn Street. Like natural footballers who kick a ball perfectly, the Sloane innately knew how to write enough to reach the second page of a thank-you letter; they intuited the exact moment to vom on the dance floor during ‘I Will Survive’.
‘You can’t remake the way people see the world,’ says York. ‘There was an innocence to the original. The Made in Chelsea Sloane is much more knowing. And the modern version is much better off. Money has triumphed — and there’s now a money snobbery of the most crass kind. Sloanes were never really the very rich toffs. And you have to be very rich now to buy the things Sloanes could afford then.’ One of the eye-popping things about The Sloane Ranger Handbook is how comparatively cheap everything was in 1982. Eton was £1,260 a term, or ‘half’; it’s now £11,478. Secretaries and nannies lived in rambling Chelsea houses; university was Oxford, Cambridge, Trinity College Dublin or Sandhurst. The PS now has to work much harder to pay for those vastly inflated house prices and school fees.
No wonder Henry and Caroline could stay up till dawn at dinner parties, hoovering up the Château Paintstripper and shovelling down the banoffee pie. There was no pressing need to get up in the morning. And then came the Big Bang, reforming the Stock Exchange, in 1986 — and Sloanes in the City got a rude awakening. Literally. Before the Big Bang the first train of the morning left Haslemere, Surrey — albeit not a Sloane habitat — at 7.15. After the Big Bang, British Rail laid on an extra train, at 6.44 a.m. It now leaves at 5.26 a.m. Small wonder, then, that Mr and Mrs PS now leave dinner parties at 11 on the dot, and stick to the Badoit.
Peter York neatly captures the gulf between the two worlds in the tale of an original Sloane’s daughter who goes to a glittering children’s party at a PS’s shimmering megaschloss in Chelsea. There the little girl is surrounded by the offspring of the hedgies who slave from dawn till well after dusk to maintain the modern PS lifestyle. When the original Sloane — unshaven, hung over, untroubled by strenuous employment — picks up his daughter from the party in his old, rusty Volvo, she asks him, ‘Daddy, are you lazy?’ Yes is the answer. But Daddy also belonged to a half-awful, half-glorious world of prelapsarian Sloaniness that is now one with Nineveh and Tyre.
Harry Mount’s Odyssey – Ancient Greece in the Footsteps of Odysseus is published by Bloomsbury in July.