D.J. Taylor’s clever dissection of snobs is really two books in one. Scattered throughout are entertaining, delicious (initially), solemnly related nuggets of hardcore snobbery. He writes brilliantly, for example, about the diarist and National Trust employee James Lees-Milne, who liked a world that knew its place (ideally beneath him). Lees-Milne was steeped so far in snobbery that he couldn’t bear the vulgarity of calling a garage a garage and so called his the ‘motor-house’.
Either the absurdity of this makes you snort with laughter or it doesn’t. It does me, though I have to say the cumulative effect of a zillion snobberies is nauseating. You find yourself thinking, ‘My God, these terrible people’ on every other page. It works in both directions, kind of. Snobs is peppered with examples of reverse snobbery. My favourite is the singer Paul Weller moaning about an album being rejected by the record label:
I’m not used to people talking to me like that. Not because I think I’m Mr Superstar but because I’m not fucking having it. Basically, because I’m from Woking and I don’t give a fuck, d’you know what I mean?
All too well, mate.
Lees-Milne is compared to the Labour MP Dennis Skinner who, despite being encouraged to do so by teachers, refused to go to university because he didn’t want to be disloyal to his mining background. I’m not convinced that this is in any way equivalent to straightforward snobbery: there is a pure nobility in Skinner’s choice that is wholly absent in Lees-Milne’s creepy and obsessive stalking of dukes, or in his almost ejaculatory delight at being among aristocrats. Taylor is clearly aware of this, but he might make more of it. East Midlands working men’s clubs in the 1970s may have been hostile to the idea of admitting women, but comparing the policy to that of White’s or Brooks’s is disingenuous.
Snobs is also a historical and literary study of British snobbery, the idea being that we are all snobs in some way and that all of us are class-obsessed:
Snobbery, it might reasonably be argued, is a key to our national life, as vital to the backstreet family on benefits as to the proprietor of the grandest stately home, an essential element in our view of who we are and what the world might be thought to owe us.
However, Taylor notes, modern snobbery is ‘frequently hidden from public view’: for every ostentatious Porsche on a suburban street (unsnobbish, I would say: to do with pulling rank, surely, which isn’t at all the same thing), ‘the majority of snobs pursue their craft by stealth’. It is ‘a matter of closed circles as such; it frequently declares itself to be a matter of tone’. This is exactly right; and it’s why it’s so difficult to write well about snobbery, which is to do with microscopic, imperceptible, fairly deranged nuances. I do think Taylor sometimes conflates snobbery and conspicuous consumption, but that doesn’t really matter: he goes a long way to unravelling this knottiest of subjects and dances along the crevasses of class without falling right in.
I found the historical bits slightly boring, but that’s because my only two responses to the snobberies he describes are hilarity or anger: I am not interested enough in the whys and wherefores, only in semi-grotesque human behaviour, which is abundantly displayed here. We are all snobs, of course, about something, whether it be magazines, books, music, food or people’s postcodes. (There’s a riff on this that I found unconvincing: does anyone really still care about postcodes? It’s been a long time since Evelyn Waugh schlepped to a postbox in Hampstead from Golders Green so that his letters bore the postmarkNW3.)
My favourite chapter is about ‘snob lingo’. ‘Nothing, in the end, is more important to the snob than language,’ says Taylor, before going on the explain why with startling clarity. I learned CAUC (complete and utter c…), but I didn’t believe him when he says that some people still say NQOCD (not quite our class, dear) to semaphore unsuitability to their children. He also claims that ‘the diehard snob doesn’t have a bath, he “takes his tub”’.
Snobs also contains some pen-portraits of contemporary snobs — film snobs, City snobs and the like. These are hit and miss: some are beady, some make outdated assumptions. They reminded me of Peter York’s and Ann Barr’s slyer and more knowing The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook (1982) and, to a lesser extent, of Jilly Cooper’s Class (1979), but with a greater emphasis on Norfolk. D.J. Taylor has a sneaking admiration for his snobs, and that’s perfectly fine; but I don’t know that he finds them funny enough, or that they really deserve his forensics.