Melanie McDonagh Melanie McDonagh

If you want social mobility, teach kids at the bottom end to write thank you letters

Last week’s readers tea party at The Spectator was a delight. You always suppose that the people you’re writing for are interested, intelligent and nice….and there you go: they are. But after meeting them, I’ve been brooding about the importance of, how can I put it, charm, as a class issue. One attractive woman – who had been telling me how, in the Sixties, she thought something was wrong with her if she didn’t get groped on the Tube – encouraged me to move on with the observation: ‘I must let other people enjoy you’. Graceful and expert.

For ages, coming from a background that was the reverse of grand – my parents both left school at 14 – I was always a bit on my guard when it came to charm, feeling vaguely ill at ease with those Etonians who would, in discussing an issue, remark: ‘Do you really think so?’ My own approach was a bit more gloves off. But then again, with an Irish background, you are used to a different kind of social ease; the sort that turns everyday conversations into a humorous exchange. It’s kind of good manners, making the best of things.

But what strikes me in the context of one of the most important social developments of my own lifetime – the transformation of the working class into an underclass – is the extent to which fluency, articulacy and manners are a class thing. It’s hard to say what I mean without sounding preposterous, but I can only say that there’s been a generational change; that the grandchildren of some working class people I know are significantly less able to handle social encounters well than the older generation did. It’s not mere etiquette; it’s a shared notion of good behaviour.

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