The countrywoman: Clarissa Dickson-Wright at a hare coursing event in 2004. (Photo: Getty)
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Clarissa Dickson-Wright: a toff and proud of it

The TV chef and countryside campaigner Clarissa Dickson-Wright, best known as one half of the Two Fat Ladies, has died aged 66. In 2007, she kicked off a series for the NS looking at class and “poshness”.

Despite having been rigorously taught never to assume I had fallen into that trap with the word “toff”, believing, as most people do, that it was a negative description derived from the term “toffee nosed”, ie someone grand and snooty with their nose stuck in the air to avoid smelling the odours of the masses.

I have cause to be grateful to the New Statesman as, in order to understand the word better, I was driven to the pages of Cassell's Dictionary of Slang.

Toff, this tome reveals, is an early 19th-century word meaning an aristocrat, and by the mid 19th century had come to mean a generous benefactor.

“You're a toff, sir”, was a compliment – an acknowledgement of thanks for a favour received. Do not be misled in thinking this has anything to do with “toffee-nosed”, I read , this is a 1940s expression so chronologically “toff” cannot be a derivation.

That toff has now become a derogatory term is one of those curious quirks of the English language but there can be no doubt than in modern terminology it is not intended to be a pleasantry.

It is a phrase beloved of the media and is used, as is common to the tabloids, with no consistency in its application.

For example, David Cameron is frequently referred to as a toff; true, he did go to Eton and Oxford and even though he has lived for years at the less fashionable end of Ladbroke Grove and was formerly employed in media relations, not an obvious profession for toffs, he may well qualify.

Then why not Tony Blair who was educated at Fettes (often referred to as the Eton of Scotland) and Oxford, is a qualified barrister and owns a house in the much more up market area of Connaught Square? The square even boasts its own hunt “the Connaught Square Squirrel Hunt”, though I have yet to receive confirmation that our Tone has joined.

During the Two Fat Ladies years, Jennifer and I were frequently referred to as toffs, rather mysteriously I thought, as I am a child of the professional middle classes. Doctors of medicine on one side and mining engineers on the other. No land-owning aristocrats in sight and Jennifer was the product of a Dundee Jute family – “Trade, my dear,” as she would have put it.

Neither of us was rich or even owned a house and we had both worked for years as “cooks” and even, in that capacity, as domestic servants. I decided that it must refer to our accents: we were both educated privately and spoke with the clear, precise tones of the upper-middle classes. But then so, of course. does Tony Blair.

Maybe it is a question of politics. One cannot be a toff and a socialist perhaps? Then, of course, one must remember Tony is not a socialist, so the mystery continues.

The English class system is something of a curiosity and it doesn’t matter how many prime ministers declare that it no longer exists, it is rooted like ground elder under the stones of our very existence.

It is an upward sliding scale: if you make enough money you can join, your children will go to public schools and if the money hasn’t been squandered by the third generation, your descendents will be toffs.

It is even a sought-after status. I remember the wife of a very successful self-made man, who had gone from grandson of an agricultural labourer and son of a smallholder to multi-millionaire. She wistfully listened to Johnny Scott (my co-star in the TV series Clarissa and the Countryman) and remarked “Wouldn’t it be lovely if our grandchildren spoke like that?”.

Maybe outside the media, the 19th-century interpretation of “toff” remains. It would seem, however, that the scale cannot slide downwards.

I remember that aged 40, a single female, an orphan, latterly employed as a servant, newly recovering from alcoholism and destitute, I was told by the Housing Authorities that they were not there for the likes of me and that I should go and get a job. I am enduringly grateful to them for this and wish they said it to more people but presumably it was because of my toff accent.

There was an occasion when I was appearing on the Clive Anderson chat show when I was attacked by a Labour MP as a toff. There was no doubt in my mind that I had spent more of my life getting my hands dirty and working till my feet ached than this freeloader on the nation’s bounty.

I demanded to know how, as a fat cook, I could be a toff and eventually he backed down. In an era when the term “working class” seems more and more to refer to people on the dole, I find myself completely at a loss to identify why this epithet should be hurled at someone like myself who works incredibly hard.

Perhaps the biggest example of the word’s misuse was over the Hunting Act, vaunted as a statute against animal cruelty, wasting many hours of parliamentary time and money eventually passed via the Parliament Act.

The MPs then stated that it had nothing to do with the fox, deer or hare but was a blow against toffs and was all about class. This showed two things clearly, firstly that the MPs had never bothered to go hunting or coursing – the most egalitarian of country pursuits – and, secondly, that the class system is alive, well and living in Westminister on the benches of the Labour Party.

Having written this, I have decided to accept the label, to regard it strictly in the mid-19th-century term and to ask all those regardless of race, creed, colour or class who see themselves as trying to stand up for their principles and benefit the world to proudly bear the epithet TOFF.

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain