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”.

The countrywoman: Clarissa Dickson-Wright at a hare coursing event in 2004. (Photo: Getty)
The countrywoman: Clarissa Dickson-Wright at a hare coursing event in 2004. (Photo: Getty)

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.