Class conscious

Last week I was self-consciously sitting down in the first-class compartment of Eurostar (press ticket, of course), when a train attendant, not even an official ticket checker, took it upon himself to come up to me and say, "Excuse me, sir, can I see your ticket?"

He didn't ask anyone else in the carriage the same question, and it was clear that he simply didn't think I was first-class material. I can't blame the lad, really. Being British, he was merely responding to his acute instinctive understanding of who is and who is not posh.

I was reminded of all those times when I've been mistaken for a shop assistant. It seems to happen especially in hardware stores. People come up to me and say, "How much is this bag of nails?" and I, affronted, reply, "I don't know, I don't work here". Yet there is no lessening of their conviction that I do work in the shop; they merely start to think that I'm an exceptionally surly and evasive assistant. Alighting from trains, I also used to be mistaken for a railway porter, perhaps because I had a suit that looked exactly like the uniform of a BR "railman" - although there may have been a genetic element, too, for my father did work on BR for 50 years.

Essentially, though, these mistakes arise from a certain lack of sartorial glamour on my part, a certain lack of confidence and a downtrodden look. I'm sure they wouldn't occur if I'd been to a public school, for one of the main benefits of a private education is a confident demeanour.

If, for example, I go to a restaurant with my wife, who is privately educated, the waiters often ask her to taste the wine. I confidently used to assume sexism would prevail in this area; I now see, however, that it's the class antennae working again - waiters will instinctively make for the poshest person at any table.

Only once has the mistake been made in the other direction. A girl once observed - based on the way that I was smoking an Embassy Regal in a cafe in Streatham - that I looked like an aristocrat. She was, of course, foreign (Spanish), but I treasure the memory nonetheless.

This article first appeared in the 06 September 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Whatever happened to liberty?