Class conscious

One day in my university years, a tutor of mine sat listening to me reading an essay that was full, even more than usual, of irrelevant flourishes and hyperbole. When I'd finished, he said: "I suppose you think you're charming" - after which ominous words he paused, displaying a hitherto unsuspected sense of comic timing (although I didn't find it very funny), before adding: "But you're not."

Well, he was right. No one's ever said I'm charming, just as no one's ever called me cool, which is more annoying, given that it really is the accolade of our times. According to my Oxford English Dictionary, the New Statesman was - I very much regret to say - among those Sixties publications pioneering the use of the word "cool" to mean relaxed, composed, etc. Now it's everywhere, plonked down randomly across the spectrum of journalism in a way that's very . . . well, uncool. If I could be bothered, I'd count the number of times it appeared in today's Times, and I'd find half a dozen examples, I bet.

On the face of it, cool is meant to be a virtue transcending class, and the people described as cool usually don't come from privileged backgrounds. But the term, surely, has inegalitarian implications. Generally speaking, for instance, one would not describe desperately poor people as "cool", because they're too busy agonising about not having enough to eat; and I have found that the term is almost always applied to the at least reasonably well-off, as a sort of modern synonym for "doing very nicely". Moreover, the word, especially in the context of Cool Britannia, has overtones of exclusivity, of in-crowd membership.

Being cool, in the sense of phlegmatic, is a quality that's dangerously close to complacency, and any lefty will surely ask: what is there to be phlegmatic about? You'd never describe working-class agitators such as Ernie Bevin as cool, whereas the term does fit certain languid Tories such as Lord Carrington. What I'm saying is that I think cool is a Tory virtue, rather than a Labour one, and therefore the wrong epithet to apply to young, classless creatives.

Of course, if anyone did apply it to me, I might be a bit more relaxed on the issue.

This article first appeared in the 10 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Education, education, profit