Class conscious

I have just returned from Cornwall, where I read A Cornish Childhood, a wonderful memoir written in the 1940s by the historian of the Elizabethan period A L Rowse, who seems to have been equally adept at inverted snobbery (his background was working-class) and the conventional sort.

At one point, he writes that his brother never read any books, "which is why he now drives a lorry for a living". But he also has it in for George Orwell because Orwell went to Eton, and he maintains that his own humble origins give him a superior insight into the ways of "the people".

After finishing the book, I got talking to some Cornish people - in no way to be confused with "the people" - in a Cornish pub. They were drinking at the bar and slagging off tourists.

One of them was saying, "It's been chucking it down all day, but they have to walk around in shorts just because they're on their bloody holidays", whereupon he glanced over to me, and guiltily clocked my bare knees.

Well, that kind of broke the ice; we got talking and I asked if they knew of the Rowse book. They did, they said in a clipped sort of way. "There's some really good description in it," I said, and one of the group might have shrugged at this, I can't remember. Then I said, "Bit of a snob, though, wasn't he?", and the torrent was unleashed. The blokes in that pub certainly knew everything that was wrong with A L Rowse.

This did alarm me because I have just produced not a memoir, but a satirical novel about Yorkshire, where I grew up but no longer live. I hope there's no analogy with the Rowse situation, but my experience in the Cornish pub did make me paranoid.

When I was interviewed by a Yorkshire journalist about my own book, I said: "I hope people in the north don't assume that this is the work of some patronising prat who's turned his back on his roots and gone native in London."

"Why would they think that?" she asked. "Well, they shouldn't," I said.

"But why might they?" she persisted. I should have left that Rowse book well alone.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the open society?

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