In Very Good, Jeeves, Bertie Wooster’s behaviour is so odd that his Aunt Dahlia has no choice but to suspect him of being in love, a fact he confirms.
“I do indeed love.”
“Who is she?”
“A Miss Pendlebury. Christian name, Gwladys. She spells it with a ‘w’.”
“With a ‘g’, you mean.”
“With a ‘w’ and a ‘g’.”
The relative uttered a yowl.
“You sit there and tell me you haven’t got enough sense to steer clear of a girl who calls herself Gwladys?”
She was right, as aunts invariably are. Life is short and there isn’t the time to ignore collective wisdom and insist on treating each Gwladys you meet on her merits. Bertie should have remembered what had happened to other men who had fallen in love with girls called Gwladys and backed off. Like everyone else, he would have been better to obey the “Stop!” signs and jam on the brakes. I would warn any relative of mine against women who take homoeopathic remedies and men who use toothpicks. Obviously, I can’t prove in advance that associating with either will bring certain ruin; but, put it like this: if you resolve never to be judgemental and hold that everyone who contacts you is innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt, the odds are that your savings will vanish into a Nigerian bank account.
Class hatred once provided the “Stop!” signs of the left. If you were invited to entrust your money or your heart to someone who was rich, you would know to make an excuse and leave, because tradition ruled that no good could come of the relationship. The gut reaction was based on three arguments whose wisdom had been proved by long experience.
1) Economic. Excessive wealth leads its holders to expect to get their own way whatever the rules say and whatever damage is done to others.
2) Political. No just country can be created while extremes of wealth persist. It is wrong to allow the wealthy to believe that the rest of society finds their existence desirable or even tolerable.
3) Aesthetic. The wealthy are vulgar. They waste their money on the art of the Chapman brothers or the fashions of John Galliano and use their domination of taste to silence the little boy who says the emperor has no clothes, or, rather, has gauche and ill-fitting clothes.
Today, class hatred has fallen into disrepute, along with all other forms of prejudice, and it is easy to see why. If my employers were to send me on a compulsory class-hatred awareness course, I would have to confess that there’s no logic to my bigotry.
Recently I spent the night at a country house hotel. It was a mistake – we were way out of our league. Leaving behind menus announcing that a pot of tea with cake was the price of the weekly shop, I took my son to the swimming pool and met a challenge faced by generations of parents. Changing rooms are potential death traps. The wet, tiled floors all but invite red-blooded toddlers to crack their skulls. But at some point you must put them down and get changed. Fortunately, mine ignored the enticing opportunities for self-harm and contented himself by playing with the locker keys.
A kindly old American looked on. “What is it with boys and keys?” he asked. “I’ve got a grandson and he’s just the same. He’s got to have the keys. Mind you, they’ve got to be the right keys or he throws a tantrum. The keys to the Merc, the keys to the yacht, the keys to the plane . . .”
I should have said: “You know, mine’s exactly the same.” I glared at him instead. Why? Who did I expect to meet in a hotel for the super-rich? Postmen? The American was friendly and may have made his money with a product that had done nothing but good for the human race. What sense was there behind my scowl?
Equally, I can’t explain why I am happy to meet Tory aristocrats, but uneasy with the millionaire Marxists who run New Left Review. Some friends from university have dedicated themselves to a life of poorly rewarded public service. They’re no better or worse than they ever were. Others went into the City and made a fortune. They’re still the same people and still friends. By the standards of most people in this country and the overwhelming majority of people on the planet, I am rich. But I would be shocked to be snubbed as a result.
Class prejudice appears thoroughly discredited. It is now commonly deployed de haut en bas by the powerful against the powerless. I’ve lost count of the number of times that critics of big business or the Dyke BBC or new Labour have been condemned as “elitists” who arrogantly want to control the democratic decisions of the market place. This line of reasoning reached a nadir when Tessa Jowell denounced opponents of her plans to let casino operators bankrupt gullible punters as “snobs”. When the wife of Silvio Berlusconi’s lawyer can use the language of class struggle to defend the interests of extortionists, I think it is fair to say that socialism is dead.
Even before it came to power, you could tell new Labour had a reckless streak when the newspaper diarists reported that Lady Carla Powell had befriended Peter Mandelson. Not only was she a society hostess and the wife of Charles Powell, Margaret Thatcher’s foreign policy adviser, but she also asserted that Powell should be pronounced “Pole”. This was as glaring a warning as a girl called Gwladys. Anthony Powell might have been a great novelist if he hadn’t wasted so much of his life angrily correcting people who called him “Powell” instead of “Pole”. Sir Charles Pole’s brother, Jonathan Powell, is Tony Blair’s chief of staff. He pronounces Powell “Powell”, thank God. On the day he switches to “Pole”, the merger of old Tory and new Labour will be complete. Ever since Carla met Peter, the party has been beset by scandals. After every one of them, I wondered what on earth Labour politicians had thought they were doing when they accepted donations from and invitations to dinner with Bernie Ecclestone, the Hinduja brothers, partners in Arthur Andersen, Enron executives and Lakshmi Mittal. Did they truly believe that predatory capitalists wanted to talk about the politics of the progressive coalition? Did no alarms ring?
To be fair, a folk memory of socialist propriety occasionally troubled them. During the Hinduja affair, for instance, when Mandelson was accused of lobbying for passports in return for donations to the Dome’s faith zone, he told the head of the New Millennium Experience Company: “I agree that they [the Hinduja brothers] are an above-average risk, but without firm evidence of wrongdoing how could we bar them from involvement in sponsorship?”
Strictly speaking, Mandelson was right. The billionaires strongly denied accusations that they had been involved in a corruption scandal about the sale of arms to India and had not been found guilty beyond reasonable doubt. But surely, if you’re confronted with billionaires facing accusations of playing a part in an arms scandal, why are you under an obligation to start worrying about the burden of proof? Why not just smile politely and cross the street?
The same question haunts David Blunkett’s infatuation with Kimberly Fortier, publisher of the Spectator, a magazine whose debaucheries recall the worst excesses of Caligula’s Rome. Didn’t he know what these people were like? Didn’t he understand that they would wangle every favour they could out of him and then use his willingness to succumb as evidence for the prosecution when the affair turned sour?
In a sympathetic piece, Catherine Bennett of the Guardian wrote that the fault may lie with his civil servants, who from the best motives may well have skipped the lifestyle pages when they read the newspapers to him. Blunkett may therefore have missed the piece in which Fortier described how she used the pull of her husband, publisher of the brainless fashion magazine Vogue, to jump a nine-month waiting list for an £11,000 Birkin bag. He “moved heaven and earth to get her a Birkin within two months”, reported the Observer, “sneaking her into the shop one night after closing to allow her to examine the bag, only to have her say: ‘It’s the wrong one. It’s light brown. I want the dark brown one.'”
The current issue of Vogue includes Burberry’s creative director, Christopher Bailey, promising “to enjoy the countryside”, the designer Nargess Gharani, declaring that she needs a “bigger house to fit in all her clothes”, and one Lara Bohinc announcing with an iron resolve that she is “determined not to buy any more heels over 11cm”.
It is not class hatred but mere good taste to pass on the pleasure of such company.
The Blair years feel as if they are drawing to a close. When they are gone, historians may conclude that new Labour had a fatal weakness. It never found a wise aunt to save it from itself. There was no one to collar ministers and bellow to one of their number: “David, you sit there and tell me you haven’t got enough sense to steer clear of a girl who calls herself Kimberly?”