The British like to pretend that class doesn't exist. But in Class Act: How to Beat the British Class System (Metro Books, 250 pages), Lynda Lee-Potter provides plenty of evidence that the system is flourishing. When titled people run over tramps they shout, "Look what you've done to my bloody bumper!" and when their maids fall ill they complain it is "so boring." Though more than one Prime Minister has claimed British society is now classless, these aristocratic foibles live on. On millennium eve the vips, writes Lee-Potter, "were horrified at being forced to queue at the Dome along with the Ōordinary people' as Lord Falconer calls us."
As well as dishing the dirt on "tacky toffs," Lee-Potter also dissects the taste and habits of Cliff Richard fans, career seducers, the "popocracy," footballers' wives and social climbers like herself. She is a self-confessed upstart: "A true snob never rests because there is always a higher goal to attain, a posher friend to emulate and more and more people to look down upon. I'm quite prepared to be scathing about three-piece suites, antiqued leather, chiming doorbells, patios, rubber plants and French marigolds with the passionate contempt of a nouveau."
Perhaps the British unwillingness to admit that class continues to divide them reveals a pervasive insecurity about one's own position. According to the quizzes included in the book, one of the surest signs of being a social climber is if you are guilty of adopting the "views of those who you believe are socially superior" and thinking "the way posh people behave socially must always be correct."
Lee-Potter has had many opportunities to learn the way food, fads and furnishings give away a Briton's place in the hierarchy. She grew up in a small mining town in Lancashire and is now a highly paid columnist and celebrity interviewer for the Daily Mail. She started her climb up the social ladder by going south to drama school: "I got on the train at Warrington Bank Quay Station with a Lancashire accent and got off at Euston without it, which meant I had to speak very slowly for a very long time." She began going out with a medical student whose father was an Air Marshal and a Sir. Unlike her own family, who brewed tea whenever a visitor turned up, at his home, "If you arrived between meal times no refreshment of any kind would ever be offered."
The book deals mainly with the working class she came from, the upper crust she married into and the new millionaires whose fame makes them good interview subjects. It is inconsistent — she is never quite sure whose side she is on. She derides "over-the-top ornateness" but affectionately describes the house of comedian Les Dawson with its candelabra, statues everywhere and dinner table permanently laid for a party. She condemns late novelist Barbara Cartland for being "a snob who despised the nouveaux riches," and then lays into the newly monied with their heavy gold jewelry and permanent tans.
Though it is too short and patchy to be a genuine guide to the horrors and intricacies of British society, it provides a few pointers to follow and pitfalls to avoid if you don't want to be branded common or vulgar. Lee-Potter says she owes a lot to an early flatmate who taught her not to cut tomatoes in the shape of waterlilies. "She was so contemptuous about ... prawn cocktails, tinned fruit, bacon sandwiches, trifle and custard that I have never eaten them since." She now gets invited to country house weekends, though she prefers hotels — which the posh avoid as too democratic. Her instructions on tipping servants and singing for your supper (if you don't know any gossip just invent some) will come in useful if you ever get asked. If you'd really like an invite, watch your step. Avoid middle class giveaways like bragging about your children's exam results, or talking in whispers in restaurants and trying to eat crisps quietly — unless you are Lady Thatcher, who can get away with serving cr?me de menthe frappˇ at 10 Downing Street, or Princess Anne, who as a royal can do up her house as she likes and even display "every memento she has ever been given."
One of the upper set recently asked Lee-Potter: "You come from nothing, Lynda, don't you?" meaning that her family "had no titles, no land and no social position." But though she shed the accent and recipes that might give away her background, she has come to appreciate its fighting spirit. And her Lancashire frankness saves her from the very British habit of ignoring the obvious as she unveils some of the many ways Britons love to despise each other.