In no particular order, as there appears to be no particular order about my reading habits, to be frank:
Mind the Gap by Ferdinand Mount
The English by Jeremy Paxman
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling
The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton
The Grass Dancer by Susan Power
Jill by Phillip Larkin
Oxford by Jan Morris
And I’m enjoying them all—even the Harry Potter, which I’m re-reading as a sort of “lull myselfto sleep” book (though I couldn’t have picked a worse book, physically speaking—it’s so huge that it slumps from side to side and makes it close to impossible to read comfortably in bed). The last two are for research purposes, technically; but then again, I suppose there’s a way in which everything I read is for research purposes.
The Mount has managed to elicit the strongest emotional response from me, because I’m reading it with a mixture of incredulity (“They let him say this? They think it’s good? But it’s just absolute shit!“) and awe (“Oh, he’s really on to something here”etc.) He’s often very apt: “Mobility is the essence of being modern,” he writes, and I couldn’t agree more; or this one: “There is something peculiar about the British attidue to class, some contradiction or unease. On the one hand, we say that class is a thing of the past or rapidly becoming so…On the other hand, we continue to ‘mind the gap’. The subject has not lost its power to provoke and wound and illuminate. We still talk quite a bit about it in various ways: journalistic-facetious, or pretend-anthropological, or even old-fashioned snobbish.”
But then he comes up with gem like this, next to which I tend to scribble things like “bollocks” in the margins: “Social difference in the old-fashioned sense is no longer a legitimate topic for discussion. This is an admirable change. It removes a set of stultifying constraints…Looking back, we may find it odd that the class code should have lasted so long after the material power of the aristocracy had unmistakably cracked.”
See, the thing is, not talking about class division has changed its face, without question–but I don’t see how this is necessarily an “admirable change”. As far as I can tell, all it’s done is pushed class issues under the table; it makes understanding the whole thing, as an outsider, nigh on impossible (even my love, who is elegantly verboise, often finds it frankly too hard to try to explain certain subtle customs or cultural understandings to me, playing the classic “I can’t explain…it’s just something you have to know” card, and referring me to a book, which more often than not is just as coy as he is on the subject)–it wrenches those of us who weren’t born with this apparently inherent British knowledge from the core of perception and sets us precariously on the edge of acceptance, where we teeter delicately, often able to play our gaffes as charming local-isms but sometimes just plain out of touch.
It’s hard, sometimes, to live here, when you don’t know all the things you think you should. Because it’s never talked about, because it’s changed shape so drastically over the years, a morphic monster that hides in hearts and minds, social transgression is both easier and more punishable. We’re terrible snobs everywhere, really, us humans–and no less so in the states. I’m a terrible snob about a lot of things on a personal level–if I wanted to be honest with you, I’d say that I look down, at least a little, on people who don’t read obsessively, for instance. But it isn’t snobbishness, per se, that plauges the British, any more than it plaugues anyone else. It’s adherence to a secret code, I think: an understanding of what is and isn’t truly naff, for example, that has nothing to do with the word’s actual definition and everything to do with a grasp gained by years and years of repeated example and association. It’s not that there’s more class consciousness here; it’s only that it’s a far more elusive and enigmatic thing.
I’m waiting to see if Mount can tell me why.