Monday, December 06, 2010

The Noble Savage

Although I like to think of myself as a bona fide member of the middle classes, I know that my RP accent, well-chosen wines and tasteful watercolours are a smokescreen. Deep down, I belong to the respectable working class - an extinct species who regularly went to church, didn't drink alcohol and owned the complete works of Shakespeare.

I thought I'd successfully expunged the shackles of my background, but there are still a few vices that remain, including a fondness for net curtains (plain, I hasten to add), a sentimental attachment to the Royal Family and a weakness for crysanthemums.

When I discover photos like these, from a collection that turned up last week, it is as if I have found a lost album from my own family's past:

If you were a member of the respectable working classes, then you had standards to maintain. It didn't matter whether you were in your back garden or on a beach; you didn't dress like the ruffians who frequented the local social club .

There was a good reason for this. My mother's grandfathers spent their leisure time drinking, gambling and siring illegitimate children. If their wives complained, they were beaten. The generation that followed took their revenge by signing the Pledge, going to chapel and assuming the trappings of respectability.

My maternal grandparents died long before I was born, but their photograph albums feature people who look exactly like this:

As you can see, there is a slightly punk rock gesture from the man on the left, but overall, with their waistcoats and watch chains, these gentlemen are the epitome of respectability. Indeed, the man with the large head even went bathing in a full suit:

However, when posing with a loaf of bread, he always wore his best flatcap:

Here is a rare colour shot. The woman in white's skirt features a pattern that reminds me of a pair of curtains from 1990:

This album stopped somewhere in the early to mid 1950s, but in the same box, there was a single, loose photo from more recent times:

They look as if they're having a good time, but now that I'm middle class, I would naturally insist on bringing my own supply of St Peter's Organic Ale and locally-sourced sausages.


The Poet Laura-eate said...

A most perceptive posting Steerforth.

You could have been describing my own grandparents. I do think that gratitude at surviving two world wars had something to do with their impeccable behaviour - ie they had been spared when so many of their friends and family were not and so were not about to push their luck by deserving it to run out. And then there was the sense of obligation to live on behalf of all those whose lives had been cut short.

I am now the third generation of virtually tee-totalling respectable working class made good. Though perhaps not quite as impeccably-behaved as my grandparents.

I do love these photos though. In trying to emulate the middle class or their idea of the middle class, they almost become even more respectable.

Steerforth said...

My parents gave me a completely skewed idea of middle class life.

When I first visited a genuinely middle class home (I think I'd been invited to play by a classmate's mother), I was shocked by the messiness, the weird paintings on the walls ("Wot, no Hay Wain?)and, horror of horrors, the use of bad language (i.e. "bloody").

Today, as I recline in my Laura Ashley sofa with a glass of Chablis, surrounded by chaos, listening to my wife issuing a stream of profanities, I think "Yes, I've made it."

Martin said...

My lot would have been much more comfortable in the company of the rude working classes. Although, my mother still demonstrates an unhealthy deference towards Doctors, Solicitors and the like. She's obviously still striving for some degree of respectability.

During my time working in academia, I was known for being a little too 'egg & chips' for some of those with more refined palates. Oh, and sin of sins, I served twice as editor of a satirical publication ...without the Latin!

moo said...

I will never forget seeing my first middle class home. A bathroom, a downstairs toilet, *and* an en suite in the master bedroom. I was in absolute awe.

Anonymous said...

It looks as if you have been rifling through my mother's historic photo stash there. Funnily enough I have a copy of my grandfather's signed copy of the pledge. Not to mention copies of the birth certificates of the illegitimate great grandparents and their siblings! We even had a bigamist in the family. No wonder they became so respectable.

Caroline said...

The really great thing is, this was not just the way they did things in England. It was the same here in Holland. My parents' photo albums look exactly like that. My dad always used to wear a suit and tie, even when he was on holiday.

Anne said...

I don't understand the title of this post. Ironic? I don't get it. I mean, I don't understand how anyone, from whatever class, could have described these people as savages, nor do I think anyone would have. I get the idea that posh people might have grudgingly admitted they had something in common - is that what you mean?

Sorry to strike a rather nerdy note here. I love these photographs.

Steerforth said...

Yes Anne, it's just a cheap joke. But the serious point behind it is that some individuals did regard working class people as virtual savages, incapble of enjoying the finer things in life.

Even Virginia Woolf wrote a diary entry which suggested that a working class person would find a traumatic event easier to cope with, because they lacked the necessary sensibilities.

Imagine the suprise when some of these ragamuffins started reading books and going to art galleries!

So the title "Noble Savage" is an ironic comment on the attitudes of some of the upper classes in the good old days.

MTFF said...

A lovely post, and such evocative pictures. I also love your comment to Laura re. having arrived. Funny and poignant. My parents were not English and although we were clearly part of the educated middle class due to my parents' academic careers, it was only after their divorce and my father's subsequent remarriage up the social ladder that I really began to understand a little more of the British class system. And now that I"m away in the USA and out of it and married to a foreigner from yet another country, I'm horribly aware of how deeply we are all indoctrinated - I still come up against snobberies and judgements that I was unaware were lurking deep within my subconscious and then I have to squash them with overlaid values.
I'm interested in the chrysanthemums. What would the dormouse have said? Was that a class thing, too, that I missed and AA Milne knew something about, or was it just personal, I wonder..

Brett said...

Jesus, Steerforth. Class shame, so painful. It's something you've revisited a number of times.

I'd say join the club, fuck 'em and come over here to America, but I know you love England too much, in spite of it all. Your accent alone would be money in the bank over here.

Steerforth said...

Brett - I love visiting the USA but I'm absolutely hopeless when I over there, like a fish out of water.

During my two disastrous trips, I ran out of money, had a major car crash and unwittingly stayed at a very unsavoury brothel in the desert (it took me a while to realise why the "motel" was so cheap).

I'm a bumbling idiot - the poor man's Hugh Grant - when I'm in the USA, so I think I'm doomed to remain here.

MTFF - I don't know if crysanthemums are "common", but my wife is always implying that my preference for them is a sign of my background. I just like any flowers that cost under £2 and last for a couple of weeks.

Caroline - Having visited Holland as a child, I remember how strangely familiar it seemed. Not like France.

Alienne - A signed copy of the Pledge? I wonder if anyone still does that today?

Moo - I love your Doubtful Guest icon!

Martin - Egg and chips is an underrated dish, in my humble opinion.

David said...

My father (whose family were Methodist) was made to sign the Pledge at an early age - 7 I think (in the 1920s) - and it seems to have rankled with him for the rest of his life.

Sandra Morris said...

Any of those early photographs could have come from the myriad family albums currently gathering dust under my bed.

My Scottish grandfather rarely went 'out' anywhere without his three-piece suit, collar and tie, and flat cap, even though he worked as a miner.

He came from a large family, all intelligent, mostly self-educated and highly literate (he spoke 3 languages including Russian) none of whom were wife-beaters.

PS - I didn't see my first 'en-suite bathroom'until I was in my mid 30s. I still vividly remember my amazement.

Mere Pseud said...

I wonder if those grim postwar semis in the first photo are the same buildings we catch aslant in the most recent (colour) photo? Quite a story, if so . . .

Just to reiterate what a few here have already stated; you describe my own upbringing to a T, although my parents, children of the Depression both, embodied the fading tail-end of a lower middle-class/upper-working class sensibility that was beginning to evaporate in the 1960s and 70s. Larkin captures the mood well. "That vase."

MTFF said...

This is not a comment for the blog but rather a personal question for you.
As you live in Lewes and are a book person, I am wondering if you know Maja Hendrickson and Jared Louche? I know it's a long shot (like when people ask me if I "..know a guy called John, he's British.."but they live in Lewes and it is a small town/small industry. They are into publishing and books and poetry and have a young son called Django who must be about 6. I saw some pictures on her FB page with someone a bit like you in the background and did wonder..

Alright, back to normal anonymity..

Steerforth said...

There can't be many towns where you'd find someone called Jared Louche, with a son called Django.

Unfortunatley, although Lewes is a small world, I dont recognise the names. They seem like interesting people, so I'd probably like them.