Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Price Of Shoddy (with a rather long preamble on why I never quite got the ‘middle class’ thing, and even then I don’t actually yet get to the point. More, as they say, follows). And then there’s the mystery of Ukrainian interest in one Francois Hollande’s sex life

I can’t deny that I have been ‘middle class’ all my life, although I can think of some who wish I weren’t and that I would disappear without trace and stop embarrassing them and the rest of their tribe. But I can insist, in all honesty, that I regard ‘what class someone belongs to’ - a perennial preoccupation, not to say an utterly bizarre hang-up, of the Brits from the dawn of time and until the world ends - as important in the grand scheme of things as whether they stir their tea clockwise or anti-clockwise.

What I can’t deny is that my younger self, my younger far more insecure self, a self who wanted to fit in, was, at times, greatly uncomfortable that all too often he didn’t fit in. Now I really don’t give a shit (believe me, in fact, I often make a virtue of it), but it was not always like that.

At nine, at the beginning of June in 1959 this little British kid - British because his father was English - was whisked away with his older brother, and his younger sister and brother to live in Berlin, where their father had been appointed the BBC’s representative. (Quite why the BBC needed a representative in Berlin at the time when it also had a correspondent, one Charles Wheeler and quite how much my father’s work dictated by the needs and demands of Her Majesty’s security services is for another blog entry.)

We - my mother was part of the party - were met at Templehof airport by my father, and there exists somewhere are rather touching photo of the six of us walking throught the arrivals hall, taken, I should imagine, by some photographer of other who made his living taking pictures of groups such as our in the hope that we would be a copy or two of his picture. I can’t think where it is, but suspect my sister might have it. (Please advise me on this, Marianne.)

My father took his newly arrived family to the flat the BBC had rented for us in the Olympischer Straße, in Berlin-Charlottenburg, that was just opposite the ‘minor’ exit of the Neu-Westend U-Bahn station. We lived there for a few months before we moved to a house on the Heerstraße (no 115). We arrived at the beginning of June and as the German term didn’t end until several weeks later, I was enrolled at Die Steubenschule down the road, a German Grundschule (primary school) after I had attended just one day at an English school set up for Army and diplomats’ children and didn’t like it.

A few months later, we moved from the flat to a house in the Heerstraße (number 115), where we lived for the next four years. In April 1960 I was enrolled in the Jesuit Das Canisius Kolleg in Berlin-Tiergarten where my older brother had been since the year before. But this entry is not about Berlin, me or my family’s time there. I only mention Berlin because when four years later my father went back to work in London and we all move back to Henley-on-Thames, I was to all intent and purposes a young German lad who happened to speak English without an accent.

As (as I believe) the years of our late childhood and early adolescence have a particularly important bearing on our psychological make-up, I believe those four years in Berlin from when I was nine and a half until I was 13 and a half have formed my personality ever since. And crucially, being a German lad, and the Germans, whatever else their faults and hang-ups, being rather less - make that a lot less - concerned with bloody ‘class’ than the British cousins, I, too, had very vague notions, if any at all, about what ‘class’ was, and cared even less.

I did, however, like all children at that delicate age between outright childhood and the first squalls of puberty, want to fit in. The trouble was that I didn’t. I didn’t fit in in the slightest. From the relative innocence of live at my German Jesuit college, where the emphasis had been on what I now realise were the positives in life, I was enrolled at The Oratory School, where, if I remember, the emphasis, at least among us boys, was on rebellion, disruption, confusion.

The Oratory, which now likes to style itself, after a chance remark by its founder Cardinal John Newman, as ‘the Catholic Eton’, was in September 1963 when I washed up at its doors a rather down-at-heel place. As I was very, very unhappy there in my first term and ran away three times (although as my family lived just eight miles away in Henley, it wasn’t too difficult, so my comments should, perhaps, be viewed in that light.

At the time, the Sixties, there were, I think, six Roman Catholic boarding schools in England (and all of them public schools - I make the distinction because the two are not synonymous, and, anyway, if I don’t, I am liable to wake up in a few days time to find a dog turd pushed through my letterbox). They were Stoneyhurst, Ampleforth, Downside, Douai, Beaumont and The Oratory School. If I remember, the conventional wisdom was that you put your son down for Stoneyhurst, Ampleforth or Downside, and if they didn’t cut the mustard - that is they were too thick - they would be soaked up by the Oratory. How true or not that is I don’t know. But I do know that many boys at the Oratory had older brothers at the other three schools and were also meant to go there but, for some reason, didn’t.

Quite how Douai and Beaumont fitted into this picture I don’t know, but I do know that Beaumont closed in 1967 and Douai in 1999, but the Oratory didn’t just survive but is now thriving (and now purveying the ‘Catholic Eton’ bullshit). It was at the Oratory that I first came into contact with a certain kind of English middle class life, its values, its pretensions and hagiographies. And that is where Gilbert and Sullivan come in.

To be continued.

But, as a taster, what gave this entry impetus was a friend, a Wednesday night drinking companion at the Brewers Arms, South Petherton, Somerset, bring to my attention the lyrics of a song from The Gondoliers. We were talking about education in Britain, the most recent drive to make sure everyone - and that is everyone - has ‘a degree’ and the very odd way that the admirable drive to ensure no one is disadvantaged in Britain has developed in rather odd ways.

Here are the full lyrics, and below that the parts of them I find particularly telling. It is sung (I think, I’ve never seen the operetta):

There lived a King, as I've been told,
In the wonder-working days of old,
When hearts were twice as good as gold,
And twenty times as mellow.
Good-temper triumphed in his face,
And in his heart he found a place
For all the erring human race
And every wretched fellow. 
When he had Rhenish wine to drink
It made him very sad to think
That some, at junket or at jink,
Must be content with toddy. 

With toddy, must be content with toddy.

He wished all men as rich as he
(And he was rich as rich could be),
So to the top of every tree
Promoted everybody.

Now, that's the kind of King for me.
He wished all men as rich as he,
So to the top of every tree
Promoted everybody!

Lord Chancellors were cheap as sprats,
And Bishops in their shovel hats
Were plentiful as tabby cats
In point of fact, too many.
Ambassadors cropped up like hay,
Prime Ministers and such as they
Grew like asparagus in May, 
And Dukes were three a penny.
On every side Field-Marshals gleamed,
Small beer were Lords-Lieutenant deemed,
With Admirals the ocean teemed
All round his wide dominions.

All round his wide dominions.

And Party Leaders you might meet
In twos and threes in every street
Maintaining, with no little heat,
Their various opinions.

Now that's a sight you couldn't beat
Two Party Leaders in each street
Maintaining, with no little heat,
Their various opinions.

That King, although no one denies
His heart was of abnormal size,
Yet he'd have acted otherwise
If he had been acuter.
The end is easily foretold,
When every blessed thing you hold
Is made of silver, or of gold,
You long for simple pewter.
When you have nothing else to wear
But cloth of gold and satins rare,
For cloth of gold you cease to care
Up goes the price of shoddy.

Up goes the price of shoddy.

In short, whoever you may be
To this conclusion you'll agree
When every one is somebodee,
Then no one's anybody!

Now that's as plain as plain can be,
To this conclusion we agree.

When every one is somebodee,
Then no one's anybody!

. . .

I shall, as promised, carry on with the above an eventually link up Gilbert and Sullivan and this rather sad lad who was totally at sea in the English ‘middle class’ with all its arcane customs and tribal values. But before I leave you tonight I must, I really must ask: what is the fascination with Francois Hollande?

The statistics detailing who has been reading this blog, where they are based and what in particular has interested them show that this post has been attracting the most attention by far. But why? The man is something of a joke, will never be remembered as a great French president and his most notable distinction is having an over-active dick. But is that really enough to generate such interest, especially as, according to the interest, most of it is coming from the United States, the Ukraine and China.


  1. Sorry Patrick, I don't have the pic. Maybe Ian knows where all the photos are. There used to be an old suitcase full of them and they disappeared when the house was sold. Ian once sent me some copies

  2. Well, maybe you remember the one I mean. Doesn't really matter, except that I remember it so distinctly, yet our memories are always so fickle. Thanks anyway. P

  3. I was only 2...

    1. Yes, but you were a very bright and charming 2 if I remember.