Wednesday, September 29, 2004

More on poshness

Simon Titley, another member of the Liberator editorial collective, writes in response to my last posting...

Interested to read your posting about the use of the word "posh". I think we're witnessing a convergence of a number of factors.

First is traditional working class deference. Older relatives of mine in Lincolnshire still use the word "posh" regularly to denote anything of any quality, the implication being that "it's too good for the likes of us" or, alternatively, is a sign of pretension in someone else. A related word in this context is "special". Incidentally, a major characteristic of the culture of Lincolnshire (and other backwaters) is the firmly held belief that one's particular locality is a unique repository of common sense, and that anything from outside is fanciful nonsense that should be brought down to earth.

The second factor is inverted snobbery, the awful middle class posturing that became widespread in the 1980s, such as mockney accents, demotic language ("the kids") and pretensions to "street culture" (whatever that is). There is a vague groping for some bogus sense of authenticity, a belief that a pale imitation of American black urban culture is somehow more "real" than anything genuinely English. This in turn relates to the fact that many English people are uncomfortable in their own skins.

The third factor is the establishment of the culture of "cool" in the mainstream, once a statement of rebellion, now a banality. The key thing is to affect an air of ironic detachment. Terms such as "trainspotter", "sad"and "get a life" are used indiscriminately to stigmatise any form of erudition, hobby or intellectual pursuit. The main reason why boys underperform in the state school system is the huge peer group pressure not to be seen as a swot.

I'm not sure I agree with your analysis that "people who talk like this think they are being left wing". Inverted snobbery was an integral part of Old Labour culture, but only because it represented the authentic (pre-1979) prejudices of the British working class. Rather, I think it is part of a culture best summed up by the public persona of TV chef Jamie Oliver - how to enjoy the good things in life while remaining "one of us" and not feeling guilty. I suspect, lurking in the background somewhere, is our old friend Protestant/Puritan guilt.

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