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November 06, 2007

Richard D. North celebrates the work of that great sociologist, Peter York: Cooler, Faster, More Expensive: The return of the Sloane Ranger - Peter York and Olivia Stewart-Liberty

Posted by Richard D. North

Cooler, Faster, More Expensive: The return of the Sloane Ranger
by Peter York and Olivia Stewart-Liberty
London: Atlantic Books, 2007
Hardback, 19.99

Richard D. North - author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence - remembers his own childhood as a member of the wrecked upper class and is reminded that Sloanes cannot escape their inheritance due to their tell-tale accent which comes through even the most determined down-speak.

Christmas present crisis solved. Here's the book you could give nearly anyone in modern Britain. It has celebrities, royalty and plutocrats. It is mocking, cool and knowing. It is very nearly good sociology. This is an account of what happened to the Sloane Ranger whilst you and I weren't watching. She (I always thought she was feminine, but here we get both sexes) went right ahead and evolved, and PDQ, too.

Since Peter York and the late Anne Barr first amused us all with the chinless wonderettes of chosen bits of West London in 1982, all hell has broken loose. It bears repeating: that's a generation ago. Now York has teamed up with Olivia Stewart-Liberty to show what happened after Mrs Thatcher, the Lloyds debacle, Black Wednesday, the Big Bang and all the rest.

I am going to assume that the thesis in this book is mostly York's and that the writing is mostly Stewart-Liberty's, and if I'm wrong, either of them can always blog us. So, let's allow York some of his conceit. Whilst I doubt his Sloanes lived in bucolic affluence before the mid-80s, he certainly makes a good case that they have modernised in the face of a new aggressive and unabashed commercialism.

I don't know why York doesn't say so, but this is a book about class. In the old days there was an upper class which tended to own land, and the longer they'd had it, the classier they were perceived to be. Quantity of ownership didn't really come into it. Titled aristocrats were upper class, and were formally at the apex of the structure, but by no means defined or ruled it. Royalty was something else, a sort of stratosphere.

I take it that Peter York's Sloanes were and are the modern equivalent of the old upper class and especially its sub-set which was Society, or London Society. This was composed of landowners who could afford to "do the season", and who wanted to, and of some professional and artistic types who were mostly urban but were good company and could hold their own financially. Commerce quickly disguised itself as something else, but was always at the heart of things. London was a marriage market. Half our great fiction - William Makepeace Thackeray, Henry James, Evelyn Waugh - chronicles the mores of this world.

The brilliant stroke which York and Barr pulled was to remind us that the Upper Classes and Society were hanging on pretty well. It was a surprise to most people, post-Beatle and well into Mrs Thatcher's rigorous devotion to the lower middle classes and their supposed thrifty virtue. We mostly believed that social change had swept away the antediluvian.

This time round, York reminds us what his subjects used to be like. They were public schoolgirls who went on to marry people as much like themselves as possible. They weren't especially nice: unrelentingly snobbish, proudly dim. They were loyal, and no-nonsense. They knew how to behave. I don't know where I picked up the idea, and maybe it was from York, but I have the impression that Sloanes didn't mature well: they were Daddy's girls whose adulthood and especially their husbands rather failed them.

Such people are in the present book as the grandparent generation. We meet them as we meet several other types of Sloane, in fictional vignettes accompanied by cartoons, in the manner of Victoria Mather's characters from the Telegraph Magazine. There are lots of them, because Sloane survival has required a certain diversification.

Beyond having lost money with the collapse of Lloyds and of Gentlemanly Capitalism, there is now a dreadful price inflation in the things and places the old Upper Class could buy. The modern Sloanes have responded by upping their game. They've had to widen their habitat to include cheaper postcodes, now that London is attracting big money from everywhere.

And there have been successful migrations into serious money-making. "Turbo Sloane", personified by Ben Elliot, has gone into servicing the Richistani - the plutocrats of Neo-Liberal capitalism. Elliot's company, Quintessentially, is an "elite concierge club". Serena Cook apparently does something similar for the mega-rich of Ibiza. Others have knuckled down to become something in the City.

But hedonism is still part of the scene, and has indeed become a profession. "The Party Sloane" seems to hover in a nether world, somewhere between a beacon and a barker at the latest nightclubs. There are now Chav Sloanes, though York reminds us that it was ever thus. Indeed, many of the shifts in habit which have taken place since 1982 would have been recognisable to an Edith Wharton writing of class in New York in 1882. York's message seems to be that maintaining a Sloane life now costs much more, but also that opportunistic Sloanes can turn a trick by sprinkling star-dust and classiness over what would otherwise be vulgar affluence.

There are some clangers. "Restauranteur" is not a word (and even MS Word knows so). York says that only an unreconstructed Sloane would now use the word "common". It doesn't help that he himself uses it on another page (just one of several blatant inconsistencies).Worse, I think "common" enjoys a feral life still, and not least (though York could not be expected to know this, unless he read this web review with great care) amongst the working class.

I am a serious old thing, and so regret the absence of data or context in this book. It would have been good to know how many Sloanes there are. What's the income requirement? Are they now thoroughly detached from land ownership? Do they marry each other? Perhaps above all, are they passing on their status? After all, the defining characteristic of class is that it is heritable and perhaps compulsorily so.

I could have done with a narrative that placed York's work in the lineage of the Mitford/Ross U and Non-U enterprise. Along with Noel Coward at The Sands, and, later, Beyond the Fringe, U and Non-U was important background noise in my suburban childhood. Most of my family laughed along with it, only very slightly anxious that some of our words were "Non", whilst others were effortlessly in sync with Belgravia.

We were the wrecked or beached upper class ourselves (discounting the lineage which included a London horse-drawn omnibus driver and a Scarborough chemist given to moonlight flits). Around us, very few people gave a damn about any of this. Our neighbours were, I now imagine, the direct descendents of Coward's This Happy Breed, the defiantly confident upper working class and lower middle class. Pre-war, they often had their own live-in servant, so in a sense they had come down in the world by the 1950s, even as they grew even more affluent.

Of course the difference between York and Mitford/Ross is that he is not writing a manual, and they were. Back then, a vast swathe of middle England knew and played and sometimes took too seriously the old class game. I think that it is forgotten now how pleasant and easy the game mostly was: people now are inclined to get far too serious about how awful it all must have been. But York is in any case writing a satire about people who can safely be mocked and from whom no lessons or mores need to be learned.

I don't mean that he is unkind or cruel. If it is Olivia S-L who has written the fictional back stories and dialogues which illuminate the book's thesis, she's done good work. Whoever wrote them, many of us will have met almost everyone here, including the New Ager, the hippy, the sleek, the retrograde Thumper, the Turbo, the art gallery assistant, the contact queen. And all of them rendered Sloane by a tell-tale accent which comes through even the most determined down-speak.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

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