1 September 2021

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable. 

– Christopher Howse: ‘A Pilgrim in Spain’

Cosas de España/Galiza  

The annual consumer price index rose in August to 3.3%, the highest rate since October 2012, as a result of higher electricity prices. As ever, though, insurance companies seem to manage more than the composite rate every year. No wonder they try hard to keep their customers, taking fright if you say you’re going to move to another company. Rather like the mobile phone companies, I suspect.

No big surprise to read that: Galicia has just become the region with the most kilometres subject to payment, 331 to be precise, or 18% of the toll roads in the whole of Spain. We also pay the highest car insurance premiums, despite being the 2nd poorest region, after Extremadura. I blame our narcotráficos. And the boogie, of course.

Teachers in Spain’s public schools are civil servants (funcionarios) and, at the end of the summer term, many of them don’t know where they’ll be working during the next academic year. As the Voz de Galicia put it yesterday: Tomorrow activity returns to schools but many teachers won’t know their destination until mid-September, because the Xunta won’t complete until then the reinforcement of teachers in Galician schools. I assume the same summer uncertainty also afflicts teachers in other regions but maybe only the less senior ones, who I understand will achieve more stability as their careers progress. They certainly won’t ever be fired for incompetence, though. No funcionario ever is.

Talking of schools, there’s more on Princess Leonora’s new one in the UK, for those who can drum up interest in this topic.

The UK 

No one can write a book on the English without addressing the class system. A A Gill certainly did so and I’ve included his chapter on this below. With highlighting by me. I hope this satisfies the readers, who over the years, have pointed to this – to them, appallingly pervasive aspect – of English society. Assuming they’s still reading this blog.

The EU

As a whole, it seems to have beaten the UK to the target of having 70% of the adult population fully vaccinated by yesterday. I guess this is on average, as Spain didn’t quite make it. Though it is ahead of the UK, which lost its lead a month or two ago. For reasons not yet clear but certainly including resistance among the young. And that of the anti-vaxxers, of course.

Social Media

Tripadvisor-warriors – Another reprehensible group born of and sucking on the teat of social media?

Quote of the Day 

Fools learn from their experience; wise men learn from the experience of others.  Afghanistan . . .

Finally  . . .

I neglected to say that Elizabeth Taylor played The Woman of Mystery in that film Scent of Mystery/Holiday in Spain cited the other day. But her performance was ‘uncredited’, says IDMB. Odd. 

Note: If you’ve landed here looking for info on Galicia or Pontevedra, try here

THE ARTICLES  

1. UWC Atlantic: Princesses flock to Hogwarts for hippies. A Welsh school has cast its spell over Euro-royalty: Isambard Wilkinson, Bruno Waterfield and Valentine Low, Thetimes 

When it comes to educating the offspring of the crowned heads of the Continent, it seems there is nothing quite like the allure of a British boarding school. Two European princesses are on their way to the Welsh school known as “Hogwarts for hippies”, UWC Atlantic. Another, who has just finished there, is about to continue her education at Oxford. 

In a windswept 12th-century castle overlooking St Donat’s Bay on the Welsh south coast, the college has long had a reputation for educating foreign royalty: King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands and Princess Raiyah of Jordan both went there.

Leonor, the heir to the Spanish throne, is seen by many as a figure of hope after the corruption scandals that have tainted the Spanish royal family. The royal household distributed photographs of the princess hugging her parents, King Felipe and Queen Letizia, and younger sister, Princess Sofía, as she bade them farewell at Madrid airport. Other official images showed her arriving at her new school, beaming happily at the camera. The princess has had an increasingly high profile in the past two years, during which time her grandfather, Juan Carlos, the former king, left Spain for exile amid allegations of corruption. According to the royal household, Leonor, who will turn 16 in October, will maintain her public commitments as heir presumptive. The princess, who is learning Chinese and the cello as well as at least six mainstream subjects, is said to love animals and has a labrador called Sara. The palace has said Leonor was admitted to the school through a selection process including a first stage that was carried out anonymously and several tests. Her parents will meet the fees of £67,000 for the two-year IB course at the college, two miles from Llantwit Major and about 20 from Cardiff.

Also beginning the new term is Princess Alexia, 16, second in line to the Dutch throne, who has also chosen to finish her secondary education in south Wales. The Dutch royal household published a picture of the princess leaving for her new school wearing ripped jeans and with a guitar slung over her shoulder. Conspicuously clutching a mask, she smiles for the camera; her parents, King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima, were recently criticised for being photographed without one. Alexia’s two sisters, including the Dutch crown princess, Amalia, completed their studies at the elite Sorghvliet school in the Hague. Alexia’s decision to go to UWC Atlantic is seen as an expression of independence, even though her father studied there from 1983 to 1985. “Her choice to go to Wales may indicate she wants a little more freedom,” said Jozephine Trehy, a royal correspondent for the Dutch NOS state broadcaster. “And it’s nice to see that Alexia also brought her guitar, because she is a very musical girl.”

Atlantic college — or the United World College of the Atlantic, to give it its full title — was set up by Kurt Hahn, the German educationalist who also founded Gordonstoun. He decided a new form of teaching emphasising responsibility, internationalism and democracy was needed to avoid a repetition of the First World War.

A former alumna of the college, Belgium’s Crown Princess Elisabeth, 19, is off to read history and politics at Oxford University. After completing her IB at Atlantic last year she studied for a year at her country’s Royal Military Academy. She personally chose Oxford, where she will study at Lincoln College. Princess Elisabeth is being followed to Britain by her younger brother, Prince Gabriel, second in line to the Belgian throne, who will begin his A-levels at the National Mathematics & Science College in Warwickshire this autumn.

Behind the story

Welsh boarding schools conjure dour images of grey clouds, drizzle and windswept playing fields of the sort depicted in Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall (Cameron Charters and Arthi Nachiappan write). But UWC Atlantic bears no resemblance to the ramshackle Llanabba Castle, where Waugh’s hapless protagonist Paul Pennyfeather finds himself after been sent down from Oxford.

Known as the “hippies’ Hogwarts”, the private sixth-form college in the Vale of Glamorgan boasts royal alumni including King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands and Princess Elisabeth of Belgium. Popular with parents who are diplomats, because of its international curriculum, the school is based at the 12th-century St Donat’s Castle, set in 122 acres of woodland and farmland on the south coast. Its dining room was featured in the film Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

The castle was bought by William Randolph Hearst, the American newspaper publisher, in 1925. after he saw a feature on it in Country Life magazine. He renovated the 60 hectare estate and held parties with guests including Charlie Chaplin, John F Kennedy and George Bernard Shaw. In 1960 Antonin Besse, a French businessman who bought the castle from Hearst, gave it to UWC Atlantic. 

2. CLASS IN ENGLAND: A A Gill

The quartet of my great-grandfathers were, as far as fallible memory tells, an unskilled mill-worker, a farmer, a sailor and a cooper. Further back than that they seem to have been a hazy collection of agricultural labourers, cowboys in Colorado and coolies in Bengal. We don’t go in for ancestor worship in our house for obvious reasons. There are no escutcheons or titles, no etchings of defunct statues, no military honours, inventions or discoveries. The Gills and the distaff Gilans, the Tailors and the Baileys all appear to have been hard-working souls whose aspirations stretched no further than their own front doors. 

They were, with the exception of some nineteenth-century mill-owners, resolutely manual working class. At the turn of the twentieth century they set out on the trajectory that marks the thrust and purpose of the modern age. My paternal grandfather returned from the Great War and married the girl he found understudying his clerking job in the bank. She was the daughter of the mill-owners who were gently descending the class ladder, he was the son of a mill-worker who bettered himself and ended up as a bank manager in Cheltenham. They had a single son.

On the other side, my grandfather fought in the French Army – by his own account modestly refusing to become an officer – and came to Edinburgh to study engineering until his money ran out and he became a working-man’s dentist. He married a local woman who had great dreams of bettering herself, but had left it rather too late, and this little dark Frenchman was her best last hope. They had a happy marriage, even though he turned out years later not to have been exactly what he had allowed people to imagine. Actually, he was an Indian. They had a single daughter. My father left the RAF after the Second World War and was the first member of his family ever to go to University. He studied philosophy and psychology at Edinburgh, where he met the dentist’s daughter, who was an actress. They married. He worked as a sub-editor on the Scotsman and she bore their first child, who turned out to be me. He got a job with the BBC and they moved to London.

I pass all this on because I’ve always thought that we are a typical example of the journey into the middle class that millions and millions of families made in the three generations of the twentieth century. From farm labourer through industrial worker to clerk to bank manager and dentist, to actress and TV producer and finally to me, a journalist, the quintessential middle-class occupation. Journalists are naturally loathed and despised by the middle classes, whilst at the same time they’re all jolly happy and supportive if their children want to have a go after leaving what we called Varsity, and they now call Uni. Odd how the truncation simply skips a syllable.

No foreigner could ever write a book about the English without at least one chapter on the class system, or perhaps larding every chapter with the class system, seeing everything from food to clothes to politics through the prism of class. Books, papers, magazines and all the rest of the media are where the class system now lives.

I started as a journalist on Tattler – England’s oldest and most forthrightly snobbish magazine. We wrote eternally and exhaustively about class, spreading the thin joke of U and non-U, ever more gossamer-thinly. We would sit in the office and ask in a bored sort of way whether cufflinks with semi-precious stones worn in the daytime were common or bohemian, or what sort of cake/envelope/haircut was smart this week. There was nothing so innocuous that it couldn’t be passed through the napkin ring (v. common) of class. We knew that our readership were mostly who washed other girls’ hair for a living. We also knew read it for the pleasure of puffing out their cheeks, rolling eyes and exclaiming: ‘Have you ever heard anything so stupid as this.’ Maybe there were a few hundred deeply insecure women who hung on to our every word as social gospel, but I expect they can’t have lasted long in the temporal world.

I no guilt about admitting that we made the whole thing up. It was a game with moves as rigorous and convoluted as mah-jong, but with slightly less point. It was like playing with a model railway. The world we invented all looked fascinatingly life-like if you got down on your hands and knees and screwed your eyes up. The point about’ class is that it is a conceit, a plot device. Class in England is a cultural form, like farce or limericks. It has a set of rules that everyone in the country understands; they just don’t apply to anyone’s real life today and haven’t for generations. Any argument that depends on class for its structure will quickly dissolve into a Jesuitical dissection of definitions of terms. What do you mean by working class, upper class, the sub-divisions of middle class?

I once interviewed Tony Benn and, as many of his marvellously humane and winningly formless pronouncements involved nods to, or active participation in, a working class, I asked him or his definition. Was I, for instance, a member? The great things about talking to him was that no question was remotely original or came to him for the first time. He was like a marvellously practised haberdasher; he simply reached up for the box with miscellaneous definitions and answers, and out came the right one. Yes, of course 1 was working-class – I was I paid a wage, I worked for an international conglomerate; being freelance was no freedom, simply less protection. Fortunately, the definition of the working class was broadly anyone who could be sacked. Well, that’s pretty much everyone, including the monarch.

‘Many captains of industry didn’t realise they were members of the working class until they were told to leave the building without clearing their desks: he said with relish. The class system, and the beauty and romantic destiny of the workers, was so much part of his personal mythology that, rather than saying the industrial hand that had made the nineteenth-century paradigm was obsolete, in classic Old Labour style, he just coopted more workers to fill the empty pews. So in the end, his church was full of non-believers, but at least it was full.

The class system in any meaningful, usable, worthwhile, mutually agreed form doesn’t exist in England. I’m going to have to say that again, just so there’s no doubt. There is no class system. It’s an ex-class system. It’s still used of course, its coffin is still dragged out. People will still pepper their speech, or more likely their writing, with references to the working class or the aristocracy or the bourgeoisie, although ‘bourgeoisie’ is a bit intellectually poly-radical now. The labels are applied more to add colour than weight. When Mrs Thatcher said there was no such thing as society, she infuriated many acolytes of class to the point of rolling effervescence. Far worse than sinking the Belgrano, or filling in the mines, it was because that seemed to cut the binding of the nation. If we weren’t a society, then what were we? And the good of society is surely above and beyond politics. ‘No such thing as society’ was like saying there was no such thing as us. ‘No such thing as society’ was a round robin, dear John letter saying we’d been dumped.

Actually, snobbishly, I like to think that Mrs Thatcher meant society in the Tattler sense. In the Nancy Mitford sense. An end to society as a closed shop with pearls, an end to the freemasonry of U and non-U and the snobbish gang acronyms: plu (people like us), hklp (holds knife like pen), fhb (family holdback), gib (good in bed), gibnfs (good in bed not fit for society). If that’s the society that doesn’t exist any more then I’m all for it, having spent so many years inventing it,

The great achievement of the twentieth century was the movement of the working class into the middle, which also reached out and consumed the upper. The triumph of the centre has always been the point and the goal, and pretending it isn’t is wilful blindness. The rise and complete victory of the middle class is a marvellous achievement. A great victory. But naturally it’s seen as a vile mediocrity, not least by itself. The victorious middle class bullies itself for being itself. The long and tortured stream of masochism that is the abiding, shameful feature of England and the English turns into drawing-room self-ridicule. The yearning for a class system is yet another aspect of the narcissism of  nostalgia. The class system seems so cosy in retrospect; everyone knew their place, and the objectives of the workers were so noble and the life of the aristocracy so elegant. 

Class is used by the English as a shorthand for character; they love plays and black-and-white films where class is an effortless code, an engine of narrative. So much of English culture, design and history seems to be built on the three pillars of class that to simply  let it go and admit that it’s done its job, that the aristocracy who husbanded rural England and the workers who built industrial England have died off and left us with middle-class England, is too sad. The loss of the class system as a meaningful or manipulable social tool is like the loss of empire. gone. But the English can still feel it, a phantom ache of longing.

Class isn’t just a reminder of those better times, class was the very structure of life. It was the great excuse – every nation needs a great excuse, and class belonged to the English. If you didn’t get on, if the marriage failed or the kids turned out bad, it could always be put down to class. Yours or someone else’s. It was a wonderful, subtle and direct, ever warm and welcoming excuse for righteous anger. The English could wallow in class, for a couple of minutes in a shop, or for a few hours in the pub, or even devoting a whole lifetime to the ire of the downtrodden, the put-upon and the misunderstood. Class had the assumption and the status of English DNA, a Darwinian certainty, the immovable three legs of a stool. A chair with four legs rocks on uneven ground, but a stool always stands solid, is sure-footed. So the three legs of the class system seemed to keep England stable.

The class system was worn away by mass culture, universal health, better housing, cheap travel, mass employment, big cities, pop music, divorce, more sex, more drugs, more people and more immigration, but mostly it was elbowed because it was too fucking incorrigibly stupid. Stupid and slow. Stupid, inept and clunky. Stupid and awkward and ugly and just plain embarrassing. The class system was a bad, rude, unpleasant thing, and getting nostalgic about class is like missing your own shit. People who go on about it are sniffing toilet paper.

But of course, class didn’t just vanish. Just as every drop of water that was here at the creation is still here in some form or other, so every bad idea an Englishman ever came up with is still out there somewhere. Class got minced and remade into little disposable, bite-sized sneers of throwaway types: yuppies and chavs, Essex girls and wiggers, trustafarians, Sloane rangers, Mondeo man. Class became the effluent of the focus group and the marketing consultant. A construct of Sunday supplements, lads’ mags and TV psephologists. No longer the legs of society, it became a transient selection on a menu of fashionable snobbery. The name-calling and pigeon-holing comes and goes. One moment the world seems to be full of dinkies, the next it’s overrun with hoodies. And this makes England seem an unexpectedly exciting place of competing and confederating tribes. IKEA meets the Lord of the Rings. None of the definitions are important or powerful enough to be a proper hindrance to anyone, all of them add a little something to England’s threadbare tapestry. It’s an adolescent view of society and culture, seen as an extension of mods and rockers, punks and skinheads, Goths, nerds and jocks – but with one difference. Kids choose a gang to join and then they grow out of it. The shorthand definitions of contemporary England, of the advertising gurus and style editors are not those of the members of the clubs. No one planned on being a yuppy or works at being a chav. All these snide little definitions of new society are imposed from outside. It’s name-calling, bullying. 

When the old three-tier class system went, it took the nasty but satisfying drawing-room vice of snobbery with it. Overt dis plays of old class one-upmanship now look as smart as a wet patch on the front of your trousers. The growth of the middle class is often said to be what developing Third World countries need to lift them out of poverty and into probity. It rather begs the chicken to provide the egg. Is the middle class a symptom or a catalyst? Do you get it when things are on the up or will they not elevate until you make one? What is obviously true is that without a middle class, you get 21st-century problems in a medieval society.

The least important thing about a middle class is its ability to make money. Its desire for stability and growth and culture are hat really changes societies. Liberalism, the particularly self-flagellating invention of the bourgeoisie, is the politics of permanent concern; the defining liberal characteristic is being able to see both sides of every argument, for which it is roundly mocked by those who can only see the end of their noses. And as was in the aristocrats’ nature to slowly die out through breeding, and the working class’s destiny to build itself obsolete, so it is the middle class’s desire to disband as soon as possible.

The definition of middle class has become so blandly all-encompassing that it is almost meaningless. My grandfather, my father and I have marked between us, along with millions of others, the flowering of the middle class like one of those exotic plants in Kew that grow with an ugly determination for a hundred years before blooming with a mighty effort and an awful stink, and with the effort passing away.

My children, if they choose to live in England, may well be the first generation that grows up in a society without a hierarchical class system. They will be able to be in more than one class at a time, be one thing at home, another at work, another at night and another on holiday. They’ll be able to graze from gang to gang. But a country without a class system is not a classless country. This Utopian happy-ending society is not a destination, it’s an evolution, and something else will grow in its place. And being England and the English, whatever it is they construct between them, you can be sure that it’ll be unpleasant, unfair, cruel and above all smug.

I once met a lovely gynaecologist and obstetrician – how often do you get to say that? She was from South Carolina and was delivering the Navajo in Colorado. ‘Good at having babies, the Navajo,’ she said. ‘They’ve got good pelvises and well-shaped heads. I was a doctor in England, you know, for a year in Somerset’. We were sitting on top of 700 foot of rock looking out over the gullies and shimmering wind and water-carved red cliffs of the desert. It was difficult to conjure up Somerset. After a pause, she said: ‘You people, you people. I was a registrar in a big hospital. When a new patient was admitted I was told to fill in their class at the top of the form. “What?” I said. “Their class”, I was told. It wasn’t upper, middle or lower, it was a, b, c and d, but it’s the same thing. Upstairs downstairs. “Why?” I said. “Well it helps us with the diagnosis and treatment,” they said. “Why don’t we just examine them?” I asked, and they smiled like you’re smiling. “Anyway,” I said, “how am I supposed to know what their class is? Do 1 ask them? Do you have certificates or badges or tattoos?” And they coughed and shuffled and said that I could get an idea from an accent. And 1 said, “I couldn’t tell the difference between Australian and Glasgow.” Anyway, one day I was on the ward with a consultant and he said, “That lady over there, did you notice her luggage?” “What, her overnight bag?” “Yes, very nice, very good luggage,” he said, as if he were teaching me some subtle symptom, a diagnostic indicator. He went round the hospital surreptitiously eyeing up luggage. You people. You treat people like suitcases. We were treating fucking suitcases.’

2 comments

  1. Hello Colin,

    Thank you very much for your daily thoughts.  I find them always interesting and informative, and I look forward to them every day.

    Regarding your quote of the day today — I have always liked a similar idea attributed to Benjamin Franklin of the pre- U.S.A.:  “Experience is a dear school, but a fool will learn in no other.”

    Best regards,

    Alex

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