Amberley Castle: The food is too good for it to be genuinely "U"
"I'm dancing with tears in my eyes ‘cause the girl in my arms isn't U." The funeral of the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, née Deborah Mitford, in October stirred up the usual broil of toff-bashing, and the inevitable mention of "U and Non-U", the essay by the duchess's sister Nancy Mitford which must rank as one of the most misunderstood contributions to academia of all time. In the mid-1950s, Nancy was approached by one Professor Alan Ross for help with a sociological essay on linguistic differentiators of class within English speech, but her contribution snowballed into a debate which retains the power to provoke even today. Nancy and her friends Evelyn Waugh and John Betjeman were encouraged to contribute to Noblesse Oblige, a bestselling volume which sent a generation of the anxious middle classes scrabbling in drawers to evict "common" fish knives, and which was referred to by its authors as "The Book of Shame". Nancy herself conceded that the whole thing had been a tease, and that she had been obliged to go back through her own novels looking for references to non-U notepaper and mantelpieces, but she was branded ever after as an horrendous snob. Enemies of the English class system neglect the tremendous pleasure it has given over the years, as writers dissect the myriad signifiers which enable us to feel momentarily superior to our fellows. Nicky Haslam, the designer and socialite, reprised his popular column "How Common!" in the Daily Mail just last week, suggesting that the U and Non-U tussle is as smugly agreeable as ever.
For the first readers of Noblesse Oblige, the newly servantless postwar gentry, caring about food became a particular point of inverted snobbery. Luxury ingredients could seem dubiously unpatriotic in a world where rationing and the black market still obtained, while pretending not to notice the ghastly mess on one's plate saved the hostess the humiliation of having to admit that she might have cooked it herself. In later editions of Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh confessed himself ashamed by the gluttonous nostalgia which suffused the novel: gulls' eggs and golden caviar had become embarrassing memories. Then, somehow, this laudable embrace of austerity translated into a mark of class — defiantly nasty food meant that one was smart. I once went to a very grand shooting party where Friday dinner was molar-wrenching pheasant casserole, complete with shot, and a Pearce Duff blancmange, "shape" as Nancy would have called it. Repulsive enough the first evening, by its third appearance at Sunday lunch, the shape was a thing of nightmare. Eyeing her queasy guests balefully, the hostess announced that she thought that wasting puddings was terribly middle-class.