A CLASS OF THEIR OWN
One of the low on whom assurance sits As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire
How does a silk hat sit upon a Bradford millionaire? Precariously, TS Eliot gives us to assume. Also, that it does not look quite right there. The suggestion is that the natural and proper smokestack of a Bradford industrialist — oodles of ghastly new money or none — would be, say, a cloth cap. Eliot was what passes in the US for old money, and here was a little burst of snobbery.
Thinking about that line makes me wonder: could some equivalent have been written today? Not so straightforwardly, I think. Eliot’s put-down depends on locating disdain for the arriviste in the English class system, and in English geography. But big money in general and new money in particular is now international.
Taste remains the prime marker of any social group. It defines and excludes. I would say ‘class’ — and in Eliot’s time that’s exactly what it would have been — but that must be slightly modified when it comes to the present. HNWs and UHNWs, because as I say they are an international phenomenon, don’t really slot into the British class system.
That system still exists, and it still has its markers. The North London Media Wazzock class, of which I am a member, has its shabby-chic furniture, its butcher-blocks and its sheeplike adoration of Farrow & Ball paint. Traditional aristocrats, with or without dosh — and it is normally without — have towels made of Shredded Wheat, beds filthy with dog hair and freezing houses piled with broken
furniture.The lower middle class has its pride in personal hygiene and its wall-to-wall carpets, flying ducks and avocado bathroom suites having regrettably passed into history. And so on.
But what of the HNW? Not so easily pinned down. There are definite regional variations. There’s your Gulf state bling — think rosaceous Bulgari jewellery and the football-pitch-sized lobby of a Dubai hotel. There’s oligarch chic — imagine a Eurovision competitor hosed down with glue rolled in a blanket with a bunch of gold and diamonds.
There’s the old-style Anglo Master of the Universe — Lobbs and a charcoal overcoat of astonishing softness, made from the throat hair of a pedigree virgin gerbil. And there’s the dotcom CEO — jeans or cargo pants, T-shirt, eau de Hacky Sack.
Even sectioning it that way doesn’t quite nail it, though. One HNW I ran across not long ago was pairing a sharp suit with trainers, in the context of a Belle Époque drawing room.
Nevertheless, certain aspects of the UHNW lifestyle draw things together. You can choose whether or not to team your outfit with a Hermès scarf — but your security detail is probably mandatory. Plus — particularly when you’re talking investment-level artworks — your HNW will like as not be subcontracting his or her taste in art to an expert buyer.
Finally, if you seek a unifying aesthetic in the taste or style of an international class, it’s surely to be found in their international habitat: the boilerplate luxe of the seven-star hotel, the creamy leather of the seats on the jet, the blond wood of the decking on the yacht, the minimalist maximalism of a Candy brothers bolthole bought off plan.
Nancy de nos jours
But here I wander into the realms of speculation. To my regret, I simply don’t spend quite as much time as I obviously deserve — obviously! — sipping martinis aboard the gin palaces of the new plutocracy, meaning that my eye is not, alas, thoroughly in.
What we need is an expert arbiter, an updated, 21st-century version of Nancy Mitford’s celebrated 1950s essay The English Aristocracy, in which the distinction between ‘U’ and ‘Non-U’ tastes and usages was wittily and pitilessly explored.
As Mitford noted, picking up on hints from the professor of linguistics who minted the terms, the ‘U’ say ‘looking glass’, ‘loo’, ‘pudding’, ‘luncheon’ and ‘drawing room’, while the ‘Non-U’ say ‘mirror’, ‘toilet’, ‘sweet’, ‘dinner’ and ‘lounge’. The ‘U’ say ‘mad’, ‘jam’ and ‘rich’, while the ‘Non-U’ say ‘mental’, ‘preserve’ and ‘wealthy’.
That is long out of date. Where is our modern-day Mitford? Could an Ecclestone daughter be persuaded to take up the mantle? She could arbitrate on, for instance, whether curly earpieces in one’s bodyguards are acceptable or vulgarly American; on whether one sits in the back of the car when it’s just you and the chauffeur or up front; on whether one gives the neighbours a case of wine or six months in a hotel while digging out the basement.
Anthropologists of the future will thank us. The essay should, obviously, be called UHNW and Non-UHNW. It can leave alone silk hats, mind you. Who wears silk hats any more?