By HAROLD NICOLSON
i. AGREE with those who contend that one of the minor pleasures of -life is to be slightly ill. In order to extract the greatest good from this condition certain soothing factors must be present and certain disturbing factors must be absent. It is necessary (as I have said before when discussing this important theme) that there should exist in one's mind and body neither apprehension nor pain ; it is necessary that the engagements which one has to cancel should be dreary engagements which one is not sorry to miss ; it is necessary that one should be in one's own bed, surrounded by one's own belongings, and not distracted by the guilt of being a nuisance in a strange house ; it is necessary that one's own family should be tender without being importunate, and should display solicitude without fuss. In such circumstances it is indeed agreeable to enjoy two days of void repose, to lie back upon the pillows watching the bare twigs of the acacia swaying gently outside the window, and to listen at three-thirty in the afternoon to the distant sounds of human activity—the creak and twinge of a wheelbarrow on the garden path or the sound of a dog barking in the woods. On the first day of my illness last week (an illness known to the medical profession as " three-days 'flu ") I read four detective novels, a pastime which is always delightful to me, but which only illness justifies. It is a pleasure which, however concentrated and intense it may be at the moment, tends to become an expense of spirit. So on the second day, realising that my convalescence would not be long delayed, I read Mr. Pope- Hennessy's fascinating biography of Monckton Milnes. What preasure could compare to the amenity (I use that lovely violated word in the correct sense) of being fondled by a transient malady and having as a companion a book of such absorbing interest ? I felt as if I were living, moving and talking, in the gay company of Monckton Milnes, among people who had moved and chattered more than a hundred years ago.
All good books leave behind them a wake of speculation. I lay there watching the acacia twigs swaying against a January sky and asking myself why, if Monckton Milnes was not a snob, he was not a snob ; asking myself what snobbishness really was. Here you had a man who in his social relations was_intrusive and even improbus ; a man who would endure any rebuff in his desire to make the acquaintance of people of importance ; and yet a man who, while being selectively gregarious, was in fact not snobbish in the least. Certainly he displayed unremitting, and perhaps dis- prop6rtionate, social appetites ; certainly he enjoyed inviting to his breakfast-parties men and women of contemporary eminence ; but the point about Milnes was that he was interested in people for what they were and not for what they represented ; he valued men and women for their intelligence or their achievement ; he paid no attention to their names. The difference between a true snob and a man who selects his guests as he would compose a menu or a wine-list is a difference in the sense of values. Such a man would never prefer a dull duke to a vivacious but untidy journalist ; he would infinitely rather spend his days and nights with a dissolute poet, or a seedy refugee, than with some inarticulate member of the territorial aristocracy. For him it would be an excitement, and a test of his own social capacity, to compose his breakfast-parties of people drawn from different levels of society. He would be amused, and not ashamed, if one of his guests addressed Lady Honoria Pelham-Bagge as Lady Bags.
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I was extremely snobbish when I was young. I admired a duke more than a marquis, a marquis more than an earl, an earl more than a viscount, a viscount more than a baron, a baron more than a baronet and a baronet much more than a knight. As the years passed, however, the gilt of my snobbishness began to wear a little thin, revealing a tinny surface underneath. Since then I have come to regard snobbishness as one of the more harmless manifestations of human vanity, and have observed it in myself and others with an interest which is alert but affectionate. I watch the quirks and disguises of this not unamiable defect with tre same detached sympathy with which I notice movements of shyness, irritability, impatience or self-display. The English, I have observed, are peculiarly sensitive to the charge of snobbishness ; they would much rather be accused of indolence or lack of education than of being snobs ; in fact, they have invented a gentle euphemism for the word itself, preferring to call it by the pet name " snobbery," thereby mitigating by a diminutive the lapidary harshness of the word itself. Yet if we regard the word detachedly, it is quite a nice word, having about it a fine vernacular ring. A snob, originally, was a cobbler's apprentice, and it was only gradually that the name came to be applied to persons of low degree. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the latter application from the end of the eighteenth century, and gives the following (perhaps somewhat wounding) quotation from 1796: —" The Snobs call him Nicholson—a plebeian name." It was only in the nineteenth century that the term was used to describe (if I may again quote the O.E.D.) " one who meanly or vulgarly admires and seeks to imitate, or associate with, those of superior rank and wealth." The operative words in this definition are, I suppose, " meanly or vulgarly." They are rude words.
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I do not see that it is necessarily mean or vulgar to desire to associate with, or even to imitate, the rich and great. It is, in fact, a matter of constant regret to me that so few of the rich people whom I know are really friendly and that so few of my friends are really rich. Nor do I see that it is so deplorable to derive satisfaction from–being observed in the company of the eminent. If Mr. Winston Churchill were to invite me to have luncheon with him alone in a public restaurant (a most unlikely occurrence), I should certainly be disappointed if none of my friends were present to witness my glory. Such an event would do much to enhance my prestige, and I should much regret if the encounter passed unobserved. My snobbishness on such an occasion would assuredly be acute and active ; I do not agree that it would be particularly vulgar. There are, however, two directions—an ascending and a descending direction—in which snobbishness can cease to be a rather charming facet of vanity and can become either a mean manifestation or the sign of a trivial mind. Much as I sympathise with the snobs who enjoy being seen by their equals in the company of their superiors, I have no affection for the type of snob who is embarrassed when observed by his superiors in the company. of his equals. Once snobbishness tempts us to be ashamed of our equally scrubby friends, it ceases to be an amiable defect and becomes a squalid defect. Nor can I admire the men or women whose sense of values is so distorted that they are attracted by the glamour of great titles. It is true that historic families retain a certain antiquarian charm. But a bore is a bore for all that.
Snobbishness, in the sense of deriving pleasure from the com- pany of the eminent, is endemic in human nature. It is only the incidence of snobbishness which changes with altered conditions. The person who in 1850 longed to go to tea with Lady Ashburton will in 1950 long to have a glass of sherry (and to be seen having a glass of sherry) with the Minister of Town and Country Planning. I see no harm in that. In fact, I regard it as unnecessary that we should have so many inhibitions regarding a defect which, so long as it remains amicable, provides a quite useful social emollient. The difficulty is that, in our modern world, it is not easy to deter- mine whom one should be snobbish about. And as one grows older, as the arteries harden, one ceases, I find, to be snobbish at all. Which is perhaps unfortunate.