30 NOVEMBER 1951, Page 12



SNOBBISHNESS, when managed with modesty and taste, is a delightful quality. I dik not mean that all the varied species of snob are agreeable or interesting: some species are nasty, whereas others are nice. I have, for instance, occa- sionally been quite hurt by the cold looks of those who regard me as insufficiently bred or eminent. Yet I have observed that this species of Debrett or Almanach-de-Gotha snob does not really flourish in this country ; it is to be found rather in the Rue de Varennes, in the Caccia, or among the dispersed and unhappy aristocracies of Austria and Hungary. I quite see that if one be the Duke of Atholl, embodying nineteen separate peerages in one's own person, or if one be the Duke of Berwick and Alba, several times over a grandee of Spain, one must be conscious of some difference between oneself and the average roturier ; but I hope that if I possessed such distinction I should be able, as they are able, to render it a source of private rather than of public pride. Another type which I find unattractive is the genealogical snob, the man who knows all about the great families of Europe, without being in any way related to them himself. In the eyes of such people, by placing deft questions about the Caraman Chimays or the Apponyis, one can arouse a glint similar to that of lust: it is quite an amusing parlour game for the moment, but it palls after a time. I am bored also by those who display their intimacy with the eminent by calling them by their Christian names. Members of Parliament are particular offenders in this respect, and will talk of Charles or Toby or Winifred even when a Government has only recently been formed. Worse still are those who are interested in film or stage, and who will refer to distinguished actors by their Christian or nicknames, leaving me entirely at sea. How can I, who know nothing about the theatre or the cinema, possibly identify these people ? The process is dull to me, even as it would be dull if the headmaster of a school were to talk to me at length about the members of his scholarship class, calling them Sid or Bert or Fred. * * * * The sort of snob I like is the one that looks upwards in ecstasy rather than downwards in contempt. If he be a rich man, he will entertain lavishly, and one will meet in the saloons of big dwelling many men and women of - distinction and enjoy much champagne. If he be a poor man, he may prove extremely civil, ready to perform small services for distressed gentlewomen, eager as a terrier among the heather, inquisitive, and able to recount strange stories that are horrible and often difficult to believe. There is little vulgarity about his snobbishness. He does not really seek to enhance his own importance by displaying his intimacy with those who have achieved success. Of course he enjoys being observed dining in public with famous men and women ; of course he puts his invitation-cards upon his mantel- piece ; of course he is embarrassed when friends of an earlier and less brilliant period, who may have been in prison or be drunk, accost him when in the company of the great. But essentially his snobbishness is subjective and disinterested ; it is purposeless, in that it is indulged in because it provides a subjective pleasure similar to that afforded by good food, or literature, or art. Often the delight that such snobs derive is a truly aesthetic delight ; they repeat to themselves the beautiful names of those who were at the reception last night with all the enjoyment that some of us derive from reciting Samain or Heredia ; for them these names illumine the pageant of life ; they pass before their eyes slowly, like historical persons in a faded tapestry. Such was the fastidious sort of snobbishness possessed by Proust.

* * * * For some reason, English people are peculiarly sensitive to being called snobs. They have, in fact, toned down the fine word " snobbishness " into the silly diminutive " snobbery," much as the Greeks called the Euxine hospitable. Personally, I enjoy my snobbish moments, finding them soft and warm like day-dreams or doves. It will be interesting, as I have written on some other occasion, to watch whether snobbishness in the Welfare State alters its direction ; it may be that no longer shall we feel pleased when our daughter gets engaged to the heir to some historic peerage, but that we shall experience delight if she marries a railway executive. It may be that a whole new hierarchy of social values and distinctions will be created, much as they have been created in the Soviet Union or United States. The'President of a College or a Judge will then become more important to us even than the widow of a viscount, and all the intricate pattern of the old aristocracy will seem as remote and incredible as Theodora, Empress of Byzantium. In my own lifetime I have noticed that the various categories of nobility, the several correct modes of address, which in Edwardian days were absorbed as naturally as the smell of new-mown hay, are almost unknown to the younger generation. I have met youths and maidens of distinction who will question me about these strange shibboleths and incantations much as I might question an aged Jamaican about his memories of Voodoo. Yet people of my own generation will agree that we were never " taught" all this elaborate ritual: somehow it grew up within us as an organic growth. To the young it seems as difficult and complex as the syntax of a Semitic language.

I have been reading this week an excellent grammar on the subject written by Mr. Valentine Heywood called British Titles, and published by A. and C. Black for the sum of 15s. Although I thought that I knew the language almost like a native, I find from Mr. Heywood that there are many errors that I either fail to notice or might even commit myself. When addressing an envelope to someone bearing a courtesy title, I might in my ignorance have inserted the word " The " before the word " Earl " or the word " Marchioness ": I am told by Sir Gerald Wollaston in his Foreword that my action in so doing is " alto- gether indefensible." Mr. Heywood tells me that, when speaking in Liverpool, I must eschew the local practice of toasting the Duke of Lancaster ; I refuse to follow this advice. I also learn that if a widowed peeress marries a commoner and still retains the title of her first husband she is committing a " solecism," it is clear that if Mr. Heywood were not so exquisitely courteous he would employ a harsher term. I am told that it is wrong to address a knight as " Sir Alfred " unless and until he has received the accolade, which is difficult if he remains three years in Tanganyika Territory. But Mr. Heywood is a sensible man and not one who is encrusted with the barnacles of ancient formulas. He tells me that when I next write to a Cardinal, it will not really be necessary to sign myself " Your Eminence's devoted and obedient child." We are fortunate indeed in this country in not having our correspondence complicated by problems of how to conclude. I find it difficult when writing to French people to decide whether I end up by saying haute con- sideration" or " sentiments les plus distingues" ; in English one can choose quickly between the boots of " Yours sincerely " and the slippers of " Yours ever." But in other ways the path of British titles is, as Mr. Heywood points out, strewn with pitfalls. * * * * Apart from " Duke," I feel that " Earl " is the title that I should most wish to be accorded ; it has about it a healthy Scandinavian ring. "Baron" suggests Runnymede or Haussmann or Tauchnitz ; " Viscount " sounds too Continental ; and I agree with Lord Somerset that " le noun de Marquys feust estraunge noun en test Roialme." The title " Esquire " is charming in itself, but tiresome in that it obliges one to remember men's initials. I think " Sir " nice, especially when onehas a resound- ing Christian name. " Bt." is perhaps the best of them all, being distinguished, hereditary and unpretentious. And we should all love to be called " The.' Yes, snobbishness, when managed with modesty and taste, is a delightful quality.