Cambridge2Cambridge: Class and Circumstance


…often meets town.
In Britain gown…

Once again the Record catches up with JESSICA CORSI, our correspondent from the other Cambridge, who is pursuing her LL.M. at that vaunted U.K. institution. This week, Jessica explores Britain’s intricate hangups over class.

I remember reading an application for Oxford study abroad programs when I was an undergraduate in which the FAQs section helpfully informed interested parties that if they thought they were coming to Oxford to meet British royalty, they were sorely mistaken. “Those days are over,” intoned the brochure. And that’s about right-the British royalty go to St. Andrews instead, so that they can meet and marry other British royalty. But here at Cambridge, that other fair temple of learning England so rightly esteems, social class is still at the forefront of everyone’s mind, and at the tips of the tongues that so often drip with English sarcasm.

Cambridge University is rife with references to class and social distinction. In the middle of Parker’s Piece (a huge green lawn that, in warmer weather, is home to all sorts of University lawn activities, such as laying around and observing what other students are wearing, and in colder weather hosts the sports teams running up in down in the rain) is a lamppost that is named “Reality Checkpoint.” The lamppost reminds me of the one in the Chronicles of Narnia, in that it is supposed to mark the boundary between two different worlds, and in that…it’s a lamppost.

The real-world lamppost is meant to delineate the difference and the separation between “town”-reality-and “gown”-the bubble world that is Cambridge. The town part is fairly obvious, referring to the people that live in the town but do not attend Cambridge; the gown part refers to the academic robes that we have to wear to formal dinners and other official ceremonies, but that not that long ago had to be worn at all times. Rumor has it, Cambridge students used to go down to this virtual checkpoint with their gowns on and big sticks in hand, pound the sticks into the ground, wave them in the air, and otherwise act menacingly towards the town folk. Sadly for the many tourists here, those ridiculous days have come and gone.

Cambridge students now menace the lowly town folk by getting drunk and trashing local curry houses during their drinking club bouts (the subject of which we will perhaps go into at a later date.) When they’re on campus and amongst other civilized Cambridge students, however, they amuse themselves by assessing each other’s social class and then gossiping about it afterwards. One of the ways that they do this is by analyzing other people’s accents. The famous quote that “[i]t is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him” has been unfolding before my very eyes.

Early on in the academic year, the students tried to assess each other’s upbringings by analyzing vowels and drawls. “How is she? Is she nice?” I asked a friend that had met up with someone for coffee purely out of obligation to his parents. “She’s alright,” he said, “but she’s very ‘rar.'” At which point I learned that “rar” refers to a high class but potentially pretentious manner of pronunciation, and vowed to avoid ending words with the sound “rar.” “I like so and so,” I naively stated over dinner one night in an attempt to make small talk. “He’s alright,” was the reply, “but his accent is too affectedly mid-Atlantic. He’s putting on a fake American-English drawl.” Right. Mid-Atlantic. “Why would he do that?” I asked. “To seem posh.” Of course. Who wouldn’t do that to seem posh?

These and other examples that piled up showed me the double-edged sword that class represents here: people assume it works to both their advantage and (slight) disadvantage. “The cafeteria workers are rude to me because of my accent,” complained one very poshly accented, well-mannered friend. “When I work over school holidays, I get much more respect because of my accent, even when I’m just selling shoes,” stated another. And the ever so logical “he’s Scottish, but it must be very high class Scottish, because it doesn’t sound Scottish at all,” which coming form an English person probably sums up ideas about Scots and class. Then there are the nicknames that go along with the accents: the posh-sounding if not posh-in-reality boy whose vowels prickle the food servers has been nicknamed “toff,” which apparently refers to a landed person. He is not a landed person, but he bears the nickname with both pride and annoyance. Still, he would not yield his accent for another. “Why? It’s a very nice accent,” he sniffs. I can attest to you that indeed it is.

When the accent analysis has run its course, as I’m sure you can tell it quickly would, the discussion wanders to other informative topics such as which boarding school you went to, which can help your “friends” figure out if you are new-money or old-money. After insinuating questions about “where” in England you went to school that are likely to be deflected with the vaguest of geographical references (“Close to the Scottish border;” “In the North;”) the actual name proves elusive and thus people must use other clues in your behavior and speech to assess whether you have come up in the world only recently (if at all) or whether your family’s name is written down in some fancy registry somewhere.

The new-money concept used in the UK is distinctly un-American, or at least, Americans use it very differently. With our ever present myth of meritocracy and our fairy tale heroes and heroines, such as Oprah Winfrey (she once had no indoor plumbing! And look at her now!), as well as our strange desire to see celebrities act just like us (Britney Spears eats at McDonalds! Bill Clinton wears a Timex!), we are quite different than other parts of the world, which make clear that they look ever so slightly down upon people that come newly to their money and/or engage in such plebian pleasure.

Here at Cambridge, all sorts of actions can be used to judge whether you are new money – and, in turn, judge you. If you talk about money-you are new money. If you brag about what you like to drink or wear, and these things are expensive-you are new money. If you ask someone the price of something, and it is high, and then you act like it is not-you are new money. And of course, if people know that you are new money, well, no need to play a guessing game! If the person is annoying you, throw that term out there; no better insult could exist. It stings so much because, as I’ve been told, money does not buy class. Au contraire. Those people, those Victoria Beckhams, are just pretenders to the throne. Even when they are in fact the only landed people at the table, it doesn’t account for much if they have purchased this title only recently. It is apparently better to be old-money and poor than new-money and living a nice life.

If you can’t insult someone as being new money, you can always reach back to the insult that they are acting “town.” Although the town-gown checkpoint is really just a lamppost, and that stick-waving thing has come to an end, the divide is still very real. If you are dancing with too many people at the club, and someone wants to say this is sleazy, they will say that you are “acting like a townie” or “acting too town.” I have discovered that certain clubs and pubs on certain nights of the week are off limits, simply because they will be “filled with townies” (spoken with a grimace and a shake of the head). A few venues are only to be frequented on designated Cambridge University nights of the week, when you are almost certain to be insulated from having to brush up against or share a line to the bathroom with the aforementioned townies. It is almost like Good Will Hunting, in the bar scene right before Matt Damon gets Minnie Driver’s number and follows up with “How do you like them apples?”…every day of the week.

One day, though, there will come from this town someo
ne who embodies it all and breaks all the stereotypes: some new monied, wrongly accented, chav townie that rises to blinding academic fame and leaves all of those public school attending tracing their ancestors back to petty nobility “rar”-ing gown wearers in the dust. Or not. Likely things will just wear away bit by bit on their own. This little game of class and circumstance has let me see, however, that while Horatio Alger is a myth and the U.S. is not the land of meritocracy, we do have some form of class mobility or some sort of take on class consciousness that is substantially different than the clinging to the old guard that persistently lingers in the UK. This class obsession is for me a newfound consciousness that I am hoping that I can avoid letting seep into my own.

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