So Much Room at the Top

By Barker, Paul | New Statesman (1996), July 12, 1996 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

So Much Room at the Top


Barker, Paul, New Statesman (1996)


The new edition of the Dictionary of National Biography shows that is is possible to succeed from humble origins, whatever we may think

Britain is often accused of being a class-ridden society. John Major frequently says he wants to abolish such distinctions. If this happened it would leave Mike Leigh and Ken Loach with nothing to make films about (and most other British film directors, come to that). No one else would complain. Snobbery remains the great British vice.

But because everyone in Britain -- or, more precisely, in England -- is so hyper-conscious of the nuances of class (Is it "toilet" or "loo"? How many buttons should you have on your cuff?), we risk exaggerating the barriers. Britain may sometimes seem a very stifling place. But for most people, most of the time, British society is more like a transformation scene than a prison.

New evidence leaps, unexpectedly, from the authoritative (even slightly authoritarian) pages of the latest volume of the Dictionary of National Biography. Launched in 1885 by Leslie Stephen, now better known as Virginia Woolf's father, it has become the establishment's honours board. In the new volume there lie commemorated 450 men and women who died between 1985 and 1990. They include the great and good, as conventionally judged (Harold Macmillan, Prime Minister; Michael Ramsay, Archbishop of Canterbury). But they also include those who just cheered people up (Max Wall, comedian; Semprini, radio's cocktail-bar pianist; Teddy Tinling, knicker designer for tennis stars).

The editors, this time, tuck in more sexual gossip than ever before. They explore the turmoil behind the stuffed shirts: Macmillan's bleak marriage, the bisexual love lives of Lawrence Olivier and Bruce Chatwin. One woman, Beryl Markham, a founder member of Kenya's Happy Valley set, seems to have nipped in mainly because she was so "exceptionally promiscuous, but retained [is it so surprising?] the loyalty of her male friends". She lived partly on an annuity granted her by the late Duke of Gloucester, the Queen's uncle. She claimed to have given birth to his son.

But my eye flickered particularly across to the social origins recorded here. I see that Mark Boxer, the cartoonist and editor famous for his elegance and wit, was the son of a car salesman. John Dexter, the director of Olivier's astonishing performance in Othello, was a plumber's son. Cary Grant, born "Archibald Alec Leach" in Bristol, was the son of a tailor's presser. The high-camp actress Bea Lillie was the daughter of a cigar salesman. The big-band leader Joe Loss was a Spital-fields cabinet-maker's son; the sculptor Henry Moore, a miner's.

Field-Marshal Lord Harding, who put down the communist insurrection in Malaya after the second world war (with far less bloodshed than the Americans' failed attempt in South Vietnam), began life only one notch higher up, as the son of a solicitor's clerk. He died laden with public honours. Yet: "Throughout a career which could have excited jealousy no one spoke badly of him."

To borrow one of Napoleon's mottos, Britain begins to read like a country "open to the talents". It is important to remember that most of these men and women rose to fame before the great social and educational shifts that have marked the past 30 or more years. One obvious result has been a hugely expanded middle class. During the 1970s blue-collar workers ceased to be a majority within the employed population, which tells you almost as much as you need to know about the ideological torments of the Labour Party.

The only entries who achieved their status after the changes are those who died untimely, such as Bruce Chatwin (of Aids) and Russell Harty (to the tabloids' frustration, not of Aids). Harty is mourned here by Alan Bennett -- with affection, but also with the parting shot that Harty's gravestone at Giggleswick was "evidence of the vulgarity from which he never entirely managed to break free".

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

So Much Room at the Top
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?