So Much Room at the Top

Article excerpt

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". …