“Chippy!” is the cry of a winner in the lottery of birth losing an argument.
There’s a scene near the beginning of Casino Royale in which Vesper Lynd practises some amateur psychology on 007 as they sit opposite each other on the Eurostar. She says something like:
You’re Oxford, but not from money, hence that huge chip on your shoulder.
And she says it as though it’s a bad thing. Of course he is “defiant, as if daring anyone to knock it off” [Chambers Dictionary]. He’s James fucking Bond. The film tries to explain the other parts of the definition: his sense of “grievance”, his “readiness to to take offence” at “a supposed fault in his personality or background”.
The re-imagined Bond is like the re-imagined Batman: a traditionally suave and sadistic superhero orphan rewritten as a grafter. If he’d been to Balliol, he wouldn’t have signed up for the college’s unofficial motto: “Effortless Superiority”. He might even have been a more muscular example of classic chip-on-the-shoulder Oxbridge: a northern chemist. (Margaret Thatcher was a northern chemist in spirit, if not quite in fact.) Daniel Craig hasn’t got any time for the usual soft southern eyebrow raising. He’s a northern Bond. He shows off his gym work; he gets hurt; he loses at cards. His chips are hard-won.
Daniel Finkelstein lobbed the same boo-word at people who have a problem with David Cameron’s background and his wannabe aristo antics:
The moment the cannabis story broke it was obvious it would be a problem. The reminder that David Cameron went to Eton that is.
But the treatment of this story by bloggers and journalists has amused me. Because while they have gone on and on about the conspiracy of toffs running the world, they have proved that politics and the media is in fact dominated by an entirely different little gang.
Members of the ChipOx club are everywhere. Who are they? Chippy people who went to Oxford, had an argument with a drunk aristocrat in the Balliol bar and supported the wrong candidate for Chief Breadstick in Michaelmas term.
Years later, they are still struggling to get over the humiliation.
The ChipOx Club believes that their rows with the Bullingdon Club, which culminated in a memorable food fight in the Oxford High Street KFC (Boris Johnson, they recall, throw a salsa Zinger) indicate that the Conservative modernisers would close down the health service.
The rest of us are simply bemused.
I probably have had an argument with an aristocrat in Balliol bar and I certainly supported the wrong candidate for Chief Breadstick. (It’s worse than that: I was the wrong candidate for Chief Breadstick.) But, these days, I don’t run the media or politics or anything else.
Finkelstein’s argument is uncharacteristically feeble: how can these media types complain about toffs when they’ve done so well themselves? I get the same when I harangue people with statistics showing the link between parents’ income and childrens’ attainment has become tighter and tighter since the replacement of state school selection by ability with selection by house price. “But I know lots of people who got into Oxbridge from comprehensives,” say people who went to Oxbridge, their anecdotes trumping the data.
I have no problem with being accused of being “chippy”. I love it. It gives me a wholly illusory sense of having just struck a blow against the establishment. It means that something I’ve said has somehow scared someone whose life is utterly secure and, lacking the wit to counter it, he’s been spooked to desperation, like an elephant rearing up from the squeak of a mouse.
James Hamilton brackets me with Chris Dillow. This is a mistake. Chris Dillow says he has contempt for public schoolkids. I do not. Chris Dillow says most public schoolboys are distasteful. They are not. Chris Dillow was a member of Militant, an organisation that was orders of magnitude more destructive than the Bullingdon Club. At least Cameron is embarrassed by his own teenage vandalism.
When things go wrong from time to time in my life, my own mum never tires of reminding me how I had to fight my way into the World. On paper, my origins are comically unfortunate, like something from Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen sketch or a Graham Greene. The reality is I’ve been bloody lucky, but choice facts make for a good story. As my dad pointed out at my parents’ anniversary dinner, they had to move the date of their wedding because the man organising the the reception was arrested in a military coup. Over dinner he also explained to my brother-in-law that my sister and I are descended from slaves and prostitutes.
In that capacity—as if it counted for anything at all—I’d like to disown some of the po-faced rubbish that’s been coming from various celebrity “people of colour” in response to the anniversary of the Abolition of Slave Trade Act. White American invader Scott “Daily Ablution” Burgess and sinister media Jew David Aaronovitch, on the other hand, had fun with the same event and, in passing, made me think. [I should point out that my linking approvingly to an item featuring Brian Sewell in no way implies my approval of Brian Sewell. He is however relevant to this post because, like me, he is a social climber with a carefully re-engineered accent.]
At the risk of sounding like Finkelstein, that’s one kind of “grievance” that I do not feel, because it’s completely illegitimate. If you move in educated middle-class circles as I have mostly done since school, not being white is an advantage, though perhaps not as great as having been to Oxford. As Scott Burgess’s post shows, there’s a tiny guild of comfortably-off “professional blacks” who make money out of their skin colour. They go on about “the black experience” (it’s singular of course), about “alienation”, about “institutional racism”. They complain about disadvantage, but, like the whites who pay them, they probably didn’t make it to their comfortable position on merit alone. Unlike Finkelstein’s ChipOx club, the solutions the Guild of Media Ethnics proposes would make the real problems underlying its members’ complaints worse than they are now.
Now that I am a nice, beige, middle-class person it doesn’t seem quite so bad that I grew up with self-described racist whites instead of (British-born) blacks of the sort my sister lived with for a while at university, the sort who declare whites “racist until proven otherwise”. Compared to most of our school peers, my sister and I were born with a huge advantage: we had parents who believed deeply in the importance of education and who had benefited from it themselves. My dad was a teacher and I am a member of the exam-passing classes. That I could ask him to get hold of the syllabuses for the ‘O’-Levels I took at school so I could learn the things they couldn’t or wouldn’t teach me at my comprehensive got me into Oxford, but I’m sure my colour and my background helped rather than hindered my chances.
It says a lot that, once I’d arrived there and was studying physiology, my efforts were frustrated by the absence of any official written syllabus for the subject. Just as with the ever-shifting lexicon of U and Non-U, one way to keep the oiks down in the game of life is to keep changing the rules without telling them. Curiously, a don who has done much since then to turn the Oxford physiology course into the “best” in the country had to defend his college’s rejection of a state school pupil called Laura Spence against the objections of our likely future Prime Minister. According to Brown it was “an absolute scandal”. According to Spence it was no such thing.
While most of the privately-educated kids at my first university treated me civilly to my face, plenty of the working-class kids I went to school with wanted to punch me in it, because of what I inherited from my parents: that belief in education, the colour of my skin. (And also because I was a self-righteous smart arse—so no change there, then.)
I might have been raised by a socialist father and a liberal mother, but I didn’t believe that working people were inherently better. Even many tribally Labour locals who would never have contemplated voting for Thatcher were prepared to vote for people, openly racist people, to her Right. They hated immigrants; they hated some of them as much for their diligence as their difference. Their attitudes expose the lie that ordinary people are “driven” to racism because they feel “swamped”. Most of the time I was there, there were fewer than half-a-dozen non-whites in that school of 1300, but there were hundreds of National Front logos carved and scrawled on its available surfaces.
But I’m still angry on behalf of the class that most of that 1300 came from. There were plenty of people I went to school with who were cleverer than the ones I went to university with, people who could have made better scientists, better journalists, better party leaders. A lot of them will never get a chance to, no matter how hard they try. One reason I post here is to provoke posh twits with expensively acquired superiority complexes into trying to knock the chip off my shoulder. Sometimes they even step into a clearly signposted elephant trap.
No social class has a monopoly on virtue, but Chris Dillow is right that one, the class that both Cameron and Blair belong to, has a pretty secure grip on power. I don’t hate toffs or rich kids. I hate the enduring national sneer at people who don’t know their place and won’t stay there, whether it’s the place of their birth or their place on the social ladder. Most successful British sitcoms are extended jokes about losers with ambitions. This blog is an extended joke about a loser with ambitions. We’re so used to laughing at grafters on screen that it’s a cinematic event when a British icon is remade as one. This is a country where people can actually be criticised for “trying too hard”—unless they’re footballers.
The British are richer than they have ever been, but their society has become more class-bound lately. The country’s general affluence and the changes in people’s attitudes that have taken place over the past three decades have tempted many winners to claim that they have attained their position through talent and
hard work “passion”.
I suspect those who have secure places nearer the top of the ladder resort to empty abuse for similar reasons to those nearer the bottom: because they are afraid that the limits of their ability will be exposed by open competition, that they or their children might be displaced by those who really are more talented and harder working (and better looking). They are made nervous by those who complain that social mobility has in fact declined over that period, and who suggest ways that it might be revived. They make the usual noises. Nice people, people who would never breathe the word “uppity”—once routinely followed by the word “nigger”—are happy to bray: “Chippy!”
When they use it against me then I’m happy too.