Belfast Telegraph

Equality's a fine idea but you'll still be judged by how you hold your knife or size of income

By Mary Kenny

We are greatly concerned with equality these days, but many inequalities remain, and I wonder if some of them will always prevail. For example, can two people be friends if their status, rank and, especially, income are noticeably different?

I have an old friend to whom I remain close, but our social lives are worlds apart. We started out flat-sharing back in the day, like the "girls of slender means" in Murial Spark's evocation. But different choices, talents and inclinations have led us to different social destinations.

We've joked about driving a camper-van across America as a larky adventure ("Grannies take a trip"), only she'd need to stay in five-star hotels and I'd find it more interesting to lodge in a trailer-trash park with the Trumpistas. Her social and economic ranking are so different from mine that taste and status naturally divide habits.

As between individuals, that need not matter. If two people are friends, though the worlds they mingle in are disparate, they can still remain friends on a one-to-one basis. It's where the social context gets wider that a kind of unease can arise. I try to be polite and mannerly when I'm mixing in her world, but maybe I'm not entirely comfortable because I know that, deep down, human beings do assess one another on an economic ranking scale, and richer people are very aware of keeping score. They know I don't have a property in the Auvergne, and I know they know. A self-consciousness arises.

It's a highly competitive world out there. And it is claimed, by the sociologists, that when it comes to social ranking, it's the women who drive the pecking order, emphasising social inequalities.

When the British first went to India, it was just the men, who rubbed along any old way in a blokeish manner. Then they were joined by the wives and matriarchs, and the memsahibs soon set about creating a social order of acceptability and non-acceptability. They decided who could be invited to tiffin and who could not.

"The memsahibs were the most frightful snobs," an elderly Anglo-Indian told me. "They wouldn't have anyone around them who spoke with the 'chi-chi' accent (the sing-song accent inflected by Indian dialect). If you spoke like that, you were out." I haven't lived in imperial India, but I did attend an Irish convent, whose educational aspirations I do not disparage: but awareness of social ranking was acute.

Speech, diction, table manners and a thousand other markers of 'ladylike' conduct and social respectability were embedded in our consciousness. It's very hard to delete ideas that have been transmitted to us when young - even when we have rebelled against them.

I loathed 'bourgeois' prejudices as a young woman and yet, if I examine my conscience honestly, I'm full of them. To this day, it pains me to see someone hold their knife like a pen. I know it shouldn't matter, but I also know that if you do this, someone will judge you and you won't be on the invitation list for the next fashionable soirée.

Years ago, one of my husband's oldest friends - Richard was best man at his wedding - had a formal 70th birthday party at a swanky London club. We were not invited, because the wife in question didn't think we, being somewhat bohemian, would fit into the same social ranking as the lords, ladies and swells present.

I didn't give a fig, but I thought it hurtful for Richard's sake, and I thought the wife who drew up the invitation list (now deceased) was petty and shabby. It was subsequently explained to me that her family came from Catholic Irish gentry, and that made her socially insecure; it should have made her charitable towards all. And let me add that this sainted couple were lifelong Labour voters!

But why should we be surprised? Preaching about a better world is one thing: inviting someone you think mightn't quite measure up is something else entirely.

I gave the London Irish Centre's St Patrick's week lecture recently in the City of London, and at question time a young woman made a vigorous denunciation of the malign dominance of the middle classes in Irish society since the foundation of the State. The woes of Ireland, she said, including tragedies involving the mother-and-baby homes, were down to the obsession with bourgeois respectability that prevailed in Irish society. Even where the clergy were to blame, the agency driving it all was the middle class, which promoted and promulgated class divide.

This is probably true, though I do not know any society in which there isn't a class divide and in which some people are accepted as part of an in-group and some people are not. Moreover, I don't know a society in which individuals of like minds don't 'cluster'.

Almost everyone likes to be with their own kind. There's a new scheme just launched in London whereby elderly LGBT folk can ask to be assigned to a care home along with other LGBT people because, in the evening of their lives, they want to be with those they feel comfortable with. Go for it (But even there, I bet social and financial divisions will arise).

'Equality' now usually means gender equality: equal opportunities and treatment between men and women. But there are a thousand subtle ways in which inequalities can cut through the social fabric of our lives.

Belfast Telegraph


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