Page 12, 24th April 2009

24th April 2009
Page 12
Page 12, 24th April 2009 — Let's be snobs but not the inferior kind

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Organisations: Catholic Church
People: Jew, Evelyn Waugh


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Let's be snobs but not the inferior kind

Charlie Hegarty Notebook

Imaintain that there are two kinds of snobbery: pure and impure. The second category need not delay us; it is of the vulgar sort that judges a person by their accent, the clothes they wear or the school they attended. As England is not yet, despite protestations, a classless society we can all be tempted to make these trivial distinctions, but we must resist them. In Christ there is no male or female, Jew or Gentile; nor does a class system operate.

Pure snobbery is quite different, and I applaud it. It implies fine breeding, courtliness, noblesse oblige — the understanding that great rank brings with it great privileges and corresponding responsibilities. This was implicit to medieval, hierarchical society. Just as the saint's example teaches us about true holiness and the genius demonstrates the power of the imagination, so the aristocrat informs us (or should inform us) about the refinement and courtesy that distinguish relations between civilised people. I add the parenthesis because most aristocrats teach us nothing of the kind. But that does not invalidate the principle.

When we, the people, meander around stately homes we are not just gaping at the scale and the splendour; we are paying unconscious tribute to the beauty. the craftsmanship, the nobility of outlook that played some part, along with leisure, wealth and ostentation, in their creation. In my own case such pure snobbery began early: I discovered an old mansion near my home and a way to trespass around its spacious gardens. I took to eating sandwiches in a rustic summer house as 1 placidly surveyed my estates. These reveries were abruptly ended by a gardener who marched me off the premises. I could not explain to him that 1 was searching for a lost domain of gracious living, as at that time I hardly knew it myself.

The genius of pure snobbery is Proust. I will not quote the reflections of his novel's narrator when he first observes the Duchess de Guermantes because Proust's art unfolds itself elaborately, in sentences of many pages; but it is all there: heraldry, antiquity. grandeur, distinction, I like to think of Evelyn Waugh, especially in Brideshead Revisited, as a pure snob too, but my friends insist he is a mixture.

For all his flaws as a htiman being, Waugh was instrumental in bringing one of these friends into the Church. This man relates that it was reading the Sword of Honour trilogy that "made the Faith an objective reality", adding: "Until I read him I had ignorantly absorbed the idea that there is no 'Faith', only lots of 'faiths' that all spring from within. To read such an intelligent, sensitive and brilliantly skilful craftsman being utterly accepting and unapologetic about the Faith was a revelation and an awakening."

This same friend has recently learned that he is senior claimant to the chieftainship of a Scottish clan. To assume his role he has to add another surname (not hyphenated). His children think this is pretentious; his wife frets that she will have to wear a tartan dirndl and serve endless teas to putative clan members from Australia. He is unrepentant. He has learned that his knighted, 15th-century ancestor, whose surname he must adopt, ordered a canal to be built between his castle in Fife and the nearby Catholic church, simply so that he could be rowed to Mass every Sunday. For a pure snob this story has every necessary ingredient: lordliness, lineage, fidelity to the ancient Faith. I am urging my friend to enter into his inheritance. Noblesse oblige demands no less.

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