A WHILE ago, Posh Spice was being interviewed and they asked her if she was posh. She said no. A voice (it turned out to be husband David Beckham) piped up just as she was rampaging into a tale of her fashionable working-class background. What car did your father drive? Turned out her father had a Roller. But Posh insisted she is not posh. And boy was she right; her voice alone sounds like it was grown in a Petri dish in a chippie.
So, what is posh and who is posh? I like the word, an anagram — google it, can’t be arsed to go into details.
Can you be posh if you are not born posh? Well, you can have a go. South Africans can always lean back comfortably on “colonial". But in England, class still sticks like spit.
After I'd lived in London for 20 years, someone leant across a table and said, “say that word again". It was “pen". “Ah, you’re South African," she said triumphantly.
Being posh is tricky. The rules keep changing. Toffs have finessed the game with a secret language with which they test each other. I mean, who would have thought that Belvoir Castle, a hideous pile in the middle of England, is pronounced Beaver? And we all know the Oxford college Magdalen, don’t we? Cholmondeley sounds more like chutney — chumley, a ridiculous surname.
Quick briefing: never toilet; always lavatory. Never lounge; sitting room or drawing room. Never pardon, but “sorry, I didn’t hear what you said". And after this it gets even more complex. Never pleased to meet you when introduced, just how do you do. And the top toff venue is AsKET, not AsCOT.
What do you call your mother? I call mine ma, which is okayish. Mother, ma, mummy, mater but NOT mom and never daddy. We called our pa Baba like the Arabs do. And if you are having tea with the Duke of Marlborough, don’t pick up your mobile (not phone) and say, “Mom, I’ll call you back". He will know immediately you come from the north-east of England or somewhere worse, like Benoni.
Benoni is worth looking into because awful as it is, it produces these stunning-looking women. I once asked Charlene’s father, Mr Wittstock, what he put this down to and he said he thought it was something to do with the water.
Rachel Johnson, sister to ex-prime minister Boris, says she is not posh and neither is her family. She says they immigrated from Turkey. Although it was probably more than a century ago, the vision of a Boris lookalike crossing the Channel in a small boat sticks in the mind. A few years ago, she would have shut up about it, but today a vile background is the first step to social success. And if you want to be really successful you should also have suffered some abuse.
The problem is the rules keep changing.
My friend Bradley (an inexcusable name, like mine) has learnt to shout out lavatory instead of toilet every time he needs to go. Recently, I bumped into Jamie Blandford on a tour of his smart pile, Blenheim Castle, with 187 rooms. He said, “are you looking for the toilet?"
I nearly fainted. Must have been all the drugs he's ingested over the years.
I see Nicky Haslam, the long-standing arbiter of taste in London, brings out a monthly tea towel with a list of common things and agrees that washing your hands after going to the lavatory is common. Landing on a toff’s filthy hand probably annihilates any bug.
You can gauge your posh status by how many unposh things you are familiar with. This is a list of what Haslam finds common, a word he loves.
Art, Savile Row suits (now worn only by African dictators), side plates (a particular hate), baby showers, butterfly strokes (probably can’t do them), quality time, being teetotal, carver chairs, signature dishes, juliette balconies, Frida Kahlo, vegetables “from our garden", swimming with dolphins, David Hockney exhibitions, books about Churchill and a lot more. Check him out on google.
I would add to the list, show weddings in that frightening church in the Boland, Bosjes, that looks like a dying swan.
Springbok jerseys unless, well even if, you are a Springbok.
Jacuzzis (secretly I long for one).
Coloured sheets, gas braais, fitted kitchens and tiled floors. Allergies. Coasters, silver service, duvets (always blankets and sheets), wine cellars — ok if you have a wine farm but an absolute no-no in your suburban house in the city bowl. Dimmers. I have never been to a grand house with dimmers and when I moved into my present house, I had no idea I had them until I'd lived here for 10 years. It was a revelation and sort of exciting, like visiting a fun fair. How the hell do you change the bulbs? Cheap lampshades (only pleated silk or a bare bulb) are unposh. Being Belgian. A gap year. Durban.
Of course there are lots of unposh names. I have one myself. My family in England did their best to get Lynette to sound like the bird linnet but it never caught on. My grandmother said, “I don’t know what your mother was thinking of." Well, it was my pa and he was thinking of his old South African girlfriend. Most women in South Africa are called Lynette or names with an arbitrary accent stuck on anywhere, like Richelè.
Charlize Theron and Charlene, Princess of Monaco, two monstrous names belonging to South Africans, almost caused an international incident. Questions were asked about the name Charlene (for the record, her ma is called Lynette, and Roger Federer’s ma as well) in parliament which nearly broke up the House of Grimaldi as it desperately tried to make it sound less Benoni.
Toff names: Humphrey is toff, so is Piers but not Pierre, far too French. Araminta is posh and so is Imogen. The famous writer and adventurer Bruce Chatwin, although posh as could be, could not get rid of that irredeemable name.
Meals are where class rears its ugly head most. What do you call the meal you have in the evening? If it is tea, then you are working class. The high tea experience is beyond common. Toffs eat late, dinner is never before 8pm. When I first lived in London, I found this tricky. I was always asking people to dinner at 6. “That’s drinks," my toff flat mate used to scream. “Drinks at 6, dinner at 8, got it?" On my own I eat at 5.30.
Favourite toff food is a boiled egg and sometimes they splash out on macaroni cheese, never Italian cheese. Eyetie or any foreign food is looked down on; garlic is thought to be a plot against humanity. In Jeremy Paxman's book On Royalty, he referenced the royals' weird attitude to the soft-boiled egg. He said: “Because Charles' staff were never quite sure whether the egg would be precisely to the satisfactory hardness, a series of eggs was cooked and laid out in an ascending row of numbers."
While other people’s parents were instructing their kids on how to negotiate financial deals, the four-minute boiled egg was drummed into my head. To this day I can boil an egg like no-one else. I was once beaten for boiling it for half a minute over time.
Table manners are vital. My parents were obsessed with no elbows on the table. To this day I am not sure what damage an elbow on the table can do. Never cut bread, always break it, use the butter knife and eat everything, even pudding (never dessert or sweets), with a fork. Never leave anything on your plate. Once, dining with a very posh family, the 105-year-old grandmother picked up her plate and licked it.
By now you must know that it’s not serviette but napkin and better still a vadoek. According to a grand-net-worth woman I know, it is absolutely the best thing. When she had a minor royal to lunch recently, I noticed a vadoek was handed round. “So sensible," she said, “saves on laundry bills."
Toffs believe in advanced frugality, turn off hot water geysers, walk rather than take a car. Don’t overdo the food. Think boarding school (very posh), prison (quite posh), borstal, Eton. After ex-Etonian Simon Mann sailed through Black Beach Prison in Equatorial Guinea he said, “Once you’ve been to Eton, stuff like this is easy-peasy."
Rachel Johnson says she thinks being posh is having a good education (you might not make the right connections in algebra but, like Kate Middleton, you might meet a future king). But a lot of older toffs pride themselves on being uneducated. My grandmother said to me, “I hope you’re not going to be clever. We don’t encourage clever girls in our family." Posh people frown on blue stockings.
When Boris Johnson advertised for people to work at 10 Downing Street he said, “A degree is not necessary."
Other signs of poshness are having an AGA stove even if you only boil an egg. Rachel Johnson has two. Shooting sticks are posh, to perch on at polo and get piles; a shooting brake car is smart, hopeless in traffic, but made to convey guns, dogs, dead animals etc. It is not an SUV, which has four doors and is deeply unposh.
It is posh to drive an old Land-Rover. Driving through Africa is posh if you live to tell the tale. Rachel Johnson also thinks croquet is posh which I don’t, indelibly MC I would say, if not downright common.
Anything French, especially food, is too unposh even to talk about, and speaking fluent French is out of the question. An aunt of mine who couldn’t be bothered to learn French just spoke English with a heavy French accent, which is basically what French is. I recently watched a YouTube video of Boris spluttering through a speech in schoolboy French when he is capable of fluent French. Stuttering is uber toff. Few people come out of Eton without a stage 4 stutter.
Being Afrikaans is very posh. The world loves boers because they can play rugby and were brave soldiers in the Boer War. Dual citizenship is beyond posh.
Toff accessories: a small revolver is always posh, as is anything to do with a horse. A boot jack is posh. Big stones — an emerald the size of a small dog is fine but don’t bother with small gems. An engagement ring is so common I can hardly write the words. Signet rings in 22-carat gold with family crests are still posh if worn on the little finger but might be going out of fashion, since Indian maharajahs and Nigerian romance scammers have taken to them. Wedding rings on men are signally unposh.
Bags are a big problem for toffs. Obviously, you can’t have Vuitton, and a rucksack is for vegans. A very grand toff I know carries his stuff in a plastic supermarket bag and complains he had to pay R6 for it.
Panama hats were posh, but if they cost less than £1,000 (R23,000) it is better to wear an old towel. Too many were used by Ivory and Merchant to signify upper-classness in their achingly naff movies.
Toffs never wear leisurewear, sports shoes with logos or driving gloves. They do wear puffers, and going out with a group of toffs is like dating your hot water cylinder.
They live in shacks (I met a duke living under a palm tree on a Kenyan beach) or country houses with one bathroom and 25 bedrooms, or a wine farm with a gable dating from the 17th century. Or Stellenbosch. They never have bathrooms en suite and sometimes walk for miles just to pee. They never have pots under the bed and struggle up, even from deathbeds. Toffs hate anything convenient.
But the main thing about toffs is they don’t care a hoot what you think about them. Just don’t criticise their dogs.
♦ VWB ♦
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