Blithe Young Tories

One of the funniest scenes in the new Stephen Fry movie, Bright

Young Things, happens when one of the eponymous socialites, played by the

fabulously-named Fenella Woolgar, fails to recognise the Prime Minister when

he joins her for breakfast. It’s a cheap joke, but it’s effective: it manages

to perfectly encapsulate the bubble of privilege surrounding posh youngsters

in England between the wars.

The really shocking thing about the film (which is only new to Americans: it

came out ages ago in Europe) is not how much England has changed since the 30s,

but how little. The vile bodies of the book

upon which the film is based are still out in force; the public still salivates

over the excesses of the rich and famous, and the hypocrisy of the landed and

monied classes is as egregious as it ever was. In England, as in America, we

are living in what Paul Krugman calls a "new gilded age", and whatever

lessons were learned during the war have evidently, by this point, been forgotten.

What’s more, the clubby world of the Eton-and-Oxford privileged classes is

very much alive and well. And as both the film and the book show, the superficially

attractive life of its denizens is often very unhappy indeed in reality. The

fact that rich people can be unhappy is, of course, nothing new, and certainly

not unique to England. But the English public school system is, I think, particularly

good at ratcheting up the misery for those who are for whatever reason not so

good at playing the game.

This fact was hammered home for me recently, when I spent some time with a

real world Eton-and-Oxford type: let’s call him Carlton Fitzsimmons. He grew

up, of course, in a wealthy family, with only the briefest exposure to those

less well-off than he. He certainly sounds to anybody hearing his voice for

the first time like an archetypal braying young Tory, but there’s also the slightest

touch of the nouveau about him: his father is a property developer who named

his first-born son after himself. (Hence the Carlton: it’s actually a middle

name, used to distinguish him from his dad.)

Carlton did not have a happy childhood. Sent off to boarding school at a young

age, he never really fit in with his peers, and spent most of his time at Eton

bullied and friendless. A bit of a nerd, he was good at mathematics, and retreated

into a world of maths problems and videogames. And his public school sheltered

him: he never needed to leave its walls, never needed to practice human interaction

with normal people – never even got much of an opportunity to meet girls.

At school, he scrounged some measure of self-confidence from his high grades,

while at home he learned contempt for the lazy poor from his father.

Today, then, Carlton judges people by how intelligent he thinks they are –

a very narrow criterion, which mainly has to do with how good they are at mathematics.

He has no interest in – indeed, very little comprehension of – the

type of insights that other people might have and he does not: for him, being

socially adept, for instance, is something to be envied, perhaps, but not admired.

Carlton even has a certain amount of contempt for his mother, who, despite the

fact that she’s responsible for maintaining basically all his family’s friendships,

doesn’t have the analytical nous of his father.

Eton persuaded Carlton that academic success was synonymous with intelligence,

even as his family’s wealth gave him an idea of how he was going to operate

successfully in the real world. All he needed to do was stay on the right side

of his parents, and he could end up running a fleet of flats in Fulham, making

a very nice income – something, with his head for figures, which he’d

probably do very well. Without his parents’ wealth and property, on the other

hand, he would be forced to fend for himself in a world in which he found it

extremely difficult to interact with people or understand what they were thinking.

Carlton’s entire future, then, was tied up in inheriting his father’s properties.

When he got accepted to Oxford to read mathematics, it was either the best or

the worst thing that could have happened to him, depending on your point of

view. He managed to go to the one place where he could remain coddled in privilege,

and get through three years of university without being forced into unpleasant

encounters with the real world. During the summer, his father got him an internship

in the mortgage department of an investment bank, where he worked long hours

in a testosterone-filled environment learning the virtues of hard work and the

rewards of analytical thinking.

Carlton is an adult now, albeit far from grown up; he has had the best education

money can buy, but doesn’t know who Dick Cheney is. All the same, he has political

opinions: "I’m a conservative," he charmingly says, "because

my parents are loaded". Pushed on the subject, he’ll go as far as to say

that state education should be abolished altogether: if you can’t afford an

education, you shouldn’t get one.

A moment’s reflection, of course, would lead Carlton to realise what a stupid

idea that is – but somehow his education hasn’t trained him to think in

that way. His world is almost unthinkably narrow: it doesn’t include things

like social mobility and economic growth, but consists mainly of video games

and maths problems. In the ridiculously overspecialised world of the English

university, that’s not going to change.

Occasionally, of course, Carlton does meet people from outside his upper-class

bubble of landed privilege. The problem is that it doesn’t take most of them

long to work out that they don’t really like him, so he remains largely untouched

by the outside world, and reinforced in his belief that, well, nobody really

likes him. He’s driven increasingly inwards, into a world where self-pity takes

over from any idea that he might be able to change himself into someone that

people get on with.

I have no idea how all this is going to end up. My guess is that the chances

of Carlton seeing the world, opening his horizons, and getting some perspective

on his family’s place in the grand scheme of things are probably diminishing

quickly at this point. The English public school system has failed him, and

has created someone as well-rounded as a Donald Judd cube. What’s more, his

father was probably much the same, and if Carlton ever does find someone to

marry and settle down with (probably by sheer force of pounds sterling), his

son might well carry on the family tradition. Evelyn Waugh understood this,

but so did Philip Larkin.

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One Response to Blithe Young Tories

  1. Dominic says:

    Very interesting article, Felix.

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