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.