One should never recount personal experiences – unless they lend themselves to extrapolation.
Hence I’d never mention meeting someone I’d regard as sui generis, say a sixtyish man wearing short trousers, a school blazer and socks with sandals. However, meeting someone so typical as to throw light on a cultural phenomenon is a different matter.
Such people are more (sometimes actually less) than individuals. They’re paradigms, personifications, illustrations. They elucidate by typifying, which makes them, well, not exactly interesting but useful, at least to a commentator on social mores.
In that spirit, the other day I found myself at a dinner party sitting next to an exceedingly successful and rather attractive woman, late 50s at a guess, but doing a good job trying to look younger.
Talking to such people, one realises how woefully one’s own life has been wasted. From the scant biographical details my dinner companion (let’s call her Libby) divulged, she grew up in South Kensington, which to a Londoner is what Fifth Avenue is to a New Yorker.
Libby was privately educated, which hardly needs mentioning. A degree at Oxbridge followed (I think) and then another one at Sciences Po in Paris, the hatchery of France’s political class.
She’s now a high-rolling international lawyer. Libby’s boyfriend is French, she told me, as is her divorced husband. Neither was present.
Once everyone’s travel stories had been exchanged, the conversation around the table veered to matters of shared interest: the EU, politics in general, monarchy and so forth.
When the first subject came up, Libby raised her eyebrows when I expressed views distinctly different from hers. That naturally prompted a query of my credentials.
“Do you know much about the EU?” asked Libby. “A fair amount, actually,” I replied to her obvious incredulity.
“Where were you educated?” was the next question and, realising that my modest Moscow university could compete with neither Oxbridge nor Sciences Po, I described that rubric in my CV as “the School of Hard Knockers followed by Screw U.”
Such levity only reinforced Libby’s sense of superiority, both innate and acquired. She voted Remain, she announced proudly, because Britain derives numerous benefits from EU membership.
Name one, I begged, at least one that justifies sacrificing our sovereignty, not to mention billions of pounds every year. Libby then proved her formidable intellectual background by demanding that I define sovereignty.
Self-government, I suggested, with all laws passed by our Parliament, rather than foreign legislative bodies. But all our politicians are inept, objected Libby, the implication being that Messrs Juncker, Tusk and Macron are intellectual giants of Aristotelian proportions.
Moreover, many of the EU laws are better than our own. That may be, I agreed, and I share her dim view of our governing elite. But this is a separate subject, and there I was, thinking we were talking about sovereignty.
Thus it’s conceivable that, had the Nazis won the war, they could have run France better than the French. But that wouldn’t have meant that France remained a sovereign country.
The lines were drawn. Libby had established her upbeat, interesting credentials that alone could be seen as socially acceptable, whereas I had shown myself to be an uncouth troglodyte mouthing ideas that weren’t just uncool but antediluvian.
And as to the benefits of EU membership, continued Libby, just look at how vibrant the City of London is. That would only mean something, I countered, if it could be shown that the City had been dormant in its torpor until 1992. But hadn’t it been the hub of Europe’s financial activity at least since the Congress of Vienna?
Libby took a dim view of that historical reference and went on to prove in the course of the evening that no such allusions cut much ice with her. The EU, she reiterated, is simply wonderful. It’s just that our successive governments handled it badly.
Thus Major shouldn’t have signed the Maastricht Treaty, Blair shouldn’t have agreed to a closer union, and Cameron shouldn’t have been born. At that point I added another blot to my copybook by drawing another parallel.
That’s the logic of Western communists, I said. Communism was a world-saving idea, but it was compromised by the Russians’ brutality and incompetence. Should Western communists get the chance, they’d get things right.
Wouldn’t it more logical to believe that, if an idea proved monstrous everywhere it was tried, it’s a monstrous idea? And, if every British government failed to work the EU properly, could it be that it’s unworkable?
That logic was way too spurious for Libby’s taste. As far as she was concerned, the inexorable march of history began in 1992, and it was pointless looking backwards or even sideways.
That’s why, she explained, she detested monarchy in general and the British monarchy in particular, although she simply adored the Queen. Had she met her? Well, no. So how did she know the Queen is adorable? Surely one couldn’t separate a monarch from the monarchy?
Yes one could, insisted Libby and effortlessly segued to Jacob Rees-Mogg, whom she loathed. Why? Because “he speaks from a position of privilege”.
Libby liked that turn of phrase so much that, facing my objections over the next five minutes, she repeated it 12 times. I kept the score and congratulated her each time she ran it up.
Which of his ideas are based on his privileged background? Rees-Mogg speaks from a position of privilege.
Does that disqualify anything such a person says? We’ve had a few decent PMs who were even more privileged, Churchill for one. Rees-Mogg speaks from a position of privilege.
But I thought all Leavers were lowly, illiterate louts, not privileged individuals. Rees-Mogg speaks from a position of privilege.
But ad hominems are rhetorical fallacies. One should address the intrinsic value of a man’s ideas, not his personality. Rees-Mogg speaks from a position of privilege.
And so forth, ad infinitum. I wasn’t talking to a person. My interlocutor was a mouthpiece for stock mantras, easily replaceable with any other mouthpiece of the same mantras. In fact, I could have scripted every sentence Libby said before she said it.
The mantras are dominant among the illiterati at London’s smarter parties; they are the password one has to utter to gain admittance to the smarter parties.
This dovetails neatly with the theme of my yesterday’s article on social envy and hatred.
The fashionists, the reflux of the social digestion in their country and their class, can’t sound interesting to their own kind unless they profess contempt for both the country and the class. They use a ladder to climb high up and then kick the ladder away.
Their supposedly towering, but in fact clichéd and dull, minds feel suffocated within any narrow confines, be those of their nation with everything that makes it national, their own upbringing (“For a second there I thought you grew up in Peckham, not South Ken,” I teased Libby) – even elementary logic.
Their amour propre co-exists in dialectical symbiosis with haine propre. Like a prostitute pretending to be virginal to please some clients, they try to keep their true selves away from prying eyes.
Yet both the girl and her customer know this is make-believe, not real life. It’s just the game they play. Oh well, personally I prefer tennis.