Christine Tongue: The Hand Made Suit’s Tale

Christine Tongue

I always thought I was middle class – I have a degree or two, I’ve been a college lecturer and a film producer. I’ve never made a lot of money but I thought that even though my dad was a factory worker I wasn’t working class.

How wrong I was!

I’ve just been helping a friend with research for a book about bullying in public life. We went to a posh corporate office block London to interview the head of a “think tank” about how he’d been pushed around by his political superiors.

We sat in the cafe in the huge glass and marble atrium of the building and I realised just how far down the lower orders I actually am.

My goodness he was posh! From his accent to his stiff upper lip and his hand stitched suit he was through and through ruling class. And knew he was.

But he’d been badly treated by people even posher than him – you know old Etonians and Bullingdon Club chaps.

He’d been promised jobs, lied to, set up with TV interviews where he’d been trashed instead of the person really responsible, etc etc. And he really wanted to talk about it and shop them in his turn.

Lavish

But all I could think about was the lavish space we were sitting in and how many unnecessary but stylish flights of steps there were, all slippery with polish and teeming with youngish go-getters like him, frantically networking and scared to smile in case it wasted their time. No place for an elderly stick user!

While we talked he ate one of the cafe sarnies – a bright red beetroot wrap with hot smoked salmon – spectacularly chi chi. There was NO ordinary bread in the place, that’s how posh it was.

In my youth I would have wanted to sink into the ground on account of being so outclassed and apologise for my Midlands accent. But I looked at him – he’s not a pretty boy, his lower teeth are crossed, his hair is thinning and he’s a bit chubby – and I started feeling sorry for him.

Unfortunately for him when I asked how he felt about all the unpleasantness he’s been put through he failed my humanity test – he said: “I just got angry”.

My theoretical real human would have known that the older lady in front of him might judge him more kindly if he talked about his emotions at being betrayed so thoroughly. But he didn’t.

Not sure the upper crust does emotions.

Posh trousers

He then said he had to pop off for an interview with some European TV company and if we hung around he’d tell us more. And could he leave his big bag with us.

“Is that your best suit?” I asked – it looked like a suit bag.

“No, it’s my trousers. I’m taking them to my tailor to be let out as I’ve put on weight.”

MY TAILOR!!!

I don’t know anyone in Thanet who says that except as a joke.

So, he trusted me with his trousers and I went off to explore the lavish corporate loos.

More marble, very heavy doors, fancy hand-wash and thin toilet paper (meanies!). And not an accessible lav in sight.

I enquired as I left about wheelchair access and the porter – wearing a uniform that rivalled the Coldstream Guards – said “Oh we do but the lift’s out of order.”

“I’ve mended your trousers” I quipped when he came back.

He just looked puzzled. I don’t think his mum ever mended anything.

Real misery

We dutifully recorded his story and I think he felt better for telling it, but as we walked back to Victoria station, past the homeless preparing their doorways with cardboard and searching the bins for supper, I did wish he could swap just one night with one of them and see what real misery is.

Instead he took a cab to his West End tailor who was staying open late for him to bring in his trousers.

Please contact me via [email protected] if you’ve been bullied in public life and tell me your story.

5 Comments

  1. This is an interesting article because, among other issues, it discusses what we mean by “class”. Like Christine, I was brought up in poor circumstances and have a distinct regional accent. But, like her, I went to University, and then I got a “white-collar” , “professional” job. And now I am retired and living reasonably securely in a three-bed semi in the suburbs. So I must be “middle-class” then? Obvious!?
    But if I need any money suddenly, I haven’t got it. I would need to borrow from a Bank etc. Or work. In fact, I have needed to work to make money all of my life. There were no other sources of cash. No investments. No pots of family money or property portfolios to play with. And, at work, I was not in charge of anybody else and I just carried out my “professional, white-collar ” tasks according to the rules and instructions laid down by superiors. So, as far as I am concerned I am Working Class and the fact that I might mix my own muesli, and eat hummus, and visit museums and art galleries (sometimes a bit reluctantly) does not make me “Middle Class” because, in the end, our situation is determined by how we make our money and where we sit in the hierarchy of power that decides what class we are in. I suspect that many people who think they are “Middle Class ” and may even look down on others because of their job, accent or lifestyle might benefit from examining their own job realities before making assumptions based on superficial lifestyle choices.
    Like Christine, I suspect the world would be a better place if we were all more realistic about our true situation.

  2. Fascinating – can we still classify people? Our son went straight from a comprehensive at the bottom end of the borough to RAF Cranwell and is now a Wing Commander! Our daughter has a degree, so has her husband, they own a big house ( and a bigger mortgage ) and have a cleaner. Our youngest didn’t get as far as A levels, but is the only one in the family to have avoided working for the government, builder’s labourer one of the many things he can turn his hand to. Where we live now our various neighbours have gardeners, a lawn service, cleaners and shirts washed and ironed at the dry cleaners. All things we have never had! But do those things count or does going to classical concerts and listening to Radio 4 make you middle class? In the end is it serious money, property and influence that count? They are welcome to it, I don’t think I would like to be ‘Up There!’

  3. Was Hilda Murrell posh Christine ?

    My bro was something of a social climber. He decided to invite a wealthy couple as guests at an RAF Officer mess dinner. “Mick and Sue”

    It turned out “Sue” (pronounced Sooo) lurved waine. But Mick only liked ale. He would not drink wine even to impress. He insisted on ordering beer from the steward while using a rural accent. To heap embarrassment on my bro his RAF colleague’s mimicked Mike and asked if he took beer at his parents’ dinner parties. “Aah”

    So the ribbing continued. “Mike where does your dad work ?”

    “Foundry .. Qualcast and the like makes lawnmowers”

    “And what is dad’s job title Mike ? Does he have an ale on way home ?”

    Mike took a sip of his beer “His job title is owner.”

    Who was the only Old Etonian in the mess ??

    • This is a good example of the distinctions I was making. The man who spoke with a regional accent and preferred beer to wine was , regardless of his lifestyle choices, “Middle” or, given his father’s ownership of a significant company, even “Upper ” class. Your culture and lifestyle is very interesting, of course, but your class is determined by whether you OWN the means of production, distribution and exchange , or whether you work for somebody else who is the owner. If your money comes from employing other people to do your work for you, you are part of the Middle and Upper classes. On the other hand, if your main income is derived from working for another person or large institution, you are working class.

      I would be a lot better off if I had a pound for every time a journalist referred to Sir Alan Sugar as being “working class” because of his accent and origins when he is obviously a well-heeled part of the Ruling class , regardless of where he came from originally or how he pronounces his words.

      Alhough, I have no idea who was the old Etonian and where Hilda Murrell comes into it.

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