My paternal Grandmother, long dead, used to work “downstairs.” You know what I mean – big country house, think Chatsworth. Upstairs were the landed gentry. Downstairs were the servants. We’re probably talking 1930s and 1940s. Through the war. It was a symbiotic relationship that probably worked, at the time, and sort of.
When I was a teenager…
…my Gran cleaned houses in Bearsden. Let’s say it was 1980. One of the houses she cleaned was near my school gate. I jumped over the fence one lunchtime to go and see my Gran. I think I had convinced her to remove a fiver out of my post office savings account that I was going to blow on a Mitre 5 – the football de nos jours.
The lady of the house (born c. 1900 I’d say) was there when I knocked. She asked me what I was going to do after I left school. I said I was going to University to study Chemistry.
My Gran told me…
…later that the lady had expressed huge and unwelcome surprise that someone related to her cleaner could scale such heights. In fact she doubted it could happen and thought I was probably making it up.
My Gran was shocked herself that I was going to University. She was genuinely distressed when I stayed on to do the PhD. She told me it really was time I got a job so that I could look after my mother.
I remember reading some feedback about me…
…at an ICI assessment centre. Say around 1991, Wilton, Teesside. Three day event. Hard to pass. One of the assessors, a man whose ancestors were probably upstairs people wrote (knowing it would be read by me) that there was “something of the barrow boy about Mark.” Now I have no problem with barrow boys but I suspect this was not a full-on complement. But the twits had to pass me. The worm was turning.
A few months ago I took my boys to peer through the window of the Maclaren dealership in Knutsford. They make supercars at superprices. We were not the only gawpers. There was a greasy smear across the length of the plate glass window at about three feet off the ground. Little boys with sticky fingers.
Me and my boys pushed open the door…
…and walked into the empty showroom. We were treated like kings. The boys got free posters and other stuff of immense value to boys. Photos were taken. Chats with the staff were had. I could be new money you know.
We were in there for twenty minutes. I could see the envious faces of the wee boys outside whose father’s had insufficient nerve to push the heavy door open.
The same thing worked a few miles away at the Aston Martin dealership in Wilmslow. They could not have been nicer. They were upset that I wouldn’t accept a test drive.
The world has changed.
It wasn’t so long ago in this sceptered isle that you could tell with high accuracy if someone had money and education by the way they dressed and their accent. This has largely broken down.
But there’re a lot of people who know their place. They limit themselves.
And as for the people who think they know your place – they are rapidly going the way of the dinosaurs.
So where’s your head – upstairs or downstairs?