The prime minister and his fiancee have got it badly wrong over their reported disdain for John Lewis.
On contemplating the national orgy of curtain-twitching that’s accompanied Dominic Cummings’s revelations regarding the refurbishment of the prime minister’s flat in Number 11, Downing Street, Oscar Wilde’s valedictory bon mot comes to mind: days before expiring in a cheap Parisian hotel, he told a fellow drinker in a local café: “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go.” In Johnson’s case, he’ll have to go when he leaves office – while the wallpaper he and his fiancé, Carrie Symonds, have had hung at great cost – both financial and political – may well remain only so long as it takes his successor to drum up the necessary funds to replace it in turn.
Convulsed by the infinitesimal gradations of class consciousness – and hence snobbery – implicit in the refurb’ scandal, the British and their media have zeroed in on a remark reported by journalist Anne McElvoy, quoting a “visitor” to the flat, that living in the “John Lewis nightmare” left behind by their predecessor, Theresa May, was insupportable. That the British public should even be able to register the fine distinctions between a grammar-school educated vicar’s daughter and the Old Etonian son of a wealthy dilettante, demonstrates that while we may all be in the gutter – contra another of Oscar’s apercus – almost all of us remain fixated by the stars.
Ire has attached most to the implied dissing of May, and behind her all the never-knowingly-overpaying ranks of decent middle-class John Lewis shoppers – but while the slight has been exhaustively detailed from the déclassé point of view, no one’s given much consideration to the cultural attitudes that might underpin this assumption: buying interior furnishings exclusively from a single high-end department store is simply infra dig. A few weeks ago, Multicultural Man was considering the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, wherein ageing, impermanence and imperfection are all seen as desirable attributes, evocative of the unavoidable evanescence of all being, whether material or social. And the British ruling classes partake of their own version of this.
Why wouldn’t they? Both Japanese and British society exhibit a curious continuity of feudal cultural mores into the modern era – a by-product, one assumes, of the huge concentration of landed wealth in both. For Japanese nobs it’s the verdigris on an ancient copper urn, while for their British counterparts it’s the patina on their many-times re-waxed Barbour jackets, but in both cultures it’s the paradoxical evidence of continuity and decay that matters: the ownership of objects that, by virtue of their slow ageing, indicate the antiquity of our patrimony itself.
If it were only a matter of old money knocking off nouveau riche chips, the John Lewis jibe wouldn’t, however, have caused quite the ruckus it has. The fascinating thing about the spat is that it reveals a layer of social ritual where a certain sort of cultural capital still escapes mere monetary evaluation: you cannot buy your way into this particular interior. In fact, Johnson and Symonds aren’t particularly wealthy – certainly not by the standards of those they aspire to be like: the high-bohemian upper classes. Their deployment of the John Lewis jibe should be to show that they value expensive things more than Theresa May – but far less: for this legerdemain is the distinctive mark of the British aristocrat.
No one understood this more than that Wilde colonial boy, who labelled England “the native land of the hypocrite”. The Hôtel l’Alsace, where he finally succumbed to the aftereffects of their dreadful hypocrisy is only a hop and a skip from the Latin Quarter, where Henri Murger set his Scènes de la vie de bohème. Wilde’s drawing room comedies achieve some of their finest satiric effects by pointing up the acute dissonance between the English aristocracy’s bohemian mores and their rigid cleaving to the conventions that ensure their power and money. Johnson’s financial and philoprogenitive profligacy – if he’s skint, it’s because he spends a lot on child support amongst other things – is a far more fundamental shtick than the rumpled hair or the plosive delivery.
And there’s something odious, isn’t there, about pretending to have the freethinking attitudes of impoverished artists and writers, when you’re really only interested in maximising either your share portfolio, or those of the friends you hope will enrich you once you leave office. But recall: this is an act the aristocracy have been pulling off for generations: bumbling about, saying silly things and sleeping with other people’s wives, while hanging on for precious life to what they have, until it’s time to pass it on to the next generation of hypocrites.
Perhaps the only real pleasure to be gained from this entire miserable, more-boring-than-watching-Osborne-and-Little-paint-dry saga is to reflect on how wrong the Symonds-Johnsons have got it. (Almost as wrong as if they had hyphenated their names in the belief that the insertion of this little typographic stick might pole-vault them into the upper echelon they so devoutly wish to inhabit.) What Symonds (daughter of hacks, educated at a second-string fee-paying school and Warwick University) clearly doesn’t get, is that having your gaff tricked out by a trendy bespoke designer such as Lulu Lytle, exposes you as non-U quite as much as buying everything off-the-peg at John Lewis. Probably more.