How common are you?

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The things that Nicholas Ponsonby Haslam considers common have gained another chapter. The 84-year-old interior designer, columnist and socialite has just released “The Fifth Nicky Haslam Common List”. His pronouncement is printed on a tea towel and was unveiled on Instagram on Sunday. An unsigned version can be purchased for £40 via email. A personalised version will cost you fifty quid. 

As per the previous four, Haslam’s list is as acerbic as it is entertaining: particular favourites this year include “Your brownies recipe” and “Choupette” (the late Karl Lagerfeld’s pampered cat). He has a distaste for “Festivals” and “Grieving”. “Needing house keys” and “Selling your business” are considered common, too.

I find the list hilarious, even though it is presented in two criminally vulgar fonts: I especially enjoy the assertion that Grayson Perry, his wife and The Repair Shop (a beloved BBC show in which ordinary folk bring in their family “heirlooms” for rehabilitation) fail to meet the Haslam standard. But the real joy is less in who has been singled out for ridicule, as it is in the arbitrary sweep of his distaste. “Strawberries”, “Aliens” and “Fly-pasts” are also common. As is Puglia and “Aperol anything”. 

And what is “common” anyway these days? It’s neither an objective descriptor, nor necessarily a signifier of one’s class. Collins dictionary (probably extremely common) describes it as someone lacking in “taste, education and good manners”. Haslam’s list doesn’t favour the wealthy: he reserves as much contempt for the royal family (specifically, “Wales family in blue”) as he does for Wimbledon. Instead, it’s a skewering of all things middlebrow.

Haslam’s list is a total fiction. It’s just, to coin a very common phrase, a bit of fun. As with any social classification, snobbery is the preserve of a bully who invents a new game but won’t then share the rules. It’s a booby-trapped assessment, a ghastly parlour game. It’s a particular peccadillo of the British to create opaque classifications to connote one’s standing in a group.

Haslam’s tea-towel manifesto is the latest in a long tradition in which the ruling classes devise ways to put others in their place. Nancy Mitford’s 1954 essay “The English Aristocracy” was one of the first to codify a system: her work was based on an article by Professor Alan S C Ross, of the University of Birmingham, in which he argued that the upper classes could be identified through their use of certain words. Mitford then established the vocabulary that defined the “U” upper classes and the “non-U” lower castes. 

Interior designer Nicky Haslam with his ‘Common List’ tea towel

Another playful exposition of social mores, her essay established an official language for the toffs. English people still fall into paroxysms of anxiety as to whether they should say “couch” (non-U) or “sofa”, or “mirror” (non-U) or “looking-glass.” Mitford tickled the preoccupation in English society for wanting desperately to be accepted. The sport of defining a dwindling and then enfeebled aristocracy (in postwar Labour Britain) was also seized on by John Betjeman and Evelyn Waugh. 

The whole debate is extremely silly. But such lists gnaw on the base terror that, no matter how hard you thrust to reach the next tier, you will never actually belong. One is reminded of Charles Ryder in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, pathetically craving the gilded halls of high society while fretting about words like “righty-o.” Such tiny snobberies reinforce our weird delusion that we, too, hold the keys to power. If we say napkin or thea-et-ter (with that weird extra vowel that posh people love to give it), we will gain entry to the club. 

The obsession with upward mobility continues to exact a cultural power: Emerald Fennell’s much-touted new film Saltburn revisits Brideshead in a modern guise, in which an Oxbridge undergraduate from Merseyside is drawn into the orbit of the uber-wealthy Catton family. Without the postwar melancholia, Catholicism and social context, it looks a little thin, but it’s interesting that nearly 80 years after the book’s first publication, the same themes still inspire. Meanwhile, on Netflix, The Crown will commence its sixth and final series next week, bringing the royal drama to the present day — a huge feature of which will surely be the ascent of commoner Kate Middleton from St Andrew’s fashion plate to Princess of Wales. 

Britain’s 600 or so aristocratic families remain an exclusive gang. Far from being weak, as they were when Mitford wrote her 1954 essay, many of them have continued to accrue vast wealth and overpopulate the highest echelons of power. Today’s success stories are as likely to be TikTok influencers from Harlesden as they are debutantes or lords. But do you like a “pop of colour”? Bad luck, you’re as common as muck, too.

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