Interview with a modern gentleman

von Countess Claire

„Indispensable in a shipwreck and acceptable at a ball“

Ihr interessiert euch doch alle hier für den Themenkreis Adel-British Style, über den ich gern schreibe. Bestimmt habt ihr euch schon mal gefragt, wie ich eigentlich zu diesem Steckenpferd komme. Daher ist es mir eine ganz besonders große Freude, euch heute meinen British Style Experten und Vertreter der britischen Upper Class vorzustellen. Ed, ein richtiger „modern gentleman“, ist ein alter Bekannter von mir und hat sich nach vielen Jahren überreden lassen, mir für meinen Blog ein Interview zu geben.  Als Absolvent einer der bekanntesten Eliteschulen Großbritanniens, nämlich Stowe, und dank seiner familiären Herkunft kann er uns viel über das Leben in der britischen Oberschicht erzählen.

Ed’s U English – von seiner geschliffenen Aussprache, der sogenannten „Received Pronunciation“ (solltet ihr mal hören, einfach perfekt!) ganz zu schweigen – möchte ich euch nicht vorenthalten. Daher werde ich das Interview nicht auf Deutsch übersetzen.

Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire

Welcome, Ed!

Welcome to my blog, dear Ed! I’m delighted that I was finally able to convince you to give me an interview. It’s a unique opportunity for us all to hear some insider’s stories about Upper Class life. I’m sure my readers will be thrilled. Could you please introduce yourself?

As you said I’m Ed and always lived in the UK. Simply put I just love the UK and it’s countryside way of life too much. I was brought up always loving the countryside and everything that goes with it. For example game shooting (pheasants, partridge etc…), fishing among other sports. Furthermore conservation of the countryside, down to just walking through it and being in it.

My grandparents taught me how unique it really was. Grandpa was born in 1916 and grew up in the 20’s and 30’s. As a result I learned his love of the countryside from an age and time that are very different to today. For instance, in a lot of cases even farmers used to wear a jacket and tie in the fields back then.

Traditions in present times

However, many of the same traditions still carry on unaltered but just at a faster pace and less formal to keep in line with the modern world. The next time you’re flying over the UK, look down and see our small fields (by comparison to Europe), and our hedges – I always think they make the UK look like a lovely patchwork quilt. It is our hedges and the number of them that make the UK countryside quite unique I think.

Entzückende Cottages in den Cotswolds – beispielhafte ländliche Idylle

I would say that I’m a 65/35 countryside to London in my personality. I lived in London for several years after university working in the City of London in insurance and living in Fulham – loved my time in London! Endless bars, pubs and friends around when not in the office. My friends from Austria and Germany used to think I was mad when I said central London was small, but I really think it is.

Next time you’re there, avoid using the tube and walk above ground and you will see what I mean. I moved out of London in 2017 and for the last few years I have been working for a family company which we launched in September 2017. Now I’m putting all my time and energy into trying to grow this business and make it successful.

Years in Public School

As an Old Stoic (so nennt man die Absolventen von Stowe) you went to one of the most prestigious public schools in Great Britain. Would you do us the favour to tell us a bit more about Stowe and public schools in general? 

Public schools are all very different and all have different things that they seem to give their pupils by osmosis during their time there. For boys you go between the ages of 13-18, so it is really important to find the right school for the person rather than just inherit a school from a parent.

At Stowe in my day (not that it was that long ago!), it was for the less academically gifted. More of us were better in other non academic areas then, but now that has changed. A lot of my friends had older siblings at Eton and Harrow, or their fathers had been to one or other. When I was dropped off for my first day (not being very sporty and only being competative against my own expectations for myself) my mother said to my housemaster “Edward won’t volunteer himself for anything…“, before she had time to finish my housemaster replied “Don’t worry, I run this house like a dictatorship and he won’t have a choice.“ He meant it and there was limited negotiation, I soon learnt.

It helped you develop and go outside your comfort zone. By not having a choice in matters, a strength of character was developed and you learned to get on with something regardless. There was no time to think am I or am I not enjoying this? There was no point as you were already doing it. Of course if you put your case forward as to why you really didn’t want to do something, then you might be able to get out of it, but it had to be an excellent reason.

Stowe School – renommierte Privatschule

Stowe was run like most Public Schools along military lines in terms of discipline. Everything is organised down to the last detail every moment of the day – even when you have free time! It was a very very happy school because of the discipline, you always knew where you stood in the pecking order and I loved my time there.

The path to become a „modern gentleman“

Our school was split into houses, 10 in all when I was there and about 60-70 boys in each house, except for the 2 girls houses and they were 6th from only at the time. All houses were always competing on the sports fields and in any other way possible; such as house debating competitions, house singing competitions etc… so that everybody had a chance to find what they were good at and might excel at later on in life. Even for those not taking part in a competition attendance to an event could be made compulsory by your housemaster in order to show your house spirit and sport your house team in their efforts. In reality it was just making sure you were out of the house if you had nothing to do and could be given a task to accomplish.

In conclusion, boarding was great as over the 5 years you make life long friendships and each day all your friends were in one place. At Stowe we had 700 acres (280 ha) of the finest landscape gardens in Europe surrounding the school to run around in when we had free time. Just imagine for teenage boys, no parents, teachers that can’t be eveywhere at once and prefects who if they knew you and liked you would turn a blind eye. Quite often house prefects would tip you off if you made it back to house without being caught. In addition they told you how to avoid your housemaster for the next few hours in order to set up a good alibi should your fellow conspirators in other houses get caught.

Rules in Stowe

After all, the school rules were simple. Follow them or be punished, but only if caught! Obviously it created this fun cat and mouse game with teachers as naturally we didn’t want to get caught, but we also wanted to test the boundaries and see what we could get away with like any teenagers. In addition, there were always 2 systems in operation; school and house. School punishments consisted of getting up early in the morning a couple of hours before breakfast and the same in the evening (until your year groups “lights out“ i.e bedtime) to do extra work. Contrary if house punishments, you might be made to go on a run if you weren’t very good at running or write a 2 page essay as to why what you had done was a bad idea. In addition, house punishments were more imaginative and each house had their own.

Harrow, eine weitere Public School

Why actually Public School?

Apparently education is of the utmost importance for the Upper Classes. But can anyone who is doing well at primary school get into a Public School or is there an admissions process that also takes one’s background into account?

Education is imporant at Public Schools, but it is far more important to become a rounded individual. There is a big emphasis on social and practical skills, as well as academics. The ability to hold a conversation, raise points of view in a polite and charming manner without causing offence or being arrogant is vital. Additionally, holding doors open for members of staff and ladies in particular. In short thinking about it now, the foundations of how to become a modern gentleman.

The ethos at Stowe was set out when it was first set up in 1923 (as it is one of the younger Public Schools) by the first Headmaster, he is meant to have said, I learned a few years after leaving, that he wanted Stoics to be “indispensable in a shipwreck and acceptable at a ball.“ How true that is I don’t know, but it seems about right from my experience.

Admissions process

In years gone by Public Schools were only for the social elite or rich industrialists. These days and for a very long time, there have been scholarships and bursaries in place in order to give opportunities to those who are less financially well off. In some cases at the bigger more established schools the scholarships can be 100% of the school fees for the full 5 years. The schools have adapted and evolved into realising that there are those who are academically gifted who will thrive with the better academic education Public Schools can offer, by of employing better teachers and smaller classes sizes. Some of my teachers had been to Oxford or Cambridge, had been to Public School themselves and were now giving us the benefit of their skills and knowledge.

Yes, there are entrance exams, and the pass marks for those applying for scholarships is far higher than those applying just for an ordinary place as you would expect. Background has nothing to do with the admissions process, these days with fees at £32,000+ per year it is more about the schools actually finding families that can afford it. In fact, it is a big financial commitment to invest in a child’s education.

When I left Stowe, I didn’t come out with fantastic academic results. They were perfectly respectable and adequate to progress to the next stage to do the course I wanted to at University. However, I did leave with lifelong friendships, happy memories, a network I belonged to call the Old Stoic Society to which every Old Stoic belongs to for life (each Public School has their own network), and I hopefully learnt to be “indispensable in a shipwreck and acceptable at a ball“.

The British social class system

What about social class? For me as a sociologist there seems to be no other country in Europe with such an enormously strict class system like in the United Kingdom, despite many say, classes are not important anymore. In my humble opinion someone’s personal background, particularly the family origin, might play a big role. What do you think about it?

In the UK we have been in the past obsessed with social class and in some ways but to a much lesser extent still are today. Happily, in the majority of circumstances gone are the days of people doffing caps to others or people saying “Sir“ to those who in days of old might have been thought of a better. There is only one country that is more obsessed with a class system I know of and that is India with their very rigid caste system. To my mind the social classes in the UK break down into the following:

  • Upper Class – these are the aristocrats and their children with titles
  • Upper Middle Class – these are the gentry, gentleman farmers, and aristocrats grandchildren who will not inherit any title and generally the older families in the UK
  • Middle Middle Class
  • Lower Middle Class
  • Working Class

wo trägt man hut

Ein typischer Upper Class Event

In relation to the breakdown of social classes I can think of people who would be deemed to be Upper Class that I’ve come across I would try and keep away from. Contrary I have friends who would consider themselves Working Class that I really enjoy spending time with chatting and learning. I find that in the countryside people are less bothered about social class and less judgemental.

How important is the ancestry?

Indeed, family background does play a big part as to how we can be judged, but in todays day and age I hope on the whole we now judge others by their actions, rather than by the bed or family they were born into. After all the world naturally breaks us down into groups by our similaraties in upbringing, lifestyle and our interests in life. To have something in common with somebody else, social class doesn’t even feature as a consideration. The point being that a common interest gives you someting to talk about regardless of class from supporting a sports team to beekeeping.

That said, I know that in Austria and Germany where the aristocracy has ceased to exist or be formally recognised, these groups of people, the old families, still socialise together as their Grandparents share stories about one another‘s families of days gone by.

However, this family history doesn’t stop the younger generations from having friends in all social classes, all they have is a common interest and something they can all relate to with one another. After all friendships carry on through the generations. I can think of several friends in the UK who are well aware that their Grandparents used to be friends, and now the grandchildren are firm friends!

English country life

Hunting, shooting, fishing: In continental Europe these are considered to be the traditional pastimes of the British upper classes. You are a passionate hunter yourself. How important is it to take an active part in country sports?

I think these are quite rightly the sterotypical sports of the British, along with the Bertie Wooster type caricature or the Downton Abbey way of life. Like in most countries in Europe no countryside sports are thriving in the 21st centuary. Most people are content with not knowing where their meat comes from or what sort of life the animal has had.

There is greater urbanisation and a lot of people who live in suburban areas in my experience seem to think every inch of the countryside is a nature reserve or national park. They visit the countryside at weekends or commute to and from it daily as it is a lovely place to live, but they don’t fully understand the management that land and nature requires. It isn’t important at all to take an active part. I have plenty of friends who aren’t true countrymen, nor for that matter am I. I still have much to learn about about nature, identifying song birds and trees etc…

What is important is that everybody has an understanding. An understanding that while the countryside looks and is idyllic to the eye, it is actually brutal place of life and death on a daily basis which needs human intervention and has done since we stopped being hunter gatherers thousands of years ago and started farming.

Beim pheasant shooting

I love my shooting, fishing, deer stalking in particular and each of these sports each require a different set of skills. Even if you have an unsuccessful day with your main goal, quite often you come away feeling satisfied as mother nature won that time, but you will have seen some amazing wildlife along the way.

Hunting, shooting, fishing

I think I’m correct in saying that only 600,000 people in the UK have a shotgun certificate and even fewer, approximately 160,000 have a firearms licence for ownership of rifles, so out of a country of 66 million people we really are a tiny minority.

That minority does consist of people that were educated at Public Schools, however, it also includes farmers, Game Keepers, on big estates under Keepers, shooting syndicates that rent land etc… Consequently, this Downton Abbey or Bertie Wooster type lifestyle isn’t important at all and that people from all social backgrounds take part because they are interested in and have a love for the countryside.

If you really look for it everytime you set foot outside in the countryside it is like a safari, even without taking part in traditional country pursuits. I remember going on a walk one summers evening and I heard this terrible noise. I looked at the bottom of a hedge a hundred yard up the path and there was a sparrowhawk pinning a jay to the floor and teasing it. Then I took a seat and watched for a couple of minutes not wanting to disturb this predator of a meal after a successful hunt, but as time went on the sparrowhawk continued to play with the jay.

Finally I decided it couldn’t be that hungry and so I continued the walk toward the scene, the sparrowhawk upped and left, the jay in shock took refuge in a hedge not 3 feet away from me as I drew level with it before he too left. Never have I seen such a scene before and I doubt I will see such a thing again by chance. It is these rare encounters with nature that you get from participating in country sports.

Cheltenham Festival

Some weeks ago the annual Cheltenham festival took place in beautiful Gloucestershire. After all, what is it about and are there any dress codes/etiquette rules?

The Cheltenham Festival is the greatest National Hunt racing week in the world. On for 4 days every March racehorses race against each other and battle it out to see who is the greatest and quite often the following year the champions return to defend their crown.

Cheltenham Racecourse

As one newspaper put it “it is the most gruelling, liver beating, wallet emptying, relationship testing spectator experience in sport“. With regards to dress codes, for chaps it is usually a tweed suit, or a plain navy or grey suit with a trilby  hat. For girls it is usually an elegant tweed coat or jacket, smart hat and smart jeans (not denim) or skirt. Warmth is key as Cheltenham is very exposed to the elements.

How to become Upper Class?

Keyword social climbing: Is it generally possible to climb up the social ladder and join the elite set? Will anyone whose roots are working class ever be accepted by those who can trace their ancestors back to Queen Victoria or at least to a third son of a landed gentry family at all– regardless of financial assets? Peter York, the author of the controversial book „Cooler, Faster, More Expensive: The Return of the Sloane Ranger“ states that „it takes at least three generations to make a Sloane“. Would you say there is some truth in it?

In short yes. The days of old where everybody was categorised by their social class have for all intence and purposes came to an end in the 1950‘s. There has never been greater social mobility as there is today. For instance, today money seems to be what matters, however, that said manners and knowing how to behave in a socially acceptable way are still fundamentally crucial. In particular connections and the network are very important. In order to be accepted into a “tribe“, you must demonstrate you can fit in and not be brash.

Taking a step further with the network idea, people (no matter what social class they are categorised with), always love meeting others where they have mutual friends in common. It is important to remember that every aristocratic or old family started somewhere and some newer aristocrats (created in the early 20th Centuary) came from very humble beginnings and had an ancestor who was an entrepreneur, made a fortune and was socially ambitious enough to chase a hereditary peerage. It is important to note that for at least the last 60 years only life peerages have been granted to those who traditionally might have received a hereditary one.

Upper Class today

To conclude, would you tell us a bit more about Upper Class life in Britain in general?

In conclusion, life today is very much the same as it is for everbody. I remember one career talk to prepare us for leaving Stowe and an Old Stoic in this 60‘s came in to give us the benefit of his experience and the one thing he said which has always stuck with me was “You will all have jobs and work for two reasons. Firstly, for you own selfrespect and secondly, for the respect of other people.“

An unoccupied mind or an unlimited budget is a very dangerous thing, and having no occupation or useful purpose is even worse. In fact it is the beginning of the path of self destruction. Nevertheless, I can think of some people who are self employed running their estates and farms, which are full time jobs in themselves, but not conventional ones with a boss.

However, most of them including their wives do other work as volunteers such as; visiting criminals in prisons who for one reason or another have nobody else to visit them. Or others I know of volunteer at hospitals to take the lunch trolley round a ward a couple of days a week. The only differences in social class might be the sorts of things people get up to at weekends. The idea of a weekend house party and 10 or more of you decending on one of your friends to stay for the weekend is not uncommon, especially during the shooting season. But I know this also goes on throughout Europe too and again isn’t uniquely British.

Blenheim Palace, Stammsitz der Dukes of Marlborough

Privileges from a bygone aera and snobbery

Of course in every country there are a few of the older generation who think on the the old days when everybody knew where they stood. After all, there was cap doffing, forced respect due to rank and birth. But in my experience snobbery (and it’s amusing on dramas like Downton Abbey with Maggie Smith‘s one-liners), is only carried out by either the older generation, for which they can be forgiven for their upbringing in different times when it was acceptable for them to consider themselves superior by birth.

Indeed, the other people that exercise snobbery and enforce etiquette are the Middle Middle and Lower Middle Classes who feel the need to secure their position by differentiating themselves and not slip to being considered Working Class.

I watched a documentary once on social classes today and the conclusion it reached was that the Upper Classes, Upper Middle Classes and Working Classes were the most similar. This conclusion was reached on the basis that they all cared the least for strict etiquette as they were comfortable with their social position. They had nothing to loose because they personally didn’t care what others thought of them.

Thank you for this fascinating interview, Ed! It was a great pleasure for me to have such an interesting conversation!

Thank you very much for letting me ramble on, Claire!

Liebe Leserinnen, unverzichtbar im sinkenden Schiff sowie akzeptabel auf jedem Ball zu sein, sind doch wunderbare Eigenschaften. Was sagt ihr zu diesem Interview?

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2 Kommentare

Lena 18. April 2019 - 17:08

Good Afternoon!
A very interesting interview.
In my opinion it was good that you didn’t translate the text. So I could improve my english by reading it.
What I found most interesting were Ed‘s stories about Stowe.
Many Greetings to you and Ed!
Lena

Reply
Countess Claire 17. Mai 2019 - 09:32

Liebe Lena,
Schön, dass dir das Interview gefallen hat! Stowe ist eine ganz besondere Schule. Ich finde Ed’s Stories auch immer wunderbar!
Liebe Grüße,
Claire

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