The ampersands of thyme
Foreigners often ask me what it takes to look and sound socially smart in Britain: “What are the vital signs?” a Dutch lady asked me many years ago. I replied that genuinely upmarket Brits often display very few vitals signs at all, and that this probably had something to do with inbreeding. Needless to say, she had no idea what I was talking about: English remains an infuriatingly subtle and treacherous language for the outsider.
The very fact that they ask me such a question suggests they might be starting at the wrong end of the stick. I was born and brought up in a suburb of Manchester called Prestwich, where most people wanted to be socially accepted, but almost all of them were entirely unacceptable….and very often unexceptional with it.
I do however have some qualifications for answering the question, and the main one is that I was a marketing and advertising researcher and brand planner for three decades. If you take the preceding words from ‘marketing’ to ‘planner’ there, and simply replace them with ‘drunk’, you’d have a fair summary of what most of those thirty years were about, but in between lunch with creative people and dinner with clients, I did gain some insights into what positions a person as ‘socially smart’ in Britain.
“That sort of thing really doesn’t matter very much any more,” a deluded young man said to me last week. He didn’t seem to notice much as I recited stats about Oxbridge, Eton and hyphenated names in the upper echelons of politics and the Civil Service, but then I’ve noticed that sort of thing in young people before. That’s to say, I recognise it largely because it is a near-perfect reflection of what I was like at their age. Youth is only over when we stop equating what should be with what is and always has been. Some people have the secret of eternal youth in this respect, and it is astonishing how many of them come from a privileged background. Names like Harriet Harman, Tony Benn, and Nick Clegg spring to mind. Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt and George Osborne often strike me as folks who skipped youth entirely, but therein lies another story for another day.
Having said all that, the names in that Hopeless Half-dozen have one thing in common: they may be clueless about how to behave in an ethical sense, but when it comes to being accepted in society, they know every last rule – and quickly recognise all the signals.
There are two particularly important must-haves in the lexicon of British social status, and they involve individuals and company brands respectively. First, it is vital to spell your name in a silly way. And second, the company simply must have two names in it – with an ampersand between them. Thus, a company called Ffetchlynge & Boliscroak stands every chance of success; but anyone hoping for an upmarket audience is getting off on the wrong foot by calling a gastropub venture Potter’s Bar.
Puns are a very bad idea when trying to invent a smart-sounding company, because everyone with any style in the UK thinks the practice quintessentially naff. Suburban and provincial hairdressers seem however unable to resist this temptation, and thus one finds Making Waves, On the Fringes, Final Cut, Headcases, Scissor Kicks and every tedious variation imaginable in most shopping precincts erected between 1960 and 1979. The only way to pun and get away with it is to pull off a melange of double-joke (satirising the preceding names) and witty use once again of the vital ampersand.
Thus one might try Shaughtbacke & Sydes or possibly Crewcutte & Orloff, but definitely not Wosh, Harecut & Blowave. There is a very fine line between wit and halfwit, and it is important at all times to be on the correct side of it.
If you are starting off on the quest to be smart – but lack the right sort of name – there is no need to despair. Changing the monniker by deed-poll is relatively easy these days, and there is a failsafe method for the choice of name. Simply adopt your middle name, and then suffix it with the name of your street. Aspirant lower middle-class mid-twentieth century parents always gave their children posh middle-names, as they lacked the self-assurance to use them as the main one; and all Victorian builders liked to attract buyers by giving the streets they knocked up a sense of elegance.
Thus my name is John Ward, which has about it the unmistakeable ring of solid yeomanry, but nothing more. Whereas adding my London street address to my middle name produces Anthony Narbonne. This is, without doubt, the sort of name you’d expect to see on the guest list of a premier-league society wedding.
Thus armed, I could move on to being in trade (a regrettable but necessary state for the contemporary nob) without any expectation of being asked to use the tradesman’s entrance, and that’s enough Oscar Wilde rent-boy sniggers thank you very much.
The following is a list of acceptable things to make and services to provide for those aspiring to the aristocratic rather than plutocratic image in the commercial space:
Furniture, clothing, eccentric inventions, cricket gear, tinned confit, curtains, blinds, crockery, bespoke kitchens, interior decor, shotguns, riding accoutrements, marmalade, fishing tackle, historic restoration, and – of course – fine wine and/or Scotch Whisky.
All you require now is the invention of a name either side of the ampersand suggesting that you first started up at some point before 1750 – or, for American readers, you had the Big Idea while biting into a worm-ridden biscuit during the voyage of the Mayflower.
Take my example from above of ‘Narbonne’. Narbonne is the name of a town in Abroad, and suitably redolent of Anglo-French aristocracy. At the peak of its imperial power, France tended to side with the Scots in their myriad attempts to undo the hated English, so the ideal combo here to provide the correct credigree* would be an auld alliance name. It just so happens that my first wife was descended from same, and thus born with the surname Butchart.
Butchart & Narbonne. Gunsmiths. Perfect.
In truth, the silly name-spelling plus ampersand strategy is obviously the answer to Britain’s export problem: as we have no future to speak of, the only option left open to us is the assiduous merchandising of an idealised past. I will therefore close this primer on the Class System by offering up some erroneous provenance dating from 2012. I would venture to suggest that, in the light of these confections, Abercrombie & Fitch are left sounding suspiciously arriviste.
Blakeley & Faraday. Purveyors of discreet lighting
Couper & Bynge. Wine merchants of distinction
Turpin & Kinnear. Master carpenters
Gainsborough & Nickleby Formalwear
Wimborne & Byckersdike. Angling supplies
Canteringge & Medweigh. Provisions & Preserves
Finally, I offer the following as the ultimate expression of either f**k-you confidence, or brainless indiscretion:
* On starting my own advertising agency Weinreich Walsh Ward in 1982, I suggested the term ‘credigree’ as the ultimate aim of every brand: credible pedigree. Clients coming to sample our wares generally reacted by saying it sounded like Sunday breakfast in a stately home.