Josna Rege

267. U and Non-U

In 2010s, Britain, history, Nature, places, Stories, travel, Words & phrases on April 25, 2014 at 2:31 am

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P1060436‘U’ and “non-U’ refer to Upper Class and non-Upper Class (or aspiring middle class), and derives from Noblesse Oblige (1956), a collection of humorous essays edited by Nancy Mitford. It was Alan S. C. Ross who first coined the terms, in an essay in the collection that discussed the way English-language use differs in the different social classes. U English speakers, for example, would say they were sick, while non-U speakers, would be ill; U speakers would sit on the sofa, non-U’s on the settee. It’s important to note, though, that these categories omitted working-class parlance altogether. Apparently Nancy Mitford, though satirical and witty, was squarely in the U camp; I say ‘apparently’ because I haven’t read the book and don’t identify myself with either. Growing up in India, I used neither ‘sofa’ nor ‘settee,’ but ‘divan’; and now, living in the US, I use ‘couch.’ Besides, I tend to take George Orwell’s view that the middle classes should have downwardly, rather than upwardly mobile aspirations. As he put it so well in the closing line of The Road to Wigan Pier: “We have nothing to lose but our aitches.”

All the above is a result of my visit yesterday to Sandringham, the Royal estate in Norfolk. It was a dream come true if you love shows like Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs, and the employees there certainly knew how to play to the audience. I generally take a dim view of the monarchy (see TMA #94, My Uncrowned Queens), but my critical voice was more-or-less suspended for the duration. Instead I found myself oohing and aahing over the china tea sets and the settee—oops, sofa—covers, only pursing my lips and muttering under my breath at the spoils of empire in the museum and completely omitting the room choc-full of trophies from the royal hunts, especially the sickening displays of tiger skins.

But I was completely bowled over by the beauty of the gardens. Whoever designed them was a master, down to the tiniest details, and I could have gone on walking in them forever. Thank goodness for public parks like Hampstead Heath in London and Central Park in New York that make such beauty available to ordinary citizens free of charge. I’ll bow out now and leave you with a few of the photos I snapped at Sandringham. Thank you, dear cousins Sue and Jess, for having taken me there.







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  1. As you might imagine, I loved your pictures in this one, particularly! What a gorgeous place, and what wonderful giant, old trees! The lovely bluebells form the perfect carpet for their grace and majesty. The gardeners were the ones I admire and whose artistry and understanding of horticulture surpassed anything accomplished by the so-called “upper crust” who are probably more or less gone and forgotten now, while generations of garden lovers enjoy these stunning gardens. Thanks for sharing.

    • Oh Marianne, they were so lovely, I took more than 250 photos! That tree was my favorite too. Yes, the gardeners have thought of everything there, down to the tiniest nooks and crannies. And bluebells are carpeting the ground everywhere at the moment, not just at Sandringham. x J

  2. I wish whoever “designed” my wreck of a wild yard had taken lessons from those who designed the gardens above. The first tree is especially magnificent.

    • Yes, isn’t it, Kristin? There was so much thought that had gone into every little corner. I took something like 265 photos in all! I will have to go home and face my garden, which has had nothing done to it since last fall, and could do with a touch of intelligent design.

  3. Haven’t corresponded with you in a while – been terribly behind in my reading recently. I didn’t realize the “divan” was commonly known, for for some reason I always thought it was a peculiarity within my family.

    The gardens look great. The Monarchs aren’t that pretty so “pretty as a princess” really doesn’t have much meaning, does it?

    • I love Indian English–it’s so rich and evocative. “Divan”—what a terrific word it is! Yes, the gardens definitely outclass their putative owners. Thanks for coming by again and for commenting.

  4. Good idea for U! I like the Orwell line, puts me in mind of Ms Doolittle and her working class caterwauling assaulting ‘enry’s tender U ears. I’m with you regarding hunting trophies. I remember the first time I heard how many animals Roosevelt had “collected” on safaris, I couldn’t believe it. Good to cut straight to gardens, things of beauty, reminders of humankind’s constructive nature!

    • The Royals like to shoot things, it’s true; and yes, we can be thankful that they like growing things as well. At least some of the public wealth apportioned to them is open to the public so that they may walk in beauty (albeit for a steepish entrance fee),

  5. What I love about Britain, Josna, is that it is so wonderfully aesthetic.

    • Yes, Don, it’s very pretty—and the beauty is regularly punctuated by tea rooms, which allow you to appreciate it all the more!

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