It may be the single most recognisable British image of the last ten years. Or at least, the most recognised. Which is odd, because it is not an image from the last ten years. It is now almost 30 years old, and its continuing fame depends almost entirely upon circulation on the Internet. It cannot be printed in magazines or shown in television; its owners made it commercially unavailable in 2007. The BBC’s Newsnight responded by commissioning a painting of it. Which seems particularly apt, given its subject and context.
It shows nine young men – scarcely more than boys – as they variously stand, sit, lean and lounge upon a set of Victorian stone steps. All wear expensive evening dress –dinner jackets with tails, bow ties, waistcoats – which the monochrome reproduction does not reveal to be coloured, respectively, black, blue and biscuit. Nor can it impart the information that each set of clothing will have cost in the region of £1,000. The attitudes and expressions of these men recall the description by Percy Bysshe Shelley of the monumental statue of his imaginary King Ozymandias, with its “wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command.” These attitudes and expressions might, it’s true, have looked much the same were the men Teddy Boys (whom they somewhat resemble), or Bronx toughs of the Depression era. But they are not, and that is why the faces and body language are so telling. They are not a veneer, not an exhibition of upstart defiance. They speak of those who are born to rule, and know it. This is the 1987 membership of The Bullingdon Club.
George Osborne, today’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, does not appear in the picture, although he is often assumed to. His haughty young mug stares with bland disdain from another, similar photograph taken five years later. The two most notable principals of the 1987 image are Prime Minister David Cameron, and Mayor of London Boris Johnson. Both old Etonians, both at the time participants in what could kindly be called an informal dining society, but what might be better described – and indeed, effectively was in last year’s film of that title, albeit one claimed by its producers to be entirely a work of fiction – as The Riot Club.
The Bullingdon Club represents the reality of high society to a T. It is a place, or rather a notion, wherein privilege, money, mischief (or worse) and impunity coalesce into a singularly distasteful whole – most notably, in this instance, the vandalising of its chosen venues, combined with on-the-spot compensation for the damage. Its own history reflects the history of high society, and is worth noting on that basis: its reputed origins as a sporting club in the late 18th century; the maintenance of its cricketing connections into the the early 20th century largely as a pretext for the antics of its rich and well-refreshed brotherhood; its odour of sufficient wealth to purchase for that brotherhood – gentlemen by title but not by conduct – indemnity from their own obnoxious behaviour; its propensity for destruction and bullying.
It is the Bullingdon Club – or at least, everything the Bullingdon club represents – that one thinks of in regard to the celebrated couplet by comic poet Hillaire Belloc: “Like many of the upper class/He liked the sound of breaking glass.” (“A line I stole with subtle daring,” added the scrupulous Belloc, “from Wing-Commander Maurice Baring.”) It is the Bullingdon Club which appears in Evelyn Waugh’s first novel, Decline and Fall (1925), in the none-too-cryptic guise of the Bollinger Club, whose fellows, on a drunken spree, “debag” the book’s unfortunate, blameless, innocuous, lower-born protagonist and cause him to be sent down from Oxford for fleeing his persecutors in his trouser-less state, while they themselves escape any such sanction.
Yet this is not what we collectively associate with the phrase “high society”. Rather, the words evoke charm, elegance and grace. They comprise the title of a 1956 film which encapsulates that image, and which represents one of the last hurrahs of a Hollywood studio system that over a thirty-year period did so much to enshrine it. This is a film that features Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Grace Kelly – the last in her final starring role before she left the industry to take up a career as an actual princess. Hollywood’s high society is not unlike Noel Coward’s; a realm where all is witty and debonair. Where beauty reigns and baser instincts are reined in. Where one greets heartbreak as one does champagne, as something which comes with the territory and will evaporate soon enough in a medley of bubbles. In Hollywood’s version, Louis Armstrong provides the music, in person.
This is not the high society of perhaps the most famous depiction of that concept: F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. It is a curiosity that this much filmed novel seems to draw its continued allure from its exterior rather than its substance. As a précis of the very idea of high society, The Great Gatsby could not be more damning. It is explicit in its portrayal of the corruption, shallowness, selfishness and class-ridden nature of the whole business. Its title character is a vicious gangster who uses his plunder to reinvent himself as a socialite, and is surrounded by sycophants who exploit his largess while sneering at his origins. The genuine Brahmins, Tom and Daisy Buchanan, are self-absorbed to the point of sociopathy, using, discarding and even (albeit inadvertently) killing those social inferiors they deem little more than chaff. Its narrator is so thoroughly disillusioned by what he witnesses, he turns away from it for good.
And yet The Great Gatsby remains remains the touchstone of those qualities mentioned above: charm, elegance, grace. It is remembered not for its darkness but for its brilliance. And in this it reflects something we must all on some level recognise, but many of us do not want to accept: that high society is a deep and murky pool with an iridescent surface, and that often we prefer to be dazzled by that surface than contemplate what lies beneath it.
How has this come about? Is it simply a facet of our nature to want to believe that all that glitters really must be gold? Possibly. Most human beings lead lives that are at best mundane and more often grueling. The power of fantasy, the deep need for it, shouldn’t be discounted, nor derided. But there may be more to it that. We can go back far into our national and cultural history and see a pattern emerge and sustain itself.
The gap – the chasm – between how the elite comports itself, and how its social pursuits are portrayed and perceived is older than we can know. Consider the centuries of myth collected in Le Morte d’Arthur (1485) by Thomas Malory, and how the tales of the Knights of the Round Table contrast with what we understand about the nobility of the Dark Ages. Jay Gatsby was far from the first gangster to ascend the social ladder; the ladder itself was constructed by men whose bloodiness and ruthlessness brought them land, power and eventually titles, in a hierarchy they determined, then attributed to God. For all its fantastical elements, Game Of Thrones probably offers a more accurate picture of the true nature of early medieval high society than any traditional account of Lancelot, Galahad and Guinevere.
The images and ideas we see in a film such High Society descend in a line, perhaps not unbroken but nonetheless distinct, from the concept of courtly love: a chivalric ideal of the amours and social habits of the aristocracy that was devised as entertainment, a form of fiction, but came to supplant in the popular mind the less refined reality of debauchery (sexual and otherwise), carousing and intrigue that have always characterised the social lives of the cream of society. After all, why wouldn’t you, if you could get away with it? And while privilege has always conferred upon its holders luxury and opportunity, its chief benefit is unaccountability.
Even with the passing of the Dark Ages and the arrival of the Enlightenment, this remained the case. We chuckle and celebrate the indulgences of Charles II, the prototype aristocratic “lad” and “ledge”, without thinking too much about what they tell us about the British society in which they occurred. The 17th and early 18th Centuries appear to us to have passed in in a series of immaculately tasteful drawing rooms, to the gentle strains of string quartets performing chamber music, in scenes out of Jane Austen. Yet this was the era of the Hellfire Clubs, in which the political and social elites of the day (or at least the male part of them) assembled to disport themselves disgracefully and with thoroughgoing shamelessness and relish. (Sound familiar?) When we come to the Jazz Age, we find that emblem of high society refinement, the songwriter Cole Porter, writing in his 1934 song, I Get A Kick Out Of You, that “some get a kick from cocaine,” as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Which, in that milieu, it was. The lyric was toned down for the film version of the musical in which it appeared, Anything Goes – a title more apposite for its subject than anyone cared to let on.
Which brings us back The Bullingdon Club, and the licence afforded its alumni by their social standing. David Cameron has never denied newspaper stories alleging his youthful use of cannabis. The now defunct News Of The World published claims by a former prostitute that George Osborne had taken cocaine with her. (Another notorious picture, purporting to show this, has been widely circulated online.) Neither man’s political career has been damaged by these stories. And maybe that’s how it should be. But would the same leeway have been afforded less patrician politicians? High society, it seems, is somewhere you can get high as a kite, act as you please, and pay no price for it other than what you can easily afford. And that has always been its way.
Does being a member of “high society” make hedonism and bad behavior more permissible? David Bennun investigates