Lots of things from the 1990s are difficult to explain to your teenage children now: Global Hypercolor T-shirts, Jamiroquai, hope for the future and the times I cross-dressed at the Oxford Union. At the height of the androgynous, “everyone’s bisexual”, Eddie Izzard at the Hammersmith Apollo mid-1990s (as distinct from the lads’ mag, Melinda Messenger late-1990s), I’d get female friends to slather me in make-up, whack on a wig and one of their skirts with an elasticated waist and we’d go to the pub, immensely pleased with ourselves.

While there may have been the odd confused look in the dim recesses of the Cellar Bar, I doubt anyone in the bright upstairs room was fooled by the baritone young lady in the enormous DMs. Still, it was far more fun to root around in my friends’ wardrobes for their sparkliest tops than to put on the young man uniform of a Ben Sherman shirt, black jeans and hair parted like Moses. It didn’t matter that we got the odd, weird look as I was passing. Not as a woman, of course, but as a person with enough entitlement that no one was going to point out I looked ridiculous.

I was from a part of Essex so flat it makes pancakes look curvy. It’s the bit just before you drop into the North Sea and perish, happy you’re no longer in Essex. I’d had to get a scholarship to go to the school I went to and my family couldn’t afford holidays, new cars or even their own house. Yet a few years later, because I could “pass”, none of that mattered. I could go to places like the Oxford Union. I could get brought to drinking societies where I got away with shouting “Cromwell!” during the loyal toast. I was invited to all the best parties with all the worst people.

Most importantly, I could pass well enough not to be instantly marked out as a middle-class striver. The real difference between U and non-U language is that only non-U people care about it. The danger with passing is that you’re in danger of being outed at any point. And, yes, Saltburn did feel like a personal attack from a filmmaker who had her eighteenth birthday party covered by Tatler.

To properly pass, you should know enough classical allusions to show you had an expensive education, but not so many that it suggests you paid attention to it. A couple of gobbets of poetry will go a long way, unless it’s modern, in which case you’ll mark yourself out as dangerously progressive. You should pronounce “homosexual” as if you know it’s of Greek rather than Latin derivation, but never let on that you do.

You should know which way to pass the port, which school’s alumni call themselves Wykehamists and that any single-syllable word you don’t recognise is probably code for cocaine. You mustn’t have any visible tattoos (ladies are allowed one on the ankle, men can have a concealed one commemorating a brother who died in the armed forces). If posh people start talking about horses, just mention that you had a friend who died when a horse kicked them, which will usually make them change the subject. Always offer to pay.

You can have all the Barbour jackets you want, but remember Osborne’s nickname was still “oik”

I’m not the first member of my family to have tried this. My grandfather was the first person in our family to go to university. He became an eminent church historian and professor of theology. Yet listening back to tapes of his voice, it’s clear his clipped,1940s RP doesn’t land effortlessly. Every now and again a vowel slightly overstays its welcome and working-class Hersham peeps out. No wonder he chose to spend his career in America, where such things are as indistinguishable as the difference between “a well-organised militia” and “mass weekly school shootings”.

To my children these social markers seem trivial and irrelevant. They don’t see class reflected in their gamer and influencer-dominated social media. It’s like that viral clip showing a basketball game that asks the viewer to keep track of how many times the ball is passed. In keeping count people tend to miss the gorilla that walks across the court. The class system is still there and the markers by which it identifies itself are the same as ever, it’s just convinced people that it’s not relevant anymore.

The rich man is no longer in his castle, nor the poor man at his gate. The rich man is now crowdfunding a rewilded orchard of rare-breed apples, while the poor man is working a free internship for the rich man, having been promised “exposure” on the rich man’s orchard Instagram. The middle-class accessible markers of class have been democratised and are therefore of very little value. Your Boden and your Farrow & Ball mean little unless you’ve married Johnny Boden. There’s an Oliver Bonas in Victoria Station, and nothing one can buy in Victoria Station can ever bring real happiness.

You can have all the Barbour jackets you want, but remember that George Osborne’s nickname was still “oik” and that British newspapers suggested Prince William should dump Kate Middleton because she used the word “toilet”. We still have an aristocracy, but one that’s rid itself of its more obvious trappings. They mostly don’t sit in the House of Lords and they’ve foisted their draughty old homes off on the National Trust. They no longer have to look after their tenants, they’ve got tenant-management companies to do that for them. But they still know all the right people and can have all the right words in all the right ears.

The alternative then for us all if we’re not going to beat the upper classes is to join them. We must all learn to pass. We must take their codes and their shibboleths and turn them against them. Become indistinguishable. Pass well and pass easily, like a well-moulded turd. Or like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Nathaniel Tapley is a comedy writer and performer on the TV shows you hate

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Columns, Ephemerant, June / July 2024, Opinions

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