Skip to main content


The lost art of social climbing

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Great Gatsby (2013)

Aged 23, I went to a party that promised “An evening with Pol Roger”, says Janan Ganesh in the FT. I turned up on time and waited expectantly for Mr Roger, until someone informed me that Pol Roger was the champagne “going round the room on trays”. I can still remember the “sting of shame” – and the inner resolve to learn and improve. There is, I have learned, “nothing like social climbing”. It is emotionally exposing, and “at once personal and near-universal”. Artists have rendered the subject as tragic (Jay Gatsby), sweet (David Copperfield), and comic (Del Boy). But there’s a “jaded, anti-aspirational mood” in today’s culture. Succession is a show about rich people trying to stay rich. The zeitgeist author is that bard of disappointed, cash-strapped graduates, Sally Rooney. “Where did the arriviste go?”

Well, just look who works in the arts these days. As The Economist’s Bagehot columnist wrote last month, in publishing, “every third person is called Sophie”. The same is true of other creative industries – since the pay is so bad, people generally only go into those professions if their families are already well-off. If there is social mobility in their lives, “it is on a mild downward gradient”, so they have a “blind spot for unironic ambition”. But we still live in “a society of desperate striving” ­– think of the “lost boys” following Andrew Tate and other online hucksters. And take it from me: “sophisticated ennui” isn’t where the drama of life is. I was “poorer, gaucher, worse-read” and infinitely less confident at 23 than I am now. But I was also “much, much more alive”.