One hundred and forty years ago, says Helen Rumbelow in The Times, Oscar Wilde gave a lecture to a group of art students at their club in Soho. His message: “Everything popular is wrong.” I thought of this earlier this week when, opening Instagram, I saw the designer Nicky Haslam with his latest list of things he finds “common”. On this year’s tea towel – the 84-year-old Etonian prefers “drying-up cloth” – we find such social sins as “grieving”, “podcasts” and “Aperol anything”. But while some see the dinky socialite as a kind of “bouncer at the velvet rope of British class boundaries”, I think he’s up to something more sophisticated.
Haslam, whose mother was a goddaughter of Queen Victoria, is not waging the war that Nancy Mitford began in 1955, when she listed the direct forms of words used by the upper classes (“napkin”, “what”) alongside the affected euphemisms adopted by arrivistes (“serviette”, “pardon”). Some are still at it – in diaries published in 2020, Sasha Swire (aka Baroness Swire) describes her proletarian friend David Cameron arriving at her Devon manor house and saying of one of her farm outbuildings: “You could put a snooker table in there!” Swire muttered to her husband: “So home counties.” But Haslam’s list is different. He’s a snob, yes, but what he finds “common” is not so much the aspiring middle class as the creeping influence of America. “Grieving” is fine, of course, it’s just the performative kind you get on so many “podcasts” that bothers him. To resist such things, says Haslam, is to “stay British, and to stay classy”.