Tuesday 27 August 2013

Social mobility - sadly, it cannot be a one-way street

Everyone seems to agree that social mobility is a good thing, but we focus only on increasing the opportunities to move upwards.

Though since we can’t all be dukes or plutocrats, this is clearly only possible if other people are simultaneously moving in the opposite direction.

The post-war political settlement sought to achieve this with punitive death duties on the rich, balancing the grammar school ladder of opportunity for clever children from poorer backgrounds.

Direct grant schools like Newcastle RGS were, in the words of one Cambridge don I knew, “Powerful engines for turning lower-middle-class boys living in the north of England into upper-middle-class men living in the south.”

Which was perfectly true. Remarkably few of my own Oxbridge-educated RGS contemporaries ever returned to live in the North East.

Though this was balanced by the Durham and Newcastle graduates of my acquaintance who were born in the south, but loved this region so much that they could never bring themselves to leave.

I bucked the trend and returned to Northumberland because we Hanns don’t really do mobility. We have been hanging around the Alnwick area since at least the 1600s, and quite possibly longer (but we were not socially elevated enough for me to be sure).

Mrs Hann, on the other hand, is definitely from mobile stock, her immediate antecedents being Iranian or, as she prefers, Persian (because it conjures up warm images of cats and carpets, rather than bearded fanatics).

Having said that, there might be a touch of the fanatic here ...

She also continues to believe that holidays are best taken abroad, despite the tremendous break we enjoyed in Northumberland earlier this month.

Nevertheless, I would unhesitatingly place my wife in the “credit” column in the debate about that aspect of social mobility known as immigration. Though that, too, must come with the caveat that the entire human race cannot live in the UK, and those moving inwards and upwards must be balanced by others heading down and out.

These reflections are inspired by the fact that I am facing, with extreme reluctance, some potential moving of my own. I put my much-loved Northumberland house, with its marvellous views of the Cheviots and Simonside, on the market six weeks ago.

I did so because of the remorseless logic that my elder son starts school in Cheshire in a week’s time. And, once he does, our ability to spend time in the North East as a family will be greatly reduced.

It also reflects the lack of forward planning that can frustrate even the most determined would-be social climber.

The American songwriter Eubie Blake famously observed in his 90s: “If I'd known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.” Similarly, if I had foreseen that I would have two young sons at close to what I always fondly imagined as my retirement age, I’d have taken care to save some cash rather than squandering it all on opera tickets and champagne (the rest, as George Best once said, I simply wasted).

On the plus side, this profligacy has equipped me to write the new edition of The Bluffer’s Guide to Opera, available from all good bookshops and tax-evading online dealerships just as soon as the ink dries.

So I have, late in life, finally achieved my ambition of getting a book into print, albeit not the blockbuster comic novel I have squandered a lifetime pretending to be writing.

I also find that I am deriving steadily increasing satisfaction from fatherhood, which may finally be edging me towards that elusive condition known as happiness. Which I already knew, from my wide-ranging acquaintance with both multi-millionaires and the comparatively poor, has nothing whatsoever to do with the size of one’s bank balance. (Though at least the millionaires get to be miserable in comfort.)

To date there has been an encouraging lack of interest in my house, though I await my estate agent’s feedback on today’s scheduled viewing with appropriate trepidation.

If it does sell, so far as I am concerned, it will definitely represent downward mobility of the worst sort, but at least it creates a golden opportunity for someone else to move up in the world. Does anyone fancy placing their foot upon the ladder?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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