Alexander Chancellor's Week

Class Meltdown
Feb. 27 2002 2:45 PM

Alexander Chancellor's Week

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The son of one of my best friends is a professional footballer. This is a source of special family pride because my friend, who was educated at Eton and Cambridge and whose father was a baronet, can only be described as "upper-class". It is extremely unusual for members of the upper class to breed footballers. Football is an extremely lucrative profession for good players, but it is not traditionally associated with social refinement. It is a working-class sport, offering a glamorous escape from poverty for working-class youths. But the British class system is no longer what it was. It may be too soon to pronounce it dead, but it certainly seems to have started to melt. I have another friend, though I haven't seen him for a while, whose name is William Armstrong. He used to be a colleague of my brother John in the publishing business. He succeeded John as the managing director of Sidgwick and Jackson many years ago and became a consultant of Macmillan when it took over the little publishing firm in the 1980s. When he was at the helm of Sidgwick and Jackson, then owned by the rich hotelier Charles Forte, I worked for him as the editor of a quarterly magazine called Time and Tide. He is very nice, dry and bookish, with an engaging sense of humour. He is also a devout Roman Catholic, expensively educated at Downside and Oxford. William has two children, a boy and a girl. And the girl's name is Dido Florian Cloud de Bounevialle Armstrong which, shortened to "Dido", has become a household word throughout the western world.

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A colour photograph of Dido, wearing a plunging pale blue suede trouser suit, filled much of the front page of last Thursday's Times.She was being celebrated for having won two awards at the Brit Awards for pop musicians—the Best British Female Solo Artist and the Best British Album awards. A subsequent profile of her in the Sunday Times said she had sold 13 million albums and earned £15 million ($21 million) in one year after appearing on a promotional video with the rapper Eminem. "The unlikely combination of a foul-mouthed, chainsaw-wielding slob and a former public schoolgirl was the perfect alchemy," the paper said. "Dido had arrived in America, and the rest is hysteria." This is not at all what her parents had planned for. They are serious people. Her mother, Claire, bears no resemblance to Brooke Shields' mum. She is a prolific unpublished poet and was once a research assistant at the British Museum. She and William banned Dido as a child from watching television so she might concentrate on more serious pursuits. They sent her to Westminster School and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. She later studied law and got a job working for a literary agent. The musical side of her life used to consist of practising the violin and piano for long hours and playing a recorder in an orchestra. But later she started to write songs and to perform them with what the Sunday Times calls "her fur-lined mellifluous voice". "To a generation of young women tired of the Spice Girls and manufactured pop, her bohemian and jazz-based style has come as a breath of fresh air," it said.

My brother says that William Armstrong, despite his professorial manner, always had an instinct for publishing popular books. To the scepticism of his colleagues, he once commissioned a biography of Boy George that sold extremely well. But even he must be bemused by his daughter's success. People of his background do not expect their offspring to achieve stardom in the world of popular culture. I have a daughter who is a fashion model, but that is not the same thing. It has never been unusual for well-bred girls to strut the catwalks of New York and Paris. But even such girls with the equipment necessary to be a pop singer wouldn't until recently have dreamt of pursuing a career as one. What would they have said to their families? It would all have been too embarrassing. But perhaps we are becoming one nation at last, sharing the same tastes and urges to succeed in any field. My brother says that his social position as the official intellectual of the village of Caxton in Cambridgeshire is already being undermined by his cleaning lady, with her devotion to Jane Austen and George Eliot.

Chelsea Clinton, who seemed in the aftermath of September 11 to be making an early bid for the presidency by telling Talk magazine that she intended to devote herself to her country's service, is already emulating her father in his way of working rooms. The socialite Nicky Haslam, who has bumped into her at London cocktail parties, tells today's Evening Standard: "She really bothers to talk to you. Her eyes don't just whizz round the room." She also seems at last to be having a good time in England after writing in Talk that she was depressed by the anti-Americanism she found among the students at Oxford, where she is studying international relations at University College (where her father was a Rhodes scholar). She is reported to have found an American boyfriend and to spend much of her time partying in London. The Standard lists the fashionable places she has been seen at—Il Convivio restaurant in Pimlico, a gay nightclub called Heaven, and various other establishments I have never heard of. It all sounds hell to me, but Chelsea likes it. The newspaper says she fell into conversation at one party with "a journalist from The New Yorker who is working on a project with Hillary Clinton" and asked them to deliver a message to her mother. "Tell her I'm healthy, I'm happy, and I love England." It must be so nice to feel like that.

Alexander Chancellor is a co-editor of Slate UK.

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