MPS, their wives, husbands, kids even, diplomats, royalty, personal assistants, practically anyone who is anyone is cowering at the forthcoming publication of Sasha Swire’s gloriously indiscreet Diary of an MPs Wife. Her diary of 20 years, allegedly submitted to publishers without even her husband Sir Hugo having a read first, mocks, ridicules and exposes the private shenanigans of everyone she came across as wife to the Old Etonian MP who held his East Devon seat from 2001 until the December election of 2019.
‘We are already losing friends,’ she said in an interview this weekend which retold anecdotes such as how Mrs Gove once arrived at a dinner hosted by the Camerons yet somehow found herself sweating over a fish pie as Mrs Cameron took herself off pattern cutting. One wonders how David Cameron feels having every detail of a private visit to the Swires’ home, Lincombe Farm, described. From his jokes about dogging to Cameron’s pride with his ‘honed physique courtesy of a new personal trainer, but which H maintains is more the result of a prolonged and vigorous period of trying to get Sam pregnant again’.
But, I venture, what will sting the former prime minister the most is the recollection of a visit by Cameron to their Devon manor house where upon spotting one of the Swire’s barns the then Prime Minister exclaims: ‘You could put a snooker table in there!’ Writing in her diary Lady Swire records that, out of earshot of Cameron, she mutters to her husband: ‘So home counties.’
For this withering put-down exposes the extraordinary complexities of the English class system, one that has not just foreigners scratching their heads but fellow Brits too. Because, of course, class difference and snobbery are not just drawn on lines of upper/middle and working class.
Within the upper classes are further divisions, areas of acute difference which, to the truly posh folk themselves, are gulfs, veritable canyons that separate them. For, as Lady Swire indicates, while the outsider wouldn’t have an inkling, those familiar with the nuances can understand such things; the divergence of toff posh and home county rich.
And it must surely bewilder a man who went to Eton, was Prime Minister and has several country homes. The accusation of Home Counties behaviour will come as a mighty blow. The suggestion being that this recherché individual is not so posh that they didn’t abide in an unwieldy house in a part of the country where their ancestors put down peasanty revolts and were rewarded with grand houses and titles. In these circumstances a barn is seen as a beautiful fading relic whose pointlessness and collapsing roof must be retained for posterity. It should not be seen as an opportunity to renovate and build a games room.
Cameron was expressing the new-monied Home Counties desire to utilise, perfect and make status symbols of such things as barns versus the old moneyed-toff mantra of keeping going in the face of impossible circumstance. Personally I veer between the two categories, attempting to be the toff managing an old family pile, but I am also raising the flag of surrender and selling it for the Home Counties-style dream of a home with insulation and working central heating. Having seen both sides, here is my guide to the dividing lines between the Toff and, what I’ll call the HC, so whichever category you’re proudly in, you may never err again.
Where the Toff has an Aga the HC has an Everhot. The latter is more economic, it is fuel efficient, there is greater control of each oven. The Aga, the older the better, is simply an out-of-control guzzler of oil that half heats the house and half the hot water, but in reality does neither and by the time it’s finished is too cold to cook anything properly anyway. But, as we know, food isn’t important for Toffs, it’s too common a subject, unless it’s directly linked to game (ie shooting) and claret.
Your shooting style
Now you will find both classes shooting, but look carefully. A Toff has a side-by-side shotgun, whereas the HC brandishes his over-and-under. The former is inherited and means its user invariably misses, the latter is new, expensive and accurate, which of course is vulgar and very HC.
The shooting toff can also be identified by their ancient, moth-eaten three-piece tweed jacket, waistcoat and plus-fours. Too hot for a sunny day shooting grouse, too cold on a winter’s day spying pheasants and with no water-proofing qualities so the wearer is invariably sweating or drenched to the skin. The HC wears breathable, water-proof clothing and also serves champagne and cheese straws at elevenses. Ghastly. The Toff offers homemade sloe gin and a cold sausage.
Your present giving
The HC gives their gardener a set of embossed books on horticulture for Christmas. The Toff visits the gardener at home, hands over a bottle of cheap whisky which the pair then drink together and on leaving the Toff pats the gardener’s child on the head who may be a god-child if not their actual child. For those closest to them, HC’s will purchase presents from shops or Amazon by an HC. Toffs root around in the walk-in safe or poke about in the attics where they find old bits of silver - cufflinks perhaps - or an old painting which is then served up to a loved one at Christmas or a birthday.
After a weekend house party, HCs write a note of thanks for their hospitality in the visitors’ book. The Toff puts their address but NEVER WRITES A COMMENT.
Your home comforts
Back at home while the HC has a sustainable ground-source heating system, which is controlled via an app on their phone, enabling teenagers to walk about in T-shirts in midwinter, the Toff has an oil-fired boiler which might well work but the cost of filling the tank with oil is prohibitive so family and guests are simply told, if they’re cold, to put another layer on. Toffs have fireplaces which burn logs from the horse chestnut that just collapsed in the wind and destroyed the greenhouse. HCs have log burners; occasionally using wood purchased from petrol stations.
In town the Toff entertains friends at his club where no business is discussed. The HC, meanwhile, networks his contacts at a restaurant. Toffs serve instant coffee, an HC has a Nespresso capsule machine. An HC has a set of Riedel glassware to suit the wine being served. The Toff serves wine in glasses clouded by years of dishwasher abuse so you can’t see what you’re drinking anyway, although it’s always a bloody good claret.
The HC prefers dogs not to enter the smart sitting room. The Toffs’ dogs live on the sofas in the drawing room and accompany their owners to bed.
The HC has a diary, an electronic one managed by their remote PA and wouldn’t dream of upsetting their neighbours, friends and people of useful influence. A Toff keeps a written diary of their life and publishes it regardless of the consequent furore. Friends, as my great-grandfather Sir George Sitwell once ruminated on are ‘such a mistake’.