The New Book of Snobs by DJ Taylor review – what is the new snobbery?

There are film snobs, garden snobs and inverse snobs, not just people who send their children to elite private schools. Snobbery is in all classes and is a very human failing

I’m afraid we’ve become terrible salt snobs,” joked the late food writer Alan Davidson when he and his wife Jane had me round for lunch one day in the early 2000s. On the table were a panoply of special salts, from pink Himalayan to damp, grey fleur de sel from France. Announcing himself as a salt snob was a form of gentle self-mockery, something Alan was good at. He knew how absurd it was to have all these salts, when he could have made do with a cheap tub of Saxa. But it was also a modest kind of boastfulness. Alan wanted me to notice how superior his salt collection was, which I duly did.

The concept of snobbery is deeply complex, as the literary critic and biographer DJ Taylor cleverly explores in his “definitive guide” to snobs. Snobbery is a form of social superiority, but it can also be a moral failing. Snobs may laud it over others, but we, in turn, despise and punish them for it. Taylor starts his book with the “Plebgate” affair of 2012, in which the government chief whip Andrew Mitchell was forced to resign his official post, and later pay substantial damages, after it emerged that he had rebuked a police officer who asked him not to cycle through the gates of 10 Downing Street with the words: “Best you learn your fucking place … You’re fucking plebs.” As Taylor notes, Mitchell’s sin was not to swear, but his use of the word “plebs”, which, in ancient Rome, simply meant the common people.

In modern times, very few snobs are snobs all the time. To be a salt snob does not necessarily mean that you will be a snob in any other area of your life. Taylor confesses that he becomes a snob whenever he hears Adele on the radio or hears a Channel 4 presenter “tumbling over her glottal stops”, but hopes that he is not a snob per se. He is the son of a grammar school boy from a council estate and feels that he knew “all about petty social distinctions from an early age”. He is fascinated by the many forms snobbery takes, from the garden snobs who despise hanging baskets and patios (the correct word, apparently, is terrace) to the inverse snobs who feel superior to anything that smacks too much of “middle-class” behaviour. Taylor also identifies the film snob, a perverse individual who may consider Brian de Palma’s Body Double wildly underrated and sees no point in Meryl Streep.

In his The Book of Snobs (1846-7), the novelist WM Thackeray noted that some people were snobs “only in certain circumstances and relations of life”. Others, however, were what Thackeray called positive snobs, who were “snobs everywhere, in all companies, from morning to night, from youth to grave”. Thackeray argued that in the Victorian society in which he lived, many people could not help being positive snobs, because the whole of British national life was founded on the principle of hereditary privilege. The true snob, in Thackeray’s book, would find, as Taylor explains, that “his entire existence is governed by its logic: wife, house, career, recreations”. The Victorian snobs depicted by Thackeray might ruin themselves to pay for a fashionable hat or a pianoforte in the back parlour or an absurdly expensive truffle-laden dinner. This was because they felt it was social death to dine with people of the wrong class, such as doctors or lawyers, instead of “the country families”.

Maybe I move in the wrong circles (or do I mean the right circles?), but I wonder how many people in modern Britain, even posh people, still think or act like this. Taylor, the author of a biography of Thackeray, aspires to update The Book of Snobs to modern Britain. But for much of the book, it feels as if he has hardly updated it at all, writing as if all snobs were people who necessarily went to elite public schools and who insist, like Nancy Mitford, on being “U” and not “non-U”. Taylor anatomises many varieties of current snob: school snobs, country snobs, property snobs and so on, in novelistic sketches. But many of his different snobs end up sounding rather similar, and I don’t recognise much of contemporary society in his book.

By the end, Taylor’s snob seems to have become a very specific class of person, one who keeps labradors, eats potted shrimps and cares about whether someone went to Winchester or Eton. Such a snob is rather like the Sloane Ranger of the 1980s (his acknowledgments cite Ann Barr and Peter York’s The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook, on which he seems to have modelled some of his style). Snobs, Taylor writes, are “fond of mangling or truncating personal pronouns”. The “diehard snob doesn’t have a bath, he ‘takes his tub’”. Late middle-age snobs “talk artlessly of having ‘made a bish’”. The snob, Taylor airily claims, “is a person who uses a title ostentatiously”.

Yet we can all think of plenty of snobs, of one kind or another, who base their snobbery neither on title nor ostentation. And so can Taylor. What makes this book a missed opportunity is that he has taken what could have been a panoramic meditation on the place of snobbery in British society and crammed it into a needlessly narrow and archaic framework, giving the impression that snobs only belong to that class of people who are found on the grouse moor or in Debrett’s.

Taylor is an intelligent writer, however, and the best parts of this uneven book suggest that snobbery is far from limited to the upper classes. “Snobbery is universal,” he argues at one point. ‘“No social class, intellectual category or art form is immune to the snob virus.” The essence of all snobbery, Taylor says, is the making of arbitrary distinctions. It consists of “imposing yourself on a social situation, pulling rank, indicating, with varying degrees of subtlety, your own detachment from the people in whose presence you find yourself”. As such, it is both an unlikable characteristic and a very human one. Whether we are eating salt or deciding where our child goes to school, the person has not yet been born who never once secretly felt that his or her way of doing things was better. The snob is someone who hasn’t yet realised when to keep these feelings to himself.

The New Book of Snobs: A Definitive Guide to Modern Snobbery is published by Constable. To order a copy for £13.93 (RRP £16.99) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Bee Wilson

The GuardianTramp

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