The ironic-gnome rule

by Chris Bertram on July 11, 2005

Talking-up the good things about the English national character is all the fashion in the wake of last week’s bombs: stoicism, stiff upper lip, mustn’t grumble, etc. As it happens last week I also read Kate Fox’s pop-anthropology participant-observer account of the English. Funny and well-0bserved in parts is my verdict on the 400-odd pages of “Watching the English”: , though it was getting a bit crass and tedious towards the end. Still, the book has its moments, most of which have to do with class. The most memorable being the ironic-gnome rule:

bq. I once expressed mild surprise at the presence of a garden gnome in an upper-middle-class garden …. The owner of the garden explained that the gnome was “ironic”. I asked him, with apologies for my ignorance, how one could tell that his garden gnome was supposed to be an ironic statement, as opposed to, you know, just a gnome. He rather sniffily replied that I only had to look at the rest of the garden for it to be obvious that the gnome was a tounge-in-cheek joke.

bq. But surely, I persisted, garden gnomes are always something of a joke, in any garden — I mean, no-one actually takes them seriously or regards them as works of art. His response was rather rambling and confused (not to mention somewhat huffy), but the gist seemed to be that while the lower classes saw gnomes as _intrinsically_ amusing, his gnome was amusing only because of its incongruous appearance in a “smart” garden. In other words, council-house gnomes were a joke, but his gnome was a joke about council-house tastes, effectively a joke about class….

bq. The man’s reaction to my questions clearly defined him as upper-middle, rather than upper class. In fact, his pointing out that the gnome I had noticed was “ironic” had already demoted him by half a class from my original assessment. A genuine member of the upper classes would either have admitted to a passion for garden gnomes … or said something like “Ah yes, my gnome. I’m very fond of my gnome.” and left me to draw my own conclusions.



John Emerson 07.11.05 at 9:38 am

Kurt Goedel’s wife supposedly collected garden gnomes. That was quite a family.


Matt 07.11.05 at 9:41 am

His explination sounds reasonable enough to me, but anyway, I think we should turn the Gnome Liberation Front on to him anyway- even exploitation done in the name of irony is still exploitation, after all.
or this one:


Matt 07.11.05 at 9:41 am

“We’re very fond of each other”


dsquared 07.11.05 at 9:48 am

The man’s reaction to my questions clearly defined him

It certainly did, although the designation I would have suggested would have been shorter and more demotic than “upper middle class”.


Chris Bertram 07.11.05 at 9:51 am

the designation I would have suggested

Trust the Welsh to lower the tone. Typical!


dsquared 07.11.05 at 10:04 am

I suspect that the man in question might have been Toby Young.


Simstim 07.11.05 at 10:06 am

Lee and Herring’s “The Ironic Review” was a pile of cack. Bet you weren’t expecting me to say that were you? Aaaaahh!


Chris Bertram 07.11.05 at 10:12 am

Surely Toby Young is genuinely upper class, by birth anyway? (He certainly doesn’t form part of the the meritocracy ;) .)


dsquared 07.11.05 at 10:29 am

As the son of a life peer I think he would be pretty borderline and the ironic gnome thing probably tipped the balance.


Andrew Boucher 07.11.05 at 10:40 am

Am I the only one who detects a condescending attitude towards the upper middle class and an (uncalled for) admiration for the (genuine!) upper class? Now that is very British indeed.


Ray 07.11.05 at 11:01 am

Is it specifically British? Is there not a similar division in the US between the country-club set and thre _really_ wealthy? (Genuine question)


Katherine 07.11.05 at 11:09 am

Hmm. In the U.S. there’s a certain divide is between the suburban rich–the “country club set”–and the urban rich, but I don’t think it’s really about who has more money. I’d say the urban rich look down on the suburban rich, but only in the general sort of way that people in the big cities look down on the ‘burbs.


McDuff 07.11.05 at 11:42 am

It’s more that, while we don’t really think the upper classes are worth an awful lot of our time, someone who isn’t one but who pretends to be is worth even less.


Chris Bertram 07.11.05 at 11:43 am

Is it specifically British? Is there not a similar division in the US between the country-club set and thre really wealthy? (Genuine question)

It isn’t about the British … it is about the _English_ . How far it generalizes to the Welsh and the Scots is a matter for debate ….

And it isn’t about _money_ . The class distinctions that are to the fore in the gnome story aren’t between the rich and the rest, indeed a member of the upper class can be quite impoverished whilst a member of the lower middle can be filthy rich.


abb1 07.11.05 at 11:45 am

God damn snobs.


Harry 07.11.05 at 11:48 am

Daniel, what is the class origin of sons of refusenik life peers? Just curious.


seth edenbaum 07.11.05 at 11:49 am

The ‘genuine’ upper class have no need to try to impress anybody,
they simply are. There’s honor in that.

The radical and reactionary anti-bourgeois have a lot in common, but a full third of the professoriate in the English speaking world spend their lives and careers pretending it ain’t so (and pretending they’re not predictably bourgeois) Say what you want about continental postmodernism, the people who invented it get the joke.


dsquared 07.11.05 at 11:51 am

All I know is that Toby Young (according to his memoirs) applied for a credit card in the name “The Honourable Toby Young”, a courtesy title which he believed his dad’s life peerage entitled him to and maybe any resident Debrett’s fans can confirmthis. He did so in the belief that it would help him pull the birds in New York, and as I recall (and apologies, but I’m damned if I’m reading that book again) it didn’t.


s.e. 07.11.05 at 11:52 am

“And it isn’t about money”
That’s it.


Harry 07.11.05 at 12:33 pm

I’d be astonished if a life peerage entitled a son to use the “the Honourable”. If no-one knows for sure my estimate of the quality of our readership will plummet.


george 07.11.05 at 12:38 pm

Years ago, Doonesbury ran a story line where Zonker won a lottery and bought a peerage with the money. Trudeau, who still had it back then, got in some great jokes about class, both American and British, but I only remember this one:

Friend (reading from the exam prep book): “What distinguishes the true gentleman?”
Zonker: “His contempt for poor breeding?”
Friend: “Close; his love of dogs.”


Andrew Boucher 07.11.05 at 12:57 pm

“And it isn’t about money . The class distinctions that are to the fore in the gnome story aren’t between the rich and the rest, indeed a member of the upper class can be quite impoverished whilst a member of the lower middle can be filthy rich.”

Precisely! So to recapsulate your POV: The upper class are better than the upper middle because the upper middle class earns its own (“filthy”) money, while the upper class gets their status the old fashioned way, by inheriting it. Again very English! (My apologies to the Scots and the Welsh for using the term “British”…)


s.e. 07.11.05 at 1:24 pm

No Andrew, the rich have the luxury of being able to take for granted that life is about more than money. They share this understanding with the lumpenproletariat, which is one of the reasons NY night life used to be such fun.


Chris Bertram 07.11.05 at 1:41 pm

My POV? I thought your earlier attribution was to Kate Fox, author of the book. No, not my POV at all.


nick 07.11.05 at 1:42 pm

I remember a survey that showed how the upper and working classes shared a penchant for gaudy and/or expensive Christmas presents, while the upper-middle class preferred ‘meaningful’ ones.

Anyway, Castiglione’s sprezzatura may have a place here, at least to explain how the Duke of Devonshire gets away with wearing yellow socks.


Andrew Boucher 07.11.05 at 2:02 pm

My apologies Chris, missed the indent. Greatly relieved!


Lord Archer of Weston Super Mare 07.11.05 at 2:45 pm

Kate is the sister of Martha, who earns her money in trade on that ghastly interweb.
Her father’s Oxford college? New. Need I say more?


Chris Bertram 07.11.05 at 3:02 pm

You are surely mistaken Jeffrey, as Martha’s dad is Robin Lane Fox (ancient historian and FT gardening correspondent) whereas Kate’s is anthropologist Robin Fox of Rutgers.


Daniel 07.11.05 at 3:07 pm

There’s no need to apologise to the Scottish and Welsh, btw, if anything old money from the Celtic fringe is even snobbier.


Uncle Kvetch 07.11.05 at 3:10 pm

I call dibs on “The Ironic Gnomes” for the name of my next band, assuming I ever have one.


Kieran Healy 07.11.05 at 3:47 pm

I’ll have to file this one away for future use, under “Gardening with Bourdieu.”


engels 07.11.05 at 3:55 pm

Anyone who claims his garden gnome is “ironic” is a wanker, in my opinion. Social class doesn’t come into it.

The ‘genuine’ upper class have no need to try to impress anybody, they simply are. There’s honor in that.

No, they don’t and no there’s not. (They are also, for the record, wankers, by and large.) If the upper class have no need to do so, why have they spent untold sums of money, over the centuries, on stuff whose purpose is to try to impress people? This claim does not stand up.


c++guy 07.11.05 at 4:13 pm

engels, you must be an American, since you obviously don’t understand the subtleties of class differentiation. I have two ironic gnomes in my own garden and totally understand what that guy is talking about although I _am_ very fond of my gnomes, especially the one with wheelbarrow, which, incidentally, I bought in Graefenroda, the birth place of the garden gnome.

By the way, the garden gnome’s physical stature was supposedly modeled on the gnarled and stunted shapes of the local miners in the Thueringer Wald. In that sense the garden gnome is really a symbol of the proud and defiant working class, displaying joy and happiness in the face of inhuman working conditions.

Oh, and since 1992 there’s an official (since it’s produced by the last member of the gnome-inventor’s family) “Gartenzwergin”, which caused a bit of an uproar in the gnome community.

So you see, engels, social class not only comes into play here, it’s a pivotal point.


Screaming Lord Marx 07.11.05 at 4:13 pm

Surprisingly unintellectual of you Engels. I must remember to give you a spanking after I’ve cashed that check.
It’s in the mail?


engels 07.11.05 at 4:23 pm

engels, you must be an American

Do you want to take this outside?

I thought I had had some experience of the (stifling, tedious) subtleties of class differentiation we have in this country but I apologise for insulting you and your gnomes.


engels 07.11.05 at 4:39 pm

But I’ll leave you to be the judge of whether or not my apology was “ironic”.


Lord Archer of Weston Super Mare 07.11.05 at 4:40 pm

Hmm. I may be slightly in error on a small matter of fact. But my central point stands: the entire family are the most frightful nouves.
Krug anyone?


c++guy 07.11.05 at 4:52 pm

engels, dude, you’re getting into the spirit now, my gnomes are proud of you!


Barry 07.11.05 at 5:15 pm

“It certainly did, although the designation I would have suggested would have been shorter and more demotic than “upper middle class”.”
Posted by dsquared

A five letter word, begining with ‘W’, and ending with ‘lsh’?


engels 07.11.05 at 5:30 pm

Jeffrey, to repeat Clive Anderson’s question: Is there no beginning to your talents?


nick 07.11.05 at 5:35 pm

I’ll have to file this one away for future use, under “Gardening with Bourdieu.”

Quite so. Remember how John Major prickled a little when people poked fun at his father’s ‘lawn ornament’ business?

American lawn decoration is quite another thing entirely: plastic pink flamingos and fibreglass deer, anyone?


count des von bladet 07.11.05 at 5:41 pm

The ‘Pedia it say:

Two acts—the Appellate Jurisdiction Act 1876 and the Life Peerages Act 1958—authorise the regular creation of life peerages. Life peers created under both acts are of baronial rank.

The daughters and younger sons of dukes and marquesses prefix Lord or Lady to their first names. These terms are also known as courtesy titles. All children of viscounts, barons and lords of Parliament use The Honourable.

Life peers (of baronial rank, as we have seen) not excluded, we note. But bear in mind that:

Courtesy titles of children of peers are social, not legal. For this reason, in official documents, Lord John Smith is often referred to as John Smith, Esq., commonly Lord John Smith; The Hon. Mrs. Smith would be called Mary Jane, Mrs. Smith, commonly called The Honourable Mrs. Smith.

I remain, of course, the Margrave of Moravia, the Great Voyvod of the Voyvodina and especially the Holy Roman Emperor and propaganda minister of the Free State of Trieste and Trst (all, sadly, in Exile).


Harry 07.11.05 at 6:07 pm

count des — my faith in our readership is restored. I’ll muse on what it means for me.


John Quiggin 07.12.05 at 1:44 am

When I was at uni, I used to collect various objects of this kind, including gnomes, with an ironic intent. The most ironic was the archetypal 1950s wall decoration in Australia: a flight of china ducks ascending the wall.

Over time, however, I got rid of nearly everything, keeping only the ducks, for which I now feel an entirely unironic affection. For a while I had a flying masked koala, which unfortunately got broken.


bad Jim 07.12.05 at 2:38 am

Ernest Shackleton famously said “A life peer is like a mule — no pride of ancestry, no hope of posterity.” For that matter, what American could claim to be upper class, since we constitutionally lack the apparatus of aristocracy?

I’m not personally accountably for any of my yard’s garden statuary, since half are gifts and the rest inheritances. The bench in the form of a cat seems to attract cats; some dogs freak out at the small figure of a bear, now green with moss.

Irony is an attitude unavailable with such abundance.


dave heasman 07.12.05 at 4:35 am

Which Ernest Shackleton was that Jim? The only famous one died in 1922 (sez Wikipedia) and life peers began in about 1959 (ah , 1958, wikipedia again)


dsquared 07.12.05 at 5:18 am

Harry: are you trying to give me a tip for our office sweepstakes on the New Year honours? Are you suggesting that a surprise elevation to the Lords for a dedicated public servant, Commissioner of London Schools etc etc might be on the cards? Rest assured that if it is I will bribe Kieran to change the template and you will be forever known as “Honners“. Good God there are hardly any references to the Peter Pook books on the internet. I thought some enthusiast would have had a go.


Darren 07.12.05 at 7:15 am

The chap obviously buys his own furniture.


Matt McGrattan 07.12.05 at 7:34 am

[Obviously, gross generalisations but …]

One difference is that the upper classes often know they’re privileged and that their position/wealth/status isn’t due to any particular hard work or talent on their part.

An unfortunate number of the middle classes, and I would count some of my closest friends within this number, have come to believe that their wealth and position–if they’re even aware of their relative wealth and position–is due to their innate talents or to the innate talents and hard work of their parents and leads them to make silly claims like “the class sytem doesn’t really exist anymore”…


Harry 07.12.05 at 8:02 am

My tip would be that you can rely on that name not ever appearing! I’ll eat my hat — or at least excoriate the old man on CT — if I’m wrong.


soru 07.12.05 at 8:32 am

If there is an american upper class distinct from the merely rich, I would imagine Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman would be members.



dave heasman 07.12.05 at 9:33 am

Soru, so wrong in so many directions. Tom “Cruise” is an oik. A midget scientologist who changed his name. How upper-class is that?


engels 07.12.05 at 10:08 am

If there is an american upper class distinct from the merely rich, I would imagine Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman would be members.

Yep, unfortunately soru, even on a comparatively non contentious topic you do not lose sight of your traditional mission of being competely wrong.


soru 07.12.05 at 10:13 am

Not upper-class in UK terms, certainly. But if americans defer to anyone, they defer to celebrities.



Uncle Kvetch 07.12.05 at 12:32 pm

if americans defer to anyone, they defer to celebrities

Indeed. All those supermarket tabloids featuring intensely ugly close-ups of so-&-so’s latest “tragic plastic surgery mishap” are actually signs of love and devotion.


soru 07.12.05 at 4:58 pm

Back in the day there were, of course, similar pamphlets discussing the vices of the Duchess of Devonshire and her set.



engels 07.12.05 at 5:57 pm

Soru – Being upper class is about at least two things.
(i) Never having to work
(ii) Inheriting your position from your parents. Neither apply to Cruise and Kidman.


soru 07.12.05 at 6:37 pm

(1) celebrities don’t place themselves in the labour market as commodities, instead they pursue projects that interest them, like a Duke pursuing war against some continental army or breeding a better racehorse.

Like capitalists, celebrities very rarely stop doing what they do just because no longer need money.

(2) those two didn’t, but being the son or daughter of a celeb _is_ sufficient qualification – see Stella McCartney, Priscilla Presley, etc.

Given that the term ‘mixed marriage’ is apparently used in the rare cases when a celeb marries a non-celeb, ‘caste’ might well be a better term than class.


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