A book Quartet published in 1984 made headlines in September that year and its message is still relevant: The Nouveaux Pauvres: A Guide to Downward Mobility by Nicholas Monson and Debra Scott.
Its theme was the expanding tribe of the financially deprived aristocracy and gentry of Britain, beset by death duties, costly divorces and inflation. Debra was a journalist and Nicholas, then the heir to a peerage and baronetcy, could himself claim to be pure nouveau pauvre. He was the founder editor of a magazine called The Magazine, in which the article the book was based on first appeared. ‘Being nouveau pauvre,’ he said, ‘is the art of selective poverty. Collapsed sofas and cracked loos are now quite permissible so long as the sofa is antique and the crack in the porcelain is just a hairline.’ Education was one of the main preoccupations of social sinkers. He had put down his son and heir to his overdraft, for Eton, and then had the anxiety of fearing his cheque for the twenty-pound registration fee might bounce. Among those he interviewed for the book were the premier baron of Ireland, who worked as a silage-pit builder and had a son and heir who was a municipal-drains inspector, and a royal relation with economical party tips to offer to the paupered posh.
For the book’s launch party at the Chelsea Town Hall, we adopted the strategy that had proved so successful with Derek Jarman’s Dancing Ledge: each guest was required to buy a copy at the concessionary price of five pounds as their entry ticket. It was an occasion for the ‘not so very hard up’, the Standard commented. ‘The nouveaux pauvres may be having us on. After all hundreds of them shelled out a fiver each without a murmur. There was plenty of goodish champagne, some diamonds and not a hired dinner jacket in sight.’ In the reporter’s view the prize for the most poorly dressed individual was most ill judged. It went to an estate agent, Charles Oliver (‘my family gave all their money away to the church’), who so far as he could see did not look at all poor. Close examination revealed a Burberry cashmere jacket, a smart green body-warmer, a striped shirt from Gieves & Hawkes and, on his feet, a pair of Guccis. ‘I bought the shoes at least thirteen years ago,’ their owner pleaded in mitigation.
The party was full of good-tempered jollity and the bar did a lively trade. There was a buzz of optimistic talk about a new class called the encore riches. The highlight of the evening came when the ‘Namara Follies’ took to the floor to entertain the guests. The line-up was recruited from within the Namara Group: Lucinda Rivett-Carnac (now Lulu Guinness), Virge Gilchrist and Emma Lancaster, an editor at Quartet. Their sizzling cabaret act included a dance routine and, most notably, the song ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?’ I had been to watch the routine in rehearsal and found it highly amusing, though I teasingly suggested that, to raise the temperature at the finale, they could throw their knickers into the assembly as a gesture of liberating defiance. The expressions on their faces told me the idea fell on stony ground. ‘We’re not taking our knickers off,’ they assured each other, and that was that!