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Caragh Little

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Sticks and Stones

Posted: 16/08/2012 17:01

I used to really like Lucy Mangan. I identified with her tales of a northern childhood and a slightly awkward and eccentric family. Someone even paid me the compliment once of saying that my blog made her wonder whether I was Lucy Mangan's distant cousin. Praise indeed.

And then came this. Last weekend, http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/aug/10/mangan-inequality-dont-blame-oxbridge, Lucy Mangan wrote a declamation against the public school and Oxbridge elite, leaving me so lost for words that I became almost distressed. I'm seldom at such a loss, but this piece was just so full of angry vitriol that it left me quite bereft.

The article's premise is that people are born, essentially, into either of two backgrounds, very rich (privileged) or very poor (under-privileged); that the former go to public school and Oxbridge and do brilliantly, while the latter go to the local comp and fail. Government is made up of the privileged elite and the under-privileged simply flounder, unrepresented, disenfranchised even in a self-perpetuating system. So far, so typical anti-Tory mid-term polemic, but the manner in which the case was argued was bewildering.

First of all there were social stereotypes. Yes, there are the ridiculously over-privileged, born with the proverbial silver spoon in their mouths and the privately financed Harley Street consultant to remove it should it happen to get in the way. Yes, every town has difficult areas, and yes of course there are children growing up in appalling, dysfunctional neglect. But most grow up between these extremes, and it is here that Mangan's premise fails. In her semi-fictionalised, entertaining accounts of her own life, Lucy Mangan depicts a lower middle class upbringing in a northern household - much the same as my own. Whereas products of the Eton/Oxbridge stereotype are slapping one another one the back on government and opposition benches, there are possibly even more Honourable Members who negate it, with backgrounds and education similar to Lucy Mangan's or mine. The middle ground is no fun for a polemic, but a polemic is no good without a basis in sound argument, and this one simply drifts into cartoonish stereotype.

Then there was her depiction of Oxbridge life. I'm going to admit it: I studied at Oxford, and I loved it, but it's not the first thing I tell people about myself and I am secretly quite pleased that a lot of people are rather surprised when they find out. I certainly wasn't the typical Oxbridge 'type', but I fitted in as much as I ever have anywhere. It's hard to find out much about Lucy Mangan, apart from her carefully curated vignettes of family life, but a little excavation brought me to find that she read English at Cambridge. How interesting; how delightfully ironic, as while her vitriolic lambasting of schools like Eton, universities like Oxford and Cambridge, and politicians like Michael Gove and David Cameron who had benefited from such 'privilege' took shape, she herself partly owed her position as a Guardian columnist to a Cambridge education, and, before that, the sort of state school which combined with her own intelligence to allow her to access such a university. It's unfortunate that Mangan lambasts Michael Gove in an especially unpalatable image: Gove who, curiously enough, attended a state school, having been adopted in his infancy by a hard-working middle class family, not a silver spoon or a Harley Street specialist in sight...

The etymology of vitriol is a telling one. Oil of vitriol is the historical name for sulphuric acid, a hazardous, highly corrosive mineral acid, which can, in a concentrated state, cause burns or even permanent blindness; in more general terms vitriol is used to mean anything highly caustic or severe in effect, such as criticism.

Throwing sticks is a motif in Mangan's article. 'In some quadrangles,' she gloats, 'you cannot throw a stick without hitting an Old Etonian. This is what makes throwing sticks in quadrangles such fun'. The image returns like a boomerang, rallying readers: 'Pick a big stick and hurl it as hard as you like, by all means. But aim it at the Old Etonian in charge...' It's a well-known proverb that 'Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.' It's a proverb that I've always had my doubts about: sometimes a broken bone can hurt less than a litany of cruel words. And sometimes your own words can end up hurting you more than the very worst that others use against you.

When you're going to use words as caustic criticism, or to hurl sticks at an enemy, it's best to approach vitriol with the caution advised to prevent oneself from blindness.

Otherwise, the sticks and stones you hurl so vehemently may end up coming back to shatter the very bones behind your words.

 

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