PASSING AND CLASS
[This is a fictional essay told from the perspective of a Romanian man passing as an English upper-class student at Oxford. It was completed as part of my BA thesis in Visual Communication at the Zurich University of the Arts. The character’s opinions don't reflect my own, I'm using as a narrative method for understanding passing.]
I was working in the Romanian food shop when I got the call from my mother. Back then I was still Romanian and I was still on speaking terms with my parents. She told me that my A-Levels letter arrived. I was greatly anticipating this letter. It contained my exam results and would determine my future. It decided whether or not I could achieve my ambition, to study Jurisprudence at Oxford.
We used to live in an awful two-up-two-down house on the Broad Road in Birmingham. My parents still live there in fact. My father handed me the letter when I got home and I opened it. I got three perfect A-Levels A*A*A*, which was simply incredible news. I realised I was really going to Oxford, on a scholarship, and I realised that I might actually be able to pass as an Englishman there.
My father moved to England nine years ago. Two years after his arrival, my mother and I joined him, I was twelve when I came to England. My father works on a construction site and mother’s a cleaner in a school. Their English, after almost a decade in the UK, is still terrible, a source of great embarrassment to me. I told them that they must learn to speak it properly and get more dignified jobs, I even tried giving them lessons, but they haven’t progressed at all. My parents installed a satellite dish to watch Romanian channels like ProTV and they shop at the Romanian food shop. There is really no hope of integration for them, they live in a self-made bubble. When I arrived, my parents enrolled me in a filthy little state school and within three months I was fluent in Brummie, a type of pidgin English spoken in Birmingham. Ever since Romania joined the European Union in 2007, a flood of economic migrants from the east have been entering England, us among them. Romanians are now the second largest group of foreigners in England. There are over 400,000 of them, which is quite unbelievable.
I had an absolutely awful time at school. I was bullied mercilessly on account of my name and nationality. They called me gypsy and beggar-boy. I was told to go back to Foreignia. The state school was filled with local scum, lower class kids with no prospects and dumb parents. I feel jealous now of my upper friends at Oxford and their good public school education. Nobody else from my school went to a top university like I did, thankfully, otherwise I may not have gotten away with passing.
I have a friend at Oxford called Evelyn, he went to Eton. Evelyn had never been in a fight at school, unlike me. And the atmosphere of Evelyn’s education was one of ambition and optimism, he had incredible facilities and classmates. My school was poison to the intellectual. If you were in any way smart you were quickly cut down to size. I got picked on because of my earnestness, fatal among the English, and my studiousness, fatal among lower class schoolboys. Really, to be honest, I was a bit of a smartass. I always did well in lessons and teachers often used my work as an example. And I was a snob, I looked down on the others. Cecil Beaton said “I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth, I put it there”, well that’s me. I was born in Bucharest and now read Law at Christ Church, Oxford. I chose Christ Church specifically because the largest number of prime ministers went here, thirteen to be precise.
Why did I want to pass for an upper-middle class Englishman? Because I’m ambitious. I’ve always been very ambitious. I hated our petty existence as Romanians in Birmingham. I hated always being the low one, always “in the gutter”. I hated, and still hate, the lower class. Most upper-middles look down on the middle-middles, the bourgeoisie, it’s unfashionable for the uppers to hate the lowers. It’s more common to hate the middle-middles breathing down the upper-middles’ necks, trying to sound posh and failing, saying things like serviette and pardon me, showing tasteless genteelism. The lower classes are considered merely vulgar and amusing. But not by me, my deepest loathing really is reserved for those lowers who made my life hell growing up. I despise the lower classes.
You might point out that it is hate of myself and my own class which made me want to pass as upper. I disagree: you see, I don’t see immigrants as lower class. The immigrants are the natural enemies of the lower class. Immigrants are actually lower than lower class. In England, the eastern European is part of the underclass. If you’re lower class the only people lower than you are the immigrant underclass. I was mocked because I belonged below those lower class boys and refused to stay in my place. Each class must naturally hate the one directly below, who they see as a threat to their position on the social ladder. The uppers hate the upper-middles, the upper-middles the middle-middles, the middle-middles the lower-middles, the lower class the unemployed, and the unemployed hate the foreigners who’ve come to steal their jobs.
People act like social mobility is something new. But it’s not new, it’s the classic story. “A cat may look at a king.” And what’s more: he may dream of replacing him. Take Kate Middleton, who’s middle-middle. You can tell, firstly, because her family is in trade, they run some events or party company I think, a no-no for true uppers. Secondly, because of her accent, it’s old fashioned conservative Received Pronunciation. It sounds just a little bit too cut-glass, a little too stilted and perfect, a little fake. But Kate is now a duchess. She was ambitious and rose to the very top, she married the future king of England and I admire that. I admire social mobility.
Two years ago I got these wonderfully brilliant results and I saw my chance and I grabbed it. I could use these good grades and my wits to escape my existence as a Romanian in east Birmingham. I could escape my state of unwelcome and learn to belong in the very best set. Only now do I even see that the grades were unnecessary. Indeed it was the good grades that prevented me from climbing even higher up the social ladder. If I was to try to go for the upper class now, instead of upper-middle like I did, I would do the real upper class thing and join the army as an officer. I’d may even have been able to marry the daughter of a peer and spend the rest of my days riding and being eccentric, or taken up gambling like Barry Lyndon. The real landed gentry usually go to Eton or Rugby or Dragon and, if the eldest, inherit their father’s title and estate, or otherwise join the army or navy or go into the Foreign Office. The upper-middles that usually go for the professions: barristers, doctors, academics, politicians. And that was the path I chose by going to Oxford. The aristocrats are rarely highly educated. William and Harry both have military careers. Their mother, Diana, boasted about being thick and she was a Sloane Ranger. I am not thick and therefore not true blue. Maybe my children will have the luxury of being thick, but I could not have managed it. The gentry is too small a class to infiltrate, they all know each other you see. I couldn’t possibly have faked an estate, contacts, my name in Debrett’s, they would have seen through my disguise instantly. And I can’t ride a horse, a dead giveaway.
But I do pass for upper-middle. Passing to me means successful infiltration. I am a spy, like James Bond. But now, after two years of being a gentleman, I really feel I’ve assimilated. I would feel more at home in Buckingham Palace than in Birmingham. I don’t have any friends from my old life who I’ve kept in touch with and I stopped talking to my parents soon after I changed my identity. Now I only hang out with other people from my class. I avoid foreigners because I’m terrified they may be able to smell a rat. I most dread bumping into someone I know, from before. I honestly have nightmares about it. What if they recognise me? What if my parents suddenly visit? The game will be up. I try not to think about it.
How did I pass? Well, it’s not too hard to be honest. You must simply learn the right social cues. First, you must target a group and do your research. Then you redesign yourself to fit in with them, you become one of them. This takes patience. Finally, you move. You must move, in fact, to pass. You need to be surrounded by strangers who don’t know the real you, only then can you con people into thinking you’re someone else. After that, you assimilate. You come home one evening to find your face looks the same as the persona you’ve adopted, as if the skin has filled in the wrinkles and crevices of the mask you’ve worn so long. That’s why I tell you I’ve passed, not passing, passed. I have passed through, I am beyond. This comes at a cost, every day I forget a bit of the old self. I accept that cost.
Now, I’m sure there are foreigners who feel accepted and respected and embraced by the English upper classes. Swedish surgeons, Latvian lawyers, what have you. But in my opinion, a foreigner, no matter how high, is always a second-class citizen in England. No one will accept a foreigner the way they’ll accept an Englishman. No one with a foreign name will ever be prime minister. Well, I’m ambitious and I’d like to be prime minister. I didn’t want any door in England shut to me because of my name, not even the door of No 10 Downing Street. So the name had to go. I used to be called Petru Munteanu, which I anglicised to Peter Mount. Mount has a good imposing quality, a dominance. It also sounds a bit horsey, like mounting a horse. Plus Peter Mount is easy to spell and pronounce. Most Englishmen also have a middle name, I didn’t. I took Charles, like the next king. When choosing a name it’s always a safe bet to pick the name of a king.
I officially changed my name at the citizenship ceremony, I submitted a Deed Poll with my new name. I hadn’t told my parents that I wanted to change my name or pass as English. They were proud of the A-Level results and that I would go to Oxford on a scholarship. But I’m not sure they really understood the concept of Oxford, the concept of elite. They had finished secondary school and married and emigrated and were happy to earn money, to send some of it back to their relatives, happy to have their son go to university. I didn’t tell my father I wanted to change his name because I knew he would see it as cowardice. And that is indeed exactly how he sees it. He sees it as lack of integrity, a betrayal of one’s true self. But I honestly never identified much with my real name or identity, something I never chose, something I had the misfortune to be born with. I saw things differently and our relationship deteriorated because of it. We stopped being a family the day we became English. My parents also have English passports but I call them paper Englishmen. I am a true Englishman because I burned my Romanian passport, because I actually speak English and act English.
I think my parents were also disappointed because it means something for a foreigner to succeed. My mother once told me that I should not be ashamed of my name or background, while people may be prejudiced against eastern Europeans, once they met me and saw what an upstanding, intelligent man they had before them they would change their opinion about Romania. But all I can think is: why must I be the example? Can’t someone else change the world and teach the English to accept Romanians, can’t someone else solve racism? I don’t want the responsibility. I want to succeed, I want to be immediately accepted. I always despised the suspicion my Romanian name aroused. Only now, with my English name, do I feel that I really belong.
When we received our new passports my parents discovered my name change and there was a row. A real Romanian row, high passion. I tried to explain, about being bullied, about Oxford, about Downing Street, but to them it meant betrayal, it meant having a fake in the family. My father called me an actor. He said the word with disgust.
My new name has been a blessing, my life is so much easier. Did you know that professors are more likely to reply to an email from a student with an English name than one with a foreign name? An English name is a privilege, and I was right to change it. Peter Mount could be prime minister, Petru Munteanu never could.
In the passport picture there is my face, clean shaven and combed hair, and my new name beside it and I feel proud of this object. The only mistake I made was that I did not yet wear my blue contact lenses when the picture was taken and so my eyes are dark brown, not blue. It makes me squirm, I think: what if someone sees?
I decided to get contact lenses because I felt I didn’t look English enough. I have dark brown hair, you see, and dark brown eyes and skin that is not pale enough. Even for a Romanian I am dark. I always looked too much like those sad women begging on street corners, wearing too many scarves and skirts down to their ankles. My classmates would say “Is tha’ ya mum, Petru?” when we passed one. I hated that I looked like them. I tried skin bleaching creams for a while but soon realised it was the eyes. The ugly brown eyes. I wanted beautiful blue eyes, so I got blue contact lenses. They look natural and feel comfortable and I now wear them constantly. I even got my first girlfriend, Jessica, thanks to them, she complimented my eyes when we met. We’re not together anymore and she never found out I was Romanian.
Something very important is clothes. When I see someone, I know immediately what class they belong to. I have a finely tuned eye. I read some books on the topic, books like Dress for Success and The ABC of Men’s Fashion, and then carried out a three month wardrobe overhaul using my earnings from the Romanian food shop.
In Birmingham I wore the typical uniform of my class. I thought I was dressed like an individual but I’ve since learnt that true self-expression via clothing doesn’t really exist. People always dress in a way that will allow them to fit in with their peers. Naturally, I do the same, and so do you. I used to wear tracksuit bottoms and hoodies and T-shirts and sneakers. When I read those books my eyes were opened, I actually dressed like a chav, all that was missing was the tribal tattoo on the forearm. I fit in with the very social group I was trying to escape. Wearing anything too new, too sporty, too shiny, too flashy, or too matchy is completely wrong. That is the uniform of the lower classes. The clothes must look like you inherited them, they must look old and conservative. More importantly, you have to look completely at ease in them. Insouciance is key. At Eton they wear white tie and tails to school every day. When that’s your upbringing, you always feel at ease in formal clothes.
The wardrobe itself consists of the typical male upper-middle uniform. It is perfectly prepared to fit slightly poorly and I hunted for the best quality items I could find in the charity shops of London and Birmingham. I have black and brown leather shoes. I have five shirts, two pale blue ones and three white, with straight collars and barrel cuffs. I have some beige and scarlet chinos and dark jeans. I have plain grey socks, long ones, so that I never show any ankle. Showing skin in general is severely frowned upon and it’s safe to say that the less skin someone shows the higher their class. I have three wool jumpers in various colours and patterns. One of them is bottle green.
I also got a blue blazer with brass buttons. It’s too big for me and double breasted. I hope that everyone who sees me in it thinks I got it from an uncle who is a naval captain. As for winter clothing, like everything else the rule is as much natural fibres as possible and as conservative as possible. I managed to find a black Chesterfield coat, a grey wool scarf, brown leather gloves and a Russian fur hat. The Russian hat is not exactly upper, but eccentricity is upper, and I thought it necessary to own one jarring item which proves my utter confidence in my social position. I’ve often noticed and felt jealous of the sheer arrogance of the uppers and how carelessly they seem to live. They will wear a pink Mickey Mouse T-shirt and combine it with a perfect accent and perfect manners, so that you cannot help but know, really know, how utterly superior they are. They are so superior that they can flaunt the very rules they create. I wanted that superiority, and my Russian fur hat gives it to me. It’s one of the advantages of superior birth, you can be a complete weirdo in every conceivable way and get away with it, be admired for it even.
I bought my first suit just before arriving at Oxford. It’s a charcoal beauty: single-breasted, wool, double-vented, notched lapels, two-button, slim not tight, no pleats, no turn-ups, but, unfortunately, fused construction not sewed. I got it in an Oxfam in London and had it taken in by a tailor off the Row. It’s almost perfect.
Grooming is also important. I rarely shaved before, now I do it daily, like a soldier. I had my hair cut too, with scissors, short back and sides up to eye level and long on top. It’s actually an Ivy League cut, traditionally worn by Yale students, but I wear it somewhat longer. I don’t maintain it too well for fear of looking too pristine, which is vulgar, and I don’t use any hair product for the same reason.
It was difficult changing my appearance and clothing style. I think I did it all too quickly and tried to keep it secret too long. I was still living with my parents then and they were shocked at all the changes I was making to my identity, the contact lenses were especially unpopular and resulted in another argument.
By far the hardest change was my accent. If you’re upper class in England you speak Received Pronunciation, RP, what you might call BBC English. It’s a sort of standard that’s been around for decades now but is, actually, quite fluid. The old BBC English, the one you might have heard in the ’50s, sounds simply old fashioned now. Hardly anyone speaks this way. You pronounce the word show like shoe and lion like lawn. The Queen used to speak this way but she no longer has that accent, just compare her first Christmas message with the 2018 one, it’s incredible how much her accent has changed. Old or conservative RP would not do for me. Instead I aimed for contemporary RP, whose vowels have shifted. This is the accent spoken by public school educated actors like Tom Holland, Emma Watson, Benedict Cumberbatch and Kate Beckinsale.
My accent was Brummie before. Brummie is considered, correctly, the ugliest accent in the UK. RP has the advantage of being the standard English, the prestige dialect. The entire point of RP is that it can mask origin, an RP speaker could be from anywhere and his parents could be anyone, though they’re probably upper. Learning RP was tough. I did not have the money for elocution lessons, having spent it all on clothes. Instead I used an actor’s trick and listened to audio books read in RP and recorded myself parroting the speaker. I kept doing this until the two sounded the same. I listened to Harry Potter read by Stephen Fry, a wonderful RP speaker, and tried to sound just like him. RP’s a beautiful accent, the most beautiful accent, but it took me a long time to master.
What’s amazing about RP is how many famous RP speakers are themselves passing. Sir Ian McKellen for example, comes from northern England and had to learn to speak RP just like I did. Now he’s a knight. So you see, passing and social mobility are quite normal.
RP is non-rhotic. This means the R, unless it is followed by a vowel, is not pronounced, it disappears. And the A in words like cat and pass is pronounced differently, one is short, the other long. The Ts are never dropped and in general it’s important that consonants are pronounced clearly, almost over-pronounced. One must also avoid all slang, for word choice is crucial if one’s trying to pass. Have you ever heard of U and Non-U English? This is upper and non-upper speech. Your choice of terms and words marks your class. For example, if you said pardon, I could immediately tell you’re middle-middle or lower. Educated people say sorry or what. If you call the midday meal dinner instead of lunch, then you’re definitely lower. There are a lot of these words and some of them have been harder for me to adopt than others. I found it especially difficult calling dessert pudding. This has resulted in my speaking much less and much more slowly. People probably think I’m carefully weighing my words before speaking but what I’m really doing is trying to remember to say lavatory, not toilet.
Margaret Thatcher had elocution lessons. She wanted to be taken more seriously in parliament and learnt to speak in a lower register. Back in the day many women were sent to finishing schools in Switzerland to learn proper manners, which their parents hoped would help them marry up.
I also retrained my manners. I read some etiquette books and learnt a million things. I learnt that you only pass the port in a clockwise direction and I learnt the proper etiquette of balls, I learnt about present giving and about greetings. I even memorised the valediction one uses when writing to the Queen.
There was one aspect of manners I found difficult to master and that’s the correct way to eat with a knife and fork. You must hold the fork in the left hand tines pointing down, and the knife in the right, gripped in a fist and not like a pen. On no account should you swap the fork to the right hand like Romanians do. This proper method of eating is easy for steak but becomes only too hard when eating peas. There’s a trick to it. First you pierce two or three peas with your fork tines and use your knife to scoop the other peas on to the back of the fork, the pierced peas act as a frontal barrier to prevent the carefully balanced peas from falling. I’m still not very good at it.
To pass I must lie, and lie constantly. No one must know I am really Romanian, no one must know I am anything other than upper-middle English. I get really paranoid sometimes. Sometimes I have nightmares, nightmares where I get kicked out of Oxford, or nightmares that I’m about to become PM and the leader of the opposition exposes my real background.
I’ve invented a fake background, a narrative of sorts. People always ask where I’m from and so on and I must tell them something, you understand. Here’s my story: I was born in a house in the countryside in Devon, and I was educated at an independent school in Montreux, in the French part of Switzerland. My father is a stockbroker at HSBC. My mother studied music and occasionally teaches piano. All of this is difficult to verify. My background is anonymous and my parents have an excuse for being out of the way, they both live in France and never visit, you see. It’s quite convenient. I do worry that I’ll meet someone who really is from Devon or someone who really did go to school in Montreux, but I’ve been all right so far. And I’ve become an excellent liar.
I get treated so completely differently now when I wear a shirt and blazer and speak RP. Everyone calls me sir. It’s beautiful. I already got a job offer at a law firm, and I’m only in my second year. Girls pay more attention to me, nobody bullies me, I get invited to tennis and to balls. I do admit I am lacking in funds, since I’m on a scholarship, but I simply explain to my peers that my father is strict about my allowance. This is generally accepted and no one dares challenge me because money talk is taboo. Anyway, some of the other uppers are more broke than I am, class has nothing to do with money in England and everything to do with accent, appearance, behaviour and pedigree.
I’ve also finally gotten involved in politics, with the Conservative Party of course. I must say, I really think Brexit was a good idea which been disastrously handled. The way the EU dealt with the migrant crisis was idiotic. And why should we take orders from unelected politicians in Brussels? Honestly, with so many migrants in the country, we really do need to put English people first, the UK has done so much for Romanian families like mine, and people like my parents still refuse to integrate. Enough is enough. This is not a popular opinion at Oxford but I can assure you that I’ve heard similar views expressed by my peers. The irony is not lost on me about my being an immigrant too but really the other Romanians ought to make more of an effort. After all, I did.
I visited my parents recently, for the first time in almost two years. I went to the old street with the sad houses. My parents seemed less angry about the choices I’ve made, and naturally I still love them and care for them deeply. It wasn’t a total reconciliation though and, of course, I would hate to have them involved in my new life or have my identity change exposed.