‘And then there was this business of Britain’s class system,’ recalled Doris Lessing about leaving Rhodesia in 1949 and coming to London. ‘It shocked me – as it does all colonials . . .’ One day she and an ex-RAF friend from Rhodesia went into a pub in Bayswater: ‘It was the public bar. We stood at the counter, ordered drinks. All around the walls, men sat watching us. They were communing without words. One got up, slowly, deliberately, came to us, and said, “You don’t want to be ’ere. That’s your place,” pointing at the private bar. We meekly took ourselves there, joining our peers, the middle class.’ The following year another young writer, Dan Jacobson, arrived from South Africa and was struck by ‘the appetite the English had for “placing” not only a stranger to the country like myself, but perhaps even more pressingly those who were not strangers, who were native to the islands, and whose hands, faces, accents, clothes and bearing would, if studied with sufficient attention, reveal valuable items of information about them: the most important of these, inevitably, being the social class to which they belonged’. He added that it was a ‘kind of detective work’ that reminded him of ‘an insect stroking an object ahead of it with its feelers, or of a cat sniffing a person’s shoes’ – and that the process reflected a society ‘deeply, obsessively divided by a host of invidious, criss-crossing “social indicators” that would go a long way towards determining relations between its members’.
– David Kynaston, Family Britain, 1951-1957 (2009)