Although the comic novelist Nancy Mitford made them famous, the terms “U” and “non-U” were coined in 1954 by a linguistics professor, Alan Ross, to distinguish the language used by the upper classes from that of the other social orders. It was a language a child could learn if you sent it to the right prep school, Ross asserted, but an adult could “never attain complete success”.
Mitford, a fully paid-up U, disagreed. In her essay The English Aristocracy, she claimed that aristocracy was more than a language, it was an attitude. When it came to entry in the official lists – of the gentry, the baronetage, the peerage – public service and money were often as important as birth. “The English lord,” noted Mitford, “marries for love, and is rather inclined to love where money is.”
These days, the oldest of those official lists still active is Debrett’s, now approaching its 250th birthday. (The other is Burke’s, the most recent edition of which was published in 2003.) Debrett’s Peerage and Baronetage is an extraordinary artefact, running to more than 3,000 pages of fine print. Peers and barons, lords and hons are listed by name, title, date of birth, education, job (in that order). Then the coat of arms, a veritable explosion of arcana: “Sable, two flaunches, or three Welsh triple harps in fess counter-changed”. In some cases, mailing address. Progeny, and sometimes their addresses, too – evincing remarkable trust in the reader (though less surprising if you think of the readership as an extended family who might drop in for tea). Debrett’s is, among people who pay attention to these things, “the social bible” – but it is a bible stripped back to its begats. Outsiders can be frustrated by the lack of the colourful narratives that they suspect must be behind a lot of the begetting.
That is, if they care at all. The world has changed somewhat since 1954. The sources of wealth and power, in central London in particular, have changed. The aristocracy do not automatically – or at least, not publicly – sit at the top of the social pyramid. Like other luxury heritage brands (Penhaligon’s, Burberry, Fortnum & Mason) Debrett’s has had to adapt in order to survive. Unlike them, it does not produce anything to eat or drink or wear, and thus presents a very specific problem. Five years ago, Joanne Milner was brought in as Debrett’s new director, and given the brief of taking it by the scruff of its blue-blooded neck and giving it a vigorous shake. The overhaul required to make it a viable business was so thorough that Milner decided to think of it as a “250-year-old start-up”.
Today, Debrett’s, as well as publishing the Peerage every four years (the data is updated year-round), produces leather-bound diaries (£35), themed notebooks in Brunswick Green, Eton Blue or Knightsbridge Navy, including The Town and Country “Season” Notebook (all £50). The Debrett’s Handbook (encompassing British Style, Correct Form, and Modern Manners, for £35) sits alongside guides to Men’s Style (£7.99), Entertaining Etiquette (£20), A Guide for the Modern Gentleman (£15), a Guide to Netiquette (£7.99), and a rather good A-Z of Modern Manners (£11.99).
But the core of Debrett’s operation is now a training academy, divided into business and personal streams. On the business side, this includes Public Speaking and the Art of Persuasion, British and International Etiquette, Selling and Relationship Building, Corporate Dining and Hosting, and Corporate Dress Codes. On the personal side, a two-day Young Achiever Essentials Course (greetings and small talk, presenting yourself with confidence and poise, and dining essentials – correct tableware, eating challenging foods) can set you back £2,350 before VAT.
If you take the Professional Finishing School programme, then interview skills, networking, netiquette and social media, international etiquette, and business wardrobe essentials are yours for £2,500. There is a Quintessentially British programme (two days, popular with expats, no price listed) on navigating “the season” and its dress codes, afternoon tea, and hosting/being a “gracious guest”. There is a course on “personal and professional impact” for women, which emphasises body language, presentation and effective communication. It includes lunch at Claridge’s and a session with a personal shopper. There is a bespoke manners course for children, too, price available on request.
Joanne Milner also established the Debrett’s Foundation, a charity that, by giving selected bright underprivileged youngsters a free one-day course in the skills of self-presentation, aims to further Debrett’s “ongoing commitment to social mobility”. One might quibble with that “ongoing”, for if the company has been about anything since it was founded two and a half centuries ago, it has been about keeping the classes clearly demarcated. (Though it is possible to argue, I suppose, that by listing who was titled, who had land, inheritances or eligible sons and daughters, it enabled the sharp-eyed, ambitious or impoverished to marry “up”.)
No one can dispute, however, that social mobility is necessary, and getting more urgent by the day. In June, a report from the government’s social mobility commission estimated that it would take 40 years to close the achievement gap between five-year-olds from poor families and those from rich ones. At the end of last month, the commission published its annual state of the nation report, which noted, among a plethora of dispiriting statistics, that some of the richest areas in the country were doing worse for their disadvantaged children than much poorer places. A week later, the commission resigned en masse, because, they said, the prime minister was failing to build a “fairer Britain”. Alan Milburn, the commission’s chair, announced he would be establishing an independent social mobility institute.
It’s hard to see how a foundation attached to Debrett’s, publisher of the Peerage, can be helping to promote equal opportunities. It has a sense of noblesse oblige about it – a patronising attitude favoured by the rich and privileged. Is it really possible to engineer social mobility by teaching young people to make smalltalk? Surely the risk, on a trivial level, is a kind of misguided restaging of Pygmalion for the Snapchat age – a hollow gesture from an ageing luxury brand looking to gloss over its desperation to survive. Perhaps it is an insider’s realisation that supposedly well-defended social bastions can be more porous than they seem. Aristocracy is an attitude, as Mitford put it, and an attitude, perhaps, is something anyone can learn.
Debrett’s began in Piccadilly, in a bookshop directly across the road from where the Royal Academy is now. The first edition, called the New Peerage, was published in 1769, in time to record a crop of new baronetcies. In 1784, bookseller John Almond’s apprentice John Debrett took over the editorship, and in 1802 put his own name to it.
It quickly became an object of satire (in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, for instance, and in the radical publication Westminster Review); but those who mocked it also knew that it affirmed the power of the aristocracy, by establishing birth credentials and hierarchy, codifying a particular kind of belonging.
That power was severely tested by the first world war, when the devastating loss of life led to criticism of the old order. George V, who ascended the throne in 1910, saw where this might lead and cracked down on social restiveness, insisting on the punctilious observance of royal protocol. His reign ushered in a heyday for Debrett’s, then edited by Cyril Hankinson, who transformed a sleepy office by installing more telephones – which rang day and night with requests for expert opinion on delicate matters such as what to do in the event of a king’s death. Within a year, the BBC was calling to ask how to introduce a king’s abdication speech. In Hankinson’s 40 years as editor, the Peerage, published yearly, doubled its circulation, and grew in size from 2,960 to 3,760 pages.
The second world war achieved what the first had not. Suddenly the aristocracy’s “ostentatious country houses and London palaces were far too big for the kind of staff they could afford to employ (or were able to recruit)”, said Chris Bryant, who recently published Entitled: A Critical History of the British Aristocracy. Not long before he retired from Debrett’s, in 1962, Hankinson recorded that he had fired “a female ‘beatnik’, the correct word for which I am given to understand is ‘weirdie’” – a harbinger, had he but known it, of even greater changes: the swinging 60s, and, as Britain moved into the 1970s, the cultural rise of the working class, higher taxes, and the growing power of the unions.
In 1982, Debrett’s, seeing the way the wind was blowing, launched Distinguished People of Today, an annual edition listing those who had made significant achievements over a lifetime. “It remains”, journalist Peter Stanford noted in 2013 – sliding in a mention of his own inclusion, when he was editor of the Catholic Herald – “one of those rare accolades money can’t buy.” (The accolade was somewhat tarnished in that first year, when it was discovered that a suspicious number of new entrants were subscribers to Tatler, the glossy society magazine. The editors at Debrett’s were desperately trying to boost numbers and, as their deadline hurtled closer, resorted to Tatler’s subscription list.) In 2014, the Debrett’s 500 was launched, an annual publication listing people who had made the greatest contribution to British life in the preceding year, sponsored by the Sunday Times. The chosen 500 included sporting stars and vloggers.
These reference books are expensive to produce (reflected in the price: the hardback, red-boxed, two-volume, gold-embossed 2019 edition can be ordered for £450), and have a natural limit when it comes to sales. Buyers include those listed, libraries, genealogists and ancestry enthusiasts, and specialist organisations such as the College of Arms.
Over the years, Debrett’s has seen a colourful succession of personalities attempt to increase revenue. Harold Brooks-Baker, an American who became managing director of Debrett’s in 1976, published in 1978 a tongue-in-cheek, bestselling guide to The English Gentleman, who “does not drive a Rolls-Royce unless it is very old and smells of dogs”, and always “speaks to the engineer before a train trip because of an old belief that he owns the railroad”.
When Ian McCorquodale – the son of Barbara Cartland – took over Debrett’s in 1981, he attempted to stem operating losses of £300,000 a year by producing a Debrett’s Cookbook for All Occasions, Debrett’s smoked salmon, a Book of the Royal Wedding and a volume on the Texas Peerage, before admitting defeat. In 1987, the company was sold to SPG Media, for £515,000.
In fact, Debrett’s was now climbing a cultural wave, for along with the rush of money of the early 80s came a reawakening of interest in lineage and social form. “It was our fault, really,” said Peter York, who with Ann Barr produced the wildly successful The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook: The First Guide to What Really Matters in Life in 1982 (with Princess Diana on the cover), documenting the manners, ritual and language of this privileged tribe. “People suddenly got interested in that stuff again,” York said.
In the early 90s, Debrett’s asked John Morgan, then style editor at GQ and an etiquette columnist for the Times, to write a New Guide to Etiquette and Modern Manners. It appeared in 1996, and set out rules of etiquette with – according to departing Tatler editor Kate Reardon, who used to give a copy to all her staff – “flourish and humour and self-deprecation”. York, however, describes John Morgan as an “extravagantly sad” figure, a dandy who lived in a tiny flat because it had to be in the Albany, a smart address in Piccadilly; a man of humble birth who cashed his cheques at Claridge’s. When he was found dead, having fallen or jumped from a window, his agent told the coroner he would have considered it bad manners to kill himself without leaving a note.
In 2012, Debrett’s was bought by Eddie Jordan, the Formula One team boss and commentator, in a joint venture with Darryl Eales, a director of Oxford United football club and then CEO of the private equity fund LDC. (The fund had already bought Learndirect from the government in 2011, which provides work-skills training to almost 73,000 adults across the UK – and thus, arguably, has far more potential to affect real social mobility; unfortunately, it recently achieved the lowest possible Ofsted rating and has been severely criticised for its finances.) Joanne Milner was brought in from LDC to expand Debrett’s operations. “Debrett’s had an amazing sense of authority about it,” she told me. “People would call to say, ‘I’m hosting a party’ or ‘I’m hosting a charity fundraiser, can you just confirm to me how I address, you know, Lord So and So … ’”
A poised blond woman in a crisp white shirt, with a strong Leeds accent, Milner, who moved on from the company in 2016, remembers Debrett’s as three people in a small office who really cared about what they were doing. She was careful not to describe it as amateurish, but “so British and so full of good manners that you couldn’t ever mention that you might want paying for something. A lot of people thought we were a government body.”
Debrett’s is now run from an office on Cavendish Square (a block north of Oxford Street’s department stores and a stone’s throw from the BBC) that manages to be both grand and anodyne, authoritative and provisional. The new crew seems young, upbeat, international. The first time I visited, I was greeted with extravagant politeness and served some very good apple cake, baked for an office sweepstake by Debrett’s current managing director, Renée Kuo, an Anglophile Asian-American who worked as a bond trader on Wall Street, then a minimum-wage grape-picker, and then managed a Californian winery, before arriving in Britain.
What is Debrett’s now, I asked Kuo. What is it for? She thought for a moment, then said, deliberately: “We teach modern manners to increase confidence and encourage consideration of others. It’s education without judgment.”
Businessman Richard Thompson, who, until recently, acted as a non-executive director of the Debrett’s 500, could be a poster boy for social mobility. Although he had a comfortable upbringing, he left school at 16. By the time he was 29 he owned a sales and marketing agency worth £25m; in 2003 he established talent and brand management agency Merlin Elite; in 2013 he sold a 60% stake to MC Saatchi for £1.5m. He frequently fields job applications from young people who look amazing on paper, he told me, sitting on a sofa in his bright Soho office; the trouble came when they arrived for interview. He was particularly bothered by what he saw as a lack of confident smalltalk, “that rapport you need to build”.
In business they call this having “soft skills”, and the lack – or perceived lack – of them is a measurable cause for concern. A poll of more than 500 senior managers conducted for the Duke of Edinburgh’s award programme this August found that 98% thought young people should invest more time in enhancing their soft skills – defined as good communication, teamwork, confidence, resilience and, perhaps surprisingly, compassion.
It is important to put this in context, said David Johnston, chief executive of the Social Mobility Foundation (and, until the beginning of December, a commissioner working with Milburn). You need to look at exactly who gets on in the world of work, especially in the professions. Those who have access to work experience – ie those already plugged into a network. Those who went to the right schools – of which there are a tiny number. And those who have the “right” soft skills or “polish” – all of which, according to Johnston, effectively adds up to how middle-class they are.
In anonymous responses to a 2015 social mobility and child poverty commission study of barriers to the elite professions, employers claimed that homogeneity bred efficiency: “You get my jokes. There’s not a risk that I’m going to offend you by saying something, because we get each other and that’s hugely efficient”; “Is there a diamond out there? … statistically it’s highly probable, but the question is … how much mud do I have to sift through in that population to find that diamond?” Again and again, the test was whether the applicant would “present with confidence”. It was as if they were being required, as Milburn put it, to pass a “poshness test”. “Effectively you go into the interview room and you are judged by proxies,” said Johnston. “NONE of it is about how good you actually are.”
In his 1954 paper on U and non-U, Alan Ross came to a clear conclusion: the only way truly to jump classes was through private education – and in that sense, very little seems to have changed: 7% of children in the UK attended fee-paying schools, but the privately educated account for 71% of senior judges, 43% of newspaper columnists, and 50% of members of the House of Lords. The people who recognise each other’s particular forms of “polish” run the country: they choose how the country talks about itself, and who it rewards.
In this context, teaching a few rules of etiquette, as Debrett’s does, looks like a sticking plaster on a gaping wound. But at their best, the rules of etiquette – from the very earliest (do not use one’s dagger for anything other than meat) to the most recent (do not share a morsel on Facebook without attribution) – do serve a useful purpose. They codify a certain kind of thoughtful inhibition, or temper natural instincts; they help make a good first impression.
The first time we met, Renée Kuo told a story about her Chinese father visiting a restaurant in Paris. When the waiter came to clear the first course, he made “a big show of putting the fork and knife back on the table – they were dirty – and taking the correct fork and knife, putting them on the plate, and taking them away”. Full marks for silverware management – but a total fail for manners, which would have involved “acting as though nothing had happened, and putting my father at ease”. The most recent edition of Debrett’s A-Z of Modern Manners provides directives about how to eat asparagus or pass the port – but it also repeatedly underlines the kind of thoughtfulness that avoids hurt feelings.
David Hume called manners “a kind of lesser morality”; for Edmund Burke, they were more important than laws – the French Revolution, for him, was at root a terrible breakdown in manners. His maudlin lament for a lost epoch (“the age of chivalry is gone and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever”) might have been dismissed as feudal nostalgia, but it was also a plea for manners, which underpinned international diplomacy, he argued, and even international commerce. In this context, Debrett’s, whose clients include corporations and front-of-house-staff at art galleries and football academies, may well be on to something.
Manners can be used as a method of situation control. “Though easily construed as deference,” writes Henry Hitchings, in his urbane and wide-ranging book Sorry! The English and their Manners, “mannerly behaviour tends to have an assertive undercurrent.”
“The most important thing,” asserts the Debrett’s A-Z, “is not to look like you are trying.” This is another paradox of Debrett’s: no one is trying harder than someone paying £2,500 to look like they’re not trying.
Prof Ross’s lists of “U and non-U” words seemed both random and learnable: if one could only remember to say “napkin” rather than “serviette”, and “loo” rather than “toilet”, one might pass. In fact, because etiquette in this country has always been so bound up with class, and class with so much more than a set of words or rules, the very learning of lists almost guarantees not passing.
But it is also the case that true confidence – not arrogance, or superiority – inspires confidence in others. And true confidence is easier to achieve with the help of a toolkit; so, for example, if you have a sense of how to manage the cutlery during a five-course meal, and you can just stop thinking about it, turn away from your private anxieties and think of others, you can pay attention. Manners make people like you; and people, whatever their station, like to be around people who make them feel good. Reardon quotes Maya Angelou: “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.”
One day last spring, eight teenagers sat around a conference table in a nondescript meeting room in a nondescript office behind Oxford Street. A tall, willowy, fast-talking woman called Katherine Lewis ran through some of the things they had learned at the Debrett’s Foundation.
“How many seconds to make a first impression?”
“Seven!” came the chorus.
“Lovely, amazing, well done,” said Lewis. “You guys are really nailing it today, you really are.”
Everything was framed in a positive light, as if low family income or a deprived background could be overcome by sheer force of will. Indeed, positivity and a can-do attitude, plus a certain wilful blindness to the sheer size of the obstacles in the way, are probably basic prerequisites for even getting started.
“Bring me a boy who’s pained in their own skin,” Lewis had said to me when we first met a few months earlier, “because it is totally reversible. You just want to say: ‘Actually, you’re OK, and you’re going to be OK’” – the things she wished people had told her, when she herself was a shy teen. This group of sixth-formers from Northampton Academy didn’t seem particularly shy, but one could sometimes detect, especially in the boys, a certain fragile bravado.
They had done a workshop on body language. They had done mask work. They had talked about eye contact, handshakes, posture, vocal strength.
“What do you guys think smalltalk is?
“When you talk about the weather?”
“Yes! And what do you think of that?
“Bit awkward?” said Abi, an outgoing, vivacious 16-year-old, the youngest of four children of a Nigerian single mother who works in a care home.
“Yes, but you know what, talking about the weather is better than standing in silence.” (“Talk!” the Duchess of Cornwall’s mother apparently said to her, when she was a girl. “I don’t care what you talk about. Talk about your budgie or your pony, but keep the conversation going!”)
They talked about networking, and especially networking at speed, the unspoken issue being that they would have a lot of catching up to do. Always do your homework: ask for guest lists, look up photographs, join LinkedIn (most, it turned out, already had).
Bethan Waddington, the foundation’s administrator, had come to Debrett’s after spells as a boarding assistant at Headington, a private school in Oxford, as a houseparent at a Swiss boarding school, and then as a pastoral manager at a challenging state secondary. The thing about doing this day-long course, she said, was that it gave them access to networks – she put those attending in touch with some of the people on the Debrett’s 500 lists – the best in their fields in the country. Knowing that teenagers tend not to be great at follow-up, she told them again and again: email me, call me, get in touch. I will set you up with someone who works in the sort of job you want to do.
After Pret sandwiches and a couple of shared packets of crisps, Lewis then put the students through their elevator pitches – how to impress upon someone, in a minute or two, one’s qualifications, personality, eagerness to help.
They were all sent out of the room, then asked to come in one by one and speak to camera: name, achievements, goals, dreams. Stripped of an audience of their peers, each was earnest, clear, proud of their rafts of A* exam results. Their ambitions involved running companies, humanitarian work, aeronautical engineering, designing medicines. They had fought to find work experience, saved to travel, saw themselves as moral support, organisers, entertainers, and knew they had skills that were “overlooked sometimes”. The room was quiet as we listened to their hopes, ideals, envisioned futures.
Afterwards, the group walked down Piccadilly and into the Royal Academy, across the street from where Debrett’s began. The teenagers had barely collected themselves under a doorway marked “Academicians” when a smiling man approached and introduced himself as Charles Saumarez Smith, chief executive of the Academy. An assistant put a hand out for tickets. “They’re with me,” said Saumarez Smith. The assistant nodded them through.
In the first gallery, one of the co-curators of the exhibition, Ann Dumas, was waiting. The teenagers gathered around her, the taller boys dwarfing her small frame, as she embarked on a short history of the Russian revolution. A well-heeled gallery-goer recognised Saumarez Smith and asked him: “Are you pretending to be an ordinary person?”
Lenin (who, incidentally, was appalled by Stalin’s manners) believed in social mobility – but he argued for the total abolition of classes, rather than mobility between them. It’s useful to keep his argument in mind, because even at its most well-intentioned, the concept of social mobility depends on the very hierarchies it proposes to overcome.
After the tour had disgorged the little group into the gift shop, Saumarez Smith led them through an empty gallery to an office behind the scenes. In front of two sofas, on a low table, afternoon tea was laid out: small cakes, teacups on saucers. One of the students poured himself a cup, sat down at the long conference table and sniffed at it, dubiously. The room filled with an air of concentration and the effort of trying not to break anything.
Saumarez Smith, who is 63 and has the measured delivery of someone unaccustomed to being interrupted, went around the table, asking each teen to introduce themselves. He described his own trajectory, from public school to running some of the pre-eminent galleries in the land, and answered questions. His advice – not to obsess about certain kinds of achievement, to make room for a life; to be open to unexpected opportunities – was good, honest and generous. But also, I couldn’t help but feel, slightly took some of his own opportunities for granted.
In the creaking world of peerages, change is slow to come. This year, the frosty economic climate caught up with Debrett’s. In May, the company acquired a new chairman. Nicholas Winks is CEO of WayPoint Change and a director of the Institute for Turnaround – he specialises in, as he put it, “helping with broken companies”. He would not go into detail, but said he had been brought in by Darryl Eales, who was alarmed by how much the company was costing.
Debrett’s, whose management personnel had, up to that point, been approachable, kindly and often idealistic, had already hired an efficient PR firm, M+M Management, which specialises in the luxury industry and celebrity endorsement. In July, Charles Kidd, who by then had edited the Peerage for 37 years, abruptly retired, and I was told he would not be answering any of my questions. The Peerage is now to be edited by a company that tracks down ancestries (and was spun off from Debrett’s in the 70s, as it happens). They are working on the 100th volume at the moment, which will also be the 250th anniversary edition, to be published late next year.
By mid-2017, Debrett’s People of Today was no more, and the future of the Debrett’s 500 in doubt. (These, it is worth noting, are the only lists they produce that are based on merit.) They were concentrating on being a coaching company, said Kuo, and on brand synergies – had I noticed the most recent, A Guide to British Style, published in partnership with Bicester Village shopping centre and produced in Arabic and Mandarin as well as English? It joined their Guide to Civilised Separation with law firm Mishcon de Reya, Petiquette with Harrods, a Homesharing etiquette guide with Airbnb, Vaping with Vype, and the Etiquette of Beer, with drinks giant AB InBev. More partnerships were in the pipeline for the Christmas market.
The Foundation was outsourced; as of September, Debrett’s will be working, for two years, in partnership with the Unite Foundation, which provides three-year accommodation scholarships for university students lacking financial support. The day-long course, Kuo insisted, would be taught by Lewis in exactly the same way, and students would still be offered links, if they chose to take them up, with people in “the Debrett’s network” – including work experience, if those in the network chose to offer it.
Nicholas Winks was cautious about claims for what training such as that being offered by Debrett’s Foundation could do. Could it help young people from state schools compete with public school graduates for jobs? “I think you’ve got to be sceptical about it,” he said. A lifetime of disadvantage could not be fixed by a day or two of training, however well-intentioned. Still, he said, this “doesn’t mean there’s no room at the margins, with students who are very bright and willing to try hard. A little bit of help might just get them over the line – that’s where it works.” He insisted that the foundation’s work was something everyone would, morally, want to support, but “even charities have to pay their way, I’m afraid”.
Was Debrett’s the right organisation to do it? “The market will tell,” he said.
After her day with the Foundation, Abi, from Northampton Academy, left Saumarez Smith’s office somewhat rattled. She had not previously thought class might make a difference to her opportunities; she had never even considered what class she might be, though now she thought about it, it was probably working-class. “It just made me think: ‘Oh, another obstacle I’m going to have to overcome.’” Then, bravely: “It’s better to be aware of what you might face, rather than be ignorant of it.” But she had also suddenly realised she did not have to follow a narrow, obvious path – which, while it panicked her, excited her, too.
Then one of her friends called her over. They were making plans about what to do with their evening before getting on the train back to Northampton. So she said goodbye and went to join them, and in a minute the gaggle was off, through the Royal Academy’s grand porticos, under a banner that read “Revolution”, and into Piccadilly.
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