Sir Bob Jones

Commentary on issues of the day from the property tycoon, author and former politician

Bob Jones: Everyone a target for the snobbery test

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Tony Astle. Photo / Natalie Slade
Tony Astle. Photo / Natalie Slade

Recently the Herald gleefully reported Antoine's restaurant owner Tony Astle, a man of high standards, unsurprisingly rejecting a Dotcom booking, declaring, "... that man! He's banned".

Read the story here.

Sadly Tony's not camp, for those words cried out to be uttered with an eye-rolling shriek and dismissive limp-armed flounce. Acknowledged in the New Year's Honours for his restaurant's remarkable longevity entitles Tony to indulge in all the snobbery he can engender, and indulge he has, even Helen Clark, not given to drunken cavorting, having received the Astle boot.

Had Antoine's an all-you-can-eat $25 buffet, in which event the arrival of Dotcom would threaten bankruptcy, ejecting him from an a la carte restaurant demonstrated splendid proprietorial panache. Mind you, if I owned a restaurant, I can't think of anyone I'd let in.

Snobbery has brought me much amusement, initially as its target and now, as a privilege of age, in rendering it. I exploited it in my teen years when selling advertising space. Instead of selling to frock shops I "permitted" them to buy by saying "I understand you do all the embassy work". They always said yes, whereupon I allowed them in.

Then there was a snobbish mother-in-law who disdainfully viewed me, retired at 25, as a layabout. She once memorably said of her other son-in-law, a newly graduated GP, "Peter has such beautiful hands, Robert." (Bob in her eyes was crass). Rather than throttle her with his beautiful hands, being then too young to ignore the Hippocratic Oath, Peter instead fled to Australia where today he's a leading Macquarie St specialist.

Thereafter I was often on the receiving end. After my first book was New Zealand's 1977 best-seller, I was wooed by Whitcoulls, then our leading book publisher. Whitcoulls was headed by Max Rogers, a lovely bloke, considered the doyen of New Zealand book publishing, but not so his publishing division, comprising young female English Lit graduates who treated me with unabashed snobbery. I set them up with my next book, its text included a poem (without apology to Shelley) about the Mayan Tikal ruins in northern Guatemala I was writing about:

From afar they came to quietly stare.
Would rather they did loudly sneer,
For Ozymandias is dead, you hear,
and these ruins do not praise him.

As anticipated this led to one of these girls haughtily proclaiming "one cannot quote a poem without crediting it". Mustering an exaggerated thespian astonishment I retorted, "that's an absurd patronising of readers. Good God, everyone knows who wrote that" and to my delight they all nodded, crying in unison "of course, of course".

Max sat smiling, but was no fool and later asked had I written it. We left it in uncredited.

The word "snob" was initially believed to derive from the Latin sine nobilate, that is, without nobility. But today etymologists credit it to late 18th Century Cambridge students referring to outsiders, snob then being a slang term for a cobbler. It came into popular usage in the mid-19th century after Thackeray's series of satirical essays in Punch on snobbery, subsequently published collectively as The Book of Snobs. Typical was his account of dining with someone who "caused me the deepest pain by eating his peas with his knife", which would certainly earn the Astle boot in the bum. The humourless Trollope condemned the book but thereafter many famous authors became renowned for their snobbery. Waugh was notorious yet his pre-war novels had a common theme of satirising it. Sir Vidia Naipaul has wonderfully excelled since he won the Nobel Prize, but even earlier was masterly, once burning his bed following its despoliation after a workman sat on its end. Fair enough too.

Everyone indulges in snobbery, evidenced by a British study revealing no jury had ever acquitted any female called Tracey. In fairness that could be pragmatism as anyone called Tracey is bound to be criminally inclined. Our judges were once noted for snobbish pomposity, leading to the counterbalance of flamboyant barristers who enjoyed winding them up, and none better than Wellington's late Roy Stacy.

Roy once addressed a particularly pompous judge, "As Your Honour knows, when one enters a brothel ..." this inducing a spluttering outraged denial on the judge's part of knowing any such thing.

There's the delightful thing about snobbery: It's as much fun sending it up as delivering it. My eldest daughter, having reached an acceptable age to indulge, recently regally informed someone pressing her to meet me - "I'm afraid my father could not converse with a bearded man." Quite bloody right.

Aucklanders curious as to their social status should trot along to Antoine's. The bar isn't high, after all John Key is a regular. If greeted politely you're in, but if on the receiving end of Tony's boot, be grateful for his advising how you rate, then apologise and slink off to McDonald's where you belong.

- NZ Herald

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