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Opinion: In defence of pretentiousness and why it's OK to like houseplants

PUBLISHED: 10:22 08 April 2019

Poet Luke Wright will be performing his new show Poet Laureate at Diss Corn Hall. Picture: Idil Sukan

Poet Luke Wright will be performing his new show Poet Laureate at Diss Corn Hall. Picture: Idil Sukan

Image licensed for press and publicity usage for the sitter, dependent on the accreditation to the photographer: Idil Sukan/Draw

A new guide to the must-have status symbols for 2019 leads to accusations of pretentiousness - but is it really so bad to be thought of as pretentious?

Great news, readers, Tatler magazine has revealed its 2019 status symbol list and having perused it, I can confirm that I am officially unbearable.

The ownership of house plants, rare breeds of dog, electric cars, items by artist Grayson Perry, the kind of spices used by chef Yotam Ottolenghi (Palestinian za’atar, Aleppo chilli flakes, dukkah and ground dried lime, if you were wondering), a hand-built pizza oven, a fountain pen, a wine cellar and handmade sloe gin: they’re all on the list.

You can imagine the reaction to this, albeit tongue-in-cheek, list: the Forever Offended sub-section of internet trolls came out in force like an army fighting in the name of blandness, immediately calling out the “pretentious” fools who like herbs and plants and unusual dogs and pens. They’re what’s really wrong with the world.

I went to see poet Luke Wright at Norwich Playhouse last weekend (he was superb) and one of his poems really resonated with me: sadly, its title contains a rude word I am banned from using in a family newspaper, which for the purpose of the point I’m about to make is somewhat irritating. It rhymes with ‘bank’.

In essence, the poem is about embracing the things that people say are ‘pretentious’, by which they mean ‘things they don’t personally like’. The word is used to criticise other people’s music, clothes and hobbies, the food they eat, the craft beer or coffee they drink, their handlebar moustache or goatee beard, the area and the house they live in, the job they do, the business they run, the things they buy, the things they say, the books they read, the fact they go to poetry evenings…you name it, it’ll seem hugely pretentious to someone else.

I was memorably called ‘pretentious’ once because I said I didn’t mind my under-age teenager having an alcoholic drink now and again – perhaps my accuser mixed up the words ‘pretentious’ and ‘negligent’, although merely saying that makes me as pretentious as she assumed I was in the first place, or at the very least ungracious and rude.

My Granddad said I was pretentious because I read books. A boyfriend once told me I was pretentious because I had a degree. Someone I went to school with said I was pretentious because I had a first name that SOMEONE ELSE gave me.

It stands to reason that very few people self-identify as pretentious because we’re unlikely to do something that we think is snobby, affected or elitist and after all, being pretentious is something that other people do, often while wearing organic cotton smocks and drinking single origin coffee in a pop-up bar under a railway bridge.

But let me tell you this: if you make your living by writing, by default 99.999999 per cent of the world immediately assume that you’re a pretentious, “arty” (as used as an insult, not a compliment), out-of-touch, above-their-station, velvet-smoking-jacket-wearing dandy. It doesn’t help that I once owned a velvet smoking jacket.

On a scale of one to Shoreditch Hipster, I’m right up there in the loft apartment with the houseplants, Ottolenghi spice rack and sloe gin as I dangle my fountain pen over another piece of specially-milled and water-marked artisan paper in order to bring the world my precious words.

And do you know what? Good. I embrace it: if writing things makes me pretentious, so be it. I have had a lifetime of being called pretentious, of having people brandish that word like a weapon and it is so very, very dull. I LOVE houseplants. I make my own sloe gin. I HAVE A FOUNTAIN PEN, OK?

Being thought of as ‘pretentious’ is usually bound up in the clanking chains of class anxiety, the idea that someone is trying to escape their true social standing by spending time, money or energy on a pursuit, lifestyle or object which they believe should be reserved for someone more deserving. Genuinely, though, don’t we have bigger things to worry about?

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