The British PM did what with a pig's head?

In Oxford in the 1980s, the covered market in the town centre was a warren of small shops, selling everything from antiques to fruit and vegetables. There was an upstairs cafe and a butcher shop that displayed its wares in traditional fashion: Rows of carcasses hung above the entrance and across the front, so that in season it was almost comically festooned with dead game birds.

Trays of trotters, liver and other kinds of offal completed the carnivorous tableau, usually arranged artfully around an obscenely grinning pig's head.

The sight of so many corpses - and the accompanying smell - made more than one sensitive young student turn to vegetarianism, while others wished they had something more substantial than a toaster to cook with in their drafty college rooms. So did a young David Cameron ever pass that way and feel, well, another kind of hunger?

This week, the unpalatable image of the future prime minister performing what the British tabloid press, with fake prudishness, likes to call a "sex act" on a dead pig's head was - thanks to an unauthorised biography of Cameron, Call Me Dave, by a spurned Conservative Party donor, Lord Michael Ashcroft - planted firmly in the popular imagination. The fact that the allegation is anonymously sourced and unsupported by evidence is almost irrelevant. It is in our minds. We cannot unsee it.

Among my American friends, the chief reaction to the vengeful billionaire's rumour-mongering seems to be bewildered disgust. Surely no one would take their pleasure in such an unpleasant, unhygienic way? Everyone knows the dangers of handling raw pork.

In British circles, as is so often the case, the question of jouissance is secondary to that of class. The lurid story carries weight, not merely because it is embarrassing to a powerful politician, but because it speaks to inherited privilege and entitlement.

In Evelyn Waugh's comic novel Decline And Fall, published in 1928, the hapless Paul Pennyfeather is "sent down" from (the imaginary) Scone College, Oxford, after getting caught up in the drunken antics of a dining society called the Bollinger Club, a thinly veiled version of the Bullingdon Club, known to initiates as the "Buller", to which Mr Cameron belonged during his undergraduate days at Oxford. The alleged incident with the pig's head, gleefully dubbed #piggate by social media users, took place at a time when Waugh's Oxford was undergoing a fashion revival.

During the Thatcher years, Britain indulged in a collective fascination with privilege and tradition, which had been relatively off limits during the egalitarian experiment of the 60s and 70s. In 1981, a television adaptation of Waugh's Brideshead Revisited drew huge audiences. By the time I "went up" in 1988, the year I graduated, one could hardly move for floppy-haired young men in vintage tweeds and brown brogues they claimed to have inherited from "Pater". This affection for tradition was coupled with a rapacious hedonism, often conducted in groups. The expensively attired hooligans of the Buller were only one gang among many, formal and informal, that roamed among the dreaming spires, placing traffic cones on the heads of mediaeval statues and drunkenly spilling their kebabs. Young men who went out for the evening looking immaculate in black tie, stripped off their dinner jackets on sweaty dance floors to reveal that their white-fronted dress shirts had garishly patterned backs and sleeves, a fitting metaphor for the marriage of old establishment forms with thrusting Thatcherite bumptiousness that still characterises Mr Cameron's generation of Tories.

The "pig head" story is unlikely to hurt Mr Cameron, says the writer, as middle-class voters look on the transgressions of their social betters with a mixture of jealousy and appalled fascination. -PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Oxford's ancient rights and privileges provided a layer of protection against the legal consequences of the more boisterous kinds of fun. Until 2003, the university had its own police force: Bowler-hatted officers, often old soldiers, known colloquially as "bulldogs", kept order in the colleges, allowing transgressions to be handled without involving the outside authorities. Arrestable offences for "the town" (drug possession, assaults, public nudity) were youthful high spirits for "the gown". What happened behind college gates stayed behind college gates, a formative lesson for future members of the establishment.

After a period in which British society seemed to be shaking off its ancient stratifications, the Cameron era has seen the revival of unabashed elitism. In power, he has surrounded himself with ministers of his own class and background, a statistically improbable number of whom went to his old school (which was Eton, before Oxford).

It is telling that the #piggate tale entered the public domain only because a billionaire was denied a Cabinet position to which he felt entitled. We are eavesdroppers on the kind of ruling-class spat that is usually handled privately, between gentlemen.

Will the pig's head story hurt the prime minister? Less than one might think. As the only section of the population genuinely wedded to the universally professed Protestant virtues of thrift, hard work, moderation and sexual continence, the English middle-class voters who form the backbone of the Tory party might be expected to take a dim view of Mr Cameron's student activities. But they have always looked on the transgressions of their social betters with a mixture of jealousy and appalled fascination, poorly masked by censoriousness.

The image of Britain's poshest prime minister since Sir Alec Douglas-Home in the 60s engaging in what, I suppose, is technically termed necrozoophilia at a semi-secret ball full of druggy cross-dressers only confirms Middle England's suppressed fears and fantasies about life at the top. They have always suspected that behind closed doors, the toffs were getting away with murder. They only wish they could be murderers too.


•Hari Kunzru, a novelist and critic based in New York, is the author of the novella Memory Palace.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 26, 2015, with the headline The British PM did what with a pig's head?. Subscribe