I was listening to the radio a while ago (Radio 4, a BBC station, has some great shows, along with some deeply strange ones) and someone said in passing that in the U.S. class is all about money. And I stopped mid-stir (I listen to the radio either in the car or when I’m cooking) and thought, Well, what else would it be about?
Why, heritage, of course. Generations of titles and inbreeding and self-congratulatory silliness. The system’s antiquated and doesn’t match the realities of power anymore, but it’s still creaking around the room on its arthritic legs and interrupting the conversation with irrelevant and embarrassing observations every chance it gets. An aristocratic family may have given its grand house to the National Trust because it couldn’t afford the upkeep, it may have sold it to a celebrity or some foreign oligarch, or it may have kept the place and opened part of it for the riffraff to wander through and gawp at (or as much of the riffraff as can afford the entrance fees, which range from the predictable to the exorbitant), but by god it still has a name and thinks it matters. (We all have names, I remind myself, but they’ll be happy to tell you that they really have names. The rest of us just have a bunch of sounds for other people to call us by. And in my case, the family name has changed a few times, so that says something about how important we thought it was.)
But even in Britain, class isn’t all about heritage anymore. Pick any village and someone’s likely to think they’re the lord or lady of the manor. It’s possible that their ancestors once were, but it’s equally (or maybe even more) likely, at least in our part of the country, that they moved down from London a few years ago, bringing a pile of money made doing who knows what, and now that they’ve bought a big house in a small village it’s all gone straight to their head. They throw their weight around in village events and committees, half expecting to recreate the days when Lord Hooha’s word was law. But whether or not they actually are Lord Hooha, it’s not the nineteenth century, never mind the middle ages. Sometimes they get away with it but often they don’t. Either way, the rest of us are torn between annoyance and mockery.