Class and power in rural Cornwall

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.)

North Cornwall's coast

Irrelevant photo: The cliffs on a hazy day.

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.

19 thoughts on “Class and power in rural Cornwall

  1. Class is not just a snob thing caused by watching too many episodes of Downton Abbey. Power as well as money are unequally distributed in the US & the UK. Ownership & control of the means of production? The man who owns the daffodil fields and pays the wages of the migrants & local people who pick the flowers has a degree of control over them that resembles that of Lord Hooha. The one who made so much through hedge funds that he can afford to set up a business in Cornwall & not even care if it makes money (or so he claims) has even more power. The power inequalities are, I’d have though, similar in the US but not manifest in village shows & cut-glass accents.

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    • Point taken. The reason that the comment “in the U.S., class is all about money” struck me is that it had never really occurred to me that it would be about anything else. I mean, I know enough history to know better, but the reality of it in the U.K. still surprises me. In the U.S., it’s both the same and different. Power comes from money in both countries (and where doesn’t it?), but in the U.S. we don’t have the overlay of a more ancient system, with all its mismatches and what I, at least, think of as oddities. The people who throw the weight of their money around in the U.S. are powerful and obnoxious, yes, but in different ways than their counterparts in the U.K.

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  2. Although we never had royalty here in the states, we have these people. I avoid town meetings and town events because even in our very small town, these people can be found in abundance. Power doesn’t always follow money, and it doesn’t always corrupt the holder, but when it does, the people are always annoying.

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  3. I love British detectives and I’ve gone through all of them.

    I’m always intrigued by the power of the old aristocracy as it is presented in these dramas.

    It is not entirely true that class is entirely about money in the U.S. as a whole.

    The Southern States never fully adopted the idea of democracy as class mobility and most of our racial strife is related to the stubborn mythology of a “ruling class” that rules by a kind of divine right.

    I was raised in Charleston, South Carolina. Money had nothing to do with class in Charleston.

    Class was old wealth, and the old wealth were descendents of once prosperous and brutal slave owners.


    • One of the things that baffles me about class, money, and power is this: If you had heaps of money and all the power that (at least potentially) goes with it, wouldn’t you want to organize your world so you enjoyed your life? But it so seldom works out that way. So many posh people seem absolutely frozen by their poshness. Bring on the common as much, I say.


  4. There is a great study of class in The Archers, on Radio 4, if you map out who gets called what, you can see a very subtle class structure….who gets to call David “David” and who calls him “Mr Archer”, who is on first name terms and who gets referred to by title. It is not only class, but also age. I have been listening to the show for some 40 years and have an ingrained sense of the Ambridge class structure, but have never had time to map it all out……soon!

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  5. You could tell them that to be true Lords and Ladies in the traditional sense, they need to endow and support schools, hospitals, legal institutions, and the church as well as maintaining their own staff and social life. Otherwise, they are just rich snobs in the true American tradition. :)

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    • Some of them do fund-raise for one charity or another–the Air Ambulance, the church, the hospice. Something inoffensive, unattackable, and often worthwhile but seldom groundbreaking. How much of their own money they put in I don’t know. Cynic that I am, I’m inclined to think not much, but I have no proof of that whatsoever.

      Actually, I’ve been impressed at the number of people here who raise money for charities–not the lords and ladies, but ordinary people who donate hours of their time to put on events that raise hundreds, sometimes thousands, of pounds. But I’d still rather see all of that supported by something more reliable, like the government, so the organizations know what they can rely on and so less popular but equally necessary organizations can get the funds they need.

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