“Did you win?”
“Your Anthony Powell Lady Molly prize.”
“How do you know about that?”
“Augustus Sly told me.”
Augustus Sly told her. That was a turn-up. I thought that he thought that she was a metaphor and refused to talk to her.
“And when is he going to tell me about the bottoms in Vienna that I sent him to investigate?”
“Things carry on without your participation, you know. So, did you win?”
“No,” I said.
“Oh, I thought that Lady Molly as a gentleman detective was a winner. Who did, then?”
“That Robin Bynoe. I didn’t get even an honourable mention.”
“Oh, him. Was his any good?”
“Not bad. A bit wan. It entirely lacked the rousing finale that I had provided in mine, when Lady M cries, ‘One of you in this room is the murderer and tonight the member of the House of Lords leaving us is …’”
“Did you go to the presentation?”
“And the subtle interplay between Lady Molly and Brandreth, her chronicler, who is vain and stupid and doesn’t really understand what’s going on.”
“An original touch. So, did you go to the presentation?”
“I was in New York anyway,” I lied, “and I thought that they might change their minds at the last minute. Robin Bynoe read his winning story out loud in a modest voice and a badly-fitting suit.”
“Did you volunteer a few words of your own, causing outrage and a non-fatal medical incident on the part of the host?”
I looked at her sharply.
“Widmerpool, Le Bas,” she said.
“I know, I know,” I said. “Never apologise, never explain. No, I didn’t.”
She considered this.
“If you had volunteered a few words of your own, what would you have said?”
That was cunning. I was so impressed by her use of the conditional mood, which I believe does not come naturally to a Mandarin-speaker, whose verbs behave in a much more straightforward manner than ours, that I considered her question seriously.
“Any discussion about Lady Molly,” I said, “involves questions of class. She is a dowager marchioness, formerly gracing the pinnacles of the English social world, now living in a middling part of London with a barely middle-class second husband. They keep an open house, blind to social distinctions or those of dress, intellectual achievement or even species. The Anthony Powell Society has an online discussion list. It has contributors from around the world, and they occasionally alight on Lady Molly and wrestle with questions of class in England in the 1930s.”
Amy interrupted. “I write to that discussion list. I pretend to be Australian.”
She guffawed. I ignored her.
“Sometimes it seems to me that, in spite of the subtle insights the contributors to the online discussion list bring to most of the subjects they discuss, their approach to class can be heavy-handed. There is not a monolithic set of rules; Powell would have been the last to think that there was. I mused randomly about quite different class indicators – not whether class distinctions can be justified, just how they work – and I thought of four. Of course, there are many more.
“The most obvious is what we might call the Mitford one: the erection of subtle but irrational verbal rules that those inside comply with and outsiders fail: ‘looking glass’ not ‘mirror’, and so on. Lady Molly sails through this test instinctively: compliant but without judging.
“Two and three: on the one occasion that I met Prince Charles I couldn’t help noticing his shoes. They were well-made black oxfords, old beyond the point that anyone else would have thrown them out, but burnished to that sort of shine possible only for those with extensive availability of staff. Even the shreds of old leather hanging off them were shining. What class, I thought, what dandyism! And as I stared at them, royal platitudes playing about my ears, I couldn’t help thinking of Don Simpson…”
“Yellow man. Television…”
“No, Amy, Don: Hollywood royalty; he produced Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop with Jerry Bruckheimer in the Eighties. Mr Bruckheimer is still with us but Don Simpson sadly died in the early Nineties of a surfeit of cocaine and mullets. The reason I thought of him was that after he became Hollywood royalty he developed a dress style of his own. He would wear no trousers but Levi’s, and he would never wear a pair of Levi’s twice. At the end of the day he would throw them out, unless his staff could find a homeless person with sufficiently stocky legs on whom to bestow them. He undoubtedly thought that this was classy, and I agree that it was dandyism of a high order: the opposite of Prince Charles’s.
“And lastly, at something of a tangent, I thought of the Nobility of Failure, the concept whereby melancholy paralysis was traditionally prized among the Japanese upper classes. A samurai warrior would sit impassively in his tent, throwing away a winning position and gaining respect as a result – often of course posthumously.
“The samurai test of class would have had little appeal for Lady Molly. There were failures in South Kensington but not heroic ones. Curiously, though, it has a resonance for Stringham and Moreland, both of whom I think passed through the door there.
“As to the Prince Charles or Don Simpson question, obviously Lady Molly’s sympathies would have been with the Prince, but I don’t think that dandyism did much for her in principle. My point is that the Simpson model, which seems to be the default position for many commentators, possibly because it’s simple, works for some aristocrats, English and American alike, but it doesn’t work for Lady Molly. It doesn’t work for lots of people. It’s all more complicated than that. Of course this is why we need Anthony Powell to demonstrate it for us.”
“You could have said that to them. It’s in whole sentences and not abusive as regards any group of people.”