Class for Powellites

“Did you win?”

“Win what?”

“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.”



The Lions of St. Petersburg

Society in Russia is rigidly stratified. Unlike England where a cat can look at a king, in Russia a cat can look only at a slightly larger cat, the consolation being that the cat can be absolutely beastly to slightly smaller cats. Since they tried equality for sixty-odd years, and look where it got them, who can blame them?

It is like the situation at my public school in the sixties, where any boy could require any menial service of anyone his junior. That was based on respective age. In Russia it is a little more complicated, though ultimately simple: it’s mainly about money.

At the top of the tree of course is the Perpetual President along, I imagine, with the Perpetual Presidential girlfriend, since, as in the English aristocracy, consorts take on the status of those more powerful who have taken them under their protection. Although immensely wealthy, as a result no doubt of investing his Presidential salary wisely, he is not the richest man in the country. Nevertheless he has the power in practice to ask other rich people to give him their money, which comes to the same thing.

We were invited by our good friends R and S to a party which they gave, where some of this became apparent. The guests included a couple who are probably at the top of the tree in their city. As I stood nursing a small measure of vodka before we went through to the dining room, the she of that couple advanced on me in a regal Dior dress. By ‘regal’ I mean that it looked as if it might have been designed for a queen – not a real queen like ours but one in a story book.

“You look funny,” she said to me. “Are you all right?”

And without waiting for a reply she turned away.

For a moment I was nonplussed. Had my old trouble re-asserted itself? I checked a mirror (the room was full of them) but everything seemed to be all right. Then I realised. I was wearing Scottish evening dress, which she must have found surprising. (The kilt was the Hunting McBlag: black, as you will know, streaked with a disconcerting crimson; the conventional sgian dhu in my stockings playfully replaced with a small Kalashnikov). Her remark that I looked funny was no more than a polite acknowledgement that, from infinitely higher up on the ladder, she had noticed me, and what followed was merely ritual enquiry after my well-being, like the ‘Y’alright?’ with which one’s friends from Essex often greet one. In short she had treated me in a way that was gracious and appropriate: it had just come a little unstuck in the translation.

As to the funniness to her of my dress I should mention that whilst the women at the party had gone to great trouble with their appearance and looked for the most part imposing, formal and lovely, most men had decided that an open-necked shirt and slacks would do. I think that my bow tie was the only tie of any sort in evidence.

Later I watched the him of the couple at the top of the tree. He was acting with impressive benevolence and courtesy, like a laird at a reception given by an esteemed neighbouring land-owner, with a word here and there to the guests and the entertainment, going onto the dance floor prepared to make a fool of himself when the action seemed to be slowing.

Prowling jerkily round the party was another big beast, a woman who has made a great deal of money very quickly and is well known there. I was to meet her as it turned out the following evening, a much smaller impromptu occasion with a few friends at R and S’s dacha. I will call her ‘LOC’.

We were sitting on the veranda, reminiscing about the party and particularly S’s amazing singing, on which subject she was being modest. There was a commotion as someone joined us from the house. I looked up. Was it Laurence Olivier doing his Richard III, I wondered briefly. No, it was LOC. S introduced us, mentioning that of course she and the better half had met. LOC did not acknowledge this in any way but took to stalking up and down the veranda, throwing glances backwards over her shoulder and muttering.

‘LOC,’ someone whispered to me in an awed voice, in case I had missed the point.

I had a small measure of vodka before me on the table. Without warning LOC seized the glass and placed it elsewhere, producing a camera and going about the business of framing an intended photograph. I took it back.

‘I’m drinking from it,’ I said. ‘There is a free one, there.’

Again she did not acknowledge this in any way, but pushed between me and the table thrusting a scrawny arse into my face as she closed on her composition, and forcing me to stand up and move away. At last she spoke to me.

‘Good. You’re angry. I want to photograph you now.’

‘And I,’ I said, ‘want you to fuck off’, and I went into the next room and talked to my friend T, who is a psychologist.

After a minute or so there was a delegation.

‘She didn’t mean to upset you. She says she thought that you must know that she is very famous and eccentric and she has to take photos.’

I was still irritated.

‘Being notoriously rude doesn’t make her rudeness any more acceptable,’ I said.

After a further minute the delegation came back.

‘She’s really sorry. She’s making her sorry face. You must come and see her sorry face.’

And so she was. It was disgusting, like a puppy that has shat itself in a cartoon. Combine that mental image with that of Laurence Olivier doing his Richard III and you’ve got it.

‘Sowwy,’ she said.

‘It’s all right,’ I said.

But she continued to pout and later T, the psychologist, could be heard encouraging her not to abandon her sense of self-worth in the face of such an insensitive assault.

Had I been a psychologist, I told the better half later, I would have drawn a different conclusion: if we all treated each other as fellow human beings instead of rungs on a ladder, there would be no wars, no divorces and no unpleasant scenes on our friends’ verandas.

Bollocks, said the better half.