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.”



Two Condoms in Broome Street

What with the new year, with having just returned from New York (about which more, possibly, later) and with the visit to London of our friend S, I have been thinking back to a New Year’s Eve at the beginning, give or take a year, of the century. The better half was then living in New York and I was courting her. I would travel there every weekend for that purpose. Later we took an apartment together on the Lower East Side, her daughter and dog joining us, but she was still then living at her previous home and I was a secret. I flew over for New Year’s Eve. She was holding a party to which I was not of course invited, but she promised to get away when she could.

Previously I had stayed in a hotel. I had a range of them that I had used before on business, but once for a treat we went to the Waldorf Astoria. That was a disaster. The prevailing smell of cabbage was the least of the problems – of the more substantial of which the less said the better. Anyway, this time the better half said that I could stay at a loft in SoHo. It belonged to her friends the Gs, who were away for the season. I was mildly surprised, as I had always got the impression that the Gs didn’t like me at all. I made the mistake of assuming that the Gs knew that I would be staying in their loft.

The loft itself was spacious, if perhaps lacking a little the human touch. The heat was regulated remotely somewhere and kept high: heating’s being organised for the entire building being one of the many ways in which the United State resembles the Soviet Union. Because the pipes were old and industrial they were rarely silent, particularly this evening when the temperature fell rapidly outside from the congenial to below zero, or as they say in America, to below thirty-two degrees. Night fell and, having settled me in, the better half went off to her party. She would come by later, she said; also, her friend S would probably come on to sleep there after the party.

I looked out of the back window. Across a scrubby area of what appeared to be but no doubt wasn’t waste land there was a similar building to the one that I was in. Lights came on there and faint sounds of country music could be heard. The snow fell. (I was going to write, as people tend to do on these occasions, ‘The snow fell silently’. But of course it fell silently.)

Goodness, I thought:

Lights flicker in the opposite loft
In this room the heat pipes just cough
The country music station plays soft
But there’s nothing, really nothing, to turn off…

It was many years since Bob Dylan had written the lines and I had first heard them. When I first came across them (London, 1966) I had no idea what a loft was, nor that the Visions of Johanna were taking place in New York. Now it all fell into place. I revisited the rest of the song in my head and felt very grown up.

Bored with distant country music I took out a book. I had brought Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. The better half had told me to. It is one of those works that people often tell you is the best they have ever read and a touchstone in their personal lives. The Magus is another like that. I liked it a lot, but by no means to those standards. Having a cat is a black mark for me, in novels: dogs yes, cats, unless from Cheshire, no. I laid The Master and Margarita aside at a suitable juncture. I checked my mobile. No one had called. I texted an old girlfriend. (In those days, texting was possible both in Europe and the USA, but in the latter people just didn’t. That all changed quite soon.)


People still texted in Capitals in those days.





S came early. She had a man with her, whom she had met at the party. He was dressed in brown and avoided my eye. He did look weedy, especially by the standards of Louise and her lover, so entwined, Johanna and the rest. They went off into a designated sleeping space; they don’t have actual bedrooms, often, in lofts, so S and the man in brown – soon, of course, no longer in brown – remained audible, though curtained.

Eventually the better half appeared, looking piratical.

“Come out,” she said. “It’s snowing.”

And so it was, and the snow had covered everything. The streets of SoHo were pristine and lovely. New York is often lovely, but I have never seen it pristine like that, before or since. We stomped around, absurdly happy.

That should be the end of the story, but there was one more drama. The better half called the following morning.

“You have to clear the loft and get out fast. The Gs are coming back early.”

“I’ll stay until they return and thank them.”

“Don’t be silly. They don’t know you’re there. There was a sort of invitation for S – possibly – but not you.”

So I tidied my stuff and then the designated sleeping space, in which there was disarranged bedding and a condom on the floor, which I disposed of. I rang the better half and reported. She called me back.

“S says there’s two condoms. You’ve got to find them. The Gs have children. Hurry!”

Well, it must have been flung aside with some passion, but I found it, just in time. As I slipped out I heard sounds of the industrial lift being manhandled some floors below. I located a dark place to hide while they went past.

Behind me the heat pipes just coughed.