Britain is still afflicted with a rigid class system. I say "still" because if you've ever read anything by Jane Austen, the characters she described in the 18th century are alive and well in modern Britain today. Or should I say "modern" Britain.
As an American, the class system quite frankly grates on me. It's not from envy, I promise. It's from a deep-seated sense of social justice, probably instilled in me as a child watching Sesame Street. Sesame Street taught me and my generation what it means to be fair, respectful, and community-minded. And that everyone had the opportunity to do well and be judged on his or her own merits. Not so in Britain. You are born into your class, and your accent, taste (or lack of it) and your parents' education or profession will always define you. You are a U (upper classes) or you are a non-U (middle classes on downwards).
It's part of the undercurrent of my daily life and I don't usually rant about it, but it's been in the forefront of my mind this week. Ever since the young lord called Mike. He invited us to the big house to celebrate the 20 year anniversary of Mike's employment as Head Gamekeeper to the family. 20 years' service is very respectable and I thought it was kind of them to remember and mark the event.
But I'm realistic. I didn't expect much. Staff in private employ have more in common with livestock. You're here to improve the estate, and the employee (and their family) essentially belongs to the estate owners. If you're really lucky, you're more like a favored pet and your life is marginally improved. We're not, so it isn't.
I know to some degree anyone who works for a living is indentured to the company which pays his or her wage. The difference is when you go home at night, your time is your own. In service, you are always 'on the clock'. You are expected to do whatever is asked of you at any time, whether it's to park cars for a party, collect the Bishop of Winchester for a christening, or dress like a Roman centurion and stand on a plinth in the depths of winter. I could tell you some stories.
Anyway, we were summoned to the house this morning at 10.45 am. If they really wanted to thank us they would have left us to catch up on our sleep before the season gets busy again, but that's not how a U thinks. I had to take a shower, fight with my hair (the Us have straight manageable hair so I tried to make the effort) and put on a pair of Spanx and a skirt. Anyone who's worn Spanx knows that in and of itself is enough to make anyone disinclined to be social.
Although we were invited guests on this occasion, we knew to use the servant's entrance. We were led through the kitchen into the library where half the family had roused themselves from bed to thank Mike for his years of service. Lord and Lady S, the middle son and a nephew with spouses in tow, and children with their nanny. We were offered a glass of champagne and a water cracker, toasted Mike, then made 10 minutes of small talk on approved subjects (a non-U should always know what subjects are acceptable when speaking to a U. Politics, religion, or anything of a personal nature is verboten). We discussed the upcoming shoot season, hunting, how the nephew's young dog was progressing with its training. Mike diffused a situation between Lord S and one of the children regarding shooting of ducks out of season yesterday. Mike is incredibly diplomatic in these situations, and has often taken the rap or masterminded a cover-up for the indiscretions of the young lords when they were growing up. He accepts this because he has been thoroughly indoctrinated. He knows he's a non-U born to serve these Us, as his mother did, and as her parents did.
So that was it. 20 years' service equals a thank you, a glass of champagne, and a water cracker. I know the thank you was heartfelt, but you'll forgive me for thinking it's not a fair exchange for Mike's loyalty and skills. Maybe it's just because I'm an American and I don't get the system.
Once I got home and wrestled myself out of the Spanx, I resolved to invest and save wisely, for the sole purpose of buying Mike his freedom from indentured servitude. I expect the de-programming will take longer. I want Mike to know the freedom of working for himself. Or at least the freedom to say 'no' to posing as a hypothermic centurion. If we ever have children, they are only watching Sesame Street.