Sunday, 28 February 2010

U and Non-U

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.


Kate said...

Umm...the mind boggles. I can't formulate anything remotely more intelligent to say, but this was an eye-opener. WOW! Save your p's and get that independence!

Paula said...

...and your U's are probably considered good employers.

Good luck with your goals. And now I'm going to go look up Spanx. They sound like butt-shaping underwear.

Paula said...

oh good lord! I guessed right!

Poppy Cottage said...

Yep, that sums it up I guess. I too watched Sesame Street. The heartfelt thankyou doesn't eat the house, keep the draft out etc etc. 20 years service, shouldn't that be a gold watch or something?

Pomona said...

Jen, that post gives me the horrors! Just remember that the aristocracy are such a microscopically teeny tiny part of life in Britain today - and class just doesn't really exist for most people now. I had occasion to move on the margins of such circles in my youth, and had hoped that it had all died a death, but they just reflect badly on themselves by their anachronistic behaviour. There are plenty of estates run by normal people or management companies now, where you are an employee not a minion. And I do know there is a huge shortage of good farm managers because the average age of those in agriculture is high, so I am sure there are opportunities for you both out there. I had a pretty privileged (but not at all aristocratic!) country upbringing but my family never, ever treated employees as servants in bondage or expected unpaid out of hours labour on farm or otherwise - even all those years ago. My husband's first job many years was in a family-run company where they seemed to want wives to turn up and tug forelocks at company events - needless to say, being of a rebellious turn, I refused to do this, and heard through the grapevine that my MIL thought I was damaging my husband's prospects and some of his colleagues thought I must be fearfully ugly or otherwise unpresentable as he didn't bring me to these events! I hope that you can find an alternative - and I just want to say that I promise you that the rest of this country is not hidebound by accent, school, taste, or whatever - really, really!

Pomona x

Jenny said...

No, Britain isn't all like that. You have the misfortune to work for the worst type of people who obviously haven't either brains or manners. They don't speak for the rest of us, thank goodness. I'm rather into meritocracies myself, education being a Very Good Thing!

The few members of the aristcracy I've met in my time, however, have been darlings and intelligent and perhaps that's what is wrong with your lot!

Anyway, cheer up: we're all with you on this!

Terry Scoville said...

Jenn, my heart goes out to you and Mike. More so you as know what freedom truly is and isn't. I commend your tolerance as I doubt I have as much as you regarding the classes. Give me a ring and we'll go hunting American style once you two are stateside. Patience is a virtue, class systems I'm doubtful of.

martha in mobile said...

Not exactly the "class act" one might hope for from a scion of the U-class. I am sorry!

Sara said...

There are overdeveloped senses of entitlement in every country probably, but each with different causes (birthright, money, power, etc.) Good idea, yes, to save your hard-earned money and become secure enough to live simply and happily, serving only yourselves.

Jennifer Montero said...

Thanks for all your comments - I don't mean to demean a whole culture or country, just to relay my specific experience on a particularly anacronistic estate. Perhaps I shouldn't blog when I'm still mulling things over (or crabby from the Spanx)

But as I said in my intro, we've got the best and worst of both worlds. As an American, I struggle understanding a system I wasn't brought up in. Lots of your comments helped me gain a bit of perspective, particularly from other Brits who understand it all better than I do!

I'm still working towards our freedom though!