Hal Crowther is one of my favourite writers. In America, he is considered to be the heir to H. L. Mencken, but for some reason he hasn’t crossed the Atlantic. Maybe he’s been cursed with the label ‘regional’ because he’s a Southern writer, although that hasn’t held back John Grisham.
Here’s the opening of Crowther’s essay ‘Eating Rats at Vicksburg’ from a collection called Cathedrals of Kudzu.: ‘Race is like a big crazy cousin locked in the basement, a red-eyed giant who strangled a dog and crippled a policeman the last time he got loose. We never forget that he’s down there. But it’s amazing how long we can ignore him, no matter how much noise he makes moaning and banging on the pipes. Our denial’s almost airtight, until one day he’s out in the yard again swinging a pickaxe, and all we can do is blame each other and dial 911.’
Sharp-shooting stuff, and sitting here on a farm nine miles north of Bury St. Edmunds where I’ve been sowing and reaping for the past 20 years, I look at that paragraph and think: replace ‘race’ with ‘class’ and ‘911’ with ‘999’ and up comes a description that stretches across the land as far as the eye can see.
Because even in the Britain of 2007 class is the big crazy cousin that nobody wants to talk about, but nobody truly forgets. It’s all-pervasive. It’s Tesco versus Waitrose, it’s village school vs. pre-prep. It’s toilet vs. loo and pardon vs. what?
It’s a film script written with a pickaxe instead of a Parker pen I mean of course The Queen, which portrays the Duke of Edinburgh as more one-dimensional and crude than Sylvester Stallone and it’s what makes the writers of The Archers come up with a faux character such as Venetia insensitive, dumb and spoiled a caricature of ‘upper-class girl’.
And it is what gave us this week, under the guise of investigative journalism, Dispatches’ ‘The Meddling Prince,’ a television programme stuffed with airy claims of ‘there are fears’ and ‘his critics complain’ and ‘politicians are concerned’, followed by breathtaking revelations such as comparing the price of a journey on the Royal Train with a SuperSaver ticket. In truth, when Roy Hattersley and Amanda Platell are dragged out as national interpreters of current events, it is a sure sign that the makers of the programme do not have much of a case.
To outsiders those not to the English manor house born the obsession with class is a depressing anachronism that cripples everyone: the resented and the resentful. It creates the insanity of a Parliament so bound up in class furies that more time is spent debating fox-hunting than the basis for entering a war whose repercussions will be felt for generations. It leads to the lunacy of a programme that would lead viewers to think that Prince Charles is secretly lobbying for the Homeopathic Society to take over the country.
I wonder if the Members who voted last week believe that getting rid of the un-elected House of Lords is the first step to a classless Eden where the monarchy is silent and only travels on SuperSaver tickets. Getting rid of the monarchy by demeaning it as a prelude to sidelining it won’t create a classless Utopia. It will only distract energy and effort from the things that really matter: education, prosperity, peace, the only things that can ever dilute the toxic waste of class.
This column was originally published in Country Life magazine, March 22, 2007