Let Them Eat Pork Rinds
by Christopher Hitchens
©Vanity Fair December 2005
These lines are taken from Bertold Brecht’s magnificent poem “A Worker Reads History”. These days, people associate Brecht with old Red cartoons in which men in shiny top hats spit on the poor while wielding truncheon-size cigars and flourishing gold watch chains across their distended bow-window waistcoats. And surely that epoch of ruling-class arrogance is in our past? Of course it is, but that doesn’t mean that certain instincts and attitudes just evaporate. Here was the American president’s mother, speaking grandly from Texas as the descendants of slaves took refuge in the Astrodome after the seas had rushed in upon their city:
What I’m hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this, this is working very well for them.
The White House was later to qualify these gorgeously phrased insults as “personal observation”, which indeed they were. The unmediated personal observation, that is, of a very much overprivileged person. They made a good “fit” with the performance of her son on his visit to the submerged region. Meeting two sisters who had only the clothes on their backs, the president of the United States directed them to a Salvation Army shelter down the road. The shelter itself, as an embarrassed aide was quick to whisper, had been swept away. But the point was the same and contains the tone of the workhouse master down the ages: “You appear to be distinctly poor and fucked up. Do you not have a church basement to go to?” Even at such a critical moments, the “faith-based initative” takes priority. The poor we have always with us. And the rich we always have with us, too. Various benign arrangements will take care of the latter, while the former are better off on their knees and should pray as hard as they can. Perhaps a tract on “intelligent design” to go with that bowl of nourishing gruel?
The subconscious mentality of the uncontrollably well-off was deftly caught by the novelist Joyce Cary (a chap, despite his name), who evolved the phrase “tumbril remark” to catch the essence of the polite upper-class incredulity at the sheer inconvenience of having to put up with other people. My preferred example of the remark was once given by the late British Tory politician Julian Amery, who described an acquaintance of his (was it Lady Diana Cooper? – there’s an element of the apocryphal to some of these tales) as she waited under an umbrella outside the Dorchester hotel in the 1930’s and tapped her foot with impatience as the Rolls was brought round the front. Seizing his chance, a ragged man approached her without the courtesy of an introduction and announced that he had not eaten anything for three days. The outraged Lady Diana drew herself up. “Foolish man that you are,” she instructed. “You must try. If need be, you must force yourself.”
Wilde’s Lady Bracknell could hardly have bettered this. (“Fortunate in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever,” she says. “If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square.”) Yet it’s easy to cull non-aprocryphal tumbrilisms. Let me introduce George Orwell, who was writing a wartime diary in 1940 as London braced for the Blitz. He noted:
From a letter from Lady Oxford to the Daily Telegraph, on the subject of the war economies: “Since most London houses are deserted there is little entertaining… In any case, most people have to part with their cooks and live in hotels.”
Commenting on these perfectly wonderful uses of “most”, Orwell noted, “Apparently nothing will ever teach these people that the other 99% of the populations exists.” Lady Oxford, by the way, was the title of the great socialite and memoirist Margot Asquith. And the decade then just closing – the 1930’s – was the scene fo some splendid tumbril stuff. The diaries of Sir Henry “Chips” Channon provide an especially rich seam, as he describes toddling off to Savile Row to spend a king’s ransom on socks and scarves, before lunching at the German Embassy with the divine Herr and Frau Ribbentrop – the dessert consisting on one occasion of lobster ice cream. What a nuisance, thought, to have to step over dirty and unwholesome people as one makes one’s rounds.
“I see no point in being poor,” the late Queen Mother is supposed to have said while being driven through some slum. “Mind you, that was a lot of money in those days,” an English duke once told an interviewer known to me, while recalling the loss of some £150 million by one of his ancestors in the goldfields of Africa. These are the real thing: the failure of the upper crust and the cream of society to have the remotest glimmer of an idea of what life is like for others. (The “cream” was described by Samuel Beckett as “thick and rich”, while nobody seems to know who defined the “upper crust” as “a lot of crumbs held together by dough”.) Sometimes you can make an educated guess that the speaker is joking at his own expense. “I would not have The Times,” remarked the late Duke of Devonshire in speaking of the decline of that newspaper, “in any of my houses.” While making a documentary in Liverpool about how the other half lived, Auberon Waugh addressed a group of proles and breezily told them that his own manor in Somerset “probably costs more to heat than most of you people earn”. Mark Bower, that effortlessly superior and dandyish cartoonist, once drew a scene of two people in a restauranat during a coal miners’ strike. “Do you mind the carafe wine?” says the host, looking up over a hugely ornate and tasseled menu. “I’m faintly unhappy when the bill gets too close to the miners’ take-home pay.” Mr. Humphry Berkeley, an Englishman whose ancestors came over with the Norman conquerers, left the Conservative Party partly in protest at its Africa policy and eventually ran for Parliament as a Labour candidate. Asked what was the difference about the experience, he replied with apparently perfect gravity that “I’ve been meeting the working class and I simply must say that it’s absolutely the nicest class I’ve so far met.”
But then there are old jokes – most of them also English for a reason that barely needs explaining – that are based more on Schadenfreude. Example: Two extremely rich men are sitting in companionable silence in their overstuffed armchairs in the upstairs window of the Carlton Club, in London. The silence is broken when the first man calls attention to the situation outside and says, “It’s raining.” “Good,” replies the second man without looking up from his newspaper. “It’ll wet the people.”
Auberon Waugh’s father, Evelyn, was a tremendous snob in many ways, but was generally rather careful to avoid such direct class combat. Indeed, in his masterpiece Scoop he gives a tumbril character to a radical type – Mr Pappenhacker of the Daily Twopence, who is rude to waiters at a restaurant that must be the Savoy Grill. “He seems to be in a very bad temper,” the shy William Boot observes of Pappenhacker to his host, Mr Salter:
“Not really. He’s always like that to waiters. You see he’s a communist. Most of the staff at the Twopence are – they’re University men, you see. Pappenhacker says that everytime you are polite to a proletarian you are helping bolster up the capitalist system. He’s very clever of course, but he gets rather unpopular.”
In Kingsley Amis’s Girl, 20, the radical-chic Sir Roy Vandervane tries for the same effect by plastering reactionary bumper stickers all over his limousine and driving as arrogantly as he can, honking the horn like Mr. Toad and seeking to create resentment among lesser drivers and humble pedestrians. That didn’t work. A tumbril remark doesn’t work if it’s conscious or deliberate. (Indeed, one definition of a gentleman is that of someone who is never rude by accident.) But what does work is an unmistakeable, revealing, unfakeable reminder of how superiors really view inferiors. The wife of a British diplomat in Saigon in the 1960’s, a certain Lady So-and-So, once considered the surrounding carnage and observed soothingly that it wasn’t as bad as it might look, since one had to bear in mind that “Orientals” had a different attitude to death. My friend the poet and journalist James Fenton noted as calmly as he dared that from this you could tell one thing for certain – namely that Lady So-and-So had a different attitude toward the death of Asians.
For some reason, the Bush family excels at this kind of thing. I remember George senior, having come in third (after Pat Robertson, of all people) in a 1987 Iowa straw poll, being asked why his own supporters apparently hadn’t bothered to turn out. “Oh well,” he replied, “there was more to life than politics, and his sort of people were at their daughters’ coming-out parties, or teeing up at the golf course for that all-important last round.” To be absolutely honest with you, I do not know to this day exactly what a “coming-out party” is, but it has a nice debutante, Marie Antoinette ring to it when uttered amid the corn-infested fields and pig-strewn farms of Iowa. (A bit like the distribution of free gáteau to the masses, which somehow failed to occur in the inundated states of the Gulf of Mexico in September.) At a later stage, offended by the very idea that he lacked the common touch, George H. W. Bush put himself to the fatiguing effort of declaring in public his love of pork rinds and country music, and of guising himself in pleb-like clothing as if to the manner born. This is worse, in a way, because “slumming” on the part of the elite is a carefully graded insult – to the intelligence, among other things. (I knew that John Kerry was through when a friend of mine looked up from The New York Times and said, “Oh dear. He’s gone goose hunting again.”) Oddly enough, and for all the Versailles teasing that she herself had to endure, Nancy Reagan had more “class” when she turned up in rags to sing the parodic “Secondhand Clothes” at the Gridiron Club and “pre-empted” the media tumbrils that had been rumbling around Pennsylvania Avenue district in the early 1980’s.
“Because it turns on a sixpence, whatever that is.” Thus remarked the Armenian tycoon Nubar Gulbenjian when asked why he modeled his custom town car on a London taxi. One can be reasonably certain that this is a rich man’s joke. But “The levees broke? Who knew they could do that?” is not funny for one thing, and doesn’t demonstrate any sense of noblesse oblige, either. It shows in a blinding flash of what someone really thinks of you. It is not self-satirizing, or deflecting. It is myopic, and arrogant. It reminds one that levée was the word used by King Louis XVI himself, in his royal bedchamer upon rising, for the reception of his courtiers. The word “tumbril” is in our language and in our minds because of the imperishable passage in A Tale of Two Cities where the carts full of those same, now fallen, haggard courtiers come grinding their way to the Place de la Révolution, and where Madame Defarge sits knitting with her fellow tricoteuses, coldly and contentedly marking each crashing slice of the blade. But, for me, the most chilling mention is the very first one, where Dickens recalls a particularly hideous torture-execution ordered by France’s “Christian pastors” in defence of the old king’s regime:
It is likely enough that in the rough outhouses of some tillers of the heavy lands adjacent to Paris, there were sheltered from the weather that very day, rude carts, bespattered with rustic mire, snuffed about by pigs, and roosted in by poultry, which the Farmer, Death, had already set apart to be his tumbrils of the Revolution.”
You can feel it coming… “like the stillness in the wind/’Fore the hurricane begins.” The reference to “mire”, incidentally, isn’t Dickens’s only euphemism. A tumbril really means a cart for the carrying away of excrement. Don’t tempt me…
Other expressions are in our language, also. We still use the adjective “noble” as positive and “base” as negative: terms that derive their original meaning from the Anglo-French feudal order, where every person knew their divinely ordained position. We employ the word “chivalrous” to mean honourable and gallant, when all it denotes is a noble who owns a horse, or horses, and can thus ride over the unmounted – rather as if a specialist in Arabian equines was to be appointed head of FEMA, and raise his eyebrows politely at the distasteful news that lesser breeds were sweltering in a dome. Another expression less “commonly” used – and there I go again with another instance of the same linguistic bias – is “below the salt”. This refers to the long table in the baron’s hall, when seating was by social gradation all the way to the bottom, where sat the greasiest serfs and scullions. The precious condiment could not be passed below a certain place about halfway down. How we smile now to think of such primitive social and class prejudices. And then there came a day in New Orleans, a town named for a scion of French feudalism, when the saltwater rose up and didn’t just wet the people but drowned them, and nobody was above that salt except those who could fly over it and look down de haut en bas, while a lot of lowly people were suddenly well below it. What ever is that distant rumble that I dimly hear?