Of Common Earth

I’ll happily agree with Sarah that I’ve got no real idea about how stratified societies work. I can sort of fake it with enough research, but I don’t have that bone-deep knowledge that goes with growing up in a culture where your parents – or more specifically your father’s – name dictates what opportunities you have and how you should behave.

It’s something that Americans and Australians (there are others, but these are the ones I know about) find utterly alien. The average Aussie would have the same reaction to discovering that someone was of royal descent as they would to learning that someone had a notorious highwayman or any other interesting person in their ancestry, namely, “Oh, wow, that’s interesting!” I rather suspect the average American would respond similarly. After all, interesting ancestors can make for good stories.

The culture celebrates being of the common clay, preferring achievement over any other way to measure worth.

Which of course means it’s bloody hard to imagine a place where one’s social class matters more than anything else about one. The most formal I’ve ever been was to address adults (when I was a kid) as Mr, Mrs, or Miss. These days I save that for introductions and people who are clearly much older than I am. More often than not, it’s first names.

The one time I met actual nobility when I was living in Australia went a bit like this:

I’d been involved in a choral performance that was part of a graduation ceremony (I was part of a large choir, about 80 strong) for one of the Brisbane universities, and the Duchess of Kent was guest of honor. Security for the entire performance was insanely tight, and I figured there was zero chance of anything more than viewing the back of the Duchess’s head from the choir stalls.

The graduation ceremony ran smoothly, the choir’s performance was reasonably solid (tenors with equipment in vices, wobbly basses and shrieky sopranos notwithstanding). The Duchess did her thing, which was I think a speech of some sort and being involved with handing out the degrees.

Once everything was finished, my mother decided that she was damn well going to get close to the Duchess, so she found out which lift she’d be using to get to the main level where her car was waiting. And since I needed mum’s car to get home, we waited. And waited. Eventually the security detail comes out and tells us how far back we need to be. They did say we (meaning mum) were allowed to take photos.

I’m half asleep, while mum is practically bouncing. Of course I’m also still in the choir uniform, which is a hideous red top with a long black skirt.

The lift opens, and the Duchess sees mum bouncing and taking her photo – she paused and gave mum time to get a good shot – then catches sight of me half hiding because I’m about as introverted as it gets and just want to go to sleep. Of course, since she’s part of a choir herself or was at the time, the choir uniform is the draw.

Which leads to terminally introverted 25-ish Kate trying to collect her jaw when the Duchess comes over to talk. I swear it took me something like 15 seconds to remember what we’d all been told about how we were supposed to address her.

She’s probably dealt with the whole protocol and procedure most of her life, and she was very gracious to someone who was obviously completely overwhelmed by the whole deal. As I remember it we had a bit of a chat about the rules choirs had about jewelry (nothing too flashy) and the hideousness of choir uniforms as well as how much fun it was to sing for the big works. The rest is kind of a haze, mostly I think because I was just in shock that of all the people to choose to talk to, she picks the socially inept one.

Except that, really, security detail, noble title and all, what I remember most strongly is a woman who chose to be nice to someone she didn’t know and who could have been any well-mannered, well-off older lady. I think perhaps what impressed me about it was that she must have been just as tired as I was, possibly more. She’d been on tour around the country, so she could hardly have been all that well-rested. But she still stopped to chat for a few minutes.

I won’t call it a “common touch”: it’s more of a recognition that underneath whatever veneer there is, we’re all people. Some celebrities and some people in places with royalty and nobility choose to act as though they’re better because of whatever gave them the fame or title. Others don’t. They accept the security and so forth, but they don’t forget that we’re all of the same basic stock.

Now I’ve lost the thread of whatever I was going to aim towards, I’ll just say that the combination of aggressive egalitarianism and self-reliance is not a bad one, as long as it doesn’t turn into pulling others down to make oneself look better.


  1. One book I would recommend as an introduction, at least for Americans, to how the old aristocratic system worked is Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution. The first section of the book is a description of the 18th century view of aristocracy written with the assumption that a late 20th century American would have no experience with it.

    One of the topics he covers the the 18th century idea of ‘condescension’, which is utterly different than ours and was considered a positive quality. aristocrats were supposed to be approachable and friendly to those down the social scale, within limits; one of those limits being that the lower rank person was not trying to gain something from the contact.

    1. You people are evil. Do you KNOW what you’re doing to my library? 😀

      “…aristocrats were supposed to be approachable and friendly to those down the social scale, within limits; one of those limits being that the lower rank person was not trying to gain something from the contact.”

      I consider that almost everyone who approaches a politician (functionally part of our modern day aristocracy — hierarchies will exist in every free society, and this is ours) is looking to gain something, and think it might be better if they were labeled Duke and Duchess so the attempt at sucking up was blatantly obvious to every onlooker, and might render the paying of bribes (which we call “campaign contributions”) less socially acceptable.

  2. I saw the Queen once. Take home impression, she’s really short. And she always looks interested in whoever is in front of her, which has to be a lie. I would not want to play poker with Liz. She’d eat my lunch.

    Right now I’m writing something (its supposed to be a short story) with Edo Period Japanese aristocracy in it. I must admit I don’t have too much sympathy for the whole Feudal Order, and that’s coming out in the story with a vengeance. The samurai were -dicks-.

    What’s also coming out is my woeful ignorance of that historic period in Japan. I didn’t even know what the farm carts looked like, or if they even had carts. Or roads! What did a road in front of a castle look like in 1597 Hamamatsu? Can ten guys get in a sword fight at a crossroads where there’s a tea house? Like, is there room for ten guys?

    All my hind-brain estimates are based on North America, where everything is HUGE and even crappy back roads are graded by machines. So when I think crossroads, or castle, or tea-house, for sure I’m wrong. Going by Europe, at 6′ tall 230lbs, I wouldn’t even -fit- in a castle. I’d get stuck in the stairwells, they’re made for guys 5’2″ 120lbs.

    It turns out that the Internet is a mile wide and an inch deep on the subject. To do this properly I would have to physically go to Japan and look up all kinds of archaeology and tour the castles myself.

    Would that I had the resources to jet off to Japan for a short story. ~:D So I’m using Google Street View and making shit up as I go along, like always.

    1. Re: wheeled vehicles in Edo Japan. I have a dim recollection that nobody but the Emperor was allowed to use a wheeled vehicle. Without looking it up at least. Something needed to be moved, some peasants hauled it on their backs.

      1. OK there was some use of ox-drawn carts for cargo, but heavily restricted. Only high nobility could actually ride in a wheeled cart.

        I suppose it would have been more common for any farm carts to be pulled by human power.

        1. Thanks, Spencer. I did read that only the samurai class were allowed to ride horses, and only nobles could ride in an “ox cart,” essentially a fancy carriage with two wheels pulled by an ox. The driver walked -beside- the ox, so the whole thing proceeded at a walking pace. That took a couple of hours to find out, by itself.

          Carts generally seemed to be two wheels with a plank between them, pulled and pushed by humans. I did think that if a castle was being supplied with heavy stuff like timber or gravel, maybe big building stones, somebody would surely tie a cow to the front of one for some extra heft.

      2. Bear in mind that wheels are considerably less useful than you might think when the roads are in such ghastly shape.

        1. Definitely a factor. It turns out to be very hard to find out what a “road” looks like in the old days. I’m basing my thought design on what an ATV track or a farm track looks like.

          In good weather, two ruts about as far apart as a cow’s butt with the dirt chewed up between them and short grass on both sides. Cows and horses chew up a dirt path like a rototiller, and they eat the grass. In bad weather its a sea of mud with two ruts down the middle. Human feet chew up soft earth very fast.

          How did they manage these problems in Edo Japan? I have no clue. I suspect people stayed home when it rained, and carts were for summer when the cart path wasn’t a mud wallow.

    2. My one-time significant other also met the Queen, once – short conversation, which he told me about long afterwards. I teased him a bit, because I thought he had a chance to ask the one big question I’ve always had about Queen E – which is “What does she have in that handbag that she always carries?” (Seriously. Car keys? House key? Handkerchief? Lipstick? Spare pair of stockings? Paperback book?)

      At one of the big Tea Party rallies in 2009, I was backstage and introduced to Ted Nugent, which was … interesting. (The whole rally thing was interesting, actually.) But I watched him work the crowd, and talk to other people backstage, and the most curious thing about him was that he gave the impression of being intensely interested 100% in whoever it was he was talking to; that whoever had his attention, even for just a few moments was to him the most fascinating person he had ever met. And he went on like this for hours – his social stamina was into the stratosphere. And he seemed also to draw energy from the crowd itself. It was like “Oh, an audience! I must get OUT THERE IN FRONT OF THEM AND AMUSE THEM!!!!”

      1. It might be a faulty memory – but I seem to recall a photograph where Her Majesty was, indeed, reading a paperback during a lull in some appearance or other. (Seems to me it was at the horse races? That is an event where there are very long periods between the interesting bits – and I’m sure Her Majesty doesn’t get in line at the betting window during those times.)

        1. Indeed – he certainly did. It was almost as if he was drawing it in and feeding it back. One other speaker at that event had that quality, which I thought was almost vampiric – and she was a local no-name activist.
          It was … interesting, watching it all from behind the scenes. I used the observation and insight in writing about Sam Houston in my books. I believe that he must have had the same intense focus on people, when he cared to exercise it.
          From one of our clients at Watercress Press – Bill Clinton had the same kind of electric focus.

          1. Which is why Misty Lackey turned it into a plot bunny in one of the Diana Tregarde books.

      2. > handbag

        I expect it’s just a fashion accessory, like the hat and gloves.

        If there’s anything in there, it’s probably something like doggie treats for her Corgis.

    3. To The Phantom…

      I recommend reading Shogun by James Clavell, or if you can find a copy The Needle Watcher by Richard Blaker (The Will Adams story that inspired Shogun).

      Also, watch Akira Kurosawa movies: Seven Samurai, Yojimba and Sanjiro would be well worth your while, if you haven’t seen them so far.

      1. I’ve seen the 47 Ronin and the Seven Samurai, original versions. I also am basing some things on Zatoichi the Blind Swordsman. Mostly the crappy little buildings that peasants had, nothing like the beautiful temples or houses of the nobility. Shanties made of bamboo.

    4. You might check out the original Seven Samurai. Kurosawa was supposedly pretty accurate in his historical depictions.

      From watching anime and reading a couple xuanxia stories, I’m not sure anyone would give you trouble about ten men in a fight.

      1. It was a five-on-five over the sake bill. Only one survivor who is minus a right hand. He’s slowly bleeding out when an oni wanders by…

        …because I’ve been watching WAY too much anime lately. ~:D

  3. What came after it was a dog’s breakfast, but I have a a large degree of approval for how France of the late 18th century dealt with their nobility.

  4. I believe that this is something that the British Royals deliberately train their progeny in (with, of course, varying degrees of success). One of their major remaining functions is as ambassadors, after all. Which, if you look at it, even with as much as the Royal Family costs them, they probably get more “bang for the pound” from the Royals than from all of their official embassies combined.

    1. > as much as the Royal Family costs them,

      Britain is still a monarchy, and Elizabeth II has ruled so quietly for so long that people who should know better have forgotten exactly how much power she has.

      Her likely successors A) aren’t the sharpest sporks in the drawer and B) might not be content to act as a figurehead.

      Elizabeth II is 93; she’s probably not going to be around much longer, and at least half of Britain is sick to death of Parliament.

    2. Does the Royal Family cost the British taxpayer anything? My understanding was that upkeep of the Royals was funded from income from royal estates, with Her Majesty’s Government managing the income and its distribution to the Royal Family.

      1. That is correct – but there are politicos that consider the Sovereign’s property to be government property. (Although that was not the deal made with George II – as though that ever stopped politicians.)

  5. I have known few men who were noble, for nobility is scarcer far than heroism. But true nobility can always be recognized . . . even in one as belligerently shy about showing it as you are. The lad expected it, so you gave it to him–out noblesse oblige is an emotion felt only by those who are noble.”
    From Glory Road by RAH

  6. Our first generation ancestors tried to leave the embarrassing history behind in the old country. (And it may even have been why they left.) But now we dig all that stuff up and say things like, “Old uncle Bert killed a man in a bar fight and he got off but the other guy’s family… ” and we think it’s GREAT.

  7. As far as the Duchess of Kent incident is concerned, I think that’s an example of noblesse oblige. She was tired, exhausted, yet saw an opportunity to connect and possibly inspire. Which is one of the things that make for a good leader, putting the people before ones’ self.

  8. My father met Pope John Paul II by accident, I’m told. He was covering the Pope’s visit, and sick of the crowds and sun, managed to work his way to an empty part of the Manila Cathedral. He was enjoying the cool shade afforded by the stone and heard voices in time to look up to see the Pope and his entourage approach. John Paul II saw him, smiled and approached, then held out his hand so Dad could kiss the ring, as is traditional. Dad shook his hand, startling him but he smiled again, shook back and then blessed him.

    Mom was SO FRUSTRATED that Dad – despite his camera!- didn’t ask if they could have a photo. Dad said “Why? he’s just a human, like the rest of us.”

    So I found it rather amusing that later on he got into a career where very, very proper behavior and protocol needed to be observed, especially in various ceremonies, and we kids learned much the same.

  9. I visited my parents when they were watching the televised wedding of Will and Kate. As I was sitting down, the queen appeared on the screen, and my mom turned turned to my dad and asked,

    “Which one of her sons was with her when we met her?”

    They never, ever, mentioned meeting the queen of England, even once. Lots of boring stories about their childhood, but nothing quite so exciting as this. Including the story with the sharks in it.

    I don’t think my father remembered which son it was, just that the son and the queen were pleasant during the occasion. She had come to visit dad’s country a year or two after they gained their independence from Britain, so I guess there were no hard feelings.

    I’ve always considered it a mark of real classiness and humility when someone “high up” like the queen treats everyone with grace and courtesy. She could pass the waiter test. It’s a little funny when “regular” people decide to put their noses in the air when they think they have just a tiny bit of status. If QEII can be civil and gracious, what’s their excuse?

  10. One thing a lot of egalitarian societies miss about stratified societies is that the responsibilities increased along with the privilege. That is: a Lord is responsible for all of his people, and it is his duty to represent them well and to look after them.

    A great example – imagine, if you will, a rich American talking to an upper-class person in another country, who’s currently broke.

    “You have 15 servants. Just let them go, and you will save so much money you’ll be able to pay off your debt!” (Simple, easy, right?)
    The response was an aghast look. “I can’t turn them out! They’re my people!” (Because to be turned out is a disgrace, and means they can’t get hired elsewhere… even if anyone else can afford to hire them. Which means they’ll either have to turn to crime, exist on charity, or starve to death. That being unthinkably cruel, it was off the table for options.)

    To the American, you hire people to do a job, and let them go when they’re not needed. To the (in this case, old school Venezuelan, but it could be anywhere in the world) gentleman, you are obligated to look after the families of those who look after you.

    This is also why innovation spreads so slowly unless there’s a hefty middle class who can’t afford more than one or two servants, and those often part-time and shared with other households. Certainly, a noble could get a lawnmower instead of the old gardener training up his young boy to cut the grass perfectly with a machete… but you’d still be employing the gardener and his apprentice, and what would you have them do in all their off time?

    1. Hmm. Normally when I hear something like this it ends with some remark about how the servants were being oppressed and would have been better off living as criminals. It feels good to read another opinion.

    2. A war can help. WWII was a sharp juncture in British servant hiring. First your servants left to take war jobs, and it was your patriotic duty to not complain, and then you just never hired servants again.

      Industrialization to lure them away also helps.

    3. Re: your first paragraph– that’s how it’s supposed to work, anyway. How often it actually ends up working that way is a somewhat more debatable proposition, human nature being what it is.

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