The English do not understand the American fascination with titles, but then neither do Americans. We must be wretched snobs. The English are not.
It's a different kettle of fish, isn't it, from senators and presidents, and doctors who examine your gizzards, yet they alone have titles in America.
Most of us have sense enough to know, as the great novelist Proust discovered, that sincerity, warmth, honesty and the catalogue of virtues listed in the Boy Scouts of America oath are, in fact, the marks of superior man, and compared with them the vanities of the world are of trifling account.
All the same, some of us had just as soon meet a duke and duchess as Mr. and Mrs. Pigstone, so I may as well say I was pleased when a viscount rang me up and asked me over for supper.
Unfortunately, this noble pair are friends as well as phenomena of interest to me from my position at dead center in the masses, so perhaps I should not identify them by name. Your friends should not have to suffer, beyond a certain point, from the job to which God has called you.
"You must come round Thursday and take pot luck," Tim said (he being the viscount, you understand).
Of course, poached ermine tails, anything at all, would suit me beautifully, I reflected, and I promptly consulted my pocket guide to London and could see precisely where they lived.
"Regrettably," the guidebook said, "this quarter is blighted by slums."
Many an old palace, after all, is not in the best part of town. All the same, I took the precaution of wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt, especially since this particular lord once dined with us in Washington and was rather shot out of a gun, sartorially.
The worst mistake one can make is to give oneself airs, you would agree, so I was satisfied I was correctly garbed for a slum and set out on the subway, or tube as they call it here.
You cannot imagine, and words cannot speak, the difficulty of finding a lord's place in London. The address was clear enough, and should have been between No. 16 and No. 20, but there was only a great hole on the wall, through which you could view a courtyard that would have the society for the salvation of the poor up in arms.A clothesline displayed two pairs of shorts which may have been there three months, since it has been that long since anything dried out in this capital, and they did not look like a nobleman's garments to me.
Finally I walked through and heard a clanging behind a metal door which with trepidation, I opened to discover a fellow in an undershirt-whamming a motor with a hammer. He was fixing somebody's car and is first cousin, I expect, to the mechanic who fixes mine in Wahsington.
He sent me across the court to an equally dismal door which in due time a fellow opened and said his lordship lived right through that gate.
Now I am no snob when it comes to gates. But I have seen handsomer ones along the back alleys of Chesapeake Street. It was wood, three feet high, painted white, and nobody is ever going to steal it (as they do in Georgetown and London). Not because it was very securely bolted, but because you wouldn't have anything once you had it.
The entrance to the place was a door such as you may see by your favorite laundry on H Street NE, back home.
If you can easily have an extremely smart address, perhaps you don't care what quarter you live in. In London, as in Washington, fashionable people can live where they please, but people who need support and buttressing prefer to live at safely smart addresses.
I am not sure many people in Washington are secure enough to live, as his lordship does, quite so close to an auto repair garage.
Though it may be a generation-gap thing here. The viscount is some years younger than I, and it is my impression both in Washington and London that young people do not require, or even especially like, black Georgian doorways with polished brass fittings. But to get on with it:
There was no point looking for the hall porters (the door was standing open) but thank God the entrance hall was brilliantly lighted so there was no danger of breaking a leg on the bicycle and large chair irrationally set between the door and the stairs.
The viscountess descended at this moment, shook hands and sailed out the door with desperate apologies and a gorgeous smile (the lower classes, surely, lack such a smile?) to do an errand, but directed me up the stairs where I discovered his lordship performing the difficult task of speaking on the telephone while (another sparkling smile, the result of centuries of breeding) grasping my hand, gesturing to indicate I had arrived at Liberty Hall, and showing how outraged he was at having to speak on the phone to, I suppose, the king of Prussia or some such. So I inventoried everything, discreetly.
There was no squalor, once you got past the bicycle, and the stair walls leading to the living room upstairs were lined with ancestors fresh from Blenheim or perhaps Agincourt, and the living room was painted a warmish color with a glossy white woodwork and a fine 18th-century marble mantel with lambs, I believe, carved on it.
A picture perhaps by some great Frenchman -- she looked like a lady of Arles -- hung over the fireplace and the left-hand wall was occupied by vast windows looking down on the street. Along which strolled persons of a baser sort.
The right-hand wall was filled with pictures, including a quite lovely Mughal miniature of a girl doing something mysterious, as they did in 18th-century India, and the general effect was that of a flowery mead, since all the pictures, whether old or new, looked fresh like April. Sweet peas and roses from their country place filled a great bowl.
In no time at all Pamela, as I shall call her, since all Englishwomen tend to be named that, returned.
"ywe are dining at a restaurant," cried his worship, off the phone. "But I thought Pamela was fixing . . .," I began.
"She was, she was. But someone else dropped by and we weren't sure there was enough, so I phoned for a table. The other one has left and there'd be plenty now, but now we've got quite hungry and the restaurant will feed us better."
"Not sure I look quite right for a restaurant," I observed, wondering vaguely how it came off, to be dressed well enough for his lordship's house, but not well enough, perhaps, for an ordinary restaurant.
"Nonsense," he said. "They will be so pleased we've come."
Indeed. The restaurant was small, Greek, truly excellent and truly enchanted to see the noble couple. You never know who their guest may be (the proprietor clearly thought) and it has been a while since a waiter was so gracious to this reporter.
We ate our way through the fine unpronounceable garlics of Greece to the extent nobody could undertake dessert. His lordship and his wife then honored me by coming up to my flat.
"I can see why you are looking forward to moving to a hotel," said his lordship. For my flat, though it sounds well enough, being a penthouse flat in one of the best streets of Mayfair, is in fact pretty sterile. The office keeps it for visiting firemen.
"The walls are a bit noncommittal, and they don't need to be," said his lordship. When the office hears this, perhaps they will loosen up a bit and buy a few Mughal miniatures.
The house itself, the first four floors used by Newsweek and The Post for offices, is of high quality, built perhaps in 1780 and retaining its original trim, since this part of London has never run down. In 1803 it was sold at auction by Mr. Christie, and an ad for that sale has been preserved in which the main feature of the building appears to be that it has fine stabling for five horses. Len, Elisabeth, Pat, Sophie and me. Though only I sleep here.
The wife of my noble friend works in the mass media and my friend has goings-on withfilms and publishers. They eat peas, potatoes, meat, as you and I.
There are moments cannot get over it. And I think the bedroom should have a sign that persons of consequence once visited the slave from Washington who sleeps here.
There are times it is no great advantage to have a title, and on those occasions the nobleman simply doesn't use it.
When Prince Charles was courting Diana Specner, for example, Lady Diana told people her friend was Charles Renfrew, which was halfway true to some extent, since that is one of his names, and it caused less commotion than if she had said, more straightforwardly, that her friend was prince of Wales.
But there are other times a title cannot do any harm. As, for example, getting reservations at a restaurant.
Much is said of the burden of royal life, and no doubt an English prince is pretty much on display whenever he moves in public. Still, as I reflected eating the little hunks of squid with the viscountess saying two intellectual books had been seen on Prince Charles' desk, a title is the grandest thing in the world either for impressing Americans, who affect to despise them, or for getting a good table in almost any restaurant in the world.