Of late I have been writing a good deal for Russian publications, including Snob, which has now given me a weekly column. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that my mother tongue would provide me with something like material comfort. A thorny path of spiritual improvement? Possibly. A way of finding better vodka, cheaper caviar, and less liberated women? Certainly. But a source of income? You must be joking.
As a columnist I scour the Russian press, always on the lookout for the softest bit of conformity’s underbelly, and recently I came upon the Russian version of the British social glossy Tatler, launched in Moscow with great fanfare as the key to high life in the inscrutable West. In general, one of the problems with the world today is that there are many more keys than there are locks, but yet again this has stopped no one from inventing a new one, with the predictable result that the Russian version of English fashionable society is at first glance as pointless as the Condé Nast version of it. But the charade has a deeper meaning.
Over the Christmas holidays I opened a random issue of the Russian magazine and saw a London banker friend of mine, Chinese by birth, described in the caption under his photograph as “a star of action films with eastern combat scenes”—in other words, a successor to the cult reputation of Bruce Lee. In the photograph, Andy Wong was pictured attending the 300th anniversary dinner of Tatler last November, an occasion in the staging of which Condé Nast, by all accounts, spared no expense.
Now, an interesting fact about Andy is that, during the last 20 years, he has been just about the only person in London to give a private ball—a Chinese New Year extravaganza for 600 guests, representing the monde or, in the eyes of those who were not asked, the demimonde—in no way connected with charity. Let us recall that the introduction in Britain of the obligatory American-style politically correct notion of “charity” into private merrymaking corresponded with the rise of Princess Diana, who, in a creative tandem with Tatler, was responsible for securing false pretenses a place at high table. Land mines, publishing, equality of the sexes—no subject was too vast to escape the princess’s charitable attention. In short, Diana did for hypocrisy what Churchill has done for cigars.
Not that during these past 20 years Tatler has treated Andy’s annual event with the hostility that is the common reward of politically incorrect initiatives. Quite to the contrary, it has salivated over it with the same omnivorous enthusiasm with which a swine, notwithstanding the proverb, would welcome a scattering of pearls. Hence for the Russian edition to mistake the controversial proponent of gallant festivities for Bruce Lee is as absurd as, in our world, mistaking Anthony Powell for Jeffrey Archer.
Confronted with their own suspicions that in the Russian Tatler, as the Italians say, qualcosa non va, socially disoriented Muscovite wits began a long lament in the press, whose theme, reduced to its essentials, ran something along these lines: “Of course this magazine is rubbish! Of course it’s an impostor! Why oh why do we Russians always get stuck with imitations? Why does every Tom, Dick, and Harry who comes here want to sell us a fake Rolex? Woe to our unsuspecting compatriots who should think that this alleged Tatler is even a shadow of the great British original! Addison and Steele! Princess Diana and Sir Winston Churchill! Caveat emptor!”
So I wrote a column, explaining that Andy Wong is a banker and the British Tatler is as much of an impostor as the Russian version, only with fewer howlers. Which makes it rather worse, if one stops to reflect that a slick impostor is more, not less, of a nuisance than a sloppy one. I further explained that traditional British society had never had need for the expert guide that Tatler pretends it is, for the simple reason that a social order based on aristocratic succession was transparent and held together by common truths, unlike the new social order, based on money, which is by definition opaque and held together by convenient misrepresentations. Taste and style—to say nothing of origin, background, worth, and value—were never mysteries worth unraveling while racehorses were still bought for guineas.
What a storm of indignation has followed! It is as though I said in Stalin’s time that the Soviet Army is not the greatest fighting machine on earth or that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is not the home of the brave from sea to shining sea. You know the rest. Conformity, like a mighty river, winds its way to the sea in every language.