Friday, January 3, 2014

The rich are still different

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, January 1.)
I learned while still relatively young that rich guys get the best-looking girls.

I spent two years at a boys’ boarding school that enjoyed what might be termed a fraternal relationship with several girls’ schools in the same district.

After attending dances put on by these various girls’ schools, it dawned on me that the most desirable girls were found at the most expensive school. They were the daughters of prosperous lawyers, doctors and farmers.

I didn’t like them any more than the girls from less exclusive schools. In fact their snooty, exaggerated accents could be off-putting. But they were good-looking, sophisticated and precocious.

Needless to say, none were interested in me. Though polite enough, they put out subtle but unmistakeable signals that I wasn’t quite in their class.

I became aware even then that the rich emit pheromones by which they instinctively recognise each other – a phenomenon I have observed many times since.

This awareness of the sociological connection between good looks and wealth was reinforced for me a couple of years later, when I played in bands.

Playing at society balls around Wellington in the late 1960s, I was able to observe more closely the relationship between wealth and pulchritude. The posher the function, the better-looking the women. (I also noted that wealthy revellers were often the worst-behaved, but that’s another story.)

What I was observing, of course, was Darwinism in action: good old-fashioned natural selection.

Many women intuitively seek out wealthy men who will keep them in luxury and comfort. Even if this means settling for a lifelong mate who’s an oaf, a dullard or a bore – well, that’s the price some good-looking girls are prepared to pay for a big house, expensive clothes and regular overseas holidays.

Over time, the inevitable happens. Good-looking women produce good-looking offspring, with the eventual result that an upper class evolves that has a high proportion of people with desirable physical characteristics.

It’s a brutal truth that there are likely to be more good-looking women in Remuera or Fendalton than in Porirua or Gore (although having said that, I had the miraculous good fortune to marry an exotic Polish beauty whose family lived in a state house in the unprepossessing Porirua suburb of Cannons Creek). And of course even those who are not naturally good looking can afford to spend lots of money on clothing and makeup that make them look as if they are.

This select gene pool tends to be jealously guarded. The children of the wealthy are discouraged from marrying outside their class – not that most would want to. They grow up culturally conditioned, if not genetically predisposed, to mate with others of the same caste.

One of the most striking aspects of The Rich List, the late Graeme Hunt’s excellent book about wealth in New Zealand, is the extent to which New Zealand’s wealthiest families are linked through marriage. It’s like a scaled-down version of European royalty’s labyrinthine connections.

You’ll note that I use the word “class”, which is rarely used in New Zealand. We are brought up with the comforting belief that ours is an egalitarian society – and so it is, by comparison with many. But there has always been a social elite whose membership is determined by wealth and breeding.

I should perhaps have put those two words in the reverse order, because breeding takes precedence over wealth. Some families fall on hard times but still enjoy membership of the elite. Their dress, speech and behaviour sets them apart from the hoi-polloi and guarantees them acceptance in the right circles. “Old” money commands respect even when it’s all been spent.

Conversely, all the wealth in the world won’t necessarily buy invitations to the best houses. Vulgar johnny-come-latelies, social climbers and arrivistes are likely to be given the cold shoulder – politely, of course.

While never part of this social circle myself, I rubbed up against it while at boarding school. It wasn’t a snobby school by any means, but my schoolmates included the sons of some seriously wealthy families.

Other pupils, like me, came from backgrounds of modest means. My mother went back to work in her 50s to pay my boarding fees and I was conscious, when some schoolmates came to stay during the holidays, that our lifestyle was far removed from theirs.  

Having attended the “right” school remains an important determinant of social eligibility. The one I attended was considered respectable, if not in the top rank with Christ’s College and Wanganui Collegiate.

The manner in which one has made one’s money matters too. Sheep and beef farming remains a socially respectable source of wealth (dairying may be more profitable these days, but cow cockies still don’t cut it in the social stakes), as are certain professions – notably medicine and the law.

The social barriers are not totally impermeable, but someone who has made a fortune in plumbing supplies or used cars might find it hard to crash through.

I have been ruminating on these matters lately because of two minor, unconnected events.

One was an engagement notice that I spotted in the paper. I recognised the names of both parties to the impending nuptials and had to smile. It seemed a perfect match, bringing together two wealthy families with impeccable upper-crust credentials. There was old money on both sides – one from the city, the other from the provinces. The gene pool is being protected as assiduously as ever.

The other event was a charity fundraising function at a large country house that I happened to attend. It was a gathering of several hundred predominantly rural people, all of whom seemed to know each other.

I was there only because an old friend was involved. It was a pleasant occasion. The people were lively, friendly and of course impeccably dressed. The marquee hummed with conversation and a large sum of money was raised. The rich have always been generous supporters of certain charities, treating them as an excuse for a good party while drumming up money for worthy causes at the same time.

Not for the first time, I experienced the sensation of being an outsider. But I had a good time, and came away with the oddly reassuring feeling that some things don’t change. The rich are still different, just as they always were.

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