On the day before Christmas, I walked west along Wilshire Boulevard with a friend who has never set foot on the British Isles.
"She is," he said, "a few shillings short of a pound."
"A few shillings short of a pound, old chap. You know. Not playing with a full deck."
Shillings? Pounds? Old chap?
We had come up from San Diego over the holidays, and in the months since we had last visited Los Angeles, everyone seemed to have become a bit British.
My cousin had a copy of the current issue of Queen magazine on her coffee table along with a catalogue from Harrods and an issue of the British Vogue. Her furniture was slipcovered in Laura Ashley prints. Her tables were cluttered with Battersea boxes. She slept on a massive four-poster under what she called a duvet.
For Christmas dinner our hosts served a pheasant, a goose and a plum pudding with hard sauce on the side. There were party snappers beside our plates and they handed out party hats. "It's the way they do it in England," they said. "Can you come back tomorrow for Boxing Day, too?"
Boxing Day? What ever happened to the American tradition of shopping the sale at the Beverly Hills Saks?
I met my friend Donald for lunch at a restaurant on Melrose Avenue. This born-and-bred Angeleno did not switch his fork back to his right hand after cutting his food and he said, "Half past . . . ," the hour when I asked him the time.
On this trip to Los Angeles few people offered us Brie and wine but we received two invitations for 4 o'clock tea. Tiny sandwiches, little cakes and berries with clotted cream were arranged on tables laden with silver flatware.
"What is that?" I asked.
"A slop bowl. Do you know what it's for?"
"A slop bowl, Marian? I would rather not know."
San Diegans love to make fun of Los Angeles fads and foibles, but even down here we have British pretentions. It is a faux pas to use tea bags; and while everyone else reads Jane Austen I sneak a look at the books about Princess Di.
Oh, don't the British aristocracy appear to lead such effortless lives? No need to toil. And neither do they spin (although they may dabble in photography or run a boutique at a loss).
While you and I live up to our potential. Get a degree. Get a job. Build a resume. Play corporate politics to get a vice presidency. Drive a freeway to work and back every day.
I think when we copy the props of the British aristocracy, we are calling time out from the apparently never ending, exhausting game called Upward Mobility in a Meritocracy. For a moment, at least, we can play Let's Pretend.
We daydream that if our forebears had stayed put we would be drinking our tea in the Cotswolds in grand country homes. When the truth is we would not be descendants of Lady Marjorie, but more likely of her maid and bound by the limits that class still imposes. We of European background are the descendants of people who left to escape what the props we are aping represent--biological destiny and the tyranny of class.
We choose some props wisely. A cup of well-brewed tea is a pleasure on both sides of the Atlantic. But there are other props we pick that do not travel as well.
Does anyone over here really like plum pudding?
No matter how well tailored, I look frumpy in Harris tweeds and when my husband wears braces, he looks like a clown who has forgotten to put on his makeup and wig.
(Funny though. When he wore them in London he looked quite chic.)
"Cheerio," my friend said as we parted on Wilshire.
A sentence I once read popped into my head.
"Only a jark, in the U.S., says 'Clark.' "
The person who wrote that does have a point.