Class conscious

I've just returned from a convention of ventriloquists in northern Kentucky - not, on the face of it, a very class- conscious occasion. In fact, the vents seemed doubly unconcerned with social nuance being, first, Americans, and second - contrary to the sinister template for ventriloquists - an exceptionally jovial lot. One of them said: "Shall I give you my card?" He did so, and I put it straight into my pocket. When I got back to my hotel room, I saw that it bore just two words: "My card?"

In fact, as I mixed with these people (and their dummies), I felt like a sick person come among the healthy, infecting everyone with my hang-ups about status. For example, one of the vents, while eating with me in a diner, said: "You probably think we hold our forks upside down over here - that we use them like spoons."

"I had noticed that," I said, "but tell me: do people eat that way even in the smartest American hotels?" The ventriloquist froze. "It's not the wrong way to eat," he said. "It's just a different way."

I felt terrible about that, but, the next day, I put my foot in it again. As everyone was preparing to leave the convention, I walked into the hotel lobby smartly dressed. "What's with the suit?" one of the vents asked. I explained that I wore it in the hope of being upgraded. "I mean . . . they don't want a lot of slobs in club class, you know," I said. As I spoke, I realised that I was addressing one of the scruffiest of the ventriloquists, a man who, at that very moment, was tying up his dummy case with frayed string.

I felt still worse at this, but events took a strange turn when I asked another vent how he had enjoyed the convention. "It's been great," he said, looking around the lobby at his fellow vents. Then he furtively scribbled on a notepad, so as not to have to say it aloud, "but there's a class system", and he underlined the last two words twice.

"What do you mean?" I asked, incredulously. He explained that the professional vents did not socialise much with the amateurs, that the dedicated amateurs shunned the dilettantes, and so on. At the moment of departure, therefore, I finally felt at home in northern Kentucky.

This article first appeared in the 21 August 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - What are we doing to our children?