Friday, December 31, 2010

Patrimony is alive and well and unchanging

It’s wild to cross the world and literally find yourself in a world that superficially looks the same, and yet is so different... but is it?

London is a great modern metropolis, but hidden behind large wooden doors, deep within the financial city of London, there lies an old world order – the world of the Livery Companies - the old Guilds. The Fishmongers, the Goldsmiths, the Longbow makers - more than 100 ancient professional (originally religious) guilds of members of the trades.

They survived in London for over 900 years because they were wealthy professional organizations, and unlike similar organizations in the rest of Europe, they were independent of the crown and would lend money to the King when he needed it. It was a symbiotic relationship to keep the guilds healthy through the infighting for the crown between the great Houses.

Most are male only societies - membership by patrimony or servitude. Some small fraction of the members actually still practice the trade of their guild, but mostly they are clubs, membership handed down through patrimony, to manage their considerable wealth, patronize schools and charities, and most of all eat and drink together in companionship.

My father is one of the more senior members of the Worshipful Company of Dyers (the 13th in precedence of the Livery companies). Yesterday he threw a private lunch party in their Hall, surrounded by portraits, set for elegance (outside in in case you are wondering which implement to use – and pass the port only to the left).

I sat in the Hall, obviously enjoying my family and their friends, musing on how far away technology and the rat race are once you step behind the doors. Here what matters is tradition, family history, friendship, charity and the quality of the wine, not technology, growth rate, competition and who’s the smartest.

But wait – I kid myself – it must be the residual mellowing effect of the fabulous port. It’s not different. It’s still white male and about hierarchy and power. But with a more civilized veneer than silicon valley.

I do love that my father has the Dyers and that it gives him so much companionship and pleasure. I do wonder that he indulges me in my liberal views. Maybe he is secretly pleased when I ruffle the feathers of the status quo.

My father is a member from my mother’s side of the family (an old, aristocratic bloodline). Their names are in the roster for hundreds of years. My grandfather had no sons and brought my father in instead. My father had no sons so has brought in my cousin, over my infuriation at the unjustness of the system.

So the year my father was the Prime Warden he asked me to give the speech at Ladies Night (the one evening of the year ladies are invited to dinner). My role? To thank the Dyers on behalf of the ladies. I did so with humor and bite.

They were well into the port by the time I gave my speech, and so after a witty thanks to all on behalf of the ladies for the dinner, a few good jokes etc. etc. etc. I pointed out that I was, after all, more entitled to be a member of the Worshipful Company of Dyers than my father given my bloodline, but (running my hands suggestively down the deep V at the front of my evening dress) I was born with an impediment I could not overcome.

Hilarious laughter from the members – what an absurd idea so provocatively expressed! So funny! And they are still laughing about it 10 years later.

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