Several of last week's newspapers interested themselves in the highly instructive case of Yan Assoun, a New York banker whose former wife has taken to the English courts to establish precisely how the family wealth should be distributed in the wake of the couple's divorce. In the course of these deliberations Mr Assoun, the majority shareholder in an $8m business, told the High Court "Yes, I own a $3.3m [£2m] New York apartment – it doesn't mean I'm rich." Mrs Assoun, a fashion writer and the chatelaine of a Texas ranch, had previously been awarded $180,000 a year in maintenance, together with $50,000 a year for the education of their children.
If the case, which hinges on Mr Assoun's claim that "my recent income has dropped considerably – I don't have any money" – proves anything, it is the absolute relativism of apparent economic divides here in the 21st century, and the fact that, such are our assumptions and expectations of "wealth", to a certain kind of person what to another would be unimaginable riches is frequently not enough.
If this economic relativism sounds shocking to someone struggling to pay their gas bill, then, in its defence, it is only mimicking the tendencies exhibited by the British class system over the past century or so – an entity in which the most jaw-dropping statements about social position and background are often found to be fundamentally accurate.
I have never forgotten the amusement with which I first read a claim advanced by Anthony Powell in his Journals to the effect that the novelist, looking at his life in the round, considered himself "a poor boy made good". Powell, it should be pointed out, was a lieutenant-colonel's son, educated at Eton and Balliol College Oxford, who married the daughter of the Earl of Longford and on his death left a seven-figure sum to be divided among his heirs.
And yet, in the context of his early career, in which he attended Oxford parties of such blue-blooded exclusivity that a champagne bottle was placed by every plate, Powell's account of his social status is absolutely correct. It was this awareness of the vast accumulations of light and shade that play on British notions of "class" that allowed him to talk with complete authority of such outwardly bizarre concepts as a "middle-class duke" or a "smart jockey".
But it is perfectly possible to be a middle-class duke, just as it is possible, in a slightly different context, to be a highbrow football manager or a bourgeois refuse collector. In a world in which, according to the opinion poll surveys, 70 to 80 per cent of the population considers itself to be middle-class, and the same demographic categorisations apply to the family on £200,000 a year and the family on £40,000, these incongruities jump up on every side. Naturally, all this has a political implication. One of Ed Miliband's great problems, alas, is the difficulty of convincing people on middling incomes who remain jealous of their social status that the middle-class habit of voting Conservative is not an infallible law.
Having been riotously entertained by Steven Morrissey's autobiography, I received an even greater treat on the appearance of the Mirror serialisation of Sir Alex Ferguson's memoirs. The interest of this devastating tome lies not in its account of what the soccer supremo thinks of Wayne's transfer request, Becks's hair-cut and Roy's volcanic temper – all these weighty issues that are clogging up the newspapers while Syria burns and the US debt crisis drags on – but in its demonstration of what, in a world of creeping emollience and pulled punches, it means to be "old school".
Whenever I hear the phrase "old school" I always think of a cartoon by Ronald Searle that appeared in How to be Topp, the first instalment of the immortal adventures of Nigel Molesworth, co-produced by Searle and the former school teacher Geoffrey Willans, in which a desiccated, mortar-board-wearing old pedagogue declares: "I have been here 40 years. I have always said that, and I do not intend to change."
Essentially it means the adoption of attitudes so inflexible and remorseless and at the same time so self-consciously anachronistic that they become almost heroic in their defiance of the more seemly usages of the modern world.
Thus, from the bran-tub of my own experience, I can scoop out schoolmasters who not only insisted on being called "sir" but insisted the class should spring to its feet when they came into the room, Oxford dons who, when one eagerly advertised the contents of one's final papers, bleakly remarked "Hm, I trust you found three questions you could answer", and the hidebound partners of Cheapside accountancy firms, one of whom produced the most epochal illustration of old-schoolery I ever witnessed by telling a secretary that she should not be seen eating an ice-cream cone in the street.
Pace Sir Alex Ferguson, with his hair-dryer delivery and his steely eye, you wonder whether such paragons exist today. The worst of it is that, like the British class system, "old school" is a horribly relative and flexible concept. To my complaints about imposition-happy English masters and plimsoll-wielding disciplinarians, or the partner of messrs Coopers & Lybrand who on the occasions when I was sequestered in his office would order me out of it every time the telephone rang on grounds of "confidentiality", my father would come up with sadistic martinets who had sent him flying from his desk on a whim or an official of the Norwich Union Insurance Society, as it then was, so gravely forbidding that dad once stopped him on a staircase and asked: "Excuse me, Mr__. How much would you charge to haunt a house?"
On the other side of the coin, my children often tack the adjective "evil" to school teachers whom the evidence of parents' evenings marks down as models of sweet reason. But then, as my 13-year-old observes, I don't have to be taught by them.Reuse content