Tuesday, May 2, 2006

What’s in a name?

Feudalism may be dead, but many still hanker after titles such as Lord, Lady, Earl or Countess, and if there is a need, there is a market. Websites promise such titles from $1 000 upwards, some reaching over $50 000. The benefits of such titles, according to the websites that flog them, include receiving upgrades when you travel, an enhanced profile and booming business as people clamber to work with and serve your esteemed royal self. That said, FakeTitles.com, run by Richard, the 7th Earl of Bradford, whose mission is to uncover fake titles, since his is real, points out that such offers are fraudulent and, frankly, just not cricket. A genuine title is passed down through generations of privilege and, quiet frankly, sir, cannot be bought.

For those of you interested, nonetheless, I have discovered three methods of attaining a title. The first is to buy the title ‘Lord of the Manor’. This is actually not a title, but a form of landownership. Boxer Chris Eubank, for example, bought the title Lord of the Manor of Brighton for a paltry £45 000. For his investment, he can refer to himself as Lord of the Manor of Brighton, although not Lord Eubank. Semantics aside, he is now entitled to 4 000 herring, three cows and a slave each year. His title, however, does not give him the right of the lord of an estate to deflower its virgins.

Secondly, you can buy a square foot of Scottish earth, name it what you like, and then refer to yourself as Laird (or Lord) of your said piece of land. FakeTitles.com claims that the average cost of a square foot of land being sold in this way on the Internet is $67, which seems reasonable to me. But the site warns that there are 43 560 square feet to the acre, which means that Internet scammers are making $2 918 520 per acre for largely useless land.

And, finally, the most controversial way to get a title is to make a large donation or loan to Tony Blair’s Labour Party. The British press is riddled with claims that Labour backers have allegedly been nominated by Labour officials for positions in the House of Lords. So nepotism is thriving in British politics as it is elsewhere, but what fascinates me is the lengths to which people will go to be associated with the monarchy, a system which has long been defunct. This demonstrates how ingrained in global consciousness the monarchy has become. Most people who fall for the fake-title Internet scams are American. Many seek to reconnect with their forefathers; others, I suspect, are fascinated with the monarchy and want a piece of the action. The British monarchy still has an allure for South Africans too; many can tell you all the details of the royal family. Royal trips to Canada, Kenya and Australia still draw huge crowds.

Are those from previous British colonies, not to mention the British public, who continue to fund the royals’ lavish lifestyles through their taxes, simply fixated with their past oppressors, or is there something comforting in the idea of being associated with tradition, no matter how exploitative? As a Canadian friend put it to me, “we are interested in the British royals because it tells us where we come from”. Either way, what is worrying about the frivolous debate over fake titles is that it suggests that titles such as Lord still carry power. One way to change this is reform, or to just scrap the monarchy and its legacy altogether. The other is to democratise and popularise such titles, making them meaningless. But, if the Internet sharks scare you and you are not loaded with cash, the easiest option is to officially change your name. Why not try Lord Vader, or better still become a musician of the ilk of Duke Ellington, or just call yourself Prince?


Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, February 2006. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 31 March 2006.