Is it purely fortuitous that the decline of our civilization and the collapse of the country house way of life are coincidental?
— James Lees-Milne, ‘The Country House in Our Heritage”, in The Destruction of the Country House by Roy Strong et al, Thames & Hudson, 1974.
A professed enthusiasm for the published diaries of James Lees-Milne comes, we learn too late, at the cost of having to defend their late author against a catalogue of failings — only some of these entirely imagined or misguided.
A few accusations, at least, can be fended off easily enough. Wasn’t JLM a snob? Yes, of course he was — but then he was neither the uncritical confidante of duchesses, the worshipper at the gaudy shrines of wealth and success nor the self-congratulatory anosmiac in matters of public and private morality that some believe him to be, not least because to have been any of these things would have exemplified a predictability both boring and unattractive — and JLM was, of course, neither. Wasn’t he a reactionary, though? Not really, more’s the pity. Because for all the encouraging rants against trade union militancy, redistributive taxation and Irish republicanism notwithstanding, there’s also enough Harold Nicolsonian liberalism, Duke of Edinburgh-style ur-environmentalism and dandyish personal eccentricity here to ward off any accusations of ideological consistency. Politically, as in most other ways, JLM remains hard to pin down. In these paradoxes, maddening though they can be, lies more than a degree of his diaries’ enduring appeal.
Admittedly, there are problems. JLM was, on the basis of these same diaries, both anti-semitic and racist — but so very mildly so, by the standards of his age and class, that one often ends up wondering more at the mildness itself, than at the unremarkable nastiness and stupidity of yesterday’s rightly discredited prejudices. He was capable of remarkably homophobic pronouncements — somewhat oddly, given his promiscuously bisexual, mostly guilt-free history. His patchy wartime service — six months in the Irish Guards, followed by a year of convalescence and a welcome return to civilian life — looks unimpressive, especially when compared with the heroism of so many of his contemporaries, although the stress-induced onset of hereditary Jacksonian epilepsy would clearly be a kinder explanation than whatever combination of nervous collapse and cowardice unsympathetic critics might otherwise postulate in its place. JLM also went on a lot about liking houses more than people, which is rarely a good sign — although in practice, the individual qualities of house and person tended to soften the edges of any comparison — so perhaps he can be excused on that particular score.
In any event, however, we may perhaps agree that JLM was not an unambiguously admirable human being. As the diaries make plain — nor does Michael Bloch’s brilliant biography do anything much to dispel the impression — JLM could be petty, headstrong, arbitrary, vain, self-justifying and also extremely selfish. But JLM was, as the diaries also reveal, clear-eyed regarding his failings. And herein, I suppose, reposes his greatness as a diarist. For the perfect imaginary companion, while he surely ought to be more alert, more perceptive and more fluently confidential than even his brightest readers, at the same time cannot be seen to be superior to them. ‘You were silly like us …’ Even more than his wit and social reach, JLM’s contradictions, his failings and that unsparing yet somehow affectionate self-criticism are what render the diaries perfect company, as much so on tiresome days as on happy ones. A better man would, in short, have been a worse diarist. His enthusiasts end up loving him as much for his contradictions, contrariness and flaws, real though these may be, as despite them.
Yet for all that, there is one aspect of JLM’s story which continues to fill me with unease — his relationship with the National Trust.
For apotheosis to much-feted author, diarist and all-purpose Grand Old Man of the Heywood Hill-haunting classes was very much the second act in JLM’s long life, the first act of which largely revolved around his employment from 1936-50, interrupted only by military service 1939-41, as secretary of the Country Houses Committee of the National Trust.
To a great extent, this job was one that JLM created for himself. Certainly, it was not one anticipated by the Trust’s founders. Ostensibly dedicated to preservation, the history of the Trust itself is a tale of frequent transformative change. Set up in 1895 by a group of philanthropic social reformers, the Trust originally concentrated on acquiring sites of natural beauty or interest — large swathes of the Lake District and Peak District, huge stretches of the coast — explicitly in order to offer the urban poor access to the benefits of fresh air, wholesome exercise and contemplative space from which their industrialised and commodified circumstances might otherwise exclude them.
While the Trust also purchased buildings, such acquisitions were essentially rescue-missions, often conducted in concert with the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), salvaging medieval or Tudor properties, most of them fairly modest in scope, from near-certain demolition. Access to such historic structures, coupled with exposure to the traditions of painstaking indigenous craftsmanship exemplified therein, was intended to enrich the aesthetic and imaginative lives of city-bred wage-slaves, just as access to nature would strengthen their ailing bodies and salve their increasingly post-Christian souls. It need hardly be pointed out that in its early years, the Trust’s every action was guided by the unquiet, insistent shade of the recently-dead John Ruskin, whose influence on his age — and, for that matter, on our age — remains disconcertingly misunderstood.
In any event, it was only in the mid 1930s that the Trust began to move in a different direction. Looking back across the chasm of more than half a century in his 1992 memoir People and Places, JLM attributed the Trust’s emerging interest in country houses to a single rousing speech. The date was July 1934, and the speaker was Philip Kerr, the 11th Marquess of Lothian, rather better known today for his political and diplomatic activities than for his impact on heritage organisations. Addressing a meeting of the Trust, Lothian noted that, while
the country houses of Britain, with their gardens, their parks, their pictures, their furniture and their peculiar architectural charm, represent a treasure of quiet beauty which is not only specially characteristic but quite unrivalled in any other land,
their existence was increasingly precarious. The problem wasn’t, incidentally, as is so often sloppily assumed today, some sort of general social consequence arising inevitably from the mud of the Somme, a distrust of formal hierarchies and a disinclination to perpetuate them. That would come later.
Lothian, instead, located the problem where it actually lay — in taxation, which is to say, not only income tax, land tax and rates, but specifically in the ever-increasing level of death duties. Introduced in 1894, this particular tax combined all the attractions of class envy with a fruitful source of revenue for an ever-more insatiable public exchequer. In 1904 the rate of inheritance tax stood at 8 per cent, but by 1914 it was at 15 per cent, rising to an astonishing 40 per cent in 1919. By 1934, the year in which Lothian made his speech, death duties stood at 50 per cent. ‘There is much to be said for [death duties] as an instrument of social justice,’ Lothian told the Trust. ‘But let no one mistake that they spell the end of the old rural order.’
Lothian had reason to take an interest in death duties. As Philip Kerr, he had served as private secretary to David Lloyd George from 1916-21, an experience which must have at the very least have afforded him first-hand insights into the various motivations underpinning the 1919 budget. We should probably detect no irony whatsoever in his comments regarding social justice. But in 1930, a mere four years before his speech to the Trust, he had succeeded his cousin, an old lunatic who had been institutionalised since at least 1900, as 11th Marquess of Lothian, with substantial estates both in England and Scotland. A lifelong bachelor, Lothian had fallen out badly with his devoutly Roman Catholic family over his conversion to Christian Science, and when he died in 1940, at the age of 58 years — his death quite possibly the result of his Christian Scientist convictions — the title passed next to yet another cousin.
Although by all accounts a conscientious landowner, during the decade in which Lothian was able to enjoy his inheritance — which included not only Blickling Hall in Norfolk, but three important country houses in Scotland as well — he tended to use the houses less as homes, let alone as a base from which to exert influence across a locality in which he felt himself to have a natural and profound kind of stake, than as casual weekend retreats wherein national or international political business might be transacted. For all these reasons, it is hard to see why Lothian should have felt any more deep attachment to the hereditary principle than did, as far as that goes, JLM himself, an eldest son whose relationship with his own father was toxic, who evinced no desire to produce offspring and who probably, if his account of Lothian in People and Places is anything to go by, and despite his loyalty to his patron Harold Nicholson, sympathised with rather more of Lothian’s political views c. 1934 than he was willing to spell out clearly in 1992.
For Lothian, in any event, the solution to the apparent demise of the great landed estates lay in government action. While the 1931 Finance Act had exempted from death duties any land left to the Trust, Lothian called for further exemptions covering both houses and their valuable contents, coupled with changes whereby the Trust might be allowed to accept both furnished houses and the land or investments necessary to fund their maintenance. Lothian insisted, as well, that landed families, having divested themselves of the burden of ownership, should be allowed to continue to live in the houses — in large part, it would seem, in order to protect the historic ambience of the properties. As Lothian put it, ‘nothing is more melancholy than to visit these ancient houses after they have been turned into public museums’.
At one level, the truth of this statement is so obvious as to require no further examination. Yet a moment’s thought reveals the oddity of Lothian’s logic. A right of public visitation, or ‘access’ as we should now call it, has moved from the price at which some limited tax concessions might be extracted, to the raison d’etre of the houses themselves. The whole purpose of keeping families in their ancestral houses has been reduced to a matter of the paying visitor’s subjective, recreational experience. Stewardship? Tradition? Right? No, one can see through Lothian’s language that what would matter henceforth was the preservation of specimen stately homes as an end in itself — only gradually supplanted, as the years passed, by the desire to supply cradle-to-grave, safely denatured heritage for the welfare state’s more discerning, or at least more culturally ambitious offspring. Public museums was, according to Lothian’s argument, what these great houses, once seats of local authority and influence, would henceforth become. It remained for the Trust only to ensure that they would become satisfactory museums.
Of course, it didn’t quite turn out that way. However deep the channels dug for it, history rarely ends up flowing in one direction only. The entity now vaguely termed ‘the English country house’ has, in the centuries of its development, known many different forms, purposes, styles of ownership, economic bases, rules of tenure and transmission, aesthetic influences and hermeneutic crises. Of course, as any friendly account of the National Trust will quickly point out, in the period 1918-1945, more than 450 country houses were destroyed in Britain. If the rate slowed thereafter — as much, it must be said, through the efforts of campaigning organisations like the SPAB, the Georgian Group and the Victorian Society, events like the V&A’s 1974 ‘Destruction of the Country House’ exhibition and high-profile individuals such as John Betjeman, than through the work of the Trust per se — the losses have continued. We don’t, on the other hand, have equivalent data regarding the Civil War, let alone the Black Death or the Norman Conquest, so comparisons fall a bit flat.
By the same token, alongside these horror-stories of neglect, mutilation and demolition, there might also be set more ambiguous narratives of transformation. In the decades that have passed since the end of the Great War, many country houses have avoided outright destruction by passing into public ownership, taking on as they do so new roles as schools, museums, galleries, ceremonial venues or heritage attractions. Others now function as hotels, restaurants, corporate headquarters and so forth. The result of these changes, whatever else it may mean, surely constitutes a sort of ‘destruction’ of the country house in question, in terms of its traditional role if not its fabric. Whether, however, we should regard these changes as any more worrying than the process by which some grim stony fortification along the Scottish Borders became first a tumbledown farmstead, then a mildly dangerous ruin, and then a prettified weekend retreat for some Fulham-based entrepreneur, is a point on which readers may, in good faith, agree to differ. Not everyone, after all, prefers evidence of functional evolution to a handsome, mossy, fern-infested ruin.
On the other hand, for all the changes and losses, what Lothian called ‘the old rural order’ is by no means as dead as some in 1934 might have expected or indeed even hoped — rather in the same way that marquesses continue to punch above their numerical weight, however tactfully camouflaged, at least when it comes to politics. Certainly, plenty of country houses, large and small, remain in private hands. The Historic Houses Association, an organisation founded in 1973, represents something like 1,500 privately owned historic houses, while an unknown number of other country houses stand proudly outwith any scheme whatsoever. And while many of these privately-owned houses generate some income through ‘heritage’ activities — not just tourism, either, but providing film locations, wedding and hospitality venues, cafes and farm shops, facilities for sporting events, specialist boutiques and heaven knows what else — a non-trivial number remain the centre of large agricultural estates. Anecdotal evidence suggests that on some of these (Chatsworth, Alnwick, Holkham, etc) intelligent management — which is to say, diversification, technological innovation and plain old-fashioned patience — has helped these estates to out-perform surrounding areas when it comes to weathering the storms of BSE, foot and mouth disease and Labour’s persistent mismanagement of the rural economy. Away from the larger estates, there remain rural communities in which squirearchy, though clearly altered to suit changing times, nonetheless remains a recognisable, apparently viable concept.
And then there’s the National Trust itself. At present, the Trust claims to ‘protect and open to the public [...] over 350 historic houses, gardens and ancient monuments’. (Whether this statistic includes properties which the Trust owns, but which for various reasons are not open to the public, is marginally less clear.) While the Trust, particularly when in fundraising mode, prides itself on its charitable status and proclaims that it is ‘completely independent of government’, this assertion of independence is something of an evasion: private acts of parliament have been required to establish the Trust, to allow it to receive assets and property in lieu of the payment of death duties, to give it the power to create bylaws governing the activities of individuals on Trust property and, oddest of all, a unique statutory power, not unlike the old statutes of mortmain, allowing the Trust to declare land inalienable. At the same time, a number of Trust properties were acquired through the rupture of earlier ‘perpetual’ testamentary arrangements. Historically literate visitors can hardly visit certain Trust-owned houses without being deafened by the sound of entail settlements being smashed, the rights of generations of unborn heirs trampled underfoot, the laws of heaven and earth being flung aside so as to enable this ‘independent’ entity to pursue its goals ‘for ever, for everyone’, as the Trust’s website puts it. The fact that the Trust wasn’t able, in the end, able to break every entail its organisers wished to break should not, of course, obscure the fact that, at least from any recognizably Tory point of view, they have still broken far too many.
All of which, in any event, tends to underscore the obvious point that, for all its notional ‘independence’ — and for all its considerable achievements both in terms of membership recruitment and aggressive commercial development — the Trust is, by any reasonable standard, a parastatal entity, which could never have assumed its current form without the unique fiscal and legal advantages accorded it by successive UK governments. And in that context, it’s genuinely quite hard to understand the acquisition of historic houses by the Trust as anything other than a process of relatively genteel confiscation followed by an apparently benign quasi-nationalisation. While the left-hand / right-hand nature of some of these transactions — the Exchequer bludgeoning some recently-bereaved heir with explicitly punitive death duties, the Trust coincidentally offering to ‘save’ the estate ‘for the nation’ — grows more obvious with the passage of time, the cynicism of the whole exercise waxes correspondingly more repugnant, at least to those of us who are willing to stand up for private property. In all of this — the pathetic trustfulness regarding the efficacy of state action, the obsession with ‘experts’ and ‘planning’, the wrong-headed sense of standing at some absolutely unique break in historical development — the Trust was very much of its time.
At this point, a certain sort of reader will, no doubt, begin to protest that at least a few landed estates were saved, that these houses and their contents were kept intact — that for all its coercion and occasionally rather underhanded practice, the scheme did preserve a part of Britain’s history which would otherwise have been modernised and rationalised out of existence. But is this actually true?
In a word, no. The estates, the houses and contents acquired by the Trust were by no means inevitably kept intact, as even casual perusal of JLM’s diaries makes all too clear.
Take, by way of an example, the Brockhampton estate in Herefordshire, which had been inherited in direct descent, albeit twice through the female line, for more than 750 years by the early 20th century — ‘a nice Tory household’ according to Constance Sitwell, who had stayed there as a child — in fact, in some ways the sort of minor squirearchical seat that JLM loved best.
In 1946 Col. John Lutley, who owned the place, died. In his will, he bequeathed to the National Trust an ancient moated manor-house, a highly picturesque gatehouse, the Georgian ‘big house’ which his ancestors had constructed when the manor-house became too outmoded, the contents of both houses, nearly 1,700 acres including five working farms, a ruined Norman chapel and the Georgian chapel that was built by the family by way of replacement, complete with the graves of numerous Lutleys, Barnebys (the family name changed back and forth at various points), servants and dependents.
JLM claimed, in 1992, that he had no record of his initial visit to Brockhampton, or the circumstances under which he convinced the aged Col. Lutley to make his house over to the Trust. Since, after transcribing and ‘writing up’ his 1940s diaries in the 1970s, JLM took the precaution of destroying the originals, we have little choice but to take him at his word.
At any rate, his first visit to the house after Col. Lutley’s death found JLM in elegiac mode. He reflected that there was
something poignant in a house which has suddenly ceased to exist with the last owner. Life arrested in old tobacco jars with the lids off, smelly old pipes, books turned faced downwards on tables, the well-worn favourite chair with deep imprint of the late ‘behind’ and threadbare arms, and the mournful, reproachful gaze of dozens of forgotten ancestors on the walls.
Well might those ancestors, indeed ‘forgotten’, have seemed to look reproachful. On his next visit, JLM had work to do. Looking back in 1992 upon the events of 1947, he wrote that
I spent the days at Brockhampton, probate inventory in hand, marking those contents I deemed suitable for Montacute [another Trust property, acquired unfurnished in 1931] and other houses we were furnishing at the time since the Trust committees had decided that the Hall was not of sufficient architectural merit to be opened to the public. Yet it saddened me to be a party to the dispersal of a family’s tables, chairs, beds, silver, books and pictures, apart from a handful of objects to commemorate the Barnebys in the moated house.
Later, JLM distributed to ‘various ancient relations and cronies of the Colonel’ keepsakes consisting of ‘several unimportant objects at their probate valuations’, while at the same time, ‘experts’ of various sorts swarmed about the house, pronouncing on what could stay, and what must go.
The process was, admittedly, an imperfect one.
By the end of the year all those surplus contents not needed by the Trust were sold in Worcester in the names of Colonel Lutley’s executors so as not to invite criticism. And many a pretty bargain was picked up by local residents. A few things went which were overlooked by us and should not have gone [...] To be fair to the National Trust’s committees they did not consider themselves justified in preserving intact a commonplace Georgian squire’s house containing a hotchpotch of moderate contents at the expense of the national’s Exchequer. It is arguable that they were in too great a hurry to find a suitable tenant.
But no private tenant was ever found for the Georgian house, strikingly isolated even by the standards of rural Herefordshire. In 1985, an insurance company named Pioneer Mutual rented the house and did it up. In JLM’s words, again from 1992,
what is almost too good to be true, this tenant has removed, with the Trust’s connivance, the unsightly window dressings from the main front, reinserted the sash bars to the glazing and redecorated and even furnished decently, but of course and alas, with alien contents, a few of the downstairs rooms for use on official occasions. The rest are used for offices. Before this happened the building, which in desperation the Trust felt obliged to let for years as a company’s store or warehouse, had been allowed to deteriorate alarmingly.
The 14th century manor-house seems to have been intended by the Trust to be leased to the Youth Hostel Association, but when this fell through, it was eventually converted from a farmstead to a berth for the local National Trust coordinator, presumably with some public access to the major rooms.
And what of Brockhampton now? I’ve been unable to discover who, if anyone, is tenant at the Georgian house. At least part of the old moated manor-house is open to the public. There are now holiday cottages on the estate. In 1992 JLM wrote that property’s ‘charm is enhanced by the farmyard activity beside it and the prevailing smell of pigs and manure.’ Do these continue? There’s a shop on the property, run by the Farming Forward initiative, which although I know nothing much about it, sounds at least promising. There’s an emphasis on wildlife, as well as activities including ‘Easter egg trails, guided walks, ugly bug safaris and historic re-enactments’. There is, as far as I can see, very little emphasis on the house itself, the family that built and lived in it, its history or its context, although this may simply be a feature of the way it is marketed as an attraction, and may not reflect the reality at the actual physical location. The pretty gatehouse has recently been restored. The Georgian chapel is apparently kept locked.
Set in beautiful countryside, Brockhampton is doubtless a worthwhile goal for an afternoon’s visit. I’ve no doubt the site is attractive, well-maintained, and that the facilities are excellent.
Still, the question remains: what exactly has been ‘saved for the nation’ here? A Georgian property has been stripped of its contents — some of which, it should be noted, have been shipped away to dress up the interiors of other houses, to which they have absolutely no historic relationship — while its fabric was first allowed to deteriorate, then aggressively restored by a private tenant (those stripped-out windows, a wholly legitimate legacy of nineteenth century decorative preferences, now part and parcel of the actual history of the house) in a way that at least ought to have had the SPAB up in arms. It does not now seem to be open to the public.
As for the 14th century manor-house house today, it appears to have been transformed from the nucleus of an ancient farming settlement dating back to the Domesday Book, to the picturesque centre of a tourist attraction. Judging from the single photograph of the interior I’ve found on the internet — possibly slightly naughty browsing, by the way, as the Trust maintains absolutely draconian policies regarding photography on their property for anything other than private use — the public area is furnished very oddly indeed, with a combination of seventeenth, eighteenth and twentieth century items in a manner that vaguely evokes generic abstract ‘heritage’ (the old trestle table, the pewter, the periwigged ‘family’ portrait) while at the same distracting from its own anachronism (the over-fat candle on the small pricket, the electric lamp, the single uncharred log in the ashless fireplace) by an overall failure to position itself as a room from any time, meant for any purpose, other than manifestly dumbed-down entertainment.
Admittedly, the Norman chapel persists as a good-looking ruin — but the Georgian chapel, which until 1946 remained as in active use as a place for worship, is now redundant and locked. As for the farms, their ancient relationship to the central settlement at Brockhampton has been ruptured. And while the Brockhampton Estate tourist attraction doubtless brings a certain amount of revenue into the area, how much of this remains in the area, how much is drawn elsewhere by the wider interests of the Trust? How many local people does the Trust employ, compared with the number the estate employed in its pre-Trust days? The point here isn’t, by the way, that change would never have happened had the Brockhampton Estate not been transferred to the Trust. But if the purpose of the transfer lay in ‘preserving’ something, what exactly has been preserved by the transaction? Short of burning each of the structures to the ground, complete with its contents, it is hard to see how the elusive ‘country house’ quality of Brockhampton could have been more actively, aggressively, consciously destroyed — destroyed by JLM, in fact, as much as anyone else.
All too evidently, JLM realised this. Up to this point, the recollections of Brockhampton I have included have been either those which JLM produced when writing People and Places in 1992, or those which he quoted from his own 1946-1946 diaries within the text of People and Places. Let us end our contemplation of Brockhampton, however, with a passage which JLM must have decided not to include in People and Places. It comes from his diary entry for Monday 16 June, 1947, the day before the removal men were due to take away some of the Brockhampton thing — ‘chiefly books’ — to Montacute.
JLM had arrived in ‘the cool of the evening’:
How beautiful this place is. I walked down to Lower Brockhampton just before dark, the trees dead quiet, not even whispering, and the undergrowth steaming. Two enormous black and white bulls gave me a fright by noiselessly poking their great faces over a gate and peering at me in a meditative manner. This evening the whole tragedy of England impressed itself upon me. This small, not very important seat in the heart of our secluded country, is now deprived of its last squire. A whole social system has broken down. What will replace it beyond government by the masses, uncultivated, rancorous, savage, philistine, the enemies of all things beautiful? How I detest democracy. More and more I believe in benevolent autocracy.
Of course it’s possible to believe that JLM omitted this passage in a moment of mature good judgement, his elderly self raising an eyebrow at the intemperate if not very coherent passions of his younger self — the whole ‘another self’ dichotomy being central to JLM, a point to which we may return later. At the same time, it’s equally possible that he omitted it for precisely the opposite reason — a twinge of genuine guilt, brought on by the accuracy of the charge that the young JLM had directed at himself.
In this case, JLM’s guilt must — perhaps even should — have been heightened not only by the fact that Brockhampton lay not far from Wickhamford Hall where JLM’s family lived (hence ‘our secluded country’), but also by the fact that JLM’s family had made their money in the nineteenth century through the ownership of factories, that their presence in the area, to which they moved around the time of his birth, had more to do with convenience than squirearchy, and that he so obviously wished both these things to have been otherwise.
All of which begs yet another question: why on earth did JLM elect to include the sad, inconclusive story of Brockhampton in People and Places, which is, after all, a small, hand-picked, totally subjective selection of his memorable Trust experiences? Perhaps, looking back, it was more an apology than anything else — albeit, in typical JLM double-sided mode, an ‘apology’ in both senses of that word.
Whatever JLM might have felt about the Trust by 1992, his complicity in its activities, at least with respect to historic houses, could hardly be more obvious. As secretary to the Trust’s Country Houses Committee from 1936-1939, and again from 1941-1950, JLM’s first major assignment was to help draw up a list of 230 country houses of ‘undoubted merit’, the owners of which might expect tax concessions if they presented these houses to the Trust. His next assignment was to approach the owners of the houses, proposing to them involvement with the Trust and visiting those who seemed in any way receptive to the Trust’s advances.
Now, while it is true that JLM was no more responsible for the aims of the Country Houses Committee than he was for setting it up in the first place, it may very well also be true that without his involvement, the Trust would have struggled to develop any sort of momentum behind its scheme to acquire country houses, large or small, important or otherwise.
For if there was one gift this self-confessed slow starter very obviously possessed throughout the entire course of his very long life — one gift that made all the other achievements possible — it was an ability to seduce. By this, I don’t simply mean an ability to lure an astonishingly catholic assortment of people into bed with him, although this was certainly the case, as both the diaries and Bloch’s biography make very plain. No, many of the seductions were not sexual — at least, not explicitly so — although this should not be taken to mean that they were not as least as profound as those which were.
No, JLM seems to have had a truly wondrous ability to draw people to him, to make them like him and wish to please him, to retain them as friends and allies, in some cases long after any fires of passion that might have once flared had been banked or even extinguished. JLM’s stark and unforgettable verdict upon hearing the news of James Pope-Hennessy’s murder was, in some sense, a sort of inversion of what one imagines JLM may have felt about himself: [Pope-Hennessy] was one of the most brilliant creatures I have known but, alas, he was a bad friend’. Whereas while JLM may well have doubted his own brilliance — almost certainly incorrectly — his capacity for friendship was, at least, beyond doubt.
This mattered. Without his gift for attracting people and keeping them close, it is hard to imagine JLM’s legacy being the thing it is. Not least, for all the honesty, the acute social sensibility, the sharp-edged humour and that radiantly accurate prose, the addictive power of JLM’s diaries depends in no small part on the cast of characters passing through them, at least few of whom manage to span nearly the whole 1942-1997 period. Few writers have ever chronicled the ups, downs and terminal demises of longstanding human relationships with thoroughness, emotional precision or lack of sentimentality displayed by JLM. Possibly, few writers have managed quite so many longstanding human relationships.
But it’s also true that without this seductive quality, JLM’s contributions to architectural history and historic conservation might well have taken a very different form indeed. Were it not for various seductions, JLM would almost certainly not have found a job with the Trust’s Historic Houses Committee — Vita Sackville-West, the wife of JLM’s erstwhile lover and patron Harold Nicolson, had alerted JLM to the opportunity the soon after the Committee was established — nor is it easy to imagine The Age of Adam (1947) and JLM’s subsequent architectural publications without a degree of encouraging inspiration from the prose of the doomed James Pope-Hennessy, whose London Fabric (1939) achieved such well-deserved success, or without support from other friends, allies and miscellaneous contacts. So insofar as the Trust required someone who was able to charm a heterogenous group of country house owners out of the property, they struck gold with JLM. And he, I think, knew it.
Perhaps this sounds too cynical. Well, almost certainly it does sound too cynical. There can be absolutely no doubt that JLM’s adoration for Britain’s historic houses was absolutely genuine, that he loved beautiful architecture not only as an end in itself but also treasured country houses as relics, tokens — fetishes, even — of a vanishing order that he to some extent admired, and to which he felt an increasingly strong nostalgic attachment at the years went by. Many dear friends of his — John Betjeman, Robert Byron, Rick Stewart-Jones, just to name a few — also cared strongly about historic preservation.
Indeed, it might be argued that the love of old houses became for JLM a sort of unchanging badge of identity, amid a life otherwise marked by chameleon-like behaviour, passionate ambivalence and a willingness to embrace both sides of most possible dichotomies.’The country houses of England, I became increasingly convinced,’ as JLM wrote in 1992, looking back on his much younger self, ‘were our most precious secular shrines just as cathedrals were their sacred counterparts.’ The language here is interesting for all sorts of reasons, but not least because JLM, having been born into an Anglican family, converted to Roman Catholicism aged 26, yet returned gradually to the established church in the late 1960s, apparently finding much consolation in the Anglican liturgy by the time of his death in 1997.
Possibly, then, his need for those forgiving secular shrines was particularly acute. No wonder he embraced the chance to become a member of a sort of elite brotherhood consecrated to their preservation. Indeed, in People and Places, he writes of working for the Trust, ‘It was not a career — we were paid next to nothing — but a dedication like nursing or being in Holy Orders.’ The phrasing could hardly be more revealing.
Of course, as JLM admitted, looking back in 1992, not everyone had approved of the Trust and its plan to acquire country houses:
Very few — and there were some, especially amongst the landowning class — regarded the Trust in the way high-born Romans of the Empire regarded the early Christians, as a sinister little group of left-wing dissidents edging a way towards wholesale take-over of private property.
Again, the language is almost too interesting — as complicated in its snobbery as it is in its theological allegiances. One would like to know more about those who voiced their suspicions about the Trust’s schemes, who rejected the Trust’s pre-war proposals on these grounds, and who, in 1939, successfully resisted the passages of the 2nd National Trust Act which would have made it easier for life tenants to alienate settled estates. JLM, however, is rather silent on this subject, except in noting that his father disapproved of the Trust on precisely these grounds.
It is clear, nonetheless — not least in Bloch’s excellent account of JLM’s work with the Trust — that in the pre-war years, country landowners showed very little interest indeed in the Trust’s advances. Of the 225 landowners initially sent a memorandum regarding the Trust’s two pre-war schemes, only 83 bothered to reply, 10 of these replying in the negative. Only 42 requested an interview. By October 1936, then, nine owners had offered to take part in the scheme which involved offering the Trust both an estate and the endowment necessary to support it, while six had shown willingness to open their houses to the public in return for tax concessions. The point here is, presumably, that in 1936, Lothian’s pessimism regarding the future of Britain’s country houses was not, in the main, shared by the great bulk of those who actually owned the things.
Then came the war. JLM was prompted first to keep a diary, and later to publish it, in large part by the intuition that, in the early 1940s, the times through which he was living were truly extraordinary — an intuition to which the content of the diaries gives strong, often unforgettable substance. Travelling around the country on the Trust’s business, living on a very modest income yet mingling regularly with the grand and the great, JLM’s vision of wartime Britain is, like so much else in the diaries, curiously ambivalent. On one hand, there were love affairs, uproarious evenings spent with friends, irksome complaints about the price of dinners or fairly marginal conservation issues. Yet on the other hand, just as the reader starts to grow complacent, some eye-opening catastrophe transpires — Tom Mitford’s death, or the flying bomb that hit the Guards’ Chapel at Wellington Barracks during a Sunday morning service, slaughtering as it did so 121 officers and men — shocking us into the recollection that JLM was living daily with a reality of sudden, violent death literally unimaginable to most of his present-day readers.
Of course, for obvious reasons, this unthinkably proximity to violence crops up in more or less every wartime narrative, collection of letters, biography or memoir, and so ought to be familiar, at least at the level of literary experience. Where JLM excels, however, is less in chronicling the spectacular and dramatic moments of wartime life, than in evoking its dreary, exhausting, squalid and sometimes depressive character, which was by no means exorcised by the slightly forced jollity of VE Day. Although, as a diarist, JLM was always notably quick to see the dark side of things, to point out that the sky was falling and to ullulate accordingly — something that renders his 1970s diaries, with their continual warnings of immanent communist takeover and the collapse of civilisation, inadvertantly hilarious in places — in the wartime and immediate postwar diaries, he may well have had a point. These were hard times, in all sorts of ways. And insofar as they affected the fortunes of Britain’s country houses, JLM may well have been uniquely well-placed to observe the result.
For the war and its immediate aftermath did, very obviously, change the practicalities of life in most country houses, at the modest as well as the magnificent end of the spectrum. Indeed, any reasonably alert contemporary visitor to country houses will have long since seen through the myth that 1914 marked some great watershed in social relations, realising the extent to which the ‘long’ Edwardian age really ended in 1939 instead, at least when it came to life in Britain’s larger and smaller country seats. At Holkham Hall, for instance — just to pick one example out of hundreds that might otherwise make this point — the Old Kitchen, created in 1750 and ‘done up’ in the 1850s, was in use up to the outbreak of the Second World War. So was the Chapel. With the onset, however, of mass mobilisation — for the Home Front war effort as much as actual military enlistment — legions of servants departed, never to return.
Meanwhile, all around the country, houses of any significance were pressed into service, during what JLM slightly mischievously termed ‘the bleak years of requisitioning by evacuees, mental deficients and American troops’. Parks went under the axe so that air-fields might spring up in their stead, family sepulchres were looted by drunken and possibly soon-to-be-dead RAF men, history mowed down by utility in a ‘People’s War’ where, if contemporary accounts are to be trusted, the National Goverment itself must often have looked disconcertingly like the enemy. Although JLM was probably unusual in disliking Churchill at least as much as he did Herbert Morrison — indeed, very nearly as much as he disliked Hitler — the grumbling resentment shown by so many of the British people for the wartime state is as obvious from wartime accounts as the lack of fresh eggs, the frayed nerves or the distrust of official pronouncements.
Yet even when hostilities had ended, for Britain’s historic houses, the post-war prospect remained grim. When heirs died in action, elderly house-owners struggled with harsh practicalities — and when the owners died, their heirs struggled with death-duties. The strain could be unbearable. In June, 1947, dining at Holkham, JLM noted that ‘Lady Leicester is away, staying in Silvia’s house, with a nervous breakdown brought about by anxiety and the worry of keeping up Holkham with practically no servants.’ This might have been an extreme case, but the problem was a more general one. The situation was not helped by a pervasive insistence that the future, when it arrived, would to be modern, classless, automatic, progressive, cased in brand-new petrochemical-dervived substances and would speak in a jaunty and demotic mid-American accent. What’s the point of stately homes in a world like that? No wonder, then, that the long post-war interlude of shabbiness, scarcity and the rapidly-encroaching welfare state — promising so much, costing so much, delivering so pitifully little — depressed JLM.
In a sense, however, this terrible period presaged JLM’s greatest moment of success in his Trust-related duties. Worn down by the general wretchedness of the times and unable to see a better way out, more and more country house owners began to look upon the Trust, less with suspicion than a sort of desperate, fatalistic resignation. Increasingly, those relationships that JLM had done so much to nurture began to produce results, with properties positively flowing into the Trust’s ownership. And as the acquisitions increased, JLM’s importance within the Trust increased correspondingly. Having secured the houses, his role expanded to include sorting and disposing of furnishings (as we have seen in the case of Brockhampton), creating decorative schemes (he was responsible for introducing John Fowler to the Trust, with long-term implications for the English country house ‘look’ both here and abroad), arranging the rooms prior to opening them to the public, selecting custodians for the properties, and commissioning or indeed actually composing guidebooks.
For specific houses, the impact was profound. Montacute, for instance, as we have seen with reference to Brockhampton, was donated to the Trust in 1931 and by 1946 was as an empty shell. JLM, however, wished to show it as a ‘living’ house, and thus set out to furnish it, ‘borrowing’ items from sources including the basement of the V&A, other Trust houses and even the personal property of the chairman of the National Trust. JLM arranged these items himself. Still, the exercise was, at some level, a questionable one. For while Montacute remains a popular and high-profile Trust property — now displaying, among other things, pictures from the National Portrait Gallery — its National Trust webpage fails to mention that nothing in the house — furniture, paintings, books, etc — was there before 1946 at the earliest. Instead of a ‘living’ house, what is on show today is a self-conscious fiction, concocted in large part by JLM. C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la conservation historique: c’est de la folie. What, one wonders, is the point in that?
Meanwhile, another big house, Stourhead, which had been donated to the Trust in 1947 still furnished with the accretions of many generations, was largely stripped of its contents. The reason, it seems, was that JLM rather disapproved of the existing style of furnishings:
[The rooms] were cluttered with knick-knacks to an extent hardly creditable by a housewife of today. [...] There were occasional-tables bursting with bric-a-brac, miniatures, beads, buttons, rings and trinkets of every description. On every shelf and piano lid were forests of silver trowels, silver vases containing decayed peacock’s feathers and silver photograph frames of relations, maharajas and royalty.
The idea that a ‘housewife of today’ might possibly find such an alternative at least informative, if not actually attractive or resonant, does not seem to have occurred to JLM, who in any event was quick to do away with this apparently unsatisfactory state of affairs. While a few ‘treasures’ were retained, other items were despatched to furnish other Trust properties, while much ‘surplus clutter’ was sold off to local dealers.
Nor was that all. Stourhead was smartened up. New wallpaper and fabrics replaced the down-at-heel original. Sets of matching chairs were broken up. The pictures which stayed were re-hung. Lady Hoare’s collection of ‘hundreds of second-rate novels’ — of considerable significance as a token of changing literary enthusiasms, if nothing else — was thrown to the winds. Estate papers and accounts were banished to a local record office. When the heir — ‘a fairly distant cousin’ writes JLM rather stiffly, for all the world as if this made him any less the rightful heir — who had inherited the right to live in the house, attempted to halt the sell-off or otherwise interfere in the running of the house, he was given short shrift.
In People and Places, JLM attempted to justify this course of action:
Rennie [Hoare] might not unnaturally regard the contents of Stourhead, inherited by generations of Hoares, as his, and resent the interference of a bunch of alien officials. On the other hand the Trust were the owners on behalf of the nation, and responsibility for the works of art was solely theirs.
Unfortunately, the aesthetic preferences now visible at Stourhead are also solely the Trust’s, if not solely JLM’s. While Stourhead is still in the Trust’s possession, and the house and its lovely gardens still open to the public — as its webpage illustrates — no family member, as far as I can see, remains in the house. And indeed, no matter how benevolent the intentions of that ‘bunch of alien officials’ may have been, it is surely impossible to deny that Stourhead was indeed destroyed by the Trust’s interventions. What exists is no longer a house, but rather a museum — a fairly tendentious museum at that, if only because it pretends to be something other than a monument to the taste of successive generations of Trust employees from 1947 onwards. Should we be any happier about this state of affairs because it took place ‘on behalf of the nation’, rather than at the hands of some private owner? Short of levelling the building, what worse fate could we imagine for Stourhead? Here, however, unlike the case of Brockhampton, JLM’s tone seems to reflect a sort of proprietory defensiveness, rather than melancholy or even guilt — a classic case, perhaps, of JLM’s alternate self in action.
At the end of 1950, JLM resigned as secretary to the Historic Buildings Committee, taking on instead a part-time role as architectural advisor. There were several reasons for this decision. Perhaps the most obvious was his relationship with Avilde Chaplin, a married bisexual woman of strong passions and difficult temperament, with whom he fell in love in 1949 and eventually wed in 1951. Avilde, who was considerably richer than JLM, lived in tax-exile in France, meaning that she could only spend a relatively small amount of time in the UK — but insofar as JLM wished to spend time with her, a full-time job in the UK became an impossibility. Resigning his full-time position also allowed him more time for writing books. Between 1947 and 1960, he was to produce six volumes of well-illustrated, fluent, intelligent yet ‘accessible’ architectural history, the success of which probably boosted his impact as a campaigner for historic conservation. He was, in other words, already exploring alternative means, direct or indirect, of attempting to slow the wide-ranging cultural decay which he detected all around him, and which in general he deeply deplored. The Trust would, henceforth, constitute an increasingly marginally aspect of his heritage-related activities.
Less obvious, yet also significant, however, were the changes taking place with the Trust itself. What Michael Bloch calls ‘the cosy, gentlemanly fraternity of dedicated amateurs’ was giving way to bureaucracy, professionalisation and specialisation. As a self-conscious gentleman-amateur, JLM deplored this. Oddly, perhaps, he also seems to have deplored what Bloch calls the Trust’s ‘progressive tendency to “museumise” its houses’.
Let us have a few lines from Bloch to demonstrate the full paradox of this latter objection:
[JLM's] continued presence on the staff did, however, enable him to palliate these trends to some degree. Soon after joining the Trust in 1956 as curator of its picture collections, Francis St John (‘Bobby’) Gore visited Stourhead with Jim and noticed, in the corner of a room hung with valuable paintings, a cheap lithograph of a cat; [JLM] insisted on this being kept where it was as an example of the taste of the former owners, and for years afterwards, whenever the house was mentioned, wanted to be assured the cat was still there.
Well, although one cheap lithographic cat is clearly better than nothing, what a shame this solicitude for ‘the taste of the former owners’ hadn’t extended as far as the rest of the furnishings of Stourhead, or Brockhampton, or a dozen other houses.
In any event, dissatisfaction with the Trust soon began to echo dissatisfaction in other areas of JLM’s life at the time, personal as much as professional, one particular irritant being Avilde’s all-consuming affair with Vita Sackville-West, the woman who had found JLM his job with the Trust in the first place, as well as — incidentally — the wife of JLM’s sometime lover, Harold Nicolson. Bloch is right, no doubt, in detecting in JLM’s efforts at historic preservation during this period a ‘tone of angry despair’. In 1957, when his old friend Eardley Knowles resigned from the Trust, JLM wrote to him that ‘I do agree with you that the battle for preserving the beauties we have loved is very largely lost’. It was clearly only a matter of time until JLM would follow suit.
Yet while JLM resigned his advisory role in 1965, by 1966 he was back, having accepted a place on the Historic Buildings Committee, which in 1970 was amalgamated with the Estates Committee to form to Properties Committee. In 1971, he joined the committee of the Bath Preservation Trust, and also worked with the Mutual Households Association, which attempted to rescue country houses by dividing them into flats, and the Conservation Society. It was only in 1983 that JLM finally gave up his place on the Trust’s Properties Committee, although he was apparently pleased to be asked to remain as a member of the Arts Panel. He was, at the time, 75 years old. His involvement with the Trust thus ended up spanning half a century. What better time to engage in an interlude of public reflection?
It was in 1991 — at the age of 83 years — that JLM sat down to write the book that would sum up his involvement with the Trust. People and Places is, as we have seen, the story of fourteen houses, the families to which they belonged, and the way in which each came to belong to the Trust.
The tone of People and Places, while largely diplomatic and jovial, is nonetheless dangerously sharp-edged in places. Take this, for instance:
It is true that since 1945 a new art of preservation of country houses deprived of a family of any sort has arisen and developed in a surprisingly successful manner. Today’s cultivated bourgeoisie are perfectly content to visit country house museums: the more the merrier. In fact they probably prefer them unencumbered with the unsightly bric-a-brac of everyday living — dog baskets, stinking ashtrays, drink trays, children’s plastic toys and the master’s old gumboots in the hall. Yet I cannot but regret the absence of these homely things. And in revisiting some old haunts it is easy to see in the suites of pristine Chippendale chairs and sofas ranged stiffly against walls the artificial hand of the metropolitan museum director. I remember our great chairman (David) Lord Crawford saying, with a sigh, to my colleague Christopher Wall and me in the long gallery at Hardwick Hall in the 1950s, ‘Not one person of the next generation will have a clue how country houses were really lived in before the war.’
For all its apparent resignation, this is nothing if not critical — although, again, a signal example of JLM’s ‘another self’, raging against what were, in effect, his own activities. No wonder that, as well as refusing for many years to stock JLM’s diaries in National Trust shops, the Trust also refused to handle People and Places.
For indeed, People and Places was notably critical of the Trust on a variety of levels. It is clear from the outset not only that the occasionally bumbling efforts of non-professional enthusiasts c. 1936 have been superceded by something else altogether, but also that JLM rather regrets the transformation. There is regret, too, at the fact that so few of these fourteen houses are still inhabited by family members — an abdication of the Trust’s earlier promises, as JLM well knew. And there is regret at the way the life has gone out of at least some of these houses, as expressed in the lines above, although perhaps also an absence of self-consciousness when it comes to considering the means by which that process came about.
We should not, however, read this as an uncomplicated, straight-forward attack on the Trust — for all the world as if JLM were even capable of uncomplicated, straight-forward judgements. This was, after all, a writer who enjoyed fulminating in his diaries and elsewhere against the effects of commercial development, the colonisation of the countryside by suburbanites in search of weekend retreats, unsympathetic residential conversions and the like. He had also seen too many demolitions in his time to doubt the value of basic preservation, even if what was preserved was in essence a lifeless shell. So People and Places is by no means a denunciation of the Trust and all its works — positive judgements abound. JLM is also quick, at least on some occasions, to justify his own role in the Trust’s transformation of these houses. In places, there is a real jauntiness when he describes his own interventions, not least when he’s seen behaving in a rather high-handed and cavalier fashion as at Stourhead. All too obviously, working for the Trust in those early days wasn’t just serious business — it was also, at times, great fun.
Why is it, then, that People and Places so often sounds a melancholy note? In part, it must be the rhetorical effect of all that thematic repetition. For the fourteen stories are all, in essence, headed the same way. The family whose name gives a title to each of the book’s chapters runs into difficulty, he or she promises the property to the Trust, then the relevant individual(s) die and the property is taken over by the Trust. We are watching the end of an era, shown again and again, played out with a different cast and against different backgrounds, but always with the same message. So if JLM’s response to that message comes across as somewhat arbitrary and inconsistent, perhaps that simply reflects what he actually felt about these events. There’s a mixture of pride and disgust, self-justification and guilt, humour and pathos, contrition and brazenenss here which never really settles. Perhaps, as he neared the end of his life, the most honest assessment that JLM could make of his decades with the Trust was one of naked ambivalence. The result is, in places, a rather uneasy read, if a deeply revealing one.
JLM’s ambivalence regarding the Trust had enjoyed earlier airings, too, some of them very high-profile indeed.
When, on 21 February 1984, Roger Scruton launched a strongly-worded attack on the Trust’s treatment of historic houses in a Times comment piece — ‘Out with the stately, enter the state’ — JLM sprang to the Trust’s defence in a letter which appeared in the Times three days later. Both Scruton’s original diatribe, and JLM’s response, are worth reading. Perhaps the most striking feature of this very public dispute lies, however, in the extent to which JLM and Scruton actually agree.
The scope of agreement is obvious, not least from the fairly limited scope of JLM’s response. First, JLM protests that, far from being what Scruton called ‘a smooth apologist for the injustices of the state,’ the Trust has instead ‘always deprecated the penal taxation which compels so many families to abandon their country houses’ — agreeing, in effect, that continued family ownership, rather than ‘abandonment’, is the preferable option. Secondly, JLM notes that ownership by the Trust is, at any rate, better than collapse or demolition — which, as arguments go, is considerably more faute de mieux than ringing endorsement! Finally, as for Scruton’s complaints about the way in which ‘the unselfconscious muddle of a family household gives way to an “authentic” interior’, creating a ‘museum’, the indictment runs spectacularly close to JLM’s own judgement on the matter. The ‘act of taxidermy’ in which these houses come to be presented in their ‘new, urbanised’ seemingly pleased JLM little more than it did Scruton. Yet where Scruton could presumably enjoy a degree of self-righteousness in framing his denunciation, JLM had no such luxury. Hence his notably defensive tone, perhaps even the motivation behind writing the letter in the first place.
Certainly, the absolutely savage note struck by JLM’s essay for The Destruction of the Country House — the publication that accompanied the 1974 V&A exhibition of the same name — suggests that it was written by a man in a degree of metaphysical discomfort. His essay, titled ‘The Country House in Our Heritage’, refers to National Trust properties as ‘mostly mummies’, having been subject to ‘the Trust’s embalming process’. ‘[A]las, very few of them are still homes’. He refers to the ‘electorate’ as ‘destroying’ the country house through penal taxation, before going on to picture the ‘illogical and sentimental English’ shedding ‘crocodile tears while dissecting the corpses of their victims’. For indeed, the line that JLM quotes with reference to the ‘new men’ of the Tudor court, benefitting from the Dissolution of the Monasteries — ‘let us do evil that good may come’ — is run up so closely against a reference to the Trust that the critical reader could hardly fail to understand it as implicit commentary upon the Trust’s treatment of country houses, perhaps even JLM’s own well-intentioned actions.
By far the oddest feature of JLM’s essay, however, lies in its startling conclusion:
Is it purely fortuitous that the decline of our civilization and the collapse of the country house way of life are coincidental? To this query there will be two diametrically opposed answers. One thing, however, is quite certain. The country house way of life as some of us have known it, will never be revived. All we can and must to, is to continue preserving as carefully as we can the fabric and contents of a representative number of country houses. The fact that we are now keeping them mummified does not matter. On the contrary it is all to the good. Future generations may discover alternative uses which will bring them to life again without impairing their mystery and magic. They will be grateful to us.
Here a solemn Fast we keep,
While all beauty lies asleep.
Husht be all things; (no noise here)
But the toning of a tear.
‘As some of us have known it’ — the country house is revealed here as at once a treasured fragment of JLM’s own past, and a talisman of our rapidly-declining civilisation more generally. Doomed in the present, the only solution for these houses lies in a sort of cryogenic suspension, from which they may perhaps be roused on the offchance that civilisation ever re-emerges. Meanwhile, however, the lines from Herrick are presumably intended to remind us, however subliminally, of the happy truth that after the travails of civil war, republicanism, levelling tendencies, vicious demagoguery and self-congratulatory philistinism, we may well expect some sort of restoration, however limited and imperfect. For all JLM’s liberalism, then, the intuition he expresses here is tinged with something approaching a note of Tory-grade optimism.
This is fitting. Once again here, we see JLM trying to have it both ways. Yet as much as we might lament this sort of thing in everyday life, it is hard to deny the advantage such a flexibility of sympathy might give to a seducer, to a young man trying to wheedle important houses out of elderly and overburdened owners — or, as far as that goes, to a diarist — one who is always on our side, even at those points when we’re not quite sure which side we’re on ourselves.
On 30 March 1944, JLM visited two contrasting Gloucestershire houses, Nether Lypiatt Manor and Woodchester Priory. Later that evening, he reflected on the experience in his diary:
I find that I take an hour or two to adjust myself to different sorts of people. Going as I do from the sophisticated to the simple, the rich to the poor, the clever to the stupid, I get bewildered. But in the end I usually manage to adapt myself. Which means of course that I am a chameleon, with little or no personality of my own. I assume the qualities of others. I am a mirror of other people’s moods, opinions and prejudices.
Whether this constituted at genuine attempt at self-knowledge on the part of JLM, as opposed to trying on a persona in order to see how well it suited him, is debatable. But whatever the motivation, there seems to be at least a grain of truth in what he wrote.
Admittedly, JLM’s choice of medium probably colours this judgement. Diaries are, or at any rate can be, places of refuge, wherein one can experiement, where one can push things slightly further than might be advisable in real life. Indeed, the most entertaining passages in JLM’s diaries often occur where he pushes thing rather too far, sometimes to inadvertantly hilarious effect.
Take, for instance, this soaring aria of self-congratulatory Cassandra-grade pessimism from October 1974:
I often think I am far-seeing and correct in my political judgements. Am certain I was right when in 1970 I said Heath ought, when the Tories were re-elected, at once to have had a confrontation with the Trades Unions and risked civil war. Even today I believe that a confrontation (which would undoubtedly entail civil war) would result in eventual victory for common sense, though it is no longer a foregone conclusion. As it is, this week’s election may see a Labour victory and complete victory by the Unions, and so Marxism within two years. I was right about the danger of the intellectuals flirting with Communism in the Thirties, right about favouring Munich in 1938 because we were not ready to fight the Germans, right in knowing that Communism was a worse creed than Fascism, and right in deploring Churchill’s insistence upon unconditional surrender and the consequent acceptance of the Russian occupation of Eastern Prussia, Poland and Eastern Europe. Oh God, the pace thing are rushing downhill now is sickening.
Indeed — and who hasn’t had evenings wherein one was blessed with similarly modest revelations?
More often, though, JLM’s diary shows him playing — however improbably — the bemused outsider, still fully alert to every oddity, foible and frailty of his astonishingly catholic range of friends and acquaintances. Frequently, too, he pauses to consider his own defects, recounted with a combination of clear-eyed frankness, tolerance and occasional hilarity. The fact that there’s a JLM for more or less every mood ensures that even the most unlikely readers end up at least to some degree seduced, whatever their reservations. Which is to say, while it’s possible to despise oneself a bit for enjoying JLM’s diaries quite so much, and to find oneself making all sorts of excuses — heterosexual men, soi-disant liberals and basically nice people are particularly guilty on this score — there’s always a point where one ends up sneaking back to him, for all his many faults and inconsistencies, on some lonely rainy afternoon where nothing else will do.
When Britain experienced a paradoxical moment of cultural self-confidence in the mid to late 1960s, the fortunes of the country house waxed encouragingly, if unpredictably. In part, this may have reflected a desire on the part of a post-war generation to explore its neglected, half-forgotten, easy-to-romanticise prelapsarian heritage. On the other hand, perhaps the country house, as one of the most talismanic artefacts of Englishness [sic], simply rose in prominence because there was little else around that symbolised all its did with so much accuracy and economy.
But there was also another factor at play — the entirely conscious marketing of stately homes, in particular, as part of the leisure services industry. This had properly taken off in the 1950s. The pioneer was the 6th Marquess of Bath, who inherited Longleat in 1946, complete with a bill for £700,000 in death duties. His solution to this problem lay not in an urgent call to the National Trust, but rather, in the decision to open the house to the public — not in a passive way, either, but complete with strategies calculated to attract as many paying visitors as possible. Tours of the house thus concentrated not on architectural niceties — obscure, boring, elitist — but on funny stories about the Thynnes, while the Marquess himself was there to welcome the crowds, hence cashing in on the degree of class voyeurism which had always accompanied the interest in Britain’s better houses. Before long, Lord Montague followed suite at Beaulieu Abbey, complete with an open-day for the press, photo-ops and a newly-created motor museum. Next came the Duke of Bedford’s decision to open Woburn Abbey, kitted out as if it were actually a working family home, which in fact it was not. Thus the pattern had been set.
All of these ventures were, from the start, astonishingly successful, contributing not only to the upkeep of some of Britain’s greatest houses, but also to the economic wellbeing both of the estates themselves and the surrounding locality more generally. And in turn, the lesson was taken to heart both by the owners of other major stately homes — the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth, the Duke of Marlborough at Blenheim, the Earl of Leicester at Holkham, the Howards at Castle Howard, etc — but also the enterprising occupants of much smaller if equally attractive historic houses, such as — to select, by way of example, one particularly handsome and well-curated house — Athelhampton, opened to the public by the sometime former Tory frontbencher Sir Robert Cooke MP, and still receiving visitors today.
Inevitably, not everyone approved. For one thing, some found the marketing strategies adopted by certain home-owners marginally de trop. It wasn’t just that selling things to people is, at some level, necessarily a bit vulgar — the way in which heritage was being sold didn’t help, either. Did Longleat, for instance, really need lions? Did Woburn Abbey really need a nudist camp? Were all these pop concerts, fun-fairs, glorified jumble-sales and deeply undignified media appearances by cash-strapped aristocrats quite the thing?
More generally, what was the point of these houses — were they the ‘secular shrines’ posited by JLM, or flexible economic enterprises that had to move with the times? The National Trust was, in any event, very clear about there it stood. The Trust has benefited mightily from the growth of interest in heritage, with its membership burgeoning from 7,850 in 1945 to 2.5 million by the mid 1990s, to about 3.67 million in 2008/09. In 1966, however, the Trust’s then Chairman, the 9th Earl of Antrim, noted stiffly that the his organisation’s role was ‘not to involve itself in the entertainment industry’. That, it seemed, was that.
At the same time, the growing fascination with ‘heritage’ — not just old houses, either, but ruined castles, stone circles, unspoilt villages and places of natural beauty as well — was by no means an exclusively conservative one. For all sorts of reasons, the heritage industry was able to make a place for itself at the point where the old aristocratic order was bisected by the more extravagant, psychedelic, hippyish strand of popular culture. The future, it turned out, was to be mystical, empathetic, peaceful, smelling just slightly of cannabis resin, clad in a vintage brocade frock-coat with old-gold frogging and speaking with the voice of John Ruskin as heard through a crackly old gramophone record. In any event, when the Kinks performed ‘Sunny Afternoon’, ‘Victoria’ or ‘Village Green Preservation Society’ and the result was broadcast throughout the world, the irony came shot through with what looked remarkably like a degree of affection; across the Irish Sea, the mists of Leixlip parted briefly to reveal various Rolling Stones trooping around after the Hon. Desmond Guinness, exclaiming delightedly over well-preserved bolection mouldings. Who could have forseen that in the mid-1990s, the Trust, its attitude towards the ‘entertainment industry’ clearly having shifted a bit, would feel moved to acquire the extremely modest, unapologetically suburban childhood homes of two of the Beatles? And who, without irony, would have had the energy to try to justify this?
Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, the country house — public or private — only increased in its symbolic potency. As Thatcherism and Reaganism altered the economic landscape, miscellaneous evidence — the television programme To The Manor Born (1979-81), the ‘Treasure Houses of Britain’ exhibition (1985-86), the American Ralph Lauren brand (ongoing) — conspired to suggest that the condition to which all new money naturally aspired was ownership of an English country house. And while classless, urban elites might (well, did) poke plenty of fun at this, what they could not deny was that it was indubitably the case. As the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, an increasing heterogeneous selection of celebrities — George Harrison, Elton John, Madonna, Chris Evans, Gary Barlow, Noel Gallagher, Damian Hirst — took to country living, in some cases with the sort of splashy lavishness which would have warmed the hearts of Henry VIII’s ‘new men’, if not their more thoroughly house-trained descendents. In doing so, they were imitating what other newly-rich people had been doing for quite some time, if rather less ostentatiously. In recent years, the incursions by super-rich Americans, Arabs and so forth have given way to incursions by super-rich Russians who require space for humvees, retainers and enormous amounts of security. And while not all these newcomers treat their houses with sensitivity or taste, they do at least keep them functioning as living enterprises, with whatever degrees of idiosyncrasy or imperfection that more or less inevitably entails.
Meanwhile, the Trust engaged itself in some collective soul-searching with regard to modish matters of ‘authenticity’ and ‘simulation’, culminating in the decision to show Calke Abbey — acquired in 1985 — not in some tidied-up, period-perfect form, but in the cluttered, unmodernised, somewhat scrappy ‘time capsule’ form in which the Harpur Crewe family, having lived there for 360 years, had left it. Yet equally famously, Uppark, which burned to the ground in 1989, was rebuilt more or less from scratch, so as to create an appropriate setting for the genuinely antique furniture which quick-thinking Trust employees had managed to salvage from the lapping flames. Were these acts of preservation, or essays in commercialised entertainment, or what? The truth, perhaps, was that the more deeply the Trust — and its critics — took to scrutinising the organisation’s purpose with regard to country houses, the more confused the picture became. Whatever the Trust might have been intended to do in the mid-1930s, by the mid-1990s it was, all too obviously, doing something else altogether. This, then, is the dynamic situation into which JLM launched People & Places, all of which probably explains at least something about its variously bemused, tolerant, aggrieved, regretful, defensive, nostalgic, vitriolic, elegiac, sometimes almost crusading rhetorical stances.
And thus we return to the theme of ambivalence. JLM was right, no doubt, to rail against the ghastliness of what was happening to tracts of the British countryside. In March 1987, having been driven round the Cotswolds by his friend David Burnett while conducting research for a book, he reflected as follows:
It is a long time since I have driven round the counties and looked at houses with a critical eye. I am shocked by the dreadful examples of in-filling in villages, and the appalling invasion of the remote Cotwolds by London weekenders. At Eastington Manor, for example, we saw a humble little house slightly tarted up with a neat, trim garden. David found a farm worker in a barn, of whom he asked the owner’s name. ‘A Mr Docker from London, who comes down about four times a year,’ was the reply. ‘How dreadful,’ said David. ‘It be,’ was the answer. The village people don’t like these fly-by-night, new-rich, suburban-minded, totally un-country folk, who bring their middle-class friends and cocktail bars for a few days and are of no use to the community. Then, so many of the large country houses are being converted into flats. It is a good idea in principle, but seldom are the conversions sympathetic.
True enough. Yet there’s a sort of irony in what follows:
As for Northwick Park, the spectacle was horrifying. There stands the great house in the middle of the erstwhile park, a mile from Blockley village in an area of outstanding natural beauty. It was unapproachable, for one drive was blocked up, the other so churned by tractors and tree-felling vehicles that we could not get up to it. A long row of hideous garages with blue doors newly erected; pegged strips in the park where new residences will be built. Northwick, where George Churchill [Captain E. G. Spencer-Churchill, 1876-1964] lived surrounded by precious pictures and works of art, can henceforth be erased from the memory.
The irony, for those who need help spotting it, lies in the history of Northwick Park itself. Undoubtedly, JLM knew that Northwick Park, a handsome house now operated as a ‘residential estate‘, was itself the product of dreadful nouveau-rich interlopers from London who, having made their money in trade and established a degree of political prominence, wished to award themselves the dignity of an impressive country seat.
Let us explore this point further. In 1682, Thomas Childe ended three centuries of local squiredom by selling out to Sir James Rushout, the super-rich son of a Huguenot immigrant. The appearance of the Rushouts triggered significant changes for the locality — not least, an increased emphasis on the use of water-mills in the process of industrialised silk production and the inclusion of previously separate manors and estates under one management structure — as well as much new building on the Northwick estate, including the demolition of the old house to make way for a more contemporary, spacious and convenient building. The Rushouts — who, upon being ennobled, adopted ‘Northwick’ as part of their various titles — went on to have their ups and downs. The 2nd Baron Northwick (1770-1859) for instance, created an astonishing impressive art collection, some of it on show to the public at Northwick, which was then sold off at public auction when he died childless, intestate and financially overstretched. Northwick Park, in other words, hardly remained static even during the two centuries or more during which it was occupied by the Rushouts.
By 1912 Northwick was no longer in Rushout ownership, having passed on to a related Churchill line, as per JLM’s reference above. The Second World War saw it pressed into service first as an US military field hospital, and then — until the 1960s — as a camp for displaced Poles. In other words, conversion to a ‘residential estate’, for all that someone who knew it in earlier days might come to regret the change, is hardly the most dramatic transformation visited on Northwick Park since the Restoration. Change, it turns out, is as much an authentic part of the heritage of the British countryside as is continuity and stasis.
All of which perhaps explains why this detour into the back-story of Northwick Park, which must have felt at various points like a wholly aimless digression, in fact reveals yet another facet of JLM’s ambivalence regarding the National Trust. The beautiful and historic Worcestershire property wherein JLM spent his youth was no ancient family seat — it had been purchased by his parents using the proceeds of industrial enterprise — nor would JLM inherit it, sedulously maintain it or hand it on to generations of his own heirs. And while he did in fact purchase, arrange and enjoy one very handsome residence in the course of his life, this was an exercise in individual taste, not in dynastic continuity. Bequests that were promised to him added up to very little, at least in property terms, by the time he received them. ‘Most adults’ priority is for flesh and blood,’ he notes in People & Places, whereas ‘mine was for stones and mortar’ — although, in a typically paradoxical gesture, JLM left to the Trust a collection of books to be sold in order to re-institute the old library at Gunby Hall, another of those minor squirearchial seats in whose dissolution he had personally taken a hand.
For all that JLM might idealise the unchanging countryside, in particular the long-established relationship between the less assuming squirearchical families and their localities, and wish somehow to preserve some evocative tokens of this (apparently) lost world through his work with the Trust, to a degree this idealisation was surely the highly personal wistfulness of a thoughtful man contemplating the road not taken. For JLM’s proprietary role regarding ‘his’ houses within the Trust — the very thing celebrated and dissected in People and Places — was necessarily, in itself, an impermanent, alien, rather jarring sort of transaction. Never mind the sort of counterpoint thrown up by e.g. JLM’s old friend the dowager Duchess of Devonshire, who has devoted much of a long and energetic life to preserving a landed estate, with total commitment, amazing resourcefulness and without making a great fuss about it, except of course when the fuss would further benefit the interest of the landed estate itself. Whereas, when it comes to intervention in the lives of great houses, JLM can’t begin to compete. No, his was not even the ham-fisted interventions of some vulgarian suburbanite installing down-lighters, power-showers and wall-to-wall carpeting in his ‘period property’, then handing it on to another suburbanite a decade or two hence. It wasn’t even as profound or lasting as that. As he points out himself in People and Places, virtually all he achieved through the Trust was later re-done. Rooms were re-arranged, guidebooks re-written, the Trust’s strategy transformed. JLM was given a star-studded retirement luncheon, and that was that. The Trust moved on.
Yet if it does nothing else, People and Places does at least give permanence to this scene within which JLM caused only the most evanescent of ripples. JLM will, in the end, be remembered more for his use of language than for his relationship with any one house, line of descent or locality. Possibly, he realised this. Possibly, he may have paused to wonder whether there was something mildly shaming in it, too.
It ought to be obvious that enthusiasm (or otherwise) for the Trust invariably has a political dimension. This is true as much at the level of how Trust properties are experienced, as it is at the level of how one regards the Trust per se.
And yet this isn’t, one hastens to explain for the avoidance of doubt, some simple matter of the Trust being somehow ‘left wing’. It doesn’t by any means always work out that way. For instance, anyone who isn’t a Tory — and in this, I very much include any ‘progressive conservatives’ worthy of that name — probably ought to worry about the affectionate if mildly uncomprehending nostalgia with which the Trust so often presents its historic properties, creating from whatever raw material they may have offered paragons of polite middlebrow good taste to be copied by social inferiors, tourists and the sort of people who use the more adventurous of the televised Jane Austen adaptations as guides to the nuances of nineteenth century manners more generally. Non-Tories had also probably ought to worry about the Trust’s alternative emphasis, from the 1990s onwards, on the ‘below stairs’ micro-cultures of the great houses, in which may be detected less of a conviction that this sadly under-documented, typically faceless world is interesting in itself, than the commercially sensitive realisation that most Trust visitors are basically more comfortable below stairs anyway, so divorced are they in so many ways from the intellectual, aesthetic and political preoccupations of the men and women who built, owned and managed Britain’s stately homes.
But then, at the same time time, there is, actually, a fair amount of left-of-centre dogma underlying the Trust’s stated raison d’etre, all the more tiresome for being not only so very evidently tendentious, but also so typical of discourse relating to the country house and its history. For can any Tory read Sir Roy Strong’s Country Life 1897-1997 — The English Arcadia, noting its references to ‘the inevitable passing of the old aristocratic order’, without wishing to remind the learned author that ‘the old aristocratic order’ isn’t as dead as all that, that a Powellite preference for hereditary over life peerages might have done much — and indeed still might yet do much — to encourage its more obvious persistence, and that, in any event, where ‘the old aristocratic order’ still exists in terms of country estate management, it remains capable of out-performing the obvious alternatives? And as far as that goes, at what point was the big-house-owning elite in this country not thronged with a patently disagreeable proportion of ‘new men’, as unreliable in aesthetic terms as they turned out to be in political terms? 1066? 1485? 1688? There’s a strong sense in which the Trust exists to ‘save’ something that never actually existed in the first place, to compensate for the ‘failure’ of something still alive and well, if somewhat altered in form. The fact that pluralistic democracy continues to bumble along in its hit-and-miss way, engaging in orgies of self-reformation and soi-disant ‘progress’, shouldn’t obscure the fact that even now, when it comes to how people actually live their lives and understand their relationship with others, it’s hardly the only game in town.
Similarly, although there’s no point in pretending that mid-twentieth century Britain didn’t suffer an absolutely tragic diminution of its stock of historic houses — The Destruction of the Country House remains a volume I can peruse only when in the sunniest of moods — and while the work of the SPAB, English Heritage and, yes, the Trust itself in slowing the slaughter is to be commended, it remains the case that when it comes to architecture, the acts of creation and destruction are invariably very closely conjoined. How many of our best houses — one thinks of Chatsworth, Hardwick Hall, Hatfield House, Petworth, Alnwick, the Tower of London, the list is all but infinite — are built on the ruins of their demolished, doubtless also extremely historically interesting predecessors? The Tudors had absolutely no compunction when it came to knocking about an old house in order to build a newer, bigger, better, more crassly self-aggrandising one. The Georgians cheerfully slapped classicised facades across the face of older, less elegant structures — added classicised doors, capacious service wings and ample fenestration — or, if they could afford it, demolished the whole thing and started again.
And as for the Victorians and Edwardians, when they were not destroying to rebuild, they were ‘restoring’ ancient houses with a degree of uninhibited imaginative energy that would make most conservation officers today spit pints of (organically-based, easily-mopped-up) blood. This was because they still believed that houses existed to please and suit the inhabitants, rather than vice versa.
One thinks at this point, only slightly irrelevantly, of Kenneth Clark’s account of Sudbourne Hall, his family home, described by him in his memoirs as ‘one of Wyatt’s typical East Anglian jobs, a large, square brick box, with a frigid neo-classical interior’. Clark’s parents, wishing to make the house more comfortable, instructed an architect, then promptly went away on holiday. On their return,
they were surprised to find the main hall, galleries and staircases transformed into a pseudo-Jacobean style. Richly carved walnut covered every inch of the walls. There were pheasants, partidges, woodcocks, squirrels and spaniels, all in high relief. It was in very bad taste, but may well have been warmer and friendlier than Wyatt’s neo-classicism.
Now, while it’s obvious that this display of pseudo-ancien regime grand manner, only slightly curdled by the crow of self-congratulation that runs through it, could hardly be more typical of Clark, what is really interesting is the exact calibration of the snobbery on show, all the more remarkable as it comes from someone who ended up making a career out of evaluating, explaining and curating beautiful objects. Clark’s point, all too clearly, is that the will, indeed the comfort or even the whim, of the home-owners matters far more than ‘taste’.
And this is the key, perhaps, to the slightly weird, starry-eyed admiration which JLM directs at Clark throughout the course of the diaries, whenever their paths crossed. Clark, at least, had the wit to present himself as feeling entirely at home with this sense of the country house as means to someone else’s more important ends — a dandyish pre-SPAB, anti-Ruskin, coat-trailing sort of persona, which suited him down to the ground. In contrast, again and again, JLM ended up constructing a sort of fetish out of the houses themselves, their contents and ambience, perhaps as surrogate for a social reality which, either for reasons of birth, lack of funds or even honest self-doubt, largely eluded his grasp — and then meddling mightily with the houses, contents and ambience, while pretending to preserve them. Was there envy here, even aggression, as well as ambivalence? If so, however, it was bathed so much charm, sympathy and disarming semi-candour that it is difficult to be certain of much, except that the end product was, in its ambiguity, entirely typical of JLM.
Ultimately, it is easier to mock JLM for the inconsistencies, confusions and blind-spots he manifests in his relationship to the National Trust than it is to be honest about the extent to which many of us share them.
‘Many of us’ is, I think, justified here. Admittedly, when I started puzzling over this matter of JLM and the Trust, I did so on the assumption that grateful admiration for the Trust and all its works was the mainstream position, from which dissent of any sort constituted an unbecoming and frankly lonely heterodoxy. In truth, however, those of us who have doubts about the Trust constitute less some shady conventicle, than a broad church of fairly respectable opinion.
We have arrived at our position through different routes. Many — particularly those whose experience of the countryside hinges neither on weekend minibreaks in boutique hotels, television documentaries or hearsay — will never forgive the Trust for its 1997 decision to ban hunting with dogs on its property, which added weight to the suspicion that the Trust was now under the control of an essentially suburban, technocratic, media-conscious elite who care about traditional country pursuits even less than they understand them, which is saying something. Others worry that the Trust puts too much money and effort into what is, in effect, political campaigning — against green-field development or wind farms, for instance — that its reading of social history too often betrays a discernible left-of-centre bias, or that it has become excessively entangled with modish environmental concerns.
Others still are convinced that the Trust simply works too hard at being popular these days, to the detriment of its original aims. This was underscored for me recently, when the Trust appeared to take seriously the suggestion that it should raise funds to acquire the Abbey Road recording studios, no longer required by EMI. But what would the Trust be ‘saving’ here? As a working recording facility, the Studios have, obviously, been altered and updated almost continuously throughout their history. Further, there is absolutely no suggestion that they would struggle to find a commercial buyer, nor are they in any danger whatsoever of demolition. So had the Trust acquired them, the goal would have been nothing short of an arbitrary, deadening intervention in the natural development of an ongoing, in many ways highly successful commercial enterprise.
In a sense, of course, this is what the Trust does all the time — Tyntesfield, acquired at enormous cost by the Trust in 1992, could easily have found other private buyers, including those who wished to maintain the house as a well-endowed private residence — but leaving distrust of Miss Kylie Minogue’s squirearchical aptitude aside, as surely one must, where does one draw the line? As a friend pointed out to me at the time, the National Trust missed a trick by not buying Cadbury’s, hence creating, as he put it, ‘a mega-theme park celebrating cheap chocolate, Guardian-reading Yank-bashing and the triumph of xenophobic sentimentality over capitalism — what’s not to like?’ Indeed. The problem, though, is that where some of us see irony, the Trust itself may instead see opportunity. Poor Ruskin, at any rate, may well have spun his way out of his grave by now.
And then finally, there are those of us who, as we have seen, distrust the Trust for, as much as anything, the haste with which it has tried to write off as moribund, embalm and declaim eulogies over a way of life that, while as subject to change in the course of the past century as any other way of life, is by no means dead even now — or, to put it another way, those who discern in the Trust’s history the outlines of a much bigger story, in which an increasingly assertive, intrusive and burdensome nation state has sought to strangle alternative sources of political, social and economic organisation through a mixture of coercion, co-option and nakedly teleological, whistling-in-the-wind rhetoric, whereby, through a sort of sympathetic magic, if one says often enough that something is dead, it surely cannot long survive.
The Trust exists, at some level, to show that country houses are doomed (by the state), hence that they now must be rescued (by the state and its parastatal sidekicks) — thus ‘proving’ that state action, as opposed to a diversity of private, decentralised and locally-based alternatives, is in fact the way forward. And while plenty of visitors to Trust properties will either fail to notice this message, or will in fact applaud its logic, for others, the persistent ringing in our ears of this wholly disingenuous message proves unnerving.
As another friend put it recently,
I find myself torn with the NT, between admiring the houses and the organisation that maintains them and then feeling there should be a sign posted on every NT door, rather as in Doctor Zhivago, saying ‘this property had room to sleep thirteen families and has therefore been confiscated by the state through inflation and taxation’.
Indeed. The late John Biggs-Davison, looking back at the Liberals’ increase in death duties in the early 1890s, identified inheritance tax as ‘a tax which was to become the means of gradually depriving the landed gentry of the resources of progress and service. It was a slower, more painful extinction than the guillotine or the lamp-post,’ yet ‘extinction’ it was all the same. Admittedly, it may well be that Biggs-Davison was unduly pessimistic here, or at least guilty of taking an excessively short-term view.
All the same, the broader point remains — for those of us who deplore ‘government’ by greedy mob, the auctioning-off of traditional liberties to buy votes from a capricious and irresponsible electorate, dictatorship by mass-media fiat and the compulsive pursuit of ‘progress’ as an end in itself, there is a light in which all those carefully burnished National Trust surfaces, the tasteful arrangement of period furnishings and the laid-on air of absolute obsolescence can be made to look about as attractive as one of those fabled festivals of French revolutionary zeal, wherein the local thuggery danced the Carmagnole under some festooned Liberty Tree, weaving in and out under the red, while and blue twirling ribbons, pausing in their recreations only to smash to a pulp the faces of those of their neighbours whose idea of ‘reason’, or ‘equality’ or ‘fraternity’, didn’t wholly coincide with their own.
This has been a long journey. Let us round off our exertions with quick restorative rambles round two properties, Holkham Hall and Blickling — two north Norfolk houses chosen for no particular reason except that they stand only about twenty miles distant from one another, both featured to varying degrees in JLM’s own experience of the Trust and its work, and finally, because the contrast between the two makes its own point regarding the role of historic houses, their recent past and their probable future.
We’ll start with Blickling. As we have seen, Blickling Hall was one of the very first historic houses acquired by the Trust, a bequest from Lord Lothian, who played such a crucial part in the Trust’s development. A large, sprawling, immaculately handsome house of broadly Jacobean appearance — although the truth, inevitably, is more complicated — set in delightful gardens, Blickling remains a highly successful visitor attraction. Although in the end it proved impossible to find a long-term tenant for Blickling — a high priority in the donor’s original scheme of things — the Trust uses the projecting wings and associated buildings for its own regional offices, as well as conservation studios, a gift-shop, tea-room, restaurant, garden centre and secondhand bookshop. Well-maintained, attractive and accessible, Blicking constitutes a marvellous day out for anyone who enjoys old houses, beautiful gardens and a variety of relaxing activities, all on one manageable site. No sane person would hesitate to recommend it in the highest terms.
And yet … for all that I hugely enjoyed my visit to Blickling last summer, I did so with doubts buzzing around my ears as energetically as the wasps that congregate in the welcome coolness of the folly-Temple.
The loudest doubts, inevitably, thronged busily around that classic National Trust riddle, posited several times here already: what, exactly, has been ‘saved’ at Blickling? Because for all its magnificent symmetry, its apparent ‘perfection’, Blickling is, above all else, a cut-and-paste, hacked-about, mix-n’-match place. The house designed by Robert Lyminge for Sir Henry Hobart amid the decrepit remains of the old Boleyn place — incorporating some of the existing fabric — grew only slowly, hindered by lack of funds, lack of interest, deaths. The result something of a contrast between, as JLM put it,
the imposing spread of the east front, the deceptively Jacobean north front, and the undeceptive ‘Jacobethan’ west front, a dull rebuild from funds rather touchingly left for the purpose by a 29-year old Countess of Buckinghamshire in 1769.
Inside, much of what ones sees is either Georgian, Victorian attempts to firm up the Elizabethan-Jacobean heritage of the house, or 1930s attempts to dispel the Victorian changes. So the long gallery was turned into a library in the middle of the eighteenth century before being repainted in the nineteenth century, Lyminge’s great staircase was re-oriented in the eighteenth century, and the massive drawing room cut up into a series of grand bedrooms. Meanwhile, to quote JLM again,
Being a bachelor [Lord Lothian] allowed a sister, Lady Minna Butler-Thwing, to supervise for him redecoration of several rooms. This she usually did in the safe beige or pea-green taste of the 1930s. An exception was the south drawing-room where Lady Minna ventured upon flesh-pink walls and stripped the Jacobean chimneypiece down to the bare woodwork. It was in this favourite room that so many political consultations took place among the intimate coterie. Brother and sister considered the house he had inherited horribly gloomy and stuffy. Together they swept away much Victorian decoration and furniture, some of it more interesting than what replaced it.
All of which is, in a sense, unremarkable. Most old houses have, at greater or lesser length, similar stories to tell. Also, to be fair, the National Trust’s own published guide to Blickling is very good on the matter of the house’s complicated history, so revealing of varying historical attitudes towards historic buildings, their preservation, improvement and display.
Yet the doubts continue to buzz away in my ears: what is being ‘saved’ at Blickling? Presumably, when the house and estate were acquired by the Trust, two options suggested themselves. On one hand, it might have been possible to press the ‘pause’ button at 1940, preserving for posterity that elusive ‘way of life’ that JLM and others believed to be on the way out. Alternatively, it might have been possible to seek to return the house to some earlier point in its history, restoring — perhaps ‘creating’ might be a better word — ideal period rooms, whether Georgian, Jacobean or otherwise. Either of these projects would, in a sense, have been ‘preservation’ of the type unlikely to occur through the efforts of the private sector. Yet neither, in fact, happened. What did?
The answer, at Blickling, lies in a messy, sometimes disturbing synthesis. Inside, period rooms abound — but from what period? For while some rooms still bear the stamp of the 1930s — and while Lord Lothian’s portrait is, correctly, displayed in a very prominent position — other rooms have clearly been taken ‘back’ in miscellaneous ways, so that they seem to speak more of the mid-eighteenth century than anything else, albeit with dubious historical accuracy, given that such rooms have inevitably been re-arranged the better to display specific items of furniture and works of art, as well as to allow the public access from one room to the next. So what we see, really, is an ongoing revision of a 1940s impression of how period rooms might have looked, operating within the practical constraints of showing such rooms to the public.
The rooms at Blickling, meanwhile, no longer fulfil any of the purposes for which they were created. There are kitchens in which no one cooks, bedrooms in which no one sleeps, a library in which no one reads, daydreams or even dozes. Uninhabited, their function switched from practical use to hands-off display, there is something sad and fruitless about them. Not least, those conspiratorial conversations, the intrigue, the slyly compulsive questing after power and influence, which somehow served to connect the Boleyns and Hobarts with Lord Lothian himself — all these have been silenced, in a house where history has stopped. What has been ‘saved’ at Blickling? It is easier, perhaps, if just as sad, to contemplate what has been lost.
This was not, let me repeat, what Lord Lothian intended when he left Blickling ‘for the nation’. As he put it in his will, he desired first and foremost that the house should be let
as a family residence to persons who will love appreciate and respect Blickling Hall and will use it not only as a private residence but as a place from which public or intellectual or artistic activities go forth and in which persons or conferences of persons interested in such things are entertained and who have the means necessary to enable them to live at Blickling and use it for such purposes.
That scheme, surely, would have licenced a conspiratorial chat or two, to say the very least. Yet apart from the vanishingly brief tenure (1947-50) of former Tory MP, author and all-weather eccentric Somerset de Chair, the Trust failed to find a tenant for Blickling. Nor should this be surprise us, for why should anyone wish to pay rent in order to live in a house where even the most basic decisions regarding furniture, decoration, personnel and access end up devolved upon some far-distant committee?
We are, at this point, getting rather close to discovering what has been lost at Blickling. The ultimate clue, perhaps, is to be found in Blickling’s kitchen. For although the Trust is keen, on its Blickling webpage, to propose a variety of imaginative journeys to putative visitors —
Imagine yourself a guest at one of Lord Lothian’s house parties just before the outbreak of war, discussing the latest politics and religious matters. Learn what life was like as a servant and hear the stories of the real people who kept Blickling going …
— in fact, at least on the day last summer when I visited Blickling, only one of these experiences was possible. Nothing was said, in the course of the tour, about Lord Lothian’s religious convictions, less still about his politics. In contrast, down in the kitchen — a wholly unremarkable room which nonetheless features very prominently on the itinerary — three costumed re-enactors were doing their best to bring alive the below-stairs life of a late-Edwardian (oddly, not 1930s) stately home.
Let us avoid even the faintest hint of snideness here. The re-enactors were, by any standard, excellent at what they did — genuinely witty, engaging, but also wholly clearly wholly engaged in the roles (butler, kitchen maids) they were playing. They charmed the young and amused the old, educating gently as they went about their business.
What, though, did we learn from the re-enactors’ efforts? In sum, that the life of a kitchen servant was pretty hard work, that various means existed to keep flies away from food, and that while some of the kitchen implements appeared quite low-tech, others were familiar from our own kitchens today. What we did not learn — and here, I stress again that I mean no criticism of the re-enactors whatsoever — was anything about the broader way of life that service in a stately home entailed. We did not learn, for instance, whether the butler considered himself fortunate to have the job that he did, whether the kitchen maids ever encountered Lord Lothian and, if so, what they thought about him, whether their situation struck them as a source of pride — an old friend of mine whose grandmother was in service is quite clearly that this was seen as a big step upward for the whole family — or, alternatively, as a badly-remunerated form of ritualised humiliation. Nor, for that matter, did we learn anything about what the kitchen servants thought about religion, or politics, or any other ‘big picture’ issues. For all the re-enactors’ charm and conviction, therefore, the result was less the evocation of a ‘way of life’ than a sort of living offcut from an amiable if unambitious work of low-grade historical fiction.
What, though, of the other half of the Trust’s promise for Blickling — that we should seek to imagine ourselves as guests at one of Lord Lothian’s house parties? Here, we might note in passing the presumably subconscious rhetorical slip through which the Trust’s website text differentiates between the ‘real people’ below stairs, versus those phantoms of high birth, wealth and anachronistic privilege who flitted through the rooms above. There are, of course, no re-enactors at Blickling representing Lord Lothian or any of his many guests — Lady Astor, Lord Halifax, Leo Amery, Stanley Baldwin, Joachim von Ribbentrop. And indeed, a moment’s reflection reveals why this is almost necessarily the case, for who alive today could plausibly adopt the manners, views, scheme of reference, language and tone of any of this admittedly rather diverse bunch? Who, in a word, could persuasively depict as normal and even natural the late 1930s world of stratospherically high politics carried out in historic, well-appointed, well-maintained country houses? Virtually no one. Nor would most of us, I think, find it easy to frame the words in which to represent ourselves as a plausible fellow guest under such testing circumstances.
All of which is why, therefore, the promised above-stairs conversations are deftly avoided. We are not, in the end, encouraged by the Trust to engage in deeply technical discussions of defence spending and procurement, to mock Churchill’s self-important and irresponsible bellicosity (a subject notably dear to JLM’s heart), not allowed to reflect a wholly popular longing after peace in the face of what might or might not have been an inevitable war. Nor are we encouraged to express attitudes towards Catholics, Jews, foreigners, the working classes, property ownership, social hierarchy and so forth characteristic of Lord Lothian’s own times. No, down to the kitchen we go, instead, to contemplate an old gramophone, old silver-polish, old ways of banishing flies amid the cheerful, inconsequential banter of people who seem, for all their funny costumes, very much like most of us — which is to say, not in the least like JLM. Well, whatever else may have been lost at Blickling, irony, at least, isn’t exactly thin on the ground.
In many ways, the comparison between the Trust’s Blickling Hall and its privately-owned neighbour Holkham Hall is not an entirely fair one. Not least, Holkham has benefited in all sorts of ways from the proximity of so much protected coastline and wetlands, owned and administered by the Trust. Holkham has also been almost unbelievably lucky in having produced several generations of owners who not only care mightily about the future of their birthright, but who are also extremely good at estate management. Plenty of private estates have lacked this sort of luck, as well as the buffering penumbra of protected green spaces. Our best efforts notwithstanding, generalisations about these things can only be taken so far.
Yet for the heritage-enthusiast visitor to the north Norfolk coast, comparison between Blickling and Holkham is all but inevitable — having visited one, the other one necessarily sounds as counterpoint. And on this level, again and again, it is Holkham that comes out the winner.
Not least, the experience of visiting Holkham seems to take place on an entirely different level. It’s not just that Holkham Hall, one of Britain’s best Palladian buildings, sits at the centre of a 25,000 acre estate, with which the fortunes of the house remain inextricably entwined. It’s not just that the mark of the Holkham’s owners, the Coke family, is still there to be discerned, not only in the historic fabric of the estate, but in its day-to-day running, its style, its energy. No, the difference is that while Blickling exists in a sort of suspended animation — a thing apart from our world, airless and aimless — Holkham is very much alive and kicking.
Of course, things might so easily have been otherwise. We have seen, above, how the rigours of trying to keep Holkham afloat in the late 1940s — after a period in which much of the house and its grounds had been requisitioned by the Army — reduced the Countess of Leicester (wife of the fourth earl) to a nervous breakdown. As JLM recalled of a dinner at Holkham in June 1947,
Lord Leicester is a charming and cultivated man. [...] I sat next to Lord Leicester who said how disappointed he was that the family entail prevented him from handing over Holkham [to the Trust]. His last words to me were: ‘If you can find any means whereby the Trust can take over this house and its contents, I shall be prepared to leave it, should my not staying on make the transfer easier.’
Having succeeded to Holkham, however, upon the death of his 93-year old father in 1941, the fourth earl died in 1949. The fifth earl had no son, meaning that upon his death in 1976 the estate passed to his cousin, who lived in Rhodesia / Zimbabwe for most of his life. His son became the seventh earl in 1994, but soon devolved responsibility for the day-to-day running of the estate upon his son and heir the Viscount Coke. And somehow — one would, indeed, like to know more about how it all worked in practice — Holkham was clawed back from supposed obsolescence, to become the glossy, vibrant, evidently flourishing enterprise that it is today.
For as Lord Leicester writes in the present visitors’ guidebook, part of the stated purpose of the estate is to ‘ensure that the social fabric of rural life remains intact’ — ‘The house is therefore not a stuffy museum. It is part of a thriving community in which my family and I, along with many others, all live and work.’ The distinction here between Holkham and Blickling could hardly be more pointed. But there are further implications to be teased out of the difference. For one thing, while Blickling struggles, as we have seen, to decide precisely what vision of a vanished world it ought to seek to evoke, at Holkham the problem simply doesn’t occur. So while of the rooms in the Holkham Hall remain very much as they were in the eighteenth century — the drawing room and landscape room, for instance, have been renewed but never re-hung, so that the visual contrasts set up by the first earl remain completely intact — others quite unselfconsciously display the tokens of everyday use by a twenty-first century family.
Holkham’s long library, for example, is not always open to the public, for the simple reason that the Cokes still use it on a daily basis. It seems pretty clear that many of the bedrooms in the strangers’ wing are still used as guest-bedrooms. Family portraits are everywhere — not only that wildly glamorous Batoni portrait, either, but informal images of the current generation, too — with the rather endearing result that, if one visits Holkham with a small child, the guides are only too ready to identify the Coke child of similar age, proudly showing off his or her photo, for all the world like a legion of excessively-doting surrogate grandparents. And by the same token, the most arresting sight in the massive old kitchens isn’t the long sweep of burnished copper and scrubbed-down trestle tables — it’s those marvellous portraits by Andrew Festing of the heads of the various estate departments, commissioned from the late 1990s onwards. Holkham, in other words, isn’t a museum. It’s a house — a member, incidentally, of the Historic Houses Association — that has been made to respond to changing social and economic circumstances, with considerable success.
But then, unlike Blickling, Holkham is very more than a house and surrounding gardens. The Trust, of course, has learned a lot about merchandising on the basis of its historic properties. As we have seen, Blickling includes various commercial enterprises, including a garden centre and secondhand bookshop. But Holkham is something else altogether — in a word, it’s still a functioning landed estate. And here the big house, rather than acting as some sort of optional add-on displayed for the benefit of passing day-trippers, seems to have encouraged Holkham to become a textbook exercise in cross-selling. Like the estate-reared venison on sale at the stable-yard restaurant? You can take home vacuum-sealed parcels of it. Admire the silvery-half-bleached colour-scheme, so redolent of fresh sea air and wide horizons, on show at the Victoria? You can buy the linseed-based paint by the litre, along with the relevant brushes, finishes and cleaning products, made from locally-grown flax — flax being, by the way, possibly the most beautiful field-crop ever — and available from a variety of outlets, on the estate and elsewhere. Visiting Holkham, you can stay on Holkham property, eat Holkham produce, let your toddler clamber over old fire engines at the likeable Bygones Museum, enjoy Holkham events and swim on Holkham’s peerless beach. On a good day, you can even watch Lord Leicester’s brother tearing around the estate on a quadbike, farm-dog on board, doing Holkham-type errands. What on earth could Blickling offer that would begin to compare with that?
Nor, one should perhaps add before someone makes a fairly obvious objection, is Holkham — for all its heroic scale, extravagant magnificence and extrovert manner — unique in these qualities. Down the A149 coast road towards King’s Lynn, Houghton provides yet another example of an extremely important house still functioning as the centre of an agricultural estate. Only slightly further along the same road, the Sandringham estate continues to practice conscientious management of its land and tenants, as well as a laudable degree of diversification, to the benefit of the surrounding countryside. At the other end of the spectrum, not very far from Holkham, the dreamily perfect Bayfield Hall, set within its own 1900 acre agricultural estate, has diversified enough to provide filming locations, a venue for weddings and concerts, shooting and accomodation in the form of an extremely elegant guest-flat, while the Old Stables and other estate buildings house local enterprises including not only the predictable antique shops, but also a highly-praised maker of pies and an outlet for the Yetmans Brewery. Even a smallish Jacobean gem like Wiveton Hall can be made to pay its own way — and, again, to provide amenities and employment for the local community, as well as for the passing tourist trade — through an imaginative combination of catering, venue hire, accommodation, farm shop and pick-your-own seasonal produce. Oddly, while another local house of some importance — Sheringham Hall — is owned by the National Trust, it is let on a long lease to private tenants, and hence — unlike Holkham, Houghton and Sandringham — is closed to the public. Make what you like of that.
Let’s return, though, just for a moment longer, to Holkham. Everyone you meet in this part of the world who isn’t a fellow tourist is, more than likely, connected with the Holkham estate several times over — not only with the estate’s 25 tenanted farms, or the land farmed in-hand by the Holkham Farming Company, either, but also through myriad related activities, industries and services. Some will live in the more than 300 houses owned by the estate, let only to people who work locally — a welcome amenity in a place where the temptation to turn everything into holiday lets must be all but overwhelming. Many more will benefit from the economic diversification encouraged by the estate. And while it isn’t exactly easy to keep local commentators off the topic of the estate, its personnel and management, it’s absolutely remarkable how often what one hears is, quite simply, positive. One need not attribute this to dewy-eyed sentimentality on the part of the local inhabitants — north Norfolk people are, by all accounts, a pretty down-to-earth, pragmatic bunch — but rather to the realisation that the Holkham estate has, over many years, been good for employment opportunities, property values, the prospects of the area in general. They’ve seen management by earls and viscounts and, by and large, it still seems to work pretty well.
‘It is no use battling against the Zeitgeist,’ wrote JLM, by way of conclusion to People and Places. ‘Posterity is at least lucky to have and to be able to visit, even as museums, the domains of the defunct regime, so lovingly and adeptly preserved in aspic by the National Trust.’ Which matters more here, the meaning of these words, depressingly reasonable — or the acid rancour dripping from every last one of them? Or should we try to take both of these seriously at once?
Those of us who’ve struck up a sort of one-way fictive friendship with JLM — remaining fond of him while alert to his failings, rather as he seems to have responded to most of his actual, real-life friends — would probably agree that, as much as anything else, we love him for his extravagant moodiness, the blithely self-contradictory nature of so many of his stronger assertions, the iridescent plumage flashed by this rare bird whose low warble and occasional squawk has brought us entertainment, edification and comfort at various disparate moments of our lives. A more reasonable and reliable JLM would, in terms of his diary, have been a far less compelling one. From Pepys to Channon and the younger Clark, we have seen that the best diarists are not, invariably, the most uncomplicatedly virtuous people. At low moments, indeed, it’s always a comfort to see that JLM is, in fact, no better than the rest of us. So perhaps it’s too much to ask that, aside from everything else, he should have been unfailingly correct on matters of historic preservation.
That notwithstanding, though, I think we should now be clear that JLM’s involvement with the National Trust was by no means his finest hour. Admittedly, we benefit from a degree of historical perspective that JLM necessarily lacked. For if one of the signal joys of JLM’s diaries are their sheer chronological scope, the chance to peer at the intricacies a life played out over half a century and more — allowing, incidentally, evocations of senescence, decrepitude and death as surreptitiously informative to forty-something-year-old readers as accounts of sex must once have been, back when we were all in our early teens — that very scope also allows us to contemplate the almost undetectable gradualism with which major misconceptions so often arise. Which is to say, there may well have been a point, back in the 1930s and 1940s, when the activities of the Trust seemed reasonable if not downright laudable, and if JLM could not bring himself fully to admit the Trust’s deficiencies even in the 1990s, well, doubtless the mote we detect occluding JLM’s vision is more than matched by the odd beam closer to home. Still, we return to the basic point — with the benefit of hindsight, it is very hard indeed to argue that the Trust has succeeded in the aims its espoused at the time when it first became involved with country houses, that its mission even now is either obvious or easily defensible, or that private ownership was not, all along, in all sorts of ways, a better solution for Britain’s most beautiful, historic and significant houses than quasi-nationalisation through adoption by the Trust.
What, though, is to be done with the Trust? Here I, as a Tory, find myself in a genuine quandary. On one hand, what could be more pleasing than to wind it up and disperse its holdings? Possibly this could be achieved by selling it off, although there might, of course, be even happier ways of getting rid of it — by offering bijioux demi-Blenheims and Stradfield Sayes as rewards to the many under-celebrated heroes of our recent Falklands, Iraqi and Afghan conflicts, for instance, or indeed doling out property to any figure of nation pride — whether from the realms of piety, politics, sport, entertainment or whatnot — who might seem inclined to welcome it, at least as an adjunct to the revived hereditary peerages which should, one need hardly bother to add, be awarded concurrently. The sort of people who get twitchy about ‘access’ and ‘preservation’ could, of course, insist on covenants mandating these minor details. Yet on the other hand, again as a Tory, I can’t quite bring myself to countenance a solution whereby the express wishes of a testator — in this case, the clear desire, however badly mistaken, to present a property in perpetuity to the National Trust — are ignored. To do so would be to bring myself as low as the wretched entail-smashers of the Trust’s early days, or indeed to any of the barbarians who promise first to do one thing with a house, and then do precisely the opposite as soon as the donor is even semi-cold in the ground. And so, in the end, my position turns out to be as disturbingly ambiguous and self-contradictory as anything JLM himself could have concocted. No wonder I find myself drawn to JLM, his paradoxical stances and all those congenial imperfections.
Yet whatever else this may be, it should not be taken as a counsel to bland toleration of the Trust, just because the Trust exists at present and because it is hard to know what to do about it in the future. We live in an age in which Tories are too often chivvied into endorsing basically liberal, if not downright socialist conceptions, simply because these have been around for a while, because the alternatives are hard to imagine and because, in doing so, we perhaps hope to preserve for ourselves some simulacrum of a quiet, uncontroversial and pleasant life. We can’t fight every battle all the time — we get tired, distracted, other imperatives intervene. And yes, I’m as guilty of self-protective laziness in this respect as anyone else.
All the same, though, it’s worth contemplating the issues thrown up by JLM’s involvement with the Trust, less as a cautionary tale than for the encouragement we ought, in all fairness, to derive from them. History doesn’t, as we’ve noted before, flow in one direction. Traditional institutions evince, again and again, a resilience, flexibility and vitality that, more often than not, ends up mocking the sternest challenges that rationalisation, modernisation and the hocus-pocus certitudes of ‘progress’ can throw at them. Change happens, of course — it always has — but it does so as a sort of showy froth on the surface of deeper, if less remarkable continuities. Alongside all that the Trust claims to have ‘saved’, walled up in those cold mausoleums of studied uselessness, we may legitimately set the legions of privately-owned houses, once written off as doomed, which now may be seen to flourish on a variety of different models and manners of ownership: various, vibrant, unplanned and unpredictable in their trajectories.
In the end, indeed, it may well turn out that the Trust is — as with so much in life — not so much wrong as it is, for certain purposes and in limited respects, right and unimportant. Which is to say, the Trust may simply reveal itself to have been yet another of those minor and faintly desperate accommodations that some of the landed classes made in the hope of sustaining their position in the short to medium term. If the experiment wasn’t particularly successful, it hardly matters, though, because other strategies proved more successful, while the Trust continues on chiefly as an exhibition of its own limitations, a period-piece in its own right.
And so the sort of people who enjoy, however unconsciously, dancing on the grave of what they fondly believe to be an historical anachronism will continue paying their National Trust membership fees, congratulating themselves that this course of action is as virtuous as it is necessary. At the same time, their wrong-headed certitudes will make no difference whatsoever to the formidable number of private individuals who continue to admire, inherit, acquire, inhabit, maintain, renew, protect or improve our more significant houses — large or small, ancient or more modern. For some of this latter group, there will be a consciousness that such houses do not exist in a vacuum, that ownership implies responsibilities as well as easy pleasures, and perhaps, even, that through performing some useful role in the active life of a country house, they are taking their place in a procession of traditional activity that, for all the pardonable miss-steps and lapses, stretches back some considerable distance. Crucially, however, virtually all will continue to believe, no matter what they are told to the contrary, that the private ownership of country houses is not only a desirable state of affairs, but also natural and normal, verging on inevitable. Well, at least we all know which side we’re on, and there’s something to be said for that.
As for JLM, though — it’s not hard to imagine him on two sides at once, launching sharp critiques of that alternate self at every opportunity, revelling in the best of both worlds. Intellectually unsatisfactory? Irresponsible? More than slightly maddening? Yes, of course — but somehow, JLM manages, again and again, those seductive gifts very much intact even beyond the grave, to carry it off — and as ever, we smile indulgently, turn the page and let him get away with it.