True Class

Written by Taki on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

They would,
wouldn’t they? Come across as chilly, shallow and grasping (the aristos),
while the servants are brimming with passionate humanity?

I am referring
of course to Gosford Park, the Robert Altman film that has just opened
in dreary old England to rave reviews, as it has, I am told, back in the good
old egalitarian U.S. of A. The class system is the defining aspect of Britain
and everything British, and, as a result, anything that touches upon this system
concentrates the minds of everyone British. For any of you who may have missed
it, Gosford Park is a biting social satire, part murder mystery, part
dissection of the English class system, set in the magnificent Palladian Wrotham
Park, ancestral house of Robert Byng.

Here I have
to declare an interest, and do some Hollywood-like namedropping in the process.
It was about 20 years ago and we were playing charades. In Gstaad. Prince Nicola
Romanov, who today would be head of Russia if in 1917 some commie ruffians had
not murdered his ancestor, played Admiral Byng. I knew the story, but the prince
had signaled that the person in question was English. I was nonplused. After
Nicola revealed his name, I objected. Admiral Byng was French, and had been
hanged "Pour encourager les autres," as it was stated at the

dear Taki," said Nicola, "he was English to the bone, and was hanged
for failing to relieve Minorca from the French, rather than for cowardice in
the face of battle. The English admiralty used French, as it was the language
of diplomacy at the time."

But back
to the movie and the house. It was here, in 1754, that Admiral John Byng decided
to leave his mark by commissioning a Palladian mansion. (Admirals back then
could do this sort of thing; today it might, er, raise a few eyebrows.) It is
an 18-bedroom house, tucked away in Hertfordshire, surrounded by 300 acres of
parkland, which in turn form part of a 2500-acre estate. Unlike most historic
houses in the green (from constant rain) and deeply unpleasant (socialism and
envy) land that England is today, Wrotham Park (pronounced Rootam) is symmetrical,
harmonious within its surroundings and has a breathtaking facade and elegant
interiors. Its present owner is a 39-year-old former insurance broker, Robert
Byng, who inherited the house upon his father’s move to Switzerland in
1993. Like all Palladian houses its interior is, well, how shall I put it, quite
small compared to its magnificent exterior. Robert Byng says that the house
was "built in order to show off." (I am sure it did "encourager
les autres
" trying to make their mark.)

The movie
is set in 1932. Back then, in real life, Wrotham Park required at least 13 servants,
which was not a particularly large staff, not including gardeners, chefs, pastry
cooks, private butlers and so on. Today, Robert Byng employs two butlers–he
follows p.c. tradition and calls them house managers–plus a housekeeper
and a cleaner. There must be two or three gardeners and tenant farmers who look
after the whole property. The house is filled with old masters and priceless

And now
for the class system syndrome that is the lifeline of the movie. The screenwriter,
Julian Fellowes, is as blue-blooded as they come. I sit next to him year after
year at Claus von Bulow’s annual lunch in my old club in London. He is
a hell of a fellow, jolly, good-natured and very talented. Yet he had to stick
the knife in where the upper classes are concerned. I imagine his was an impossible
task–bit like portraying a soldier, a fireman or a cop in a sympathetic
light before Sept. 11. Most Americans, after all, do not suffer inherited privilege
gladly. After a while, the haves in close proximity to the have-nots begin to
grate. In real life, of course, things are different. Personally, I have never
had a problem with staff except once, when a Scots butler of mine tried to strangle
one of the maids, and I had the unpleasant duty of letting him go. (He then
had a go at me.)

The trouble
with the film (otherwise it’s wonderful fun) is basically the message.
Back in 1932 people were literally starving, so a job in a grand country house
was a godsend. Even today, a nanny or a domestic servant is paid quite a deal
more than, say, a teacher or a cop. In my experience, and I’m afraid I’ve
got lots of it, domestic servants have always been treated far better by their
masters than the latter treated their own children. In the past, the privileged
classes might have had their fun, but they were the first to die in battle for
their country, and the first to commit to public service, be it in the church,
the armed forces or politics. And they did not cheat.

Sure, there
have been bibulous and adulterous aristos–after all, what could the poor
dears do except get drunk, fuck, shoot, ride and fish, with all that time on
their hands. But upper-class etiquette is not about drinking and whoring. It’s
about doing all that in a way that does not offend. Today in grotty old England,
socialism has ensured a lethargy bordering on indifference even in hospitals
and certainly in schools. The result is that England is by far the most violent
country in Europe, with the police less likely to come to one’s aid than
the muggers are to get you. Pour encourager les autres, perhaps we should
revert to the old system. In England, at least.