Monday, 26 January 2015

Petty and Barker on stately homes

Further to the previous revisit to the outcast Black Country writer John Petty, I found a good example of his Angry Old Working-Class Man style: his extremely hostile review of the Duke of Bedford's 1959 autobiography The Sound of Brass, published four years after Duke's opening of Woburn Abbey to the public.

A Silver-Plated Spoon
by The Duke of Bedford. Cassell. 21s.

George Barker once wrote a poem about Longleat and its visitors and — wrongly and snobbishly — spoke of "the free and ignorant, almost as awe-struck as at a Cup Final”. I haven’t seen a Cup Final, but I know many working-class people who have. Some aren't free and many of them aren't ignorant. 1 doubt, too, if they would be awestruck at Wembley; they certainly wouldn't be at Woburn — or Longleat, for that matter. Still we must not be without ears when the Greeks find a word for it; nudist conventions come and go and the talents of Marilyn Monroe can be variously interpreted, but have they harmed the art of Arthur Miller? Not on your life; Barnum himself wouldn't have married Bernard Shaw to Clara Bow, but it isn't the fault of 1959 that Colin Wilson isn't the mate of Diana Dors. Now I have known much poverty and squalor, and magnificence, therefore, has its appeal, but the irony of a title such as A Silver-Plated Spoon may be misplaced.

The grandfather of the author had £200,000 a year, two fully staffed houses (and four cars with eight chauffeurs) in Belgrave Square that he used rarely. Woburn Abbey had everything from gold teapots to a lamp-trimmer (isn't there a man at Buckingham Palace whose sole duty is winding the clocks?) but his wife — the Flying Duchess — died ("if accident it was" says the author) when her plane dived into the sea. The author’s father, the 12th Duke, was found shot, an accident, says the author that “I must confess is beyond me”. The author's first wife died from a large overdose of sleeping drugs and the blurb itself tells us that the present Duke's "crackpot father and forbidding grandfather hated each other”. What is there here to set against floors washed in beer and housemaids “five feet ten inches tall or over”. And how ran that folksong of yesterday — "Such nice people with nice habits . . . and got no money at all . . ."

Now A Silver-Plated Spoon has been very prominently reviewed and not — may one suggest? — on its merits or because of any accomplishments of the present Duke or his forebears, but because of all those people who pay half-a-crown to see Woburn. The Duke is news, by courtesy of those half-dollars, and he admits that he has "thrust quite unashamedly into the public eye".

Double irony! The splendour in which the Duke's immediate forebears lived reflected on them not; they gained from it no richness of the human spirit. They were stunted, distorted and sordid — yes, sordid. What manner of people would they have been if they had known much suffering and poverty? And here is the present Duke, whose life, far from being broken by the mess in which he found his inheritance, has quite obviously been made by it. His forebears built up Woburn ; the Duke has found himself, by courtesy of the half-dollars of "the free and ignorant" that prevent Woburn from falling down.

All spoons, you know (solid gold or silver excepted) are made of brass. No matter how silvery (for E.P.N.S. read chrome) they are made of brass, and the Bedford Story is very much a sound of brass. I love ancient buildings and loathe what Sir Albert Richardson calls "rectangular containers", but I would have no tears to shed if all the Stately Homes of England fell down tomorrow. And what would the free and ignorant do then? Stare at the Queen, of course, or Marilyn Monroe, go to a circus or just gaze at the telly. This is 1959, brother. Che sara sara!
- John Petty, page 22, The National and English Review, Volumes 152-153, 1959
This is an extremely unfair review, as the 13th Duke of Bedford, for all his subsequent wealth, had an extremely hard time of it. His upbringing was blighted by what can only be described as a psychopathically controlling father and grandfather who conspired not to tell him who he was, until he found out by accident from a maid; underfed him (at one point he was reduced to eating chocolates given to the parrot); and did their best to tie up their monies in trust to prevent him borrowing on the weight of it. He later turned out to be capable and innovative in reinventing Woburn Abbey as a self-supporting visitor attraction, an idea sneered at by many fellow aristocrats - until they found they had to do the same. See the 2002 Telegraph obituary.

Woburn Abbey - public domain image from Wikipedia
There are a few allusions in Petty's review worth unteasing. The reference to "nudist conventions" is a swipe at one of the Duke of Bedford's many income schemes after being saddled with large death duties: hosting the 6th World Naturist Congress in August 1958 (see Google News) and allowing the filming of the 1958 sexploitation movie Nudist Paradise.

The British Pathé feature Woburn: The Bare Facts has footage of the Congress (mildly NSFW), as well as scenes of the queues at Woburn. A signpost shows the rather staid early attractions: Picnic Ground, Children's Playground, Sculpture Gallery, and Chinese Dairy (the latter a beautiful example of Chinoiserie that still exists).

Sir Albert Richardson was an architect, architectural scholar and writer, who in the post-war years advocated tempering Modernism with Classical and Georgian architectural forms.

The line "Such nice people with nice habits . . . and got no money at all" is a misquote from the 1939 Jack Hylton & His Orchestra song - later recorded by Flanagan and Allen - Nice People.

If you have a pedigree, mix in high society
You will cultivate a lot of fame
But I know a family, never had a pedigree
But they have a most distinguished name

They call them nice people with nice manners
But got no money at all
They've got such nice habits, they keep rabbits
But got no money at all

Their Father keeps their Mother
Their Mother keeps their Brother
And when they're running short of cash
They borrow from each other

Nice people with nice manners
But got no money at all.
And centrally, there's the reference to the 1954 poem by George Barker, Stanzas on a Visit to Longleat House in Wiltshire, October 1953. Seat of the Marquesses of Bath, Longleat pre-dated the opening of Woburn to the public by some years, opening in 1949. Barker evidently liked neither the public opening nor the public who visited it; he was clearly a kindred spirit to Petty.

It's hard to appreciate now how radical the concept of commercialising a stately home was around 1950; the early attractions seem ridiculously low-key in hindsight. Both of these works pre-date the opening of safari parks at these houses (the 'Lions of Longleat' in 1966, and Woburn Safari Park in 1970) as well as many other developments such as the Center Parcs at Longleat, and the use of both houses as filming locations and concert venues. Here's Barker's poem, from London Magazine:
Stanzas on a Visit to Longleat House in Wiltshire, October 1953
To John Farrelly

Dead pomp sneering underground
Glares up at a horned foot of clay
Where the hog of multitude hangs around
Among these tremendous memories
That delegate to our day
The superannuated and damned glories.

A quidnunc with a shopping bag
Stops gossiping with another hag
And where immense conceptions were
Dragged shrieking from their cellars here
The ragged-arsed mechanics squat
Owning what they haven't got.

O rare rain of disinterest
Descend on this fouled public nest
And rout out all vulgarities
That, crowding through its majesties,
Gut to bare shell and bone
The grandeur of the dead and gone.

In car-park, garden and urinal
The free and ignorant, almost
As easy as at a Cup Final
Gawk through the stone-transparent ghost
Of this once noble house, now lost
In the gross error of survival

"Come," said my proud and sulking friend,
"Four angels up to Heaven's Gate,
And looking down at Longleat
So far below, shall disappear
The human termite, leaving there
Stones and spectres hand in hand."

And from that aerial sweep of
The valley fell through depths of pine
Down through green distances until
From glimmering water rising bright
Longleat, bird's-eyed in sunshine,
Smiled up from its own funeral.

I saw the heroic seizins fade
And hide in laurels of old trees
As brassbands of indignities
Exploded echoes to degrade
The splendours and the miseries
Of that cold illustrious shade.

- London Magazine, Volume 1, 1954
 (I had to look up "seizins". It's the plural on a variant spelling of "seisin": an archaic legal term for possession of land by freehold).

- Ray

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