Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The English, the English, the English are best;

I wouldn't give tuppence for all of the rest.

Just finished Jeremy Paxman's book The English and have decided one thing, if nothing else:

Jeremy Paxman is a prat.

Some time ago, in a different venue, I said that an important moving-to-another-country rule is to learn ahead of time which public figures not to like.

Why write a book about a people you obviously loathe, for whom you have nothing but contempt? Why especially, since you are one yourself? What is it with these self-hating London elites anyway?

If you read the book, which I don't recommend if you love England, I would skip the chapter on marriage. V. depressing.

He ends on what I regard as an up note, however. Probably at the insistence of his editors who know that an insulting anti-English screed by a self-loathing London pseudo-intellectual would not go over well with the book-buying public outside the M-25 ring.

So at the very end, Paxman describes the Plowden family of Shropshire, which story seems so good and so hopeful, I could not resist sharing it here, despite the odious source. In fact, it is so much lacking Paxman's usual vile supercilious contempt for all that is good about England, I can't help thinking that someone else wrote it:

The Plowden family have [sic] been 'seated' here at least since the twelfth century, when one of their ancestors fought at the Crusader siege of Acre...The Plowden family have seen it all, over the years. And still they are here, the Plowden family, living at Plowden Hall, in the village of Plowden, in a land of quiet contentment.

Theirs is not a particularly heroic story. There was a Plowden who became a prominent lawyer under Elizabeth I, another who commanded the Second Foot Guards at the battle of the Boyne, one who made a small fortune with the East India Company, anothe who died at school from 'eating a surfeit of cherries'...but no Prime Ministers or philosophers. Their life revolves around farming, half a dozen black labradors, hunting, shooting and fishing. It is not the sort of life that brings your name to the attention of editors of Who's Who: public service is restricted to sitting on the bench of magistrates and occasionally turning out as High Sheriff when the Queen visits the county. For the rest, it is Farmers [sic] Weekly, Horse and Hound and the Shooting Times.

The received wisdom about this type of English family is that they have been consigned to history, destroyed by the First World War, death duties, taxation, Lloyd's and congenital incompetence at handling their affairs. The image is of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead, ancestral piles abandoned by families unable to meet the demands of modern life. Like all images, it is partly true. But among those who have survived, it is utterly wrong. William Plowden was twenty, on army service, when his father died, leaving him Plowden Hall. There seemed litle chance of hanging on to the family home and began trying to find a tenant who would rent the Hall. But no one was prepared to take it on. So he resigned his commission, went to Oxford, 'discovered my brain wouldn't function', and took himself off to the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester. When he took on the estate, he had 450 acres 'in hand'. Within a few years, he was running 2000 acres. Now, the estate employs a manager, twelve people on the farm, another five in the woods, a full time mason, a carpenter, gamekeeper, odd-jopb man and gardener.

Plowden and his wife are moving out of the ancestral home for a farm on the estate, so that their son can move in. Assuming William Plowden lives another seven years, Plowden Hall will pass to another generation of Plowdens, free of tax. He hands on a thriving business that gives tghe lie to the claim that time is up for all these old families who embody a traditional idea of Englishness.

These families were the core of rural English society, unemotional, practical, professedly 'non-political' but deeply conservative, quiet, kindly, unintellectual. Ask him what he thinks of the state of England now and you get terse answers about standards slipping: 'We built six affordable houses in the village for people on low incomes. Five outo f the six are occupied by couples who aren't married.' But it is when you see his car that you realize what really bothers him. He has been down to the local printers [sic] and has his own stickers printed in Day-Glo orange. They read


'Sooner or later,' he says, 'the Common Market is going to collapse. I don't see how you can run a country wit two system so f law - our own national law and then all these laws from people in Brussels which override our laws. The sooner it ends, the better.' In the rolling hills of Shropshire, the heart of England still beats. It is driving around with a sticker in the back window telling the rest of Europe to sod off."


Anonymous said...

I like real aristocrats so much. I have been lucky enough to know a few. It's so relaxing being around one's betters. In a more normal world, I would have been so happy in domestic service until I married. Actually, I was pretty happy in domestic service! But it would have been even better serving the local lord. - Karen

Joe Smyth said...

Mr Paxman has many good qualities. He displays sound judgement intelligence, and incisiveness, when interviewing politicians who prefer to address his questions with spin and platitudes rather than answers. It seems a shameful waste of such intellect therefore when some small amount of research would have shown that the Plowden Family, being Roman Catholic, without demur or apology during the Reformation, would have been naturally excluded from politics and most other self-advancing aspects of public life until the implementation of the Catholic Emancipation Act. It might also have prompted another question, such as "is it not better that they learned proper estate management, employ several families, and preserve British culture, rather than flog the place to some recently wealthy 'financier', and fritter the proceeds on transitory pleasures?". The purpose of education is surely to appreciate how fortunate one is and refrain from dismissing qualities which do not quite synthesise within the parameters of a point, or in that quaint old English fashion to show respect for those with whom you disagree: lawyers, magistrates, even some lower level politicians have been doing it since.. well, the 12th century!!