On Downton Abbey

June 1, 2014


During this six month hiatus we had surgery and treatment at Prentice Women’s Hospital, very grateful indeed to live near Northwestern!  Dr. Erie Dell Adams our late aunt from Lubbock, Texas once admonished, “if you go for one of those tests they’re sure to find something.”      

Writers need something to write about, Greene in Liberia, Orwell in Burma, Waugh in Abyssinia but here we are offering observations about The Lives of Others culled from books. Henry Hitchings’ Sorry! the usual pack of clichés about the mother country writes,“Anglophilia means loving not the English, but the more archaic fragments of the English past.”  So it is.

Pamela Mountbatten Hicks’s Daughter of the Empire is a hard headed, unsentimental personal history of the waning years of the British Empire. Her parents, Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India, and Edwina (rather a bolter) loathed Wallis Simpson as much as the author does, “Princess” Diana.

The Cincinnati Museum of Art (in Ohio!) announced its Celebrate Diana exhibition on the same day the Murdoch hackers revealed the traitor princess dropped Buckingham Palace’s telephone directory, the Green Book, into their laps in 1992. Oh dear!

Fiona, the current Countess of Carnarvon, an accountant from Cornwall, met her then-married husband Geordie the 8th Earl in 1999 at a fundraiser. Following up her book about Almina Rothschild an American who bailed out the 6th earl (King Tut), her recent tome is a soft soap version of the life of the 7th earl and his American wife Catherine,(Mayflower and Robert E. Lee descendant). William Cross’ Catherine and Tilley about Porchy’s two beleaguered wives much more fun.

Servants by Lucy Lethbridge reveals that the so-named had to face the wall when their employers entered a room, so much for the confidences between maids and mistresses in Downton. Fellowes got that one wrong.

P.G. Wodehouse in 1945 wondered what to do when, “one is a specialist in country houses and butlers, both of which had ceased to exist.”

Well they do exist, physically, as hotels like Cliveden or corporations where heirs can still live in designated quarters providing they promote tourism to pay estate taxes. The grandest manse of them all is Castle Howard (not technically a castle) in the North Riding of Yorkshire. In 2012 we visited after many a summer, the swans were still there and we were pleased it had not been ruined by dollying up. No dreaded interactive displays benighted the Baroque beauty and even the requisite Brideshead exhibits on the second floor were a haphazard afterthought. The Temple of the Four Winds is still in a glorious Gothic state, moss, mold and crumbling stone.

Third son the Hon. Simon Howard was recently in Chicago to stimulate tourism, however unlikely that Americans ever venture that far north. Recently the very wicked Fourth Estate followed up on the old Vanity Fair piece about  the woman who sold her soul for the castle, who recently moved into a “ small, whitewashed cottage in the tiny hamlet of Wharram-le-Street………which could hardly be said to boast anything resembling architectural glory or historical significance.”Rebecca Seiff Howard , second wife of Simon, is rumored to have a boyfriend.

Artemis Cooper’s life of Patrick Leigh Fermor  who Somerset Maugham called ”that middle class gigolo for upper class women,” was gorged with facts, the reason we dislike biographies. Absurdly handsome Paddy was a celestial, transcendent travel writer with a cultish following, a reminder that in the middle of the last century there still existed people of education and culture in a frontierless unchartered Europe.  

The editors in chief of the New York Times and Le Monde who happened to be women were both fired on the same day, for poor management and abrasive behavior. Women simply must learn to be better top dogs. That Jill Abramson seems rather a crass piece of work, with the usual signs of potential top-blowing at poor staff! Good Grief!

Alexander Cockburn’s A Colossal Wreck excoriates another boss lady HRC (Hillary) and her husband Bill, a cunning Slobovian.  He urges us to recall “her commodity trades, or her membership on the board of an incinerator company, or her treatment of the employees of the White House travel office.” Her robotic memoir Hard Choices is not one of the best of the Obama years as is Robert Gates’ Duty where he describes Rahm Emanuel as “hell on wheels” with ADD and Biden the abiding dope most take him to be.  

Chicago Life magazine clearly states its writers do not accept gratuities. The other Chicago glossies do not tell us when hotels, dinners and airfare are paid for by the subjects of the articles, thus blurring the line between editorial content and advertising. Tsk.Tsk. If we missed the statement that the writers paid their own way at the Four Seasons in the Maldives or Costa Rica and Panama or the Qatar then excusez nous.  

Despite the tiresome bad boy act Anthony Bourdain stars in some fine travel programs on CNN. The segments on Congo and the Punjab were profoundly interesting, forcing one to think about the third world after “liberation” from European civilization. Now we need the brilliant Paul Theroux to get on the boob tube. Before you go on your next manicured safari-package read Last Train to Zona Verde:   Namibia the bloodiest country in the world for the savage sport of hunting. You must love a man who writes, “I have a hatred of taming animals.”  We do too. A bird in a cage actually makes us physically ill as do zoos and circuses which should be abolished.

At the dark unwelcoming Newberry a little celebration of Shakespeare’s 450th ( “Were I in England now, as once I was.”) recalling that the Shakespeare Theater’s first production in 1986 was staged on the roof of the Red Lion on Lincoln when the Fabulous Cordwells welcomed all things from their native land.

The Little Ice Age lasted from 1350-1850 reminding us that weather is cyclical due to changes in solar radiation, volcanic activity and ocean circulation.  The planet has been warming since the middle of the 19th century everything sped up of course by the Malthusian Nightmare (whatever happened to planned parenting?) that has become the world, where honeybees have been decimated by pesticides and bats by wind farms.

Gay Talese:” Anybody who seriously believes they’re improving themselves through some product, either a cream or a surgeon’s needle, is crazy. I have seen so many once-lovely women misguided in having surgery done, and they look worse. Even Jackie Kennedy had a bad job.”   A bientot

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