Saturday, 25 June 2011

Cash for Honours

Anyone Want to Buy a Title?

The Ironmonger’s Hall, tucked beneath the Museum of London, is home to the Ironmonger’s Company, a medieval guild concerned very much with iron, ironworks, working with iron, and furthering the secret, closely guarded interests of iron-people and their irony ways. The City of London might be famous for forcing newness on other people – new working practices or bizarre new forms of dodgy credit – but amongst their own ranks they like nothing more than a bit of archaic weirdness, bonding together in ancient closed shops with dizzying rituals.

The hall looks suitably old: a bit Tudory, all of stone and oak. In fact it was opened in 1925 and is something of a put-on designed to whip up a spot of quick awe. This made it an apt setting for the event I had come to witness. On this weekday lunchtime at the beginning of ‘disappointing’ June, the hall was hosting an auction of ancient British titles by property consultants Strutt & Parker. Going under the hammer were 5 baronies and 33 lordships of the manor. These were the kind of titles bought by City Boys, carpet kings, footballers, or anybody else who seems to have forgotten there’s a recession on and we are supposed to be being all grown up and putting egotism to one side.

The winners wouldn’t sit in the Lords (or bag any property), although there could be benefits – a few years ago, Chris Eubank became Lord of the Manor of Brighton (yes not everything down here is uber cool) which apparently entitled him to 4,000 herrings a year; maybe that’s why he needs that big truck?

The interior was all coat of arms wall hangings, portraits of the young Prince Phillip, capacious wood panelling. At a desk I registered for the event (twenty quid!) and was provided with a handsomely tooled silver booklet on the titles up for grabs and a name badge with a coat of arms on it (the armorial bearings of Strutt & Parker): nice.

I was here to get beneath the froth and consider real power. Old power. Aristocratic power. Britain’s ruling caste. How William of Normandy landed on this land, turfed the Saxon landlords off their land and dished out titles to the new lords of the land after generally knocking everyone and everything about a bit (setting in train centuries of upper class bad behaviour). Before the auction started, I sat in the hall, a 60 foot affair (sorry can’t do meters but then you know that already) with cascading chandeliers and stained glass, eating the free biscuits and coffee, watching the title hungry file in; judging by appearances older City folk on extended lunch breaks, plus the occasional country type and random oddball (that would be me then). I assumed the super rich and famous would be using the manned phone lines on the side of the auction block.

The refreshments table was buzzing (no wonder, yes it was £20 to get in but if you put your back into it you could easily drink yourself up on the deal) – I stayed off the sauce for fear of rash bidding under the influence; one false wave of the hand in an exuberant “more wine” gesture and we could end up Lord of Somewhere or other which was definitely not in the plan. Not that I hadn’t considered the benefits; you could have a title which admittedly didn’t come with anything more than petty privileges but in general there weren’t any obligations either – like unquestioning military service to the monarch (which might stop the most status hungry carpet king in his tracks). And if I did get the right to graze my sheep somewhere, that might come in handy if we ever get those sheep we’re always talking about.

As the auction started I retired to the large wooden balcony at the back of the room so that I could survey the bidders and realised they didn’t look like barons and earls. No swagger. The auctioneer perched behind his lectern – a suited bespectacled chap in his 50’s – was fleshing out each lot’s history. Well sort of; what was for sale was, of course, just a title – the Lord of the Manor titles were divorced from their original locale by a law passed in 1922. But the auctioneer kept talking about the places at considerable length. He told us that Carriglaine is ‘famous for porcelain’: the place that is. Of the house at Hamstall Ridware he revealed that ‘Jane Austin stayed there and wrote some chapters’ – she did..... in the house ... which you’re not buying!

The Lordship and feudal barony of Castle Knock, County Dublin was, the auctioneer explained, ‘near Lucan, famous for the lord of that name who disappeared’ – a smile and mild titters from the crowd. I decided not to interrupt and say he disappeared after murdering his children’s nanny at the home of his estranged wife.

But what were these people buying into, hoovering up Norman bestowed feudal titles? The Normans were professional rampagers, Vikings who settled in northern France in the 10th Century. Their oppression of the native Britons was appalling, we became their bitch, their beast, dragging their shitty French plough. I wanted to shout from the balcony ‘You’re buying your own oppression!’ but I thought this might look a bit mental so I had another biscuit and just thought it.

The auctioneer was a bit of a joker – or so he had decided – when he got to Lot 28 Lord of the Manor of Bracknell he could resist telling us it was made ‘famous by Oscar Wilde’s portrayal of Lady Bracknell  in The Importance of being Earnest – we all knew what was coming next – we braced ourselves as he screeched ‘A Haaaaandbaaag?” (the lot went for £7,000: £3,500 below the guide price).

In truth I was getting a bit bored by now. There was no manic auction frenzy, no jumping about, it was all a tad sedate – cash in the Attic this was not. But then all of a sudden things picked up. The penultimate lot was Lordship of the Manor of Bermondsey in south east London and the bidding was brisk and a little aggressive before it went to a phone bidder for £55,000. I thought how he would celebrate – perhaps heading for a few of the local pubs to proclaim his new status or maybe hitting the terraces of the New Den for Millwall’s next home game. Either way he was probably heading for a lively time.

Afterwards as I waited with the press (all two of them) to see if Strutt & Parker would divulge the identity of the 55 grand Bermondsey phone bidder (Theo Paphitis? Babs Winsor? Barrymore!) but they didn’t. In fact there was very little information about and the phone bidder was staying anonymous. I managed to ask why they would do that and the spokesperson said titles had become trendy wedding gifts (!) so they were often kept secret. Interestingly one person who had bought one two years ago said they had done it precisely to hide their identity – he said if he didn’t want to he didn’t have to sign his real name anymore – just using his title which was always enough for hotels and the like AND you could get credit cards issues with the titles; the whole thing was becoming more interesting!

Just as I was planning to leave the Mail on Sunday woman grabbed my arm and said she had bagged the new owner of the Lord Plumpton title. He was a self made property magnate called Mike Holland who owned the 18th Century manor house on the edge of my beloved Brighton to which the title once belonged, Stanmer House. I asked him if he was planning to now ruthlessly subdue the local natives but he didn’t seem that interested so I felt I as safe heading home.

The Normans subdued everything of course. For generations following the invasion they (1% of the population controlling virtually 100% of the land) refused to inter marry with we Brits and created the first known apartheid. But irony was to have the last laugh (can you say that?) when in 1204 Philip II of France muscled in on Normandy and gave the Normans a choice: come back to Normandy and keep it under his control; or stay in England and become English. There was no contest – France is warmer and has all that runny cheese and crackin booze – but amazingly the Normans chose to stay here and become English. It probably started raining at that exact moment. That’s not in any of the sources but it probably did happen.

Later in the week BBC South Today showed Mike Holland back at Stanmer House – it’s actually a conference/wedding venue he opened with the help of David Van Day of Dollar. The female news reporter walked into the entrance hall, past a suit of armour talking of a new lord of the manor...”but while he has a coat, it’s not a coat of arms, it’s a coat of fur....”. Yes, Mike had conferred the title on his pet white Alsatian Dillon.

Dillon was having a bit of a bark at her but, undaunted she said to Mike “people might say you’re barking mad” (see what she did there?) “you’ve spent £29,000 on buying a title for Dillon, why?”. Holland, who is truly rock and roll in EVERY way said ‘We’re all barking mad round here, that’s part of the fun...’

Glad to see that Brighton won’t be subdued ruthlessly (I think a bright shiny ball would soon distract Dillon from that plan) and the titles remain in the hands of the barking mad, no longer through inbreeding, now more by selective breeding.

Britain is truly safe in their hands..................................

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Englishness - is it all it's cracked up to be?

ENGLAND IS BACK! The polls show people in England are suddenly feeling more ‘English’ than ‘British’: Telegraph readers, white van men, Billy Bragg...all together getting weepy over the end of The Railway Children.

I too had been feeling this way, changing my address on my headed paper to England rather than United Kingdom, that kind of stuff, and as I had arranged a weekend break in Stratford Upon Avon I looked forward to a bit of good old patriotism – after all that’s what Will Shakespeare was good at right?

The great thing about Stratford is that, yes, Shakespeare was born there, but they don’t like to make a fuss about it. It’s a self-confident little town that knows it has many other attractions. Ha! Only joking – they never shut up about it. All over town, it’s Shakespeare this, Falstaff that. Even the coach station is called The Birthplace Coach Terminal.

It wasn’t always thus. When Shakespeare’s own company, the King’s Men, tipped up in 1622 to perform in a Stratford in the grip of Puritanism, they were paid to go away (as a musician I’ve been there and it’s not nice trust me); the Borough Chamberlain recording in his accounts: ‘To the King’s Players for not playing in the Hall 6/-. But that changed and the rest is history as they say. Ian Ousby likened the 19th Century town to the medieval catholic church – powered by solemn reverence, blatant hype and bogus relics – and the birthplace became a tourist trap with many writers including Sir Walter Scott and Thomas Carlyle scratching their name into the window frame (Scott carved: Byron is a twat).

Having checked into the Shakespeare Hotel and taken a stroll down Shakespeare Street we set off for the Courtyard Theatre where we were seeing Richard II. Once in our seats we eagerly anticipated the rich hit of literary patriotism; Shakespeare is of course English/British (he often melds the two like a yank Tourist) but bagging him up with nationalist sentiment is tricky – being one sided is very much what nationalism is all about whereas plays tend to require a spot of dynamism. So when the government requested a propaganda version of Henry V during WW2 Laurence Olivier had to take out the scenes with English troops being infiltrated by traitors, English soldiers committing war crimes against the French, and Henry shrugging off the nameless dead in his own ranks – plus the general tenor of the play that war is a fruitless waste of life. ‘Loving your work Larry, loving it! But I wonder if we can tweak it a bit by taking some of the central themes and completely reversing them? Yes you still get to ride the horse............’

But one speech does unequivocally stir up ‘we’re the best’ passions: the sceptre isle speech in Richard II “this other Eden..this happy breed of men...this precious stone set in a silver sea..this tophole place that everyone knows deep down is the dogs bollocks” (think that’s how it goes).

According to history Richard II started off well, bashing the hopes of his people by ruthlessly repressing the Peasants Revolt aged just 14. Shakespeare takes up the story when the young Plantagenet had gone to cat-crap with arrogant self regard (seems a bit harsh that, I mean he was king – these days people get arrogant and self-regarding if they know someone who’s met Matt Lucas and David Walliams in their lady costumes) and by having ‘favourites’, history speak for effeminate guys. This performance has him powdered and poncey and just asking to be usurped – the message was clear, England cannot be ruled by somebody who can’t take his ale but can take it up the chuffer. To be honest John of Gaunt’s great speech came and went. We’re not saying people should stand up and cheer at that bit, that would be a bit too much but it does provide one important insight into Englishness; Gaunt follows his ruddy litany by detailing England’s dereliction and shame. He says thanks to Richard, England is now ‘bond in with shame’, the country that had been ‘wont to conquer others/hath made a shameful conquest of itself’. Richard had screwed England so much that its now screwing itself when we all knew it should be screwing other countries!

So, we concluded England has been going to the dogs since at least  1399 which is over 600 years ago – and that’s a lot of dogs. Afterwards we headed for a curry at the Thespians Indian Restaurant – happily there were no thespians in it.

Think I’ll change my address back to United Kingdom – seems the right thing to do...............