"No more than an imposing folly": James Fenton at Mentmore

20 May 1977.

James Fenton’s portfolio is extensive. As critic, columnist, political reporter and theatre reviewer he has written both variously and extensively. His earliest years were at the New Statesman, where he was a political correspondent.

Fenton made the decision to become a journalist after graduating from Oxford University. It was there that he became friends with Christopher Hitchens, who also joined the New Statesman both as a writer and foreign editor. As political correspondent, Fenton showcased the kind of witty and masterful writing for which he has become known. He is first and foremost a poet.

Even before graduating, Fenton won the Newdigate Prize for best poem by an Oxford undergraduate, and later won an Eric Gregory Award when he published his first full poetry collection, Terminal Moraine, in 1972. Since then, Fenton has gone on to become, as the Observer put it, “the most talented poet of his generation”.

The following article exemplifies the kind of wit and flair with which Fenton writes about every kind of topic. Mentmore Towers is a stately home in Buckinghamshire, named for the village in which it sits. Fenton writes about the controversy surrounding the sale of the house’s contents after the death of the Sixth Earl of Roseberry in 1973. The Labour government refused to accept the contents of the house and after three years of discussion, the executers of the estate decided to sell it all by public auction. Fenton laments their lack of clarity.

Introduction by Sarah Howell.

Final View: Mentmore

I went last week to a charity open day at Mentmore, an occasion I would not have missed for the world. It was like being in at the kill. It had a splendour and a cruelty, a finality that was horribly fascinating. It was true that every attempt had been made to depersonalise the occasion. In the whole house there was practically no item which indicated that the place had recently been inhabited by human beings. There were no personal effects, no paperbacks or Tauchnitzes, no toothbrushes or letters, no pens except a box of swan quills. There was very little bedding. The feather mattresses had for the most part been burned. There was one rubber hot water bottle hanging on its peg.

And the crowd, for the most part, was searching for precisely such evidences. On the ground floor, in the vast hall, we were respectful and impressed. In the bedrooms we felt more at ease. In the servants' quarters, among the junk furniture, we were completely at home. "Well," said one lady, settling into an arm chair, "if I'd been in charge, I can only say that the place would have been a great deal cleaner." This was just the attitude one expected to find behind the green baize door. We felt immeasurably superior to the Roseberies. Another lady said airily: "I do hate to see beautiful furniture left in the sun, so that the veneer is allowed to crack." In her house, we were supposed to understand, such things would never have happened. Cowed in the presence of superior wealth, we fell back on superior discernment, taste or practicality.

There was not much, we told ourselves, that we would actually, personally, have wanted. Quite frankly, these Boulle armoires were not what we went in for. And yet had the collection been presented not as a series of numbered lots, but as a museum, our reactions would have been quite different. What a superb museum it was. There was a political, a historical character to the collection - it constantly evoked images of blood and the tumbrils. Here was the furniture and the frippery of the ancien régime. Here too were reminders of what had happened to the ancien régime. And here finally were reminders of what had happened to those who overthrew the ancien régime. How appropriate that, among all the ormulu and gilt, one should come across the thin-lipped sneer of Voltaire, Zoffany's painting of the crowd ransacking the wine cellars of the Tuileries palace, and a tiny, grey, menacing Fragonard depicting a tribunal. There was a series of revolutionary portraits, some of them purporting to show the leaders at the height of their power and at the moment of their eclipse — "Couthon au tribunal, Couthon sur la charrette", the pride of the orator, the humiliation of the tumbril.

No doubt the owners of Mentmore gained great satisfaction from contemplating such contrasts. But for us there was little satisfaction in observing the disintegration of a collection we could have owned. Mentmore was a museum. What can it possibly become when stripped of its collection? No more than an imposing folly. The philistinism of Peter Shore and the spinelessness of Shirley Williams have combined to throw away what could have been so easily preserved. Such thoughtless destruction makes one shudder. To save Mentmore was a mere matter of good book-keeping. To replace it will be impossible. Why does the Government think that by adding vandalism to its other vices it will repair its popularity? Are they hoping to appeal to the punk element in the electorate?

The 7th Earl of Rosebery at the Mentmore auction. Photo: Getty Images.

James Fenton is a poet, journalist and literary critic who wrote regularly for the New Statesman in the 70s and 80s.

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage