"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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The Man Booker Prize 2016: the longlist has been announced

Six women and four debut novels make the list on a year with a number of notable omissions and surprise inclusions.

The longlist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize has been announced today, with a number of surprises populating the line-up for the prestigious award.

To qualify for the prize, writers will have had a novel published in English between 1 October 2015 and 30 September 2016. The Man Booker has been awarded since 1969, with writers as varied as Kazuo Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood among previous winners.

“The Man Booker dozen” lists 13 novels this year chosen by a panel of five judges from 155 submissions, with six women and seven men noted. Nobel Prize winner and two-time Man Booker Prize winner JM Coetzee headlines the list with his book The Schooldays of Jesus, while Deborah Levy, shortlisted in 2012 for Swimming Home, is picked for Hot Milk, her poignant take on the challenges and extremities of motherhood. Levy will be featured in this week’s magazine.

Also making it on the list are Paul Beatty with The Sellout - described by The Guardian as “a galvanising satire of post-racial America”, A.L. Kennedy, who has been selected for the first time with her eighth novel Serious Sweet and Elizabeth Strout, whose novel My Name is Lucy Barton has become a New York Times bestseller.

Included on the list are four debut novels: The Many by Wyl Menmuir, Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh, Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves and Hystopia by David Means – an imagined retelling of the Cold War period which sees John F. Kennedy evading assassination while the Vietnam war rages on. Completing the list are Graeme Macrae Burnet, Ian McGuire, David Szalay and Madeline Thien.

For many, the list brings along with it a number of notable omissions. Don DeLillo’s Zero K – a story offering chilling foresight into a future of immortality enabled by cryonics - was widely touted to make it onto the list. Jonathan Safran Froer too, was expected to make it on the list with his first novel in more than a decade - Here I am.

Previous winners and nominees who were picked as potential candidates to be longlisted are also missing. Ian McEwan’s new novel Nutshell, set to arrive in September, experiments with narration by telling a tale through the voice of an unborn child. Julian Barnes’s The Noise of Time hasn’t made the list and nor has Emma Donoghue’s new book The Wonder which was thought to be a strong contender following her Man Booker nomination in 2010 for Room and its subsequent Oscar nomination for screen adaptation. In previous years, former prize winners will have been automatically submitted, making these absentees notable ones.

Meanwhile new novels from Zadie Smith and Ali Smith will be published just outside the competition’s timeframe, making them illegible for this year’s award. There are no Indian or Irish writers on this year’s list; the Man Booker Prize has nominated a number of writers from those countries in the past.

Last year’s award celebrated the work of Marlon James, the first Jamaican writer to win, with his third novel A Brief History of Seven Killingsan epic spanning the decades surrounding the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in Jamaica in 1976. It’s an ambitious book whose pick by the Man Booker judges in 2015 highlighted the award’s desire to bring little-known novels with experimental flair and hard-hitting narratives to the centre of the literary arena. James’s win last year may reflect on this year’s choices; 11 of the 13 writers have never been on the list before.

The 13 books will be re-read by judges over the course of the next few months, with a shortlist being announced on 13 September, and an eventual winner decided by 25 October.

The chair of the judges Amanda Foreman said: “This is a very exciting year. The range of books is broad and the quality is extremely high. Each novel provoked intense discussion and, at times, passionate debate, challenging our expectations of what a novel is and can be. From the historical to the contemporary, the satirical to the polemical, the novels in this list come from both established writers and new voices. The writing is uniformly fresh, energetic and important. It is a longlist to be relished.”