Is there any stopping Downton Abbey?

Julian Fellowes's obsession with the ruling class continues to pay off.

Seriously, what is it with Downton Abbey? Eleven million of the credulous suckered in the States, a valise full of Emmies and now the Golden Globe panellists all hoodwinked by a derivative soap opera with pretensions. The septic melodrama seems guaranteed to take the National Television Awards gong for most popular drama on Wednesday. Is Downton unstoppable?

Downtonistas jack into a gleaming, fantastical world, barely on nodding terms with reality. The crippled walk again, it snows at Christmas and your regular heir presumptive, with just a touch of inbreeding, gets his Lady (there are only so many toffs to go around). The most troubling event to disturb the stagnant pond in the last episode was the "Labrador in mild peril" plot.

This pageant of neo-feudalism reads like a glossy promo for the Big Society. Who needs a welfare state when a nod and a wink from Lord Grantham will see you right? After all, "We're all in this together": the fragrant aristos have to throw their prewar style parties with no footmen, damn it, and Captain Crawley has a perfectly beastly time of it on leave without his soldier-servant.

I heard, with some surprise, Julian (you can call me Baron) Fellowes describe the portmanteau upstairs-downstairs premise of Downton as "innovative" (on Desert Island Discs on 18 December). He was referring, I imagine, to its remarkable insight - hold the front page - that servants, just like us, have inner lives that are worth documenting. Well, innovatory I suppose if you discount English writers from Chaucer onwards, who were really quite good at showing us that cooks have feelings too.

The tumbrils might be rumbling for his nobility (the war, ghastly business), but Fellowes is no indifferent tricoteuse. He's deeply, luxuriously in love with the imagined theatre and romance of the ruling classes. It's as though, when Julian looks in the mirror, he fondly imagines the doubly fictitious Colin Firth-Mr Darcy composite. In the show the lens lingers, pruriently, on the starched linen, the lustrous brass, the polished silver. The lens lingers slightly less over the horny-handed ones doing all the starching, the lustre-ing and the polishing.

When we go to Downton, we're given stories of the upper class in the upper-case to help us understand that the fragile symbiosis is under threat. In heaving majuscule, we find out that war is BAD. We also discover that times are CHANGING. In future there will be more congress between the beautiful people and all the horny handed ones. In its queasy chronicle, we're shown the beneficial openings in the world of work that the First World War provides the foxy, bored heiresses. They're allowed to slum it a little. But those bounders who try to navigate their way upward, like the self-made magnate and the ambitious footman, are cads, villains and all-round bad eggs. Downton will NEVER be theirs, sir!

Simon Schama got all Jacobinical on Downton's ass last week, accusing Fellowes, amongst other things, of "cultural necrophilia." You might well think that a historian would be the last person to throw stones in mausoleums and attack another for their love of dead things. But one sees his point.

Except that we could no more use Downton as a guide to deceased Edwardian Britain than use The Lion King as a travelogue on Africa. Or imagine ourselves to be emergency medicine practitioners after mainlining ER repeats on Sky Atlantic. Fellowes, like a dodgy medium channelling those from the farther shore, is dishing up fakeries: the quavering voice, the smoke, the mirrors, the flame. It's fraudulent Sunday night Mogadon.

I'm not altogether immune to its chiffon charms. I understand the power of a sensational, sentimental, rip-tide of a narrative. Maggie Smith, who, as the Countess of Grantham, looks increasingly to have been hewn from a single oak, has a truly magnificent way with condescension. Her retorts are stiff-backed, straight drives - which rather show up some of the cast's agricultural shots.

And master-servant tensions have had a fabulously high yield in the theatre since pre-classical Rome, via sixteenth century Commedia. A rigid hierarchy practically sits up and begs for drama, especially when the strata are pushed and pulled out of shape a little. What characterises Downton, though, is the author's palpable love and desire for one particular stratum. His nose is pressed at the pane, and his hot breath is steaming up the view.

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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser