Stately Home

Last weekend, I got to visit with the very rich, and no, you can’t know who they are; I want to talk about the house. Built sometime in the 1300’s and still marked around the door arch with the swords of the English Civil War – of course much has been replaced and added to – and continuously in one family since then, it seems an organic part of the earth from which it springs. Rounded brick and rainwashed stone climb unevenly, some covered in ivy, topped with twisting chimneys, softened by gnarly trees close to the house. The moat remains on one side to reflect the perfect harmony of the many different windows, all with a thousand tiny diamonds of glass criss-crossed with lead. Topiary and sweeping gardens as you climb the hill above the hollow where it lies, up to where the ground was flattened so that Henry VIII could play at jousting when he visited. See the smaller farmhouse and the chapel, graveyard for six centuries of old nobles and sickly children and lost daughters and dead soldiers, and realize as you top the hill that all the land for as far as you can see used to belong to the Lord of this house.

Like much of England’s nobility, the current Lord is much reduced in land and holdings, but still commands more money and concomitant responsibility for preservation (a castle, this house, a London landmark, 190 employees including a full-time roof thatcher) that showed up my own obsession with a single farm in Maine as a minor skirmish in a larger war.

It’s a long walk from my lush but chilly bedroom to the Great Hall, and the impressionist art on the walls is real. The sound system that fills that hall would probably have financed worldwide domination of KMI – and it has the additional disadvantage of spoiling you for anything else, listening to early jazz on vinyl with every instrument crisp and located. The wines flow, topped with a Taylor port from 1955 with the most complex set of tastes I have ever imbibed.

This weekend, teaching in Oxford, I am listening with amusement to my young assistant who is a font of information of the nefarious doings of the Freemasons and Illuminati, who are, according to him, undermining everything from the Twin Towers on 9/11 to the dollar bill to keeping us all in thrall to hidden forces of evil. Well, I don’t deny that the world is in a state, and undoubtedly there are people trying to manipulate it to their own ends, and conspiracies abound But evil has always been with us, and the banal kind is more distasteful to me than the Machiavellian.

I don’t have the heart to tell him that the world is more complex and meandering and hopelessly personal than these grand tales. I don’t have the heart to tell him that if this world is what God has made, I am ready to try a little Satan to see if he can do any better. I don’t have the heart to tell him that I spent the previous weekend with the head of world Freemasonry, and whether he is serving God or Mammon, feast or famine, priest or shaman, he is as extraordinarily ordinary as any of the rest of us. He would just like to save the beautiful organic stately home his family has tended for 28 generations, a refined but anachronistic expression of a fading way of life.

The Lord and Arch-whatever-he-is of the Freemasons feels neither rapacious nor scheming. He and Her Ladyship are homebodies, philosophical about the passing of English nobility, with a spiritual perspective that encompasses more than his 28 generations, clear-eyed, humorous, free of regret or grasping desire for reinstatement. He does say ‘hice’ when means house, but this can be forgiven.

I am not a socialist, but I am a democrat, agreeing with Churchill that it is the worst form of government, except for all the other ones. Like Christianity, democracy has not been tried and found impossible, it has been found difficult and left untried. I believe in the free market of ideas, though I don’t believe that we any longer live in a free-market economy. With these huge corporations making their own transnational laws, we are once again becoming feudal. Are my huge corporations just my substitute for my young friend’s Freemasons-taking-over-the-world conspiracy? Maybe, but someone has to run the world, and you can bet your shoes that those who are doing so currently (as ever) are not motivated by benificent feelings toward their fellow man, especially those at the bottom.

But is there not room, as the world descends into an American commercial blandness, for difference? Is there not room for the whimsy that nobility has always promised and delivered? Crazy and poor is insane; crazy with money is eccentric. The great thing about having a nobility or aristocracy is not that they always manage reasonably – the descent of the House of Windsor into tabloid triviality is proof positive of the losing battle aristocracy has with modern education – but that some among us are given a vote, the ability to follow an idea through without accountability. It leads to the excesses of Ludwig driving madly through the countryside in search of young boys, but it also leads to the ‘excess’ of this house – an event no socialist utopia could produce.

Doctor Zhivago’s house and China’s treasures fell to the Communist revolutions – proof that aristocracy tends to forget the bottom of the pyramid that supports the crowning stone. The huge stone Buddhas fell prey to the arrogant madness of the Taliban mullahs. Surely, we in what’s left of the Western world must save room for something so beautiful as this house – so whimsical, so purposeless, but yet so necessary to our sense of who we can be.

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