Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Mugs.

DOWNTON Abbey is many things.

Predictable, laughable, enjoyable, badly-written with total disdain for an audience it presumes to be stupid and a perfect piece of Sunday evening escapist television puffery.

And there's nothing unusual in any of that.

Few of us though would suggest the days of servants' halls, 18-hour days and no weekends are something we should be trying to return to.

Few of us, that is, except the man who's made millions from trite, cliche-ridden scripts which could have been cribbed from a Catherine Cookson novel.

Julian Fellowes reckons people were more polite to one another when they knew their place. He said the good manners on screen between gentry and servants should make the audience "more courteous" and added: "With any working society, one of the key factors is that everyone should have some respect for everyone else. Downton shows how that worked. I would like it back."

Yes, Julian Alexander Kitchener-Fellowes, Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, son of diplomat Peregrine Edward Launcelot Fellowes and husband of Emma, lady in waiting to Princess Michael of Kent and great-grandniece of the 1st Earl Kitchener, I just bet you do.

You can wear tweed for breakfast and tails for dinner, eat kippers and kedgeree and stuffed partridge, tinkle a bell and rely for life upon the fact you were born lucky, married lucky, and can trade on your aristocratic connections, family wealth and the land you own to ensure that you never want for nowt.

But for most people it wasn't like that. It was long and tough and thankless and pointless and grim.

Two of my grandparents were servants, and the other two were shop workers. The shop workers had a few nascent unions and better conditions, but the servants were all right only as long as their masters were.

My grandmother was a servant from the age of 15, when she arrived here from another country. She didn't work in a big glossy house like Downton, but worked for a village squire in the middle of nowhere.

She would have got up before dawn, cleaned the grates, cooked the breakfasts, emptied the chamber pots, cleaned it all away, polished floors and banisters, beat carpets by hand, prepared and served lunch, dusted, shone, laundered, mangled, pressed, helped to serve dinner and drinks, clean it all away and collapsed into bed at gone midnight. She'd have had food when she could find time in a dingy basement kitchen, and she'd have done that seven days a week with, if she was lucky, half a day off once a fortnight.

She married the first chap who came along, and who can blame her?

Generally it was women who were servants, and the more disadvantaged the better. The less educated they were the less they would argue for better wages, and if they were orphans or apart from their families like my grandmother they wouldn't demand time off or question the authority of their superiors. Servants who joined the Domestic Workers' Union and asked for regular meal breaks and 12-hour shifts were sacked and blacklisted.

Some were even given names chosen by their employers if they objected to their given ones. I can't ask her because she's long dead, but as my grandmother had a difficult-to-manage Danish name I'll bet you they called her Mary had done with it.

In short, the image of the Earl of Grantham crinkling his forehead with concern at the staff's personal woes and acting like some kind of Edwardian social worker couldn't be further from the truth if it was on a rocket ship accelerating past Mars.

Yes, people set store by good manners. But the manners only went upwards, as a rule, and didn't extend down to the working classes who were addressed solely by their surnames if they were lucky. They didn't get asked please or told thank you, and while the upper classes usually realised they needed the lower orders to maintain their position they didn't respect them for it in the least.

Downton does not show how that worked, and if it did we wouldn't like the silly show half so much.

Besides which the Right Honourable The Lord Fellowes of West Stafford has failed to spot the blindingly obvious truth that the hierarchy of the Downton days has never gone away.

It might be the 21st century but most people can only get elected to public office by putting in thousands to get selected by their local parties, and unless you have a wealthy benefactor or union backing there's no way the average worker is getting into government any time soon.

People who went to the best schools and made the best contacts get the best jobs, and funnily enough the people who have the most money and land - bankers and those who have inherited family wealth - have the loudest say in how the country is run.

People who were flooded out last year and are being flooded out again this year are still waiting for flood defences which they'd have already if they lived in Chelsea rather than Morpeth. Someone who passed on what the Queen told him about a news story he was covering has had to publicly grovel for getting a scoop, the problems of the nation are blamed on the feckless poor, and a tycoon can spend £150,000 on a chicken coop while half a million people are sleeping on the streets as winter's closing in.

An arrogant Chief Whip who never has to travel more than a few hundred yards along Whitehall can demand a state-funded, armour-plated and grenade-proof £300,000 Jaguar to ferry him about, while a delivery worker with stomach and bladder pain, who's had an operation, needs a stick to walk and has been assessed as unfit to work, has been re-assessed by the same firm, declared as fit as a butcher's dog and told to get off his arse.

If we could go back to the days of Downton with everyone fit and healthy, a village hospital, occasional worries about where the next million was coming from and Dame Maggie Smith making waspish comments we wouldn't need to take seriously I'd be all for it.

But instead we live in a time and a place where the good bits of our past - the structure, the manners, the seasonal food - has all but gone and we're left with the snobbery, division, off-handedness and sense of entitlement which is just as offensive in the poor when they adopt it as it is in the rich when they are bred to it.

Downton life, in short, is great - so long as you're not one of the plebs.

It's a mug's game.