Saturday, 17 June 2017

How to Be Rich

Since the Grenfell Tower inferno, I've been thinking a lot about my favourite uncle. This may seem odd, given that he was a wealthy landowner, a man whose father had been a brilliant stockbroker and also a brilliant art collector - the family owned a Pissarro, a Manet, a Sickert and various other marvellous paintings, all bought at a time when their creators were just starting out. The house these paintings were kept in was a sprawling Victorian mansion, set on a hill and surrounded by beautifully planted parkland. After the death of his older brother in the Second World War, all this had come to my uncle, making him a very rich man.

But as far as my uncle was concerned wealth brought with it responsibilities. He did not loll about in luxury, spurning the community in which he lived. Instead, he was involved in everything to do with his local village, serving in a variety of unpaid roles on committees, school boards and as a church warden. He was deeply concerned about the countryside and its preservation, particularly the disappearance of hedgerows. He provided houses for each of the people who worked for him. He threw parties that enlivened the social life of the area. He was generous and open and interested in the little world in which he lived.

So when he noticed in about 1980 that house prices in the village were rising enormously because people from London were buying houses there and commuting daily to the city, he didn't just shrug his shoulders and mutter something about market forces. Instead, he became worried about the children of the villagers who could no longer afford to live in what was their home.  "Something should be done", he thought - or rather, "I should do something". He turned the problem over in his mind and before long he came up with an idea. He went to the council and made a proposal. The council called a meeting at which the proposal was to be put.

It seemed such a good idea - not to mention generous. My uncle was offering to give to the village a large - and very valuable - field. It was in a perfect position, just across from the village post office. It would be an ideal place to build community housing so that the village's new generation would no longer be driven out by rising costs.

I was staying when the council meeting took place. My uncle had explained what was happening to me and he set off down the drive in an enthusiastic frame of mind. He was looking forward to discussing exactly what sorts of dwellings would be best suited to the setting and how many buildings it might be possible to provide.

An hour and a half later my uncle returned, a changed man. The meeting had been the best attended of any in the village's recent history. There was barely a person from among the village's new population who had not made the time to come along. But the reason for the high turn out was not enthusiasm for the project. In fact, my uncle's offer was rejected outright. The people who had gathered in the village hall that evening regarded it as an absolutely outrageous proposition and turned it down point blank. It would have been legitimate to want to know about the design of the buildings and to seek assurances that they would be in keeping with the rest of the village but the problem did not lie with details of that kind. It was the principle the newcomers baulked at. Community housing would bring down the value of their homes and there was no way in the world that they were going to be having that.

Perhaps the rot had set in earlier than that meeting. I do remember that, a year or so before, my uncle's junior gardener had married and my uncle had built a house for the couple, but instead of being pleased the gardener's new wife had regarded this as patronising, since the house was nowhere near as big as my uncle's own. I thought she was just a difficult woman, but she may have been a harbinger of a change in attitudes. The more likely explanation though, I think, was the shift from Macmillan's brand of Toryism to Thatcher's, in which the concept of the triple bottom line was swept away and replaced by the idea that the only important thing was the right of the individual to elbow their way ahead, with no thought for kindness or taking others into account.

It is unfashionable now to suggest that a system that includes the rich as anything other than hated rapacious monsters can ever be a good thing. However, I suspect that the cliche about the poor always being with us can as easily be refashioned to apply to the rich. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is an argument that would take far too long to go into; what I do believe though is that, while the rich remain among us, we need to recreate in them - and in all of us, to some extent - that instinctive sense of duty and responsibility to others that was, until the night of his rejection at the local village council meeting, a dominant part of my uncle's approach to life. If noblesse oblige was still a flourishing concept, I doubt that the disaster at Grenfell Tower - caused, we are led to believe, by lack of care and penny pinching on the part of a very rich council - would ever have happened. If a greater sense of care and responsibility for the people we live amongst can replace narrow self-interest as a central value in modern society we may help to prevent similar horrors from occurring in the future. Surely it's worth a try.


  1. I agree entirely. I think the problem is that the way most people get really rich - certainly now and likely before too - is by not having many values. So we have to look to inherited wealth, c.f. your uncle. But increasingly the public schools, where inherited wealth goes, are tending to recapitulate the rapaciousness of those who pay their fees. The money has been sucked out of the land and send safely into the cloud/abroad. Also, most of the rich now never go near the country, so couldn't give s crap.

    1. And so many messages tell the young that the lottery of celebrity is worthwhile trying to win and an admirable aspiration is to be famous. I'd better not get going on my ideas about how introducing young kids to the idea of disciplined learning etc would also introduce them to the lifelong pleasure of trying to do something difficult, not always succeeding and then trying again. Being human means being cleverer than most species (I know some would argue about that, depending on their definition of "clever") and the most satisfying thing you can do, I reckon, is not consume entertainment passively but to learn how to do something, whether manual or mental, and to get better and better at it. I feel like I'm sounding completely and totally dreadful and stuck in the mud.

  2. Once again I find myself nodding in agreement. The noblesse oblige that comes with inherited wealth has been replaced by a culture of the rich as consumers, entitled to expect certain things from their purchases.

    I have to keep my mouth shut amongst my friends, but I have real doubts about the principal of freedom of movement - not just within the EU, but within the UK itself, to some extent, having seen how communities in places like Cornwall have been ruined by people treating villages as retail items rather than an emotional and even, dare I say, spiritual commitment. I'm rambling now and I haven't even been drinking.

    I don't know what the answer is, but all I can see is what happens is when the free movement of labour and capital isn't unconstrained by the traditional structures that gave us a sense of cohesion.

    Sadly, I'm not at all surprsied by the reaction to your uncle's proposition.

    1. Rather than a simple tax-the-rich policy, maybe some system of rewards for being good citizens might inculcate a new spirit of philanthropy (she suggested with utter naivety)