Terence Blacker: Owning a mansion can be a misery


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The Independent Online

To most people, Tottenham House, pictured in some of the newspapers, will look like just another crumbling stately home. For me, the sight of it causes a distinct shudder. It was the place where I spent most of my life between the ages of seven and 12, where I was introduced for the first time to the idea that adults, particularly in authority, can be unreliable and cruel.

Tottenham House (which to me is Hawtreys, a now-defunct prep school) is at the centre of a row between the Earl of Cardigan (who to me is Brudenell-Bruce, a junior boy at the school) and the trustees he appointed to run his estate while he was abroad. It appears that the house is falling down, and Brudenell-Bruce is short of ready cash. The trustees took him to court for trying to sell some family silver. He attempted, unsuccessfully, to prevent them selling some valuable old paintings to help pay for repairs to the house.

During these events, Brudenell-Bruce's barrister described his client as "down and out", a man obliged to sell the silver to "put food on the table". Recently, these remarks were corrected. "I am not down and out," Brudenell-Bruce told the press. "I am merely down to my last stately home."

There are two stories here, neither of them happy. The house is surely cursed. Spectacular in an ostentatious, Georgian way, it might appeal to a millionaire unconcerned by the fact that it has misery in its every brick and pillar. It could, just possibly, be a private residence. The room where a Latin master used to fondle boys' bottoms would be an acceptable reception area. Downstairs, where the Sergeant-Major terrorised generations of children in the gym, could be a wine-cellar.

Personally, I would rather see it claimed for the nation, and turned into an open-air prison, rather as it used to be.

The second, sadder story is about its owner. Like the house which has caused him such trouble and litigation, Brudenell-Bruce is cursed by the past.

What a miserable experience it must be to be born into a great family, with a distinguished history and vast house. Some who inherit this oppressive privilege are brave enough to try to escape but they are widely reviled for allowing the inheritance to become flats or a golf course. Their lives become defined by what they have not done.

Others come to an arrangement with the National Trust, and inhabit a wing of the house where they are ogled by tourists to whom, through some weird reversal of history, they are now servants.

A great number, though, are like Brudenell-Bruce, and get into the most terrible muddle. They face problems which their ancestors would have found incomprehensible. Being a toff confers no real position in the grown-up world, offering, at best, a laughable character part in the play of modern life. From the moment they are born, things – a house, land, trusts, silver – dominate their lives.

My advice to Brudenell-Bruce would be to get rid of the place. Let the past look after itself. Live your own life.