Glancing at the houses of the immensely rich can be quite a dispiriting experience.
With no limits except what the planning authorities will bear, still lottery winners, footballers, hedge fund traders go in the main for bigger versions of the houses we all live in. There might be a pair of pilasters, a garage for half a dozen cars, a private cinema and a room for playing snooker or wrapping presents in. There will be a lot more marble. But mostly, people’s dreams run to a big Barratt home, a rectory, a 19th-century cliff of stucco.
Not so Matt and Cassey Topham, who won £45m on the EuroMillions lottery, and have just commissioned Baca architects to build a country house for them. The plans are just about to go before the planning authorities. They include a number of features that you had, perhaps, not considered when doing up your house. There will be a grotto-style swimming pool, and sweeping staircases, and a series of pods for entertaining and for family rooms. There will be snooker rooms and cinemas and, best of all, the garage for 10 cars will have an unusual front. They will be kept behind a waterfall.
I take my hat off to them, and for their public-spirited decision to splash their cash around. The lottery winners who choose to buy a rectory are benefiting only an estate agent, a lawyer and the previous owner by their largesse. The Tophams are going to benefit huge numbers of builders, tradesmen, architects, landscape gardeners, pool builders, suppliers of recherché materials. They will be giving a considerable boost to the nascent English industry of waterfall construction. It’s their money. It’s imaginative and generous of them to spend a good chunk of it in constructing a James Bond pad in the English countryside.
Some people just don’t care for any of this. One joyless berk, commenting on the designs, said that he would “give the money to charity”. Well, saying that on a message board is a form of showing off too, but one that doesn’t benefit anyone else. The idea that the rich have a duty to spend their money in extravagant ways rather than just miser over it is an old one.
The 18th-century moral philosopher Bernard Mandeville created scandal when, in his 1714 The Fable of the Bees, he proposed that private expenditure, even along conventionally immoral lines, did more to create prosperity than saving. The expenditure needn’t be with the good taste and imagination that Matt and Cassey Topham have shown. After a visit to “Timon’s villa” in his “Epistle to Burlington”, Alexander Pope begins by wondering at “what sums are thrown away!” but concludes by reflecting, of Timon, that “hence the poor are cloth’d, the hungry fed;/Health to himself, and to his infants bread/The lab’rer bears: What his hard heart denies,/His charitable vanity supplies”.
Fortunately, there is no reason to think the Tophams hard-hearted. But if we don’t all have £5m to spend on an extravagant pad like theirs, we can still spend what money we can in whatever way we see fit. Money that goes to help a thriving business is money well spent. There are, I know, people out there who think that spare money should always be given to charity for the desperately needy.
There are others who think that spare money is iniquitous, and shows that levels of taxation should be higher so that the Government can spend it on its own concerns. Those things need to be done. But there is a good deal more energy and sustainable national life springing from individuals who want to spend their cash on a garage/waterfall combo, among other things. Of course, it would be still better if they had earned the money in the first place, rather than winning it in a lottery, but you can’t have everything.
Why is classical music a last male bastion?
Among other very promising signs of the new Proms season is an interesting symbolic milestone. Marin Alsop, the American principal conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, will be the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms. The first lesbian, too, if that seems interesting.
For some reason, classical music is one of the last bastions of sex discrimination in the arts. It’s a curiosity why so little art music has been written by women in the past until recently. Society, after all, would have found a Fanny Mendelssohn much easier to deal with than a woman painter, an Artemisia Gentileschi. My personal explanation is that the grammar of art music, up to the 19th century, was somehow hard-wired to the male brain, and more fluid structures have in recent years enabled women.
Be that as it may, there is no real justification for orchestras like the Vienna Philharmonic, which still has hardly any women members, or for the difficulties which women hoping to make it as conductors still face. An orchestra that hires a woman conductor still has, in some quarters, the air of an experimental novelty, pushing back the barriers of human rights. Curious. The Proms season is full of riches, as always, including a spectacularly daunting week which inserts Tristan und Isolde between the third and fourth evenings of the Ring cycle. It will, too, be accompanied by all sorts of wondering-out-loud about why the art form only fitfully appeals to young audiences. Well, letting women conduct an orchestra might be a good place to start. So long as you were starting about 80 years ago, of course.