Hmm ... nice little stately home you got here, Earl

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The National Trust is 100 years old this week. But it doesn't behave like an elderly organisation. It behaves like an outfit that knows where it's going. And where it's going is up. Fast. The proof? In 1995 there are plenty of organisations that a re celebrating their centenaries. And who was the first off the starting block? The National Trust, that's who.

"We didn't get where we are today by pussyfooting around," says the genial, no-nonsense, cigar-chomping head of the National Trust publicity machine, Jim "History Man" Cavalciani. "We got where we are today by moving fast. That's how we operate. We hear of a property that is in difficulty, we move in, we get the owner out, we take over. OK, so maybe we don't always get the owner out. Maybe sometimes we let the owner live in a small corner of the property. We let him have the illusion that he is still incharge. But believe me, there's only one person in charge. That's us. Any more questions!"

The National Trust is a ruthless organisation. Within minutes of a property passing into its realm, it has been transformed into the image of the National Trust. Labels have appeared on all the furniture, descriptive notes are attached to every quoin andlintel, and an elderly lady has been stationed in each room to survey your actions as you pass through.

"She may look like a harmless elderly lady," chuckles Jim "History Man" Cavalciani, "but you'd better not mess with her. All these dames are trained in close combat, they are armed and they are possessed of a wicked line in backchat. If you stray too close to something valuable, or just happen to pick up a valuable heirloom to have a closer look, you are liable to have your wrist in a vice-like grip and tears in your eyes. These girls would have given James Bond a hard time, believe me."

And yet they all look so harmless, surely?

"That's the beauty of it," grins Jim "History Maker" Cavalciani. "You wouldn't think that any of these babies could make a dent in anything much bigger than a scone or shortbread biscuit. Ask them a question about the date of the fireplace, and as like as not you'll get a simpering reply: `Oh, I'm not the normal lady, I'm afraid. Edith would know the answer to that, but she's not back till Tuesday.'Baloney! That's what we tell them to say. That's the National Trust image. Know what the motto of the National Trust is?"

"In Trust for the Nation," isn't it?

"Yeah, something like that. Wanna know what the real motto is? I'll tell you. `Who preserves, wins.'"

Hmm ... a bit like the SAS?

"The SAS?" says Jim "Mr History" Cavalciani, smiling mysteriously to himself. "That bunch of grannies? Those boy scouts on steroids? Those gladiators in glad rags? Yeah, you could call us a bit like the SAS. Except that, unlike that dumb outfit, we're serious. What have the SAS ever done except capture the occasional embassy or piece of rock? Whereas we in the Trust have secured almost every piece of historic real estate in Britain worth capturing. We have erected a genteel facade of jams and gloves for sale, all the while sitting on a beach-head of heritage which we can use as a springboard for ..."

At this point the telephone rang, and with a snarl Mr Jim "Heritage Hunk" Cavalciani plucked a mobile phone somewhere out of his shoulder-padding and said into it: "National Trust Trouble-Shooter. What gives?"

As he muttered confidentially into his phone, it gave me time to reflect that the National Trust was, indeed, ideally posed to move into the big time. On its spacious grounds it could hide or disguise almost any scam. With its resources and contacts it could cover up any operation. It had more rooms marked "Closed for Refurbishment" than anyone except maybe the Queen. Who knows what is happening behind those closed doors?

"I gotta run," said Jim "History - We Got It!" Cavalciani, snapping his phone shut. "Spot of trouble in Wilbeck Towers. Lord Wilbeck cutting up rough. Trying to talk to the press. We don't like our tenants talking to the press."

But you're talking to the press, I pointed out to him. He turned his cold eyes on me.

"Where did you say you were from? said Jim "Mind Your Manors" Cavalciani. "The Independent? Never heard of it. Are you in difficulties? Maybe we'll move in and take over. We'll let you know. After it has happened. That's how fast we move. Goodbye."

"Goodbye," I said.

But he had already gone.