In 1988 I auditioned for London Weekend Telly, got married to the old git after eleven years of living sinfully, and started a four and half year run of feasting before the inevitable famines. We made gardening programmes, life style programmes and whilst I was taken off sitting alongside Frank Bough every Friday on ‘Six O’clock Live’ I had the privilege of roaming round the M25 interviewing everything from pigs rooting out truffles to rooting out George Clooney in Harrods.
I was loud, but shy. I was gritty but totally insecure. I was fearless but totally insecure – Oh! did I just say that? Anyway those four years prepared me for the next four which were spent at the BBC being silenced but trained in the art of making silk purses out of sows ears.
Pigs feature a lot in my life, indeed a lot of them held senior positions whose authority I routinely challenged.
Had I kept my unruly gob shut I would probably have a pile in Chipping Norton and a shot at a Dame hood, but I never did. That life led me to the one I have now, nothing to complain about, although I do.
Now, Thursday is Hastings Day, as usual we went the other way and the old git and I visited ‘Knole’ in Sevenoaks. 700 hundred acres of Sycamore, Oaks, rolling grassland and deer that are said to be the descendants of the first herd from 500 years ago. It is in fact a medieval deer park.
Thursday is a good day to visit National Trust properties, most people say away but there are a handful of loyal oldies and small groups of tourists who want to see how the English rich lived.
Arriving at the house, leaving the sunshine behind, we entered a world of the oldest of Stuart armchairs and royal beds. We stared at two conservators, behind glass, scraping mould off tapestries in the ‘The Kings Bedroom’. A surreal sight of a young man shining the torch on his mobile phone at little damp patches on a 500 year old tapestry whilst his cohort gently scraped off the fungus. We walked through ‘The Brown Gallery’ featuring 44 portraits of people that the inhabitants wanted to have in their address book. We looked up at the reinforced new ceilings, we touched the original wooden beams and plaster in a room with a real coronet and breeches embroidered with glittery things. We went up wooden stairs holding onto a banister that had been touched by Henry the Eighth and Vita Sackville West. We tiptoed into ‘The Ventian Bedroom’ where Vita and Virginia Wolf had fumbled around in the silken sunlight. Which of course we don’t get to see anymore as the suns rays ravages the furniture and carpets.
We climbed up thousands of circular stone steps, which nearly killed us into the ‘The Gatehouse Tower’. By the time we got to the roof the ‘oosbind and I had left our breath on the ground floor. We held onto the crenelated stone, filled our lungs and counted the 51 chimneys whilst marvelling at the grounds, which in June 1884, was mobbed by locals who were angry at their land being taken from them by the regal occupiers.
We went into the bathroom and lavatory of Eddy – Edward Sackville-West, 5th Baron Sackville the writer and critic – and listened on an old telephone to a clipped voice talking about him.
We sauntered through the ballroom and sent some little time in Betty’s crockery room. Dishes displayed worth more money than a cash strapped Brit can now afford.
There were spangled bedrooms and shiny wooden floors that had been walked on by the rich and richer. There were copies of Raphael paintings and an ermine collared red velvet cape that was only used in Coronations. Tapestries, carvings, Tudor magnificence and endless space that could house a thousand Ukrainians.
And then out we went into the brilliant afternoon and took coffee and scones in the sunlight. The darkness of ‘Knole’ lingered. The thing is whilst the National trust looks after these places, in the end there is something almost immoral about the reverence for pomp and wealth. Something almost iniquitous at the savagery of entitlement.
I am of course a peasant, I am neither proud not shamed by it. It is what it is, it is a fact that I am from peasant stock and that a beetroot can have me wailing when I think about my poor ancestors. I am aware that my humble beginnings made me a natural dissenter and rebel. And good for us I say. The shenanigans that went on behind the closed doors of places like ‘Knole’ leave a sour taste, for are we not witnessing the very same thing today with the silver words of our elected leaders who would have us believe that they are innocent of any such shenanigans. That the Reece-Knobs would dismiss the likes of ‘Partygate’ as irrelevant That we pay a huge amount of money to ogle at the riches they amassed on the backs of the less fortunate. The clothes, the furniture, the indescribable wealth of these places that we commoners bow down to. Am I jealous. Not a jot, am I amazed that the landed gentry are still getting away with it, damn fucking right I am.
Why even today Boris Schlongson’s father has just taken French citizenship. The father of a Brexiteer who holds us all in contempt.
But I stray. Today I went to Knole. It took me back to when I was working at LWT.
I worked with a girl called Mary. A thoroughly decent young woman. I can’t remember the show but I do remember a conversation we had over lunch. Our feet under the table as we talked.
We talked about gardens. I grew up in the inner city and then a three bedroomed house in Hertfordshire that had been allocated for us slum dwellers when we were cleared out of London. Our house had a garden that backed onto other gardens and was jammed between Mr. Evans, on one side, and Mr. Bertrand on the other. We had a washing line, gooseberry bushes down the end and a concrete path that my father fashioned around the central lawn.
When I left home I lived in various rented rooms until me and the Northener moved into a tiny flat on the river in Wapping. It cost £16 quid a week and was a stones throw from Tower Hill, another pile that people pay to visit. In 1984 we moved into the Royal Borough of Tunbridge Wells. Who knew we were in the middle of such ancient royal land. It is beautiful down here, but my heritage still makes me a blow in.
But I stray, over that lunch whilst talking to Mary and the crew I told them that the garden in wapping was non existent but that our little cottage does have a hedge overlooking Simmental cows and that elderberry and old English roses grow wild. I asked Mary whether she grew up with a garden.
She did not flinch when she said humbly
‘I grew up in Knole’
She was a Sackville West and her back yard was home to the roaming deer and 200 year old Sycamores. Mary grew up running through the corridors of power.
She was lovely, she probably still is. I didn’t know ‘Knole’ then, today thirty odd years down the line, I realised my response then was inadequate.
‘Knole’ I said. ‘Where’s that?
‘Sevenoaks’. she said.
‘And did you have a garden?” I asked.
Mary went on to work at the BBC – as did I – she is highly regarded, and rightly so. I’m not surprised she has the weight of history behind her. I have the weight of my history behind me too. If I’d have known then what I know now maybe I would have known about ‘Knole’ and Mary and I could have had tea together after all we are neighbours.
But as good ol’ Donald Rumsfeld said
“There are known Knoles, things we Knole that we Knole; and there are uknole unknoles things that we Knole we don’t Knole. But there are also unknoled unknoles, things we do not knole we don’t knole.”
Donny had a point.