The misery of being born into a title

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 – even from a distant aerial photograph – 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 when 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, whose 4,000-acre estate in Wiltshire includes Savernake Forest, 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 excitements, Brudenell-Bruce’s barrister described his client as “down and out”, a man who had been obliged to sell the silver to “put food on the table”. Recently, this was 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 a sprawling, ostentatious Georgian way, it might appeal to a millionaire unconcerned by the fact that it has misery in its every brick and pillar. There is – or was – an extensive deer park attached, and a “ha-ha”, and a wood mysteriously known as “the Pleasury”.

It could, just possibly, be a private residence. The room where the 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. The headmaster’s study, where a pathological sadist used to thrash small boys black and blue on a regular basis, might serve as a cloakroom. Personally, I would prefer to 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 of those 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 make arrangements with the National Trust, and inhabit a wing of the house where they are ogled by tourists to whom, through a 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 and pressures which their mighty ancestors would have found incomprehensible. Being a toff with a posh family confers no real position in the grown-up world, offering, at best, a laughable character part in the play of modern life. As soon as they are born, things – a house, land, trusts, silver – dominate their lives. They have inherited, with all that privilege, a sort of prison.

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

From New Labour to a new career

Help is at hand for senior professionals who feel in need of support and advice. A one-to-one mentoring service is now being offered by the former home secretary, Jacqui Smith. “Being at the top is tough and you can feel you are on your own,” Jacqui says in a marketing message on the website of something called Boost Associates. Beside a list of services she will be offering (“Be a critical friend, challenge you to achieve and congratulate you on a job well done”), there is a photograph of the Labour grandee looking thoughtful yet sympathetic.

Some will mock, but I think Jacqui is on to something. She knows better than most that life at the top can be tough, having been a shaky home secretary, and then exposed in the expenses scandal as having been a little over-sophisticated in her claims for accommodation. Her husband, innocently watching porn videos while his wife was away, became a national laughing stock when the rental cost was revealed to have been paid by the taxpayer.

In response, Jacqui has presented a documentary about porn and is to advise on crisis management. All she needs to do now is to set up as a property consultant, and she will have truly shown the world how the most disastrous setbacks can, with a bit of thought, be turned to personal advantage.

Books don’t need soundtracks

The last creative refuge for the imagination is under attack. Readers of e-books are to be offered enhanced versions, with a soundtrack of music and effects that will blast away as they read. It is “a new form of media”, says Peter Thiel, of Booktrack. Perhaps he is right, but it is also a rather silly one, since the best director of vision and sound each of us has is the one we have in our heads. Where will it end? With orgasmic groans as we read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the scream of car engines accompanying a new Jeremy Clarkson? Books, of the silent, traditional kind, have never seemed more attractive.

Independent, Tuesday, 30 August 2011