Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Heritage TV, the Big House

Watching Downton Abbey, the latest TV Heritage dose from the UK, I thought of my grandfather, head groom, my grandmother, the lady's maid, (a union not so much of Upstairs Downstairs as Inside Outside,) and my mother who recounted how she'd eaten stolen nectarines in the hayloft as a child, and ridden down to the village in the estate's dog cart. And then it all ended, just like it always does on the TV series, with the First World War.

When my mother left school she learnt shorthand and typing and worked for the LNER: the London North Eastern Railway and then, she landed right back in that declining Heritage world. My father, just married, was being taken on as a head gardener. He had, as they said, bettered himself. One of six, a mother widowed, living "at the rough end of the village," he had left school at twelve, to work in the fields. But he had a chance to go to the big house: being 'in service' was the education you could get as a poor child in the country.

They went straight from the wedding to the gardener's cottage at Rushbrook Hall, to be greeted by the housekeeper, Polly who opened their front door with a big iron key, which she then put back in her apron pocket.
Rushbrook Hall was Elizabethan. I saw something from it, I think a section of panelled staircase, in the Metropolitan Museum, New York. For my mother, the biggest problem there was the worry that my elder brother when he was small would wander off and fall in the moat.

The PBS Downton Abbey, like the movie, Gosford Park, shows the rules that bound the upper class as tightly as the servants: the upset that a gentleman would serve himself wine, put on his own coat. It made me think of our hotel stays in Malaysia and India: someone to pour the tea, add the milk, someone else to pull out the chair, to hover. If you do these things, the modern young man is asked in Downton Abbey, then what will he do? How will he earn a living?

Every detail is delectable: the gleaming antique furniture, the feathered hats, the bosomy blouses but one thing now is always out of place. As someone who was sent to classes to learn how to speak like a "Lidy," a little suburban Eliza Doolittle, I can't help but register the accents.

The young'uns in Downton Abbey, speak with the casual voices of modern upper class England. Posh voices now are funny. The dowager Aunts, the Maggie Smiths, can drawl and purse lips and raise their eyebrows and their sentences but if the young mangled their vowels, full of frightfullys and Mummys and Daddys - more Bertie Wooster than Prince William - we'd see them as posh, out of touch, spoiled rotten upper class twits. But back then they would have spoken like that and the servants would have bowed in acknowledgement and taken their coats and hats and polished their boots and, like my grandmother, who started off as a tweeny maid, lowest of the low, too low even to have a uniform, would have washed their floors and cleaned their grates.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Kerala, view from an SUV

Kerala means land of coconuts and the Indian-thin lanky coconut palms rose up everywhere beside the roads, behind the tiny shops festooned with clusters of bottled water and bananas. Like Malaysia, there was a heartening mix of churches, Christian schools, Hindu temples and many mosques, most newly painted. Must be money coming in from the Gulf states. So many people working there, said our Indian friends, so much money coming in: every home has a computer. And why so many school children? Kerala the state with the highest literacy. Two young boys did beg -they each asked for a pen. First the Christian missionaries established schools and now the Communists are a big part of government here. "Through the ballot,"as one of our colleagues said because they were seen to be good candidates but now just as corrupt as other politicians.

Everywhere words: on the trucks, FRIENDS, Bismillah!, Jesus Never Fails and on the back of trucks and buses, the most unnecessary command of all: Sound Horn! Above the shacks and tiny shops, signs promising a future: Digital Workshop, Beauty Academy, Internet Institute, Talent Academy, Perfect English Institute. Signs painted on fences and walls. Ideal Vests Briefs and Trunks painted on a succession of private garden walls, followed us all the way down to the Cape.
First day back, never before had the standard silent suburb seemed more like an empty stage set. Every house, every gate, clear cut and on display but where are the signs, the ads, the words, where is the noise, where are the trucks, the buses, the scooters, where is the color, where are the children? where are the people?

Notes on India -Where are the beggars?

OK so we didn't go to Mumbai or Calcutta but we were in Bangalore, (the information capital of the world, according to President Sarkozy, who was there at the same time.)
But no keeping the head down, barging through a dozen outstretched hands, no averting the eyes or handing out cheap coins to the maimed and old at our feet. All I can remember were two young girls outside a big temple, a dignified old man, like a monk; a girl, making faces, pressed up against the car window.
In fact, all the children we saw seemed to be coming home from school, the boys cheeky, the girls bashful. All in uniform, clean and tidy. And there can't be a more beautiful sight than a line of Indian school girls, slim and graceful, dark hair to their shoulders, walking home under those big old orchid-hosting trees, their uniforms a delight: deep blue scarves over pale blue tunics and deep blue trousers, cream colored tunics with vermilion.
I asked about poverty. The poor can buy rice at a special rate. That's one thing. Pressure to survive is obviously intense. In The Hindu Times: six lottery sellers have committed suicide because lottery draws were to be limited to one per week and "a number had turned to begging to make ends meet."