I arrived in England with a boatload of South African students. I had, or thought I had, a fair idea of the country that awaited me. Much of my reading had been about England and a great many of these books were sited in stately homes. I don’t think I had deliberately chosen such books. It must have been that very many such were being published.
What we saw on the bus drive from Southampton to London seemed to confirm my image of the Old Country. We passed two, three, perhaps even four Rolls Royce vehicles – old fashioned, high, un-streamlined, chauffeur-driven. In all my earlier years, growing up in Africa I had only ever seen one such vehicle – the car that H.E. used — His Excellency Sir John Maybin, the governor of Northern Rhodesia. Other cars had number plates. His only displayed a golden crown. It was a tall, clumsy-looking vehicle but, I suppose, fit for purpose. H.E. could sit upright in it without having to take off his tall plumed headgear – part of his gala uniform.
Loyal subjects often doffed their hats as the car passed and I suspect no driver would have overtaken the vehicle even though it was normally driven at a slow, dignified pace.
So what followed was a bit of a disappointment. I was not invited to spend my weekends at stately homes. Not that first weekend, not the second nor any of the later ones. I stayed in student digs or slept on friends’ couches after boozy parties.
One of these friends was John Griffiths. He had a problem with asthma and I remember once helping him out of a smoky room to get him to fresh air. We became friends.
He came from a family of colonial civil servants who had served in India. In those days the sahibs of India also ran neighbouring Burma and John told me his father had been the last British governor of Burma.
Now John had political ambitions himself. He stood for parliament as a Liberal candidate three, four perhaps even more times. Alas, always unsuccessfully. As part of his duties he ran the Young Liberals.
This was a period of turbulence back in Northern Rhodesia. London wanted to create a Federation of the two Rhodesias and Nyasaland. I was strongly opposed to this federation and spoke at public meetings, explaining how this would entrench white settler domination and frustrate African hopes. John Griffiths asked me whether I would be prepared to come and speak to his youth group.
“The boys are camping in tents in a field” he explained, “but we’re privileged: You and I will stay at the great house. It belongs to a liberal peer. He’s invited us to stay. It’s what they call a stately home. You’ll meet him for dinner but not for breakfast. He runs a business at Birmingham so he has to get up at dawn to commute.
A stately home! At last! Hurrah!
So after I had squatted by a camp fire wrapped in a borrowed blanket and lectured the lads about the evil of the proposed Federation and answered their questions, John took me up to the residence. The lord of the manor, his lady and a daughter inhabited only one wing of the building. Even in the dark it looked a bit run down … but in those days, shortly after the end of WWII, most of England looked run down. There were no liveried butlers to welcome us. The peer poured us a whisky and struggled to fan a reluctant fire. His wife emerged briefly from the kitchen to greet us. The daughter was laying the table. No, the peer explained, they had no servants. “Who can afford staff these days? I fear we may all have to help with the washup!” He shrugged apologetically.
It was not the England I had read about.
Many years have elapsed since then. Now it is commercial companies which own these stately homes – and the occupants are brash newly rich managers. They can afford staff. Probably Poles.
But no. It is still not the England I had looked forward to. Not at all.