comments iconDay 7: Newbury and ‘Downton Abbey’


Total walk:  81.8 miles

Today raised fund:  £500.00

Total raised fund: £2557.50


A windy and rainy day in Newbury so a good opportunity to explore the neighbourhood.

I have been to Newbury a few times, but whenever I come here I remember someone I knew when I joined the Young Conservatives (YCs) political movement in the 1980s. His name was Chris Gent and he had been a National Officer so to a young member from Gateshead in the North East of England this guy was like meeting David Beckham when you can barely make the first eleven for you local pub football team on a Sunday morning. People talked about Chris in hushed tones because he was destined to make it to the very top of British politics. He never did.

I still remember the shock around the YCs when instead of joining the rest of us beginning the long road to being a candidate and then an MP he left politics behind to join a small struggling company in Newbury which was something to do with ‘radio phones’. We felt it was so strange. Madness! Why give up a glittering political career where you could make a difference for a ‘walkie talkie’ business?

Because, unlike me, Chris was a leader, a pioneer he didn’t waste time worrying about what other people might think of his career choices. If he believed it was right thing that was all that mattered. For Chris it wasn’t a case of whose going to let me, it was who’s going to stop me.

The next time I saw Sir Chris Gent I was standing in an audience of hundreds packed into a lecture theatre at the Said Business School in Oxford listening to how he had transformed a small struggling radio telephone business in Newbury called Racal into one of the largest telecom companies in the world-Vodafone. Vodafone now has over 100,000 employees in twenty six countries with annual revenues in excess of £47 billion. The company is still based in Newbury as is Sir Chris.

Meanwhile at The Chequers Hotel where we had found the last available room–The Bridal Suite–the night before we were told to check out quickly doubtless to make way for another happy couple. We searched all the web-sites and found a reasonable priced room at The Canarvon Arms in Whitway which was next to a castle called Highclere. You may know it by its fictitious name as the home of the Earl of Grantham and Lady Crawley in the hit tv series ‘Downton Abbey’.

The tv series kept viewers enthralled as to the goings on upstairs and downstairs in the home of an English aristocrat circa 1910-1926. It was a hit in Britain where we like to pretend that we have moved on from our class-based society but we love hearing and talking about it, because we know that social class still runs deep in English society.

More surprisingly it was a huge hit in America and China. The Earl was always ponderous, polite and in control whilst Carson the butler was always subservient in from the of the Earl and family and dominant below stairs with the staff. I think the Americans loved it because it was beautifully written and filmed and the Chinese loved it because it was the exact opposite of a communist society. Everyone had their place in the social pecking order.

I recall singing the hymn at school ‘All Things Bright & Beautiful’ which included the verse:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly,
And ordered their estate.

and being told that we should ‘know our place’ in society and that certain roles and jobs were ‘not for the likes of us’. I think a lot of this teaching has gone now but it doesn’t mean that class does not continue to play a major part in English society.

I recall going for a job in the City of London and being told that there were only two ways to succeed in the bank to which I was applying. I either needed to be a grandee or a worker bee. The grandees were all tall elegant, slim, socially confident and sophisticated, well-dressed (emphasis on shoes), well-connected, well-spoken, understated and extraordinarily polite (providing you knew your place and acknowledged theirs) but they weren’t expected to run around getting involved in the detail–that was the job of the worker bee. The interviewer then said to me ‘so what I need to know is could you make the grade as a worker bee’. I got the hint but I didn’t get the job.

Xuelin and I both love work. We thrive on it. I can think of no greater accolade than to be described as ‘working class’ or even a worker bee. The satisfaction I get from doing a good job is the what I live for. When we were watching the episodes of Downton Abbey I would often comment to Xuelin in a kind of Gogglebox moment,  ‘You know I haven’t seen that person do a single job, they just sat around having tea, writing self-indulgent letters to each other or dressing for dinner and gossiping about other aristocrats.

I am with Maya Aneglou who observed, ‘Nothing will work unless you do.’ Sir Chris Gent knew that to be true, I am not so sure about the Earl of Grantham. Still thousands of tourists aren’t travelling across the world to visit the offices of Vodafone but they are for Downton Abbey–ourselves included.