Thanksgiving Roundup

–James Marriott writing in The Times offers some thoughts on the new film Saltburn (mentioned in several previous posts). Here’s an excerpt:

…With the complacency characteristic of her class, Fennell [writer/director of film] never pauses to reflect that a person like Oliver [Charles Ryder figure] might not be that interested in befriending aristocrats. After all, her film seems partly to want to persuade us that they are vacuous halfwits. Oliver, meanwhile, is the only person in his year at Oxford who has read all 50 books on the summer reading list and is rarely glimpsed without an orange-spined Penguin classic. Would such a person really yearn for the company of Potterhead poshos? Apparently, inherited wealth carries its own irresistible charisma. That assumption is one of the leitmotifs of British culture. Every generation has its crowd-pleasing, toff-ogling popular hit. In literature, for instance, Evelyn Waugh’s lavishly snobbish fantasia Brideshead Revisited and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty. TV offers Upstairs, Downstairs and its spiritual successor Downton Abbey. In each instance the upper classes are made an ideal projection of all the writer’s dreams of superiority. For Waugh they were impressively tortured and Catholic, for Hollinghurst impressively cultured and tasteful, for Julian Fellowes impressively benign and paternalistic. Too many English writers still subscribe to the world view of the ancient Greeks, whose word for “aristocrat” was the same as their word for “the best”.

The truth, of course, is more banal. The scenario nobody seems prepared to consider is that the posh might simply be … boring. Being very wealthy is not a substitute for a personality and neither is living in a 17th-century house, however elaborate its porticos or lavish its acres. Anybody who has been exposed to the very posh — as I briefly was at university — cannot continue to regard them as inevitable paragons of culture, style and wit. The opposite, frankly…

Britain is odd in lacking any tradition of the romance of social mobility. We have no national myth equivalent to the American dream or even the French ideal of egalite. Instead, we are left with the cliche uncritically retailed by Saltburn: the upwardly mobile are almost always gauche, often ridiculous and perhaps even sinister. Saltburn’s Oliver — furtive, awkward, grasping, oddlooking, resentful — is the manifestation of every scholarshipboy stereotype committed to celluloid. In Britain, classism is the last socially acceptable prejudice.

Now that poor pay, expensive housing and insecure employment mean our creative elite has been colonised once again by the very wealthy — the Old Etonian actors, the trustafarian screenwriters — we should probably prepare to get used to these stereotypes: the enviable aristos, the sinisterly aspirational lower middle classes. Meanwhile, we must remember that real life is not like that at all.

–The auction house Christie’s is offering a group of letters including one from Evelyn Waugh to Robin Campbell dated 27 December 1945. Here’s the description:

In a letter to Robin Campbell, Waugh defends a recent letter he wrote to The Times with a fierce attack on Picasso who, he claims, fails as an artist and is a symbol of decadence and the decline of Western civilisation – ‘the only criticisms valid for him are: “Ooh doesn’t it make you feel funny inside” or “the fellow’s a charlatan”‘ – including Gertrude Stein in his criticism (‘aesthetically in the same position as, theologically, a mortal-sinner who has put himself outside the world order of God’s mercy’).

The letter is reprinted in Letters (1980), pp. 214-16. Here’s a link to the Christie’s catalogue in which the other letters in that collection as well as the details of the auction are available.

–Writing in The Nation, Professor James K Galbraith, who teaches at the University of Texas, takes issue with two recent newspaper articles which urge the elimination of the New Deal regulations requiring banks to offer 30-year fixed-rate mortgages:

Their thrust is that the 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage—fairly standard in the United States—unfairly protects current homeowners from the risk of rising interest rates. That risk is therefore borne (they say) by the lenders, whose assets are devalued, and also by prospective homebuyers, who find fewer houses for sale, and at prices they can no longer afford. Meanwhile, aging boomers hold on to homes they might otherwise unload. Casselman writes, “Buyers get all the benefits of a fixed rate, with none of the risks.” Campbell confirms: “It’s a one-sided bet,” and goes on to add: “If inflation goes way up, the lenders lose and the borrowers win…”

This is where my Anatole France moment kicked in. My father—also a Harvard economist in his day—once elaborated what he called Galbraith’s Law: “People who have money to lend, tend to have more money than people who do not have money to lend.” Casselman and Campbell believe that the market, in its majestic equality, should distribute risk equally to lenders and borrowers alike—to the have-mores and the have-less, to the bank and to its customers.

After discussing in some details what he believes to be the fallacy of the proposed elimination of the fixed rate mortgage, Galbraith closes his article with this:

Long ago, a news report told that a tumor excised from Randolph Churchill (son of Winston) had proved benign. Evelyn Waugh commented that it was a miracle of modern medicine to find the only part of “Randy” that was not malignant, and remove it. That, roughly speaking, is what Casselman and Campbell propose for our American system of banking and finance.

The Herald (Scotland) carries a story by Rosemary Goring about recent litigation over abuse of students allowed in public schools. Here’s an excerpt:

In Decline and Fall, Evelyn Waugh’s excoriating satire of public schools, it was taken as given that teachers were, at best, peculiar, and often far worse than that. In his interview with the Headmaster, aptly named Dr Fagan, young Paul Pennyfeather admits he was sent down from university for indecent behaviour: “Indeed, indeed? Well, I shall not ask for details. I have been in the scholastic profession long enough to know that nobody enters it unless he has some very good reason which he is anxious to conceal.”

–Mark McGinnis in The Oldie observes the 75 anniversary of the death of Robert Kennedy by recounting the sad life of his sister Kathleen Kennedy. In it, he describes, inter alia, the refusal of her parents to attend Kathleen’s 1944 London wedding in which she married Billy Cavendish, heir to the Duke of Devonshare and a Protestant:

Rose [Kathleen’s mother] took herself to hospital with a nervous collapse. Evelyn Waugh, one of her admirers from a wider circle, warned her she would go to hell (using her plight for Julia Flyte falling in love with Rex Mottram in Brideshead Revisited).

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