by Peter Cook
I find the image of Chatham MP Tracey Crouch, tucked up in her PJs of a weekend for an evening feast of Strictly, X Factor and Downton, a heartening one. It’s what normal people do.
Politicians these days seem far too remote. They govern us but they are not of us. You imagine they spend their weekends reading reports, addressing meetings, attending dinners and being seen at events that will boost their political careers.
Tracey’s programmes would not be my choice, however, they do form the cultural – with a small ‘c’ – cement that binds people together.
You can talk to people more easily about the big issues of the day, if you can get the conversation started with a few bits of trivia they can chat comfortably about.
The fact that she is against the badger cull and against fox hunting also raises her in my estimation, for what that’s worth.
But I’m not sure her weekend couch potato habits would have gone down well with Maggie Thatcher. Remote control had a very different meaning for her.
Having said that, I cannot stomach Downton Abbey. I know it’s a soap, all in the past and not to be taken seriously. But that kind of aristocratic set-up really does stick in my craw.
It comes from a time when ordinary people lived in squalid conditions, overworked, vastly underpaid and made to feel inferior, so that a small minority could enjoy immense luxury.
I suppose I am influenced by a family history of people in service. My grandmother on my father’s side was a “maid of all work” at Powderham Castle, in Devonshire. My grandfather was an undergardener.
They met, fell in love, but were then forbidden any kind of association. My grandmother was confined to her room for just talking to him.
“But I didn’t mind,” she told my mother many years later, “because I could see him clipping the hedge from my window.”
Their answer to this enforced estrangement was to elope to London. My grandfather got work in Woolwich Arsenal, which eventually killed him. My grandmother, in addition to having 10 children, took in mending, stitching in the dim light of an oil lamp after everyone had gone to bed.
My mother went into service at the age of 14 or so. She recalled overhearing the “lady of the house” telling the housekeeper: “You must speak to the new maid. She’s very proud.”
Humility was what was required in a servant, certainly not pride.
Eventually she rose to the dizzy heights of cook, working for the blind MP Sir Ian Fraser at his home in Regent’s Park, where among the dinner guests were the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.
By then things had changed and there was far less of an “us and them” scenario.
Once my mother had got us kids off her hands in the 1960s, she went back into service in a way, as the summer cook for the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, on the Chatsworth Estate.
Among the regular houseguests was Sir John Betjeman, who stumbled into her kitchen after the wine had flowed one night and said: “Mrs Cook that was an excellent dinner. You are an artist. And as one artist to another I would like to present you with a collection of my work.”
Sure enough, on her return to Kent, a parcel arrived containing three volumes of Betjeman poetry all signed. They are on my bookshelf now.