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TRADITION AND CONTINUITY
- The self-deprecation that masks absolute confidence is misleading

The question popped up even in the sanctum of Queen Elizabeth’s mamar-bari. “Who owns Britain?” a headline in the Guardian newspaper had asked a few days earlier and answered itself, “Anybody but us.” But if it really is the end of Britain as some economists and social scientists bewail, there is plenty of spunk still left in a country that has been a long time a-dying.

The self-deprecation that masks absolute confidence is misleading. No one can be more “us” in the sense of that Guardian headline than the stooping elderly man in a worn sweater with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Himalayas who meets our train at a wayside station and drives us home in his small car. He is the queen’s first cousin, descendant of the 13th-century thanes of Glamis, grandson of the 14th Earl of Strathmore, knight commander of the Royal Victorian Order and former lord lieutenant of Hertfordshire. “We don’t use titles here,” says his wife as she lays the table for lunch. “If you want to be accurate you can call me ‘doctor’!” Capping tradition with modernity, she had done a PhD in computer science from the old Hatfield polytechnic after her politics, philosophy and economics degree at Oxford.

Occasionally they allow hoi-polloi to pay to party in their 1,300-acre landscaped grounds beyond the 50-acre garden — all church property until Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries — provided visitors can’t be seen or heard from the house. “What I’d really like is a first-class Indian wedding,” our host jokes carving the pheasant from his estate. “The kind where the bride’s father flies in ten thousand close personal friends!” I tell him his mellow 18th-century mansion where his aunt, the late Queen-Mother, the last Empress of India, was born and brought up, can’t compete with the ostentation of Versailles and Victoria Memorial. Our hostess remarks between serving partridges, also from the estate, and the raspberries she herself had picked in the garden, that the only Indian clients to celebrate a wedding among the temples, statues and artificial ponds in some faraway corner of the grounds weren’t “top-notch”. They packed off their guests with dinner in cardboard boxes!

Had the couple been more familiar with non-resident Indians they would have known that a top-notch NRI is a contradiction in terms. Many NRIs have made a lot of money. Some have developed political connections. A few flaunt titles. The three are usually linked. Some years ago when I couldn’t find the newest life peer with Calcutta somewhere in his background in any British or Indian reference book, the registrar of a great English public school said I was looking in the wrong places. “You’ll find him among the donors to the ruling party.” Not that this is necessarily a disqualification. Successful NRIs can be said to epitomize Nani Palkhivala’s famous quip that freed from domestic inhibitions, the expatriate can buy from a Scotsman, sell to a Jew and still make a profit. But that doesn’t excite his interest in the shabby rocking horse without a mane next to a photograph of the two little princesses, Lilibet and Margaret Rose as they were then, astride its back. Nor is he likely to be curious about the sheets of paper covered in perspex on the wall behind. “Heights!” said our host seeing us looking. The princesses and their cousins marked their heights there year after year, writing their names and dates in a rounded childish hand.

My favourite NRI success story is of a man of whom I had never heard until we came to this part of Kensington. The pavement opposite our flat is covered with protestations of undying love. Many more testaments of affection in French, Spanish and Italian are tucked into the transparent plastic on the walls on either side of a modest green door with GARDEN LODGE painted in white capitals. Young South Americans often stop us with a request to take their photographs by that door. Coachloads of Japanese click each other. The knots of people are always exceedingly quiet. It’s as if they are in the presence of death. Or in a place of worship. Candles twinkled in the drizzle one evening last month. There were fresh flowers, and someone had pinned a picture on the door. “I love you” was scrawled across it. It was Freddie Mercury’s birthday. Of all the “world-famous” (to use a popular Indianism) Indians from Mahatma Gandhi to Amartya Sen, he evokes the most fervent devotion across the globe.

A recent survey by YouGov, the opinion poll my friend Carole Stone runs and which claims to unveil “what the world thinks”, found that if three dead rock stars could return to life, the British would most like to see Freddie. Born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar, schooled in Panchgani, he is way ahead of Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson. He is also the least known in his native country. I have never seen an Indian outside his house. Indian workers in Feltham hadn’t heard of the memorial to him that used to be embedded in a patio there. “Nahi malum” was a fruit vendor’s grumpy answer after I had asked him three times, and we were standing almost on the spot where the memorial had been. Bhaskar Menon of Capital Records seems to have been the only Indian Freddie cared for. New Delhi must have been furious when he defied a global boycott to perform in Bophuthatswana, one of apartheid South Africa’s sham homelands. Despite his fondness for Indian food — kachori, dhansak and falooda were his favourites — Freddie was probably unIndian enough not to care. Voted the greatest male singer of all time in 2005, Freddie enriched British life.

Through the centuries Britain has made a practice of absorbing foreign talent. Toyota, Nissan, BMW and Tata Motors create jobs and generate prosperity. Arab sovereign wealth funds have brought exciting change to London’s skyline. Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, rebuts criticism of the nuclear deal with a China that abuses human rights with the blunt retort that “UK plc” must “produce energy on a sustainable basis”. If hot money from West Asia, China and India is buying up London, it adds to property values. A newspaper columnist complained recently that “British parents trying to get their children into private schools are having to compete against children — and their hyper-ambitious, money-no-object parents — from Russia, China, India, South-east Asia and the Middle East”. He found far more Ahmeds, Chos, Lees and Shahs than Smiths, Joneses and Thomases among University College London graduands.

If one middle class is fading out, another is emerging from the second generation of Greek-Cypriot restaurateurs and East Asian corner shop owners. It’s always been the British way to redefine terms to reflect current reality. As Daniel Defoe wrote in 1701, “A true-born Englishman’s a contradiction,/ In speech an irony, in fact a fiction.” From Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor, Battenberg to Mountbatten and — returning to my hosts — de Leonne to Lyon and thence Bowes Lyon, accommodation is the name of the game. In a passage hangs a life-sized portrait of Mary Eleanor Bowes, heiress to the Hertfordshire estate, who married John Lyon, the somewhat less wealthy ninth Earl of Strathmore. He changed his name to inherit. Since the state leads the conspiracy for continuity, parliament ratified the expedient transfer.

As the seemingly inflexible Lady Grantham says in the popular TV series Downton Abbey when her granddaughter marries the chauffeur, “The aristocracy hasn’t survived by being intransigent.” She then proceeds to suggest ways of smuggling the chauffeur into the gentry. Given such ingenuity, Britain is safe as houses. Safe as St Paul’s Walden Bury with its octagonal redbrick wings and mementoes of Queen Elizabeth, where her mother’s family has lived since 1725.