Book review: A Noble Thing: The National Trust and His Benefactors

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A Noble Thing: The National Trust and its Benefactors
Merlin Waterson (Scala, £39.95, *£36.95)

Oh no,’ I thought, ‘I know exactly what this book’s going to be about. We’ll have Lord X and Lord Y and all those other heavyweight aristocrats, and paeans to how marvellously generous they were to offload their financial responsibilities for their leaky roofs onto the National Trust.’

Well, I was pleasantly surprised to be proved wrong. Merlin Waterson interprets ‘benefactors’ much more broadly than James Lees-Milne did in his comparable, but rather dull, People and Places (1992). Mr Waterson includes a wide range of donors, from his own hairdresser (who sent a cheque to the Tyntesfield appeal) to a wonderful Mrs Leffman (so moved was she by the sight of Colin Firth diving into the pond at Lyme Park in the television series of Pride and Prejudice that she bequeathed the Trust £100,000).

Lord Lothian, usual suspect and donor of Blickling, doesn’t even turn up until chapter three, as Mr Waterson kicks off instead with the appealingly zany architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis. I was surprised to learn that Sir Clough personally purchased and saved the Grand Avenue at Stowe. Also included are numerous members of Trust staff, who were benefactors in the sense that they gave it their working lives. In the category of ‘staff’, Mr Waterson provides the best assessment I’ve read of Lees-Milne, much better balanced than the Michael Bloch biography.

However, Mr Waterson points out Lees-Milne’s consciousness that history is ‘kind to those who write it’, and the same could be said of A Noble Thing. It reads a bit like an extended retirement speech, with effusive thanks, good times remembered, and self-deprecating jokes: ‘All I really remember of dinner on that first evening was the incident of the dog.’ Negotiations about acquisitions often seem to take place over ‘an excellent lunch’.

Lord Anglesey must have been something of a diamond geezer, the author implies, because he ‘immediately insisted that I use his Christian name’. And there are very few villains. Admittedly, the late 7th Marquess of Bristol of Ickworth in Suffolk had ‘cold, cruel eyes’ and Lord Aberconway won’t allow wheelchair users to have their own lavatories at Bodnant Garden in Wales, but despite frequent acknowledgments that benefactors are not always disinterested in their motives, the topic is not deeply probed.

A Noble Thing strikes me as a little mirror for the Trust today. It gives a fresh and surprisingly inclusive first impression: Mr Waterson introduces the benefactor who gave a fishing boat, the curator who faked a picture, the amateur archaeologist who excavated Sutton Hoo. No crustiness there. But the odd sentence reads as if written by Lees-Milne himself: ‘I shall always rebuke myself for allowing Lady Berwick’s personal collections to be dispersed.’ Dig deeper, and some of the ties and attitudes of the past still remain.

On balance, however, this is a heart-warming parade of odd, interesting people whose lives have all been touched by the Trust. It’s not a hard-headed analysis of their good works. But no matter, leave that to a more objective historian than one who worked for the Trust for 33 years. Instead, it’s a celebration, and well-deservedly so. It’s truly a noble thing.

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