If you were fortunate enough to be given a helicopter tour of some of England’s more green and pleasant lands, chances are you’d be impressed by the approach to the Bevan Estate. Flying deep into the county of Yorkshire you eventually dip into a valley whose stone and bracken covered hills mark the boundary of the grounds. Descending over the words and parklands you can follow the curves of the river until you eventually spot the house, built in the seventeenth century from stone quarried locally. With its annexes, wings and turrets, you might suppose you were about to land on one of England’s statelier homes run by an immense hierarchy of staff. Circling the northeast side of the house you might also imagine that one of our more eccentric members of the family, perhaps nursing a passion for hybrid architecture, had whimsically added a folly of darker stone – or was it some kind of unusual walled garden? By now you might be conceivably confused by the morass of the greenery in the centre of this folly, and as you draw in closer you might question why much of its stonework seems to be missing, why corners don’t meet in the traditional manner and why height levels are so worryingly haphazard.
Possibly it would have struck you by now that something was terribly wrong. What you’ve been admiring is not a folly at all, but an integral part of the house, the east wing. Except its roof has caved in, while its smoke-blackened walls have crumbled and pigeons, constantly circling its perimeter, spend their days depositing guano on anything that remains between them and the ground. In short the place is a ruin.
Rory, however, approaches Bevan via the more conventional route of its drive. Despite slowing to the sign-posted 5 miles per hour at the pillared entrance, the next couple of miles must be negotiated with extreme caution. Numerous switchbacks are layered with stones so lethal you might be forgiven for thinking they had been hand sharpened to render maximum damage to tyres. Gaping potholes are filled with muddied rainwater and just when you fell it is safe to speed up a whopping 6 miles an hour your exhaust is nobbled by random sleeping policemen built to discourage local drivers from practising their rally racing skills using Bevan as a short cut from the railway station to the village Skimpton.
As he draws up to the house Rory notices some recent state-of-the-art repairs. Guttering, eroded to splitting point has been spliced together the twine and wire. An old wooden tennis request has been nailed over the drains to catch leaves. Alistair and Audrey Bevan, roused by the noise of wheels on gravel, hurry out. Alistair is a bluff man of seventy-five dressed in corduroys and checked Vyella shirt, which carries the faintest smell of mothballs. Audrey wears her usual uniform of tweedy skirt covered by sleeveless padded jacket, zipped up over a long sleeved version of the same garment. Alistair is also wearing a padded jacket, but his is new, ordered as nod to modern times from a farming catalogue to which he subscribes. They are accompanied by a vast grey setter, all tangled hair and elastic strings of saliva, which bounds down the steps in front of them.
‘Get down, Lurch,’ Rory thunders as the dog makes its leap. Setters are a neurotic breed, attracted to the person who plays them the least attention, so Lurch merely slobbers a little more industriously before throwing himself into a grateful heap on top of Rory’s boots.
‘Mrs Emery claims Lurch has been worrying the sheep,’ Audrey says. ‘She had the nerve to ring up and get quite snippy on the phone but Lurch has never been interested in sheep.’
‘Besides he was locked in the outside room all day,’ Alistair says. ‘Bloody woman, must have been somebody else’s dog.’
‘Or maybe it was somebody else’s buffalo,’ Rory says.
Alistair takes off his glasses and wipes them on his cardigan. Audrey examines the mud on her gardening gloves.
‘Don’t you think it might have been sensible,’ Rory says, ‘after the oyster bed fiasco, following the surprise failure of the stone-polishing business, to run the Genius of Mozzarella by me first?’
‘We didn’t want to bother you, Robert,’ Audrey pats his arm, ‘You have enough on your plate already,’ she adds soothingly.
‘Would have been all perfectly fine,’ Alistair says, ‘it’s just that we failed to take one or two little extra expenses into consideration.’
‘This stuff came out of his nose,’ Audrey explains, ‘bright green, absolutely beastly, we could hardly see he wasn’t at all well, poor old thing.’
‘Then what with the vet bills, the general anaesthetic…’ but Alistair, catching the expression on Rory’s face, loses momentum.
‘You see, Robert,’ Audrey says confidingly, ‘buffalo are not really indigenous to the north of England you know.’
Rory feels the familiar quicksand of nonsense sucking at his feet.
‘Your are aware that Mozzarella comes from the water buffalo and not the American buffalo, aren’t you?’ he says.
This trump card leaves them silenced.
Rory presses his advantage. ‘Well what arrangements have you made to get rid of it?’
‘Get rid of it?’ Alistair says astonished.
‘Well yes surely –‘
‘Don’t be ridiculous, Robert,’ Alistair says testily. ‘Your mother’s grown far too fond of it.’
I work for Newsline. You probably know it, most people do. Newsline is a current affairs, news and issues program that leans towards story journalism rather than information journalism – sort of younger and smaller cousin of 60 minutes. We specilise in exposing scandal and exploding myths. We target corrupt government bodies, insensitive public companies, institutions and monopolies. I love working there, as a show, it just isn’t afraid to kick ass.
This all started last November when I was running to a meeting in the Newsline offices, it was the Thursday before thanksgiving weekend and New York was in its usual bi-thematic state of shivering outside and sweltering inside. Thanksgiving always feels like the practice run for Christmas and true to form the Santa’s were out in force, hitching wide leather belts over even wider beer bellies. It seemed that the whole of Manhattan was making the rush to grand central, off to family weekends and stuffed turkey dinners but my parents had never been big on family occasions, and public holidays tended to prompt special derision for the over-commercial, greeting-card sentimentality of the American people. Besides, Alan Soloman, Newsline senior producer, had called me in for a meeting and when Alan scheduled meetings no one went home early.
A week before thanksgiving, id made Alan a presentation; a story I really wanted to pursue in the Middle East. Alan had been ambivalent about letting me go, but now I was hoping to get it green-lighted.
A big man, weathered and broad, Alan pulled down the shitters in his office then perched in the side of his desk, tapping dried cranberries from the packet – a token nod to his high cholesterol. A CBS executive was sitting in on the meeting. I couldn’t remember his name but since the sale of Newsline to CBS a year ago, network grands fromages were becoming a familiar sight around the lace. The television fizzed then cleared.. on screen were scenes of mayhem. I recognized them straight away. This was the footage taken when England’s labour government had finally succeeded in pushing through the abolition of the hereditary peers in the House of Lords. My grandfather had been Irish and ever since the British parliamentary channel had been made available on cable I’d been alternately horrified and amused by the antics of the Houses of Parliament. I assumed Alan was inviting criticisms of somebody else rough-cut, a trick he pulled from time to time to keep correspondents on their toes. This segment looked like Ed’s work. With his hand tooled leather shoes, fussy little dogs and penchant for antiques, a piece of England would be right up Ed’s alley.
The action cut to the chambers where tempers seemed more frayed than usual, in fact it looked as if a fist fight was on the verge of breaking out between members. The shot changed again to a line of aging peers handing in their security passes. One had tears in his eyes. Alan freeze-framed the images with the push of a button.
‘Up until now the House of Lords has had the power to pass and initiate laws purely through the hereditary right. So it got us thinking… with the loss of this vast vestige of political power, what influence do the aristocracy of England have left?’
only then it dawned on me this wasn’t a rough at all, Alan was pitching me a story.
‘Wait a minute,’ I glanced at him suspiciously, ‘what about the piece I proposed?’
He didn’t meet my eye. ‘We have enough people out there right now, Maggie. Instead, we thought it might be revealing if you went over and interviewed some of the heads of England’s more influential upper-class families…’
I couldn’t believe I’d heard him right. The story I’d pitched was on honour killings in the Yemen.
‘But England is cold, wet, formal.’ I pleaded. ‘Couldn’t I please have desert, heat, scorpions? Couldn’t I at least have something a teeny bit more relevant?’
‘One thousand years of aristocratic rule. This is the end of an era, Maggie, this is historically relevant.’
‘Added bonus we get a nice tour round England’s’ country houses,’ the executive threw in, ‘keep the female viewers on the hook.’
Alan must have caught the look on my face. ‘I know, Maggie, I know,’ there was regret in his voice and it stopped me short of total rebellion, ‘but the hard reality is, we have to chase the ratings like everybody else. Look, deliver me this piece and next time round you’ll get the assignment you wan but for now, go revisit Brideshead in the twenty-first century.’