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Review: The Rise of the Nouveaux Riches

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by J Mordaunt Crook. John Murray, 1999. 354pp. £25

Why are there no Branson Towers? writes Colin Baillieu. Why did Robert Maxwell live in a house rented from Oxford City Council? There is the Sainsbury Wing in Trafalgar Square, but why no new building in deepest Hampshire, the seat of Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover? Where is Hanson Hall and how have the Stagecoach millions slipped effortlessly into the ready-made Lovat estate?

The answer cannot be modesty - hot-air balloons must be the ultimate personal puff. It is not lack of funds; but there is no doubt that the rich of the second-half of the twentieth century have lost the will to build their own homes, whether in the country or in London. One reason could be the quantity and quality of the existing housing stock, or perhaps the problem of planning - just think of trying to get Mentmore through a committee.

Such thoughts are generated by The Rise of the Nouveaux Riches by J Mordaunt Crook. It has already been described as 'brilliantly researched', and this, indeed, is its merit - but also its weakness. Too many pages are crammed with lists of rich men, the source of their wealth and the names of their houses. There is too much gobbling and not enough digestion.

The story, however, is fascinating. To the extent that the author makes you wonder about the past, think about the present and try to envisage the future, the book is a success. It may also draw you back to Mark Girouard's great book, The Victorian Country House, of 1979 (where the structure suits the subject and the ingredients are properly digested).

Mordaunt Crook is rightly scathing about the results of so much building: 'Vast sums were spent on country-house building, but to what end? All those lions of the free-market economy - did they suffer a collective failure of nerve when faced with the agonies of aesthetic choice? Was the range of stylistic choice at the end of the nineteenth century simply too great? Were these men less interested in taste than in comfort?'

That last question is somewhat patronising. What these men, and their ambitious and strong-willed wives, were fascinated by was technology. Technology was the source of their wealth; it made their houses accessible (through the railway); and, though the houses themselves were often aesthetic disasters, they were triumphs of it. Thomas Crapper's flushing water-closet was to the new house what the Pentium chip is to a modern office - the unmentioned facilitator of the good life.

The ability of the English elite to absorb new money, new blood and new vitality has been the envy of the rest of Europe and the despair of Old Labour dinosaurs and New Labour luvvies. In the sixteenth century Sir Philip Sidney's father had the College of Heralds draw up an entirely bogus pedigree. Over the centuries the tune has changed but the social whirligig carries on. Today there are no new parks and palaces, but the rich still have polo teams and pictures - and some have passports.

Colin Baillieu is a historian

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