Magazine article The Spectator

Save Her for the Nation

Magazine article The Spectator

Save Her for the Nation

Article excerpt

IMAGINE that you have it in for the visually sensitive men and women who work for the National Trust: what punishment, in the manner of the Mikado's elliptical billiard balls, could be more excruciating or apt than to relocate them to a light-industrial town on the M4 corridor? The joke would be almost too good; no one would believe it. Bring to mind where you would expect the National Trust to have its offices. Perhaps a richly furnished country house, complete with landscaped park and scones for tea. Failing that, a handsome building in one of London's most historic streets, next to a leafy park and only a couple of minutes walk from Buckingham Palace. Come to think of it, that is exactly where the National Trust does have its headquarters for the moment, in Queen Anne's Gate. But only for the moment: by 2004 they will have moved to Swindon. Whatever one may think about the National Trust, few people would immediately associate it with a sense of humour, but you've got to hand it to them; this one would make an undertaker laugh.

Picture the old-building specialist, experienced in dating rococo plasterwork, hurrying to work in one of the glass-atriumed office blocks that grace central Swindon. Or the lady gardener, trug basket on arm and secateurs in hand, myopically negotiating the one-way system. Not to mention the expert in bugs and beetles, cut adrift in an urban environment from which all forms of wildlife have been erased. I won't go on. It is quite possible that I am being unfair to Swindon. It may be that this famous railway town is full of unsuspected charms, and is indeed (in the words of the Swindon Borough Council website) `adding a vibrant present and exciting future to its solid past'. (So if you live in Swindon, please don't write to me about it.) The point I am making is that Swindon is not exactly a natural match with the National Trust. In terms of reflecting what marketing people call the core values of the brand, it is off-beam. The National Trust is about beautiful landscapes, remarkable architecture, traditional values and beauty. It is not, to be frank, about Swindon.

Now, it would be easy to blame the relocation entirely on the Trust's new director-general, Fiona Reynolds. To readers of this magazine, and possibly of my own, she is the equivalent of a gorgeously plumed pheasant flying straight at the guns. The first director-general to be a woman. (`Bang,' goes one barrel.) A New Labour sort of person, whose last job was running - wait for it - the Women's Unit in Downing Street, and who has a house husband to boot. (`Bang,' goes the other barrel.) An outside appointment, who doesn't profess to know much about country houses but has an inclination to make the Trust's offering more inclusive of our culturally diverse society. (`Woof,' goes the Labrador, running off to pick up the carcase.)

Actually, these observations, while having a grain of truth, are somewhat wide of the target. The decision to move out of London was taken during the reign of Ms Reynolds's predecessor, the impeccable Martin Drury, a furniture expert who had worked at the Trust for decades and was the living embodiment of its traditional culture. It had to be Swindon, says Ms Reynolds, because of the three National Trust offices already in the West Country. Besides, this `exciting area of urban regeneration' (her words) is also a new base for English Heritage, and offers good value for money.

It has been bad luck on Ms Reynolds and, indeed, on the Trust as a whole that the move should coincide with a staff reorganisation that predates her appointment in January last year. Inevitably, tears have been shed into teacups, and some of the unhappiness has seeped into the media. Jeremy Paxman signalled a new public mood towards an organisation that until recently was regarded as above reproach by giving her a bruising time on Start the Week. The 44-year-old Ms Reynolds, a geographer who chose a complete set of the Ordnance Survey as the book she would take to her desert island, fronts an organisation which is, for the first time in its 107-year history, under attack. …

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