Magazine article The Spectator

"Basically, We're Stuffed"

Magazine article The Spectator

"Basically, We're Stuffed"

Article excerpt

You might expect a chief executive of English Heritage to look quite English, and Simon Thurley certainly does. He has the pale eyes, and fine bones, of the English upper classes. He has the clipped vowels of the English upper classes, too. In his nice pink shirt, in his nice white office, in a nice big Victorian building near Chancery Lane, he has the air of a man who lives a nice, quiet, clean, ordered life.

He also has a very big job. He looks after, or at least the organisation he runs looks after, more than 400 historical sites. He advises the government on 'England's historic environment', which must mean he has to give an awful lot of advice. And he writes books. He has written books on Hampton Court, and Whitehall Palace, and Oatlands Palace, and now he's written a book about the men - and yes they were all men - who 'saved' Britain's heritage.

'Not many eight-year-olds want to be an inspector of ancient monuments, ' he admits, when I ask when he decided that he wanted to be one of those men, too. It started, apparently, with the discovery of Roman remains in the back garden of the house he grew up in. Which, I'm guessing, wasn't a Sixties box, like mine. 'Baptist manse, ' he says. 'In a central plot of land, with a big wall all around.'

An old Baptist manse, perhaps? 'Regency.'

He reminds me, I tell him, of a character in a novel I've just read. The character is, like Thurley - or Dr Thurley, as his website keeps calling him - a TV historian. (His website says that he 'believes that television is a very important medium for architectural history', which does rather make you think of someone telling you that there's a great new invention called the internet. ) The character was an aesthete, even at university. Was he?

Thurley, or Dr Thurley as I can't quite bring myself to call him, looks surprised.

'Well, I've always been very interested in making the environment I live in. . .' He doesn't quite finish the sentence. I'll take that, I tell him, as a yes. He laughs. It's quite a dry laugh. 'If you saw where I lived you'd get the picture pretty quickly.' And that is?

'800-year-old Grade 1-listed, full of moths eating the carpets.' Ah, yes. English style, history, and beauty, so English self-deprecation, too. What, this old thing? Oh, just something the moths are eating up.

The house is in King's Lynn, but there's a flat in London, too. He works from home on Fridays, and goes back to Norfolk, and his beautiful historian wife (Anna Keay, who used to work at English Heritage and is now the director of the Landmark Trust) and their two small children, on Thursday nights. None of this, I'm tempted to tell him, is doing all that much to dispel the image of 'heritage' as something really quite posh.

And nor does the TV series his PR sent me to watch, which was on BBC4 in March.

A joint project between English Heritage and the BBC to mark the centenary of The Ancient Monuments Act, it was called Heritage! The Battle for Britain's Past. It was, as you might guess from the exclamation mark, a jaunty account of the attempts that have been made to preserve England's, er, heritage. (You can't, I'm discovering, write about English Heritage without using the word the whole bloody time. ) It was full of fascinating facts. You hear, for example, about how the Nazis used Baedeker guides to target buildings they wanted to bomb. …

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