My favourite book is A Handful of Dust. My political views are somewhat antipathetic to those of the author, Evelyn Waugh. But I love the dark comedy of the book and its wonderful setting: The gothic pile and its owner Tony Last living in aristocratic splendour with the world at his feet. Except it all falls apart and he ends up endlessly reading aloud Dickens to a tribe in the darkest Amazon.
In a similar way to my being on the opposite end of the political spectrum to Waugh, I am in extreme antithesis to my MP, Richard Benyon. He’s keen on the Royals, tradition and hunting. I am not. I think there are two subjects on which I have found myself in agreement with Richard in twenty years of bumping into him: Zimbabwe and river management.
For some reason, Richard Benyon has always made me think of Tony Last, from A Handful of Dust. However, I think the similarity is simply that they both live in huge Gothic piles. (The Benyon pile, Englefield House, is pictured above). I don’t expect my MP’s life to unravel and end hosting infinite Amazonian Little Dorrit literary soirées.
This week, the Daily Mirror has run a story about an East end London housing estate managed by the Benyon Estate. It was raised at Prime Minister’s Questions. Newbury Today has a balancing article.
Only time will reveal to us mortals what the truth of the matter is. What I do know is that there is plenty on which to disagree with Richard Benyon politically. He is rather unimaginative in much of his political thinking. And that is choosing my words with kindness.
But I doubt there is much of public interest to be found by rummaging around in his family’s interests. Yes, some of their farming and forestry methods may raise eyebrows. But I suspect their treatment of tenants is reasonable. Richard Benyon’s father, Sir William Benyon, now recently deceased, was a good man. A good sort. I suspect his family carry out reasonably benign estate management practices based on his good example. The Benyon Estate proper, based in De Beauvoir Town, appears to be an enlightened example of sound and caring estate management. The family’s Englefield Charitable Trust gives very generously to a charity with which I am involved, which actively helps genuinely very needy people, week in, week out.
While I am not saying “Move along now, nothing to see here”, I doubt that the truth of this story lives up to its rather sharply defined Daily Mirror billing. That said, it is rather fascinating reading about the activities involved in running the Benyon estate and its spin-off management activities. If you’re managing an estate, as in this Hoxton (New Era Estate) case mentioned by Daily Mirror, on behalf of an “American private equity firm“, with only a minority 10% interest yourself, it must put you in a rather invidious position. It is a very strange situation, but not unusual these days. Ho-hum.
Photo of Englefield House by Richard Croft via CCL