Happy New Year.  Twelve months ago, Mr Wolf made a guest appearance with his upbeat message.  A year on, having gorged on mincemeat over the festive break, he’s indisposed: so this time you will get a gloomy dyspeptic burp.

A dreadful holiday period – school massacre, fiscal cliff, Russian crash – left Mr Wolf searching for an uplifting piece on the television news during the fallow spell between Boxing Day and Hogmanay.  He searched, he failed: there wasn’t one.  Instead he contented himself with repeats of costume dramas.  Downturn Abbey, a portrait of England in the 21st century, appeals to Mr Wolf’s venal side almost as much as the shortbread tin image of Scotland depicted in Monarch of the Glum.  They’re both heritage, of a sort, and although they lack authenticity they certainly make money. 

Terry Pratchett, in Johnny and the Dead, speaks about somewhere – in this case a graveyard slated for redevelopment – being the wrong kind of heritage.  In essence, it wasn’t grand enough, and wasn’t in London, so there was no chance it would be saved for the nation, or money being spent to protect it.  Stately homes and baronial houses née castles are different: they don’t necessarily need state help, because they have an irresistible attraction for property developers, although paradoxically they are often the thing which makes them over-reach.  In fact, Mr Wolf knows of a couple of developers who have wrestled with tumbledown castles.

One bought a castle near the coast, which is gothic in atmosphere rather than necessarily in style.  The previous owners had fallen on hard times.  Their distant ancestor had travelled widely and incurred the wrath of the natives, hence falling under a curse, borne out when the Swedish Match Company was extinguished in the 1920’s, and much of the family fortune disappeared.  The last laird’s father was reputedly a sot and toper, with an appetite for louche living and loose women.  Keeping fast company, he went through the remaining money like water.  In the hard years that followed, many unthinkable things happened.  After selling off the family silver, the fixtures and fittings of the castle were stripped out and auctioned, then land was sold, and finally the castle was hollowed out and used as a grain store.

When Mr Wolf visited for cream cakes and afternoon tea, the current owner was very helpful; too helpful in fact, when it came to juicy reminiscences about the previous laird and his ancestors.  As it turned out, the castle’s shell was sold under the duress of liquidation, and that duress generated friction between the old and new owners, which has continued and keeps two sets of lawyers busy.  When Mr Wolf recounted this tale of decline in print, his publisher was served with legal papers: but what the previous laird didn’t realise is that you can only libel living people, not the dead.  More importantly, you can’t sue someone for repeating what was published previously.

Nothing more was heard from the lawyers, the article has become a chip wrapper, and the new owner continued to restore the castle at the pace of a sloth on Mogadon.  Just enough work to the facades that no-one can claim he’s abandoned it, but not enough to arrest its gradual slide into ruination.  There have been rumours of a housing development in the grounds, to help pay to stabilise the castle.  The last scion of its former owners looks on in anguish, and bristles each time anything appears in the Press. 

Another would-be high roller bought a castle near the mountains.  It once belonged to a great political family, which again had fallen on hard times: while they clung on to their grouse moors and tenanted farms, the Big Hoose had to go.  It was on the market for a long time.  Several prospective buyers came and went, all struggling to make it stack up in practice, because the planners were emphatic that it couldn’t be subdivided.  The enfilade of rooms inside would have to be maintained; but most prospective developers were keen to split it into apartments. 

During the castle’s empty spell, Mr Wolf took a look inside.  The market was stagnant and loans were hard to come by: but the asking price remained high, and no realistic offers were forthcoming.  The castle had an air of stillness and melancholy which is what you expect of these places; but it was discovered that the topmost storey was riddled with dry rot, which would require enormous amounts of money to rectify.  In due course, Mr Wolf wrote a short history, expressing hope that the castle would be rescued, and wondering how the estate would pay for that, given the likely costs of restoration on top of a large asking price.

A few months later, the article appeared in print.  This time it was the new owner who took exception: as it turned out, the castle had been sold during the period between writing the article and its publication.  The new owner’s indignant letter to the editor was exceedingly righteous: he was saving the castle for the nation, the article was out of date, it didn’t portray the reality.  He was at pains to extol the investment which would follow, revitalising the estate, the jobs created, the weddings hosted…  To support that impression, he had orchestrated the publicity for his new venture, including a photoshoot in the style of Country Life with glamorous wife, adoring children and sprawling hounds arrayed around him in the drawing room.  He had evidently watched Monarch of the Glum, or was at least conversant with Compton MacKenzie’s novels: tartan wallpaper, decanters of malt, log fire roaring in the grate and so forth.

As a result, Mr Wolf was surprised to discover, a year or two later, that his company had made a planning application to build several hundred houses on the estate policies.  He drew two conclusions: firstly, here was a man at the height of his powers as an egotist; secondly, here was a developer with ambition.  That ambition, it was becoming clear, was to build lots of executive ranch-style bungalows on the estate and make money under the auspices of saving heritage.  That trump card, the enabling development, had evidently been played.  It’s almost an act of altruism, we are after all just custodians for the next generation, aren’t we?  And how else can the dry rot problem be solved? 

In light of the earlier “Country Life” shoot, Mr Wolf realised how easy it is for magazine articles to misrepresent peoples’ intentions...  Ironic, really.  Perhaps one day magazines will report the world in the breadth and depth it deserves, and developers will tell the truth in substance as well as in spirit.  In fact, lets’s make a resolution ... but it’ll have to be for 2014 now, won’t it?

My next piece for the blog will expand on my article in the Winter 2012 edition which recently hit the news-stands, and will look at the fate of another former asylum.

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