Supposing the one per cent read newspapers, some of them may have become dimly aware of a cultural glut, last week examined by my colleague Vanessa Thorpe, of entertainment about the greed and awfulness of the one per cent.
Though they’ve clearly been some time in the making, these “angry attacks on privilege and wealth”, as Vanessa called them, arrive at an excellent time for British audiences currently denied any prospect of real-life economic justice or retribution. The experience could be less cathartic for any of the real-life super-rich accidentally subjected to viewing in which their yachts are disrespected and their tribe mocked, harangued, occasionally murdered.
If they never do make it to the corrective films or theatre, the financially elite could still stumble across hints that public reverence for their wealth might be exhaustible. Reports from Milan’s fashion week have mentioned “stealth chic”, involving unaccustomed restraint with labels. In May, the FT said its How to Spend It section, decorously renamed HTSI, would henceforth “reflect the deeper sensitivities and priorities of a changing world”. Recently, the paper has been reflecting these deeper sensitivities in its jewellery and watches supplements. “It has become a truism,” one reformed-period offering reflects, “that people who like interesting and valuable cars tend to like interesting and expensive watches, too.”
Or to put it another way, the FT’s late-onset queasiness about conspicuous consumption appears very far from being shared by its target readers. What is far more striking, you might think, is the continuing readiness of the extremely rich, even in a deadly-looking cost of living crisis, to exhibit their financial might and entitlement, often to a point that competes with their cruder screen portrayals in actively intensifying public loathing.
What, for instance, if it’s not their confidence that the impoverished or resentful will never successfully push back, explains the repeated evidence that, above a certain level of wealth, incessant building projects are a new seigneurial right? Their iceberg pleasure domes, being invisible and chiefly inconvenient to fellow one per centers, were largely, of course, hilarious. I recall with particular affection Tamara Ecclestone’s dog spa and underground bowling alley.
But thanks to owners such as Jeremy Clarkson, the Beckhams, Ed Sheeran, Richard Caring, Guy Ritchie and the man who founded White Stuff, it has become a truth universally accepted that a colossally wealthy person who buys a secluded property in a quiet and treasured area often designated for conservation will soon also be in want of anything from a personal chapel (with crypt) to a lake, pub, skateboard bowl, farm shop and car park, security cabin/s and maybe a modest eco-development in an unloved corner, in some cases potentially screened by some imported trees whose leafless period, the owner’s numerous hirelings swear, is of no importance.
Above a certain level of wealth, incessant building projects are a new seigneurial right
In Wiltshire, for instance, in an area of outstanding natural beauty, we find the film-maker Guy Ritchie, who once protested (with Madonna) about the proximity of ramblers, currently applying to build a complex of 14 substantial-looking “shooting cabins”, designed by his own Cashmere Caveman company. These are said to offer “five-star standards of comfort and luxury” with “a natural aesthetic which should appeal to most UK planning authorities”. A parish councillor has described it, however, as “a new housing estate”, a “vast application”, unfair in an area where, “if a farmer wants to get a house, they get turned down because it is in an area of natural beauty”.
The current project follows some earlier unauthorised improvements to a listed 18th-century building in another part of Ritchie’s estate, which he was ordered to remove in 2019. He has, however, been allowed two lakes and a brewery.
Meanwhile, in his Cotswold AONB, Jeremy Clarkson rages about the rules restricting his right to trickle his wealth up into a still bigger farm attraction, with car parking for 70. Don’t they know who he is? It seems not. “You know, these, how can I put it, not terribly bright people in planning departments just don’t understand what they’re messing around with.” Not to mention the local villagers, “who wear red trousers and make fools of themselves and object”.
The trivial status of his critics is an objection Clarkson shares with fellow Ozymandias, the billionaire Richard Caring, who is contesting the instruction by local planners to remove “incongruous and dominant” windows he installed without permission on his Kensington new-build. “When you have a lot of residents, possibly some a little more elderly, they don’t have a lot of things to do,” said Caring, who is 73.
To focus on irate residents is – if they can be depicted as nosy, backward and self-serving – perhaps the most plausible way for the commissioners of outlandish developments to present themselves as frustrated creatives and their property ambitions as something other than an expression of super-wealthy indifference to the usual neighbourly considerations. Or, as one of the objectors to Caring’s windows puts it, of an “outrageous level of contempt” for due process.
A version of that comment appears wherever locals are left, sometimes wearied from years of appeals and legal attrition, to contend with the fabulously wealthy and planning averse. The White Stuff magnate, Sean Thomas, resisted for two years the removal of a tennis court and skateboard bowl he’d constructed without permission on an undeveloped section of the Devon coast. In Cley, Norfolk, the theatre producer Adam Spiegel has already spent three years fighting an order to demolish “Arcady”, an unauthorised and famously monstrous colossus that competes for attention (in yet another AONB) with a celebrated medieval church. If it stays, as one resident explained, “it sets a dangerous precedent because it means that any rich person can come to North Norfolk, one rule for them, very strict rules for everyone else.”
If this were a film, you can imagine such provocations leading to some deeply satisfying reckoning. In real life, the class largely responsible for these and many other ugly inducements to acrimony has just received a tax break, to help bring us yet more.
• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist
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