Straight Outta Downton


I have a confession to make: I enjoyed “Downton Abbey” a lot more than I should have and a lot more than I think the show objectively deserved.

Let’s face it, it’s schlock, however nicely produced in that very British, Merchant & Ivory way. It’s peopled by a legion of overwhelmingly nice characters, if a few also somewhat eccentric – it is Britain, after all – who by and large behave decently, or at least try to, while being very proper and polite to one another. Only two major characters die over the six seasons (or 13 years during which the show unfolds), there is preciously little drama, and what there is is mitigated by the fact that it is more than likely to have a happy ending.

TV shows are meant to be an escapist fun, but this is a sheer period porn (get your minds out of the gutter; you know what I mean).

I have another confession to make: I intensely dislike aristocracy, in theory and in practice, and this is why I was so taken aback by not hating Downton.

Let’s face it: aristocracy is stupid. It might have been a fact of life in most human societies for most of human history, but that does not make it any less silly. I am too petit bourgeois to think otherwise; I value the meritocracy of intellect, talent and character, not the accidental lottery of birth. No doubt there have been many noble-born throughout the ages who were good, decent and worthy characters, but there have also been many who were flaky wastes of space, evil scumbags, and inbred morons. In that, the aristocrats have been just like the rest of us – there is simply no such thing as “the better” by virtue of parentage or inherited status. In this regards, “Downton Abbey” is a fib and a fantasy; it gives us the misty-eyed and rosy-glassed idyllic best case scenario. We don’t expect TV history to be entirely accurate, but we also don’t want it to make us pine with nostalgia for some past golden age that in reality never existed.

I have yet another confession to make: my great-grandfather – my mother’s mother’s father – was one of them. I know next to nothing about Count Jozef Raczko, except that he had extensive properties in the Wilno/Vilnius district of what was the Russian part of partitioned Poland and subsequently the north-eastern part of the independent Polish Republic between the wars. I don’t know if he was an honourable and substantial man or a cold bastard who treated everyone below him like dirt. Like all Polish Counts, the Second World War was not kind to him. Somehow he managed not to get eliminated as a “hostile class element” under the Soviet occupation post 1939 and exited the Soviet Union as part of the 2nd Polish Army Corp, through Iran and the Middle East to Italy, where he fought as a Major in the Kresowa Division, including at Monte Cassino and later Bologna. After being demobilised, he went to Hong Kong, where he apparently made a tidy sum of money. He was bringing it back home (Poland in generic terms, as Wilno had been taken away by the Soviet Union and, in any case, all aristocrats expropriated) in the late 1940s, when he died en route and was buried at sea. His money disappeared at the same time, which led his family to suspect he was either murdered for it or at very least posthumously robbed by someone onboard the ship. Welcome to the cheerful and uplifting mid-century Polish history. “Raczko Abbey”, anyone?

Many of us are fascinated by history – times and places different to the contemporary; perhaps more colourful, more exotic, more intense and fascinating. There are some of us who would instead of the boring present much rather have lived in ancient Rome, the Renaissance Italy – or maybe the 1920s Downton Abbey. I believe, however, that were we able to travel back in time even the most enthusiastic among us would be utterly shocked when confronted by the people and the conditions from our past, and completely unable to adjust to the world of mores, mindsets and circumstances so different to their modern lives. I’m not a big fan of John Rawls, but I believe he’s right in his theory of justice where he has people making rules from behind the “veil of ignorance”;  “no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like”. Ancient Rome is exciting if you are the emperor, the Renaissance Italy if you are a prince or an artist – and the world of Downton Abbey a century ago if you are Lord Grantham. But the odds of you being any of these people would be near astronomical. For everyone else throughout history, life has largely been a nasty, brutish and short drudgery. We shouldn’t romanticise the past.

Maybe that’s why I found myself strangely enjoying “Downton Abbey”: I know that it’s largely a fantasy and I’m happy to live in Australia in 2017 as opposed to experiencing the real world of our past.