01 02 03 Africa Expat Wives Club: Downton Abbey - in Kenya. House staff. 04 05 15 16 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 31 32 33

Downton Abbey - in Kenya. House staff.


Downton Abbey - series one

I have been watching Downton Abbey with my husband - a very popular British period drama/tv series set just after the turn of the century, pre-first world war (1912 ish ), about a grand English country house.  My sister gave me the box set of Series 1.  Each episode is based on a story woven around the dynamic between 'upstairs' and 'downstairs' in a grand house, ie. the family and their army of staff, butlers, housemaids, cooks, footmen with sub plots involving strange house guests, inheritance issues, women's suffrage (okay, I've only watched a few episodes so far).  I love the buccaneer American wife who brought money to the family and the corridor creeping antics.

Part of the charm of the series is the fact that you know that living like this in such grand style was tottering on the edge of a precipice at that time, the whole of British society was about to be knocked sideways by the first World War and would never be the same again - probably a good thing.  But nonetheless Downton Abbey is all great escapism, especially for Sunday night viewing.

I love the costumes, the big house (filmed at Highclere Castle) - the fact that the camera allows you the viewer to roam all over it - up inside the the staff attics, across the gardens and into the lady of the house's bedroom.  The series recalls an age of when the very rich spent days with nothing much to do - meanwhile everybody else worked their fingers to the bone to ensure that they could retain their elevated lifestyle.

Harold Nicolson, a biographer of King George, said about his king:
'He is all right as a gay young midshipman. he may be all right as a wise old king.  But the intervening period when he was Duke of York is hard to swallow.... for 17 years he did nothing but kill animals and stick in stamps.'

Downton Abbey portrays a very sympathetic understanding between the Lord of the manor (Robert, Earl of Grantham) and his staff and tenants - whereby there is loyalty on both sides and they all look out for each other.  While it makes for unchallenging, feel good viewing, I fear that this may be an idealist's view.  I find it slightly hard to suspend my disbelief that the lord of the manor would be so nice, or that the whole family would interact with (talk to) their staff, on some occasions, almost as friends and equals - although of course this is how it should be - I'm not convinced that this was actually how it was in reality back then.

I'll probably be strung up for saying this but some themes resonate for expats living in Kenya.  For instance, overseas visitors arrive and see you have full-time staff working in your home, then they often draw some entirely independent conclusions - such as; you don't have to lift a finger in your own house - you are waited on hand and foot - you live in a bubble, removed from reality.  In fact the truth is far different. 

Most expats, foreigners or white kenyans who live in Kenya have a close relationship with those people they employ, cleaners, cooks, security guards, gardeners, that is on a par with Robert, Earl of Grantham, Lord of Downton Abbey, especially when they have been living here for a long time.  Quite honestly, (and you might think me deluded to say this) but if you haven't got that two way relationship going, then you probably should have.  For instance, I wouldn't expect someone to take my plate to the kitchen for me.  I make tea for my staff as much as they make tea for me and I would always give a tip for a job done well.

The Earl of Grantham is a great role model.  He too was painfully aware of the pitfalls of society, the disparity of wealth and the conditions many people live with day-to-day.  Today, you try to help employees and their families when they are in trouble due to the lack of a welfare system in Kenya, you appreciate one another for help provided (this runs both ways) and are sympathetic to one anothers' needs.  Occasionally, when things go wrong, you feel that it would be easier to have no employees, (in the West you could have a hassle free cleaner for a few hours a week, where you leave cash in an envelope and hardly even have to learn their name) but you reaslise that refusing to employ people in Kenya is currently no solution and not a help to anyone.  Though one day, there may come a time when this practise changes - God willing.

Robert, Earl of Grantham, makes the point in the Downton Abbey series succinctly.

When a young upstart arrives and wishes to dispense with the butler he has been allocated - because, as a modern, independent man, he feels he can do the job better himself - the Earl, Robert says something along the lines of (and I am para-phrasing here);

'Would you do a good man out of a job just because you perceive him to be superfluous?  He's been doing that job all his life.  How do you think that makes him feel?  How do you imagine his family would manage if you dispense with his services?'

Actor Hugh Bonneville - Robert, Earl of Grantham
The second series is currently being filmed with a backdrop of World War 1 this time.

P.s.  Last Wednesday our power lines got re-routed!!  Finally!  The KPLC truck came while I was out on a school run and apparently did the job in an hour.  Watch, as I fall down in a dead faint!  It's only taken 8 months since our original application.  Apparently we still have to make a complaint about the high price charged using their official complaints procedure.  I was worried that if they did the job then I wouldn't have a leg to stand on re cost, but they assured me that this was not the case.  I am sure it is all thanks to this blog that anything happened in the end!  Thanks Kevin!

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