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Never Mind by Edward St Aubyn (1992) 197 p.

Anglophilia, the love for England and Britain often possessed by Americans and colonials, is part of the reason for the surprising success of Downton Abbey. It’s not just the wealth and opulence and wish fulfilment (although that’s part of it), otherwise the same sorts of people would be watching The Hills and Gossip Girl. It’s the fascination people from more ostensibly egalitarian countries have with Britain’s anachronistic class system, viewed through a forgiving, nostalgic fog.

Never Mind is the first slim novel in Edward St Aubyn’s five-volume Patrick Melrose novels, a semi-autobiographical series charting the fortunes of the wealthy but cursed titular character. It begins when Patrick is five years old at his family’s mansion in southern France, and takes place over the course of a single day in the lead-up to a dinner party. Patrick’s father David is a psychopathic, abusive monster, and his mother Eleanor a drunk. The events of the day are viewed through the eyes of various guests  being hosted by the Melrose family, ranging from a washed up Tory politician who’s as bad as David to an American journalist who is privately revolted by the way the upper class treat each other. Never Mind catalogues the crimes and cruelties of the upper class, ranging from dinner party sniping to outright paedophilia. It’s a harsh, cutting novel.

There is inevitably a type of reader who dislikes reading about unpleasant people, and would prefer to retreat to the cosseted, lacy world of Downton Abbey, where humans behave with integrity and class. To each their own, but to recoil from a book like Never Mind is to miss the point. St Aubyn, a man with first-hand experience, is attempting to shine a light on the disgusting realities of the British 1%. Foreign indulgence of the upper class takes place overseas on TV screens, through hagiographic soap operas like Downton Abbey – harmless enough. But domestic indulgence of the upper class, at home in the United Kingdom, takes place in the halls of Parliament, the boardrooms of the City and the dining rooms of country estates. It is viscerally, damagingly real. There is a strong and persistent misty-eyed love of the upper class in parts of Britain, an unqualified respect which reinforces the born-to-rule mentality of the Conservative Party. It’s how a modern country in the year 2015 has managed to end up with an unelected upper house. The cosy charm of country manors, distinguished butlers, 18th century antiques and glasses of cognac by the fireplace were built on a legacy of exploitation, domination, theft and abuse.

One could argue that St Aubyn’s experiences were purely his own; certainly I doubt most members of the landed gentry are quite as barbaric as David Melrose. But that’s not the point. When the weight of fiction leans so heavily in one direction – as it did when this book was written in 1992, and as it still does today – it’s important to set a counter-example. Never Mind is a devastating portrait of the darker sides of unchecked wealth and power.

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March 2015