Ian Fleming understood the attractions of an English summer. At the end of Dr No, James Bond is in Jamaica, his arch enemy dead, his knockout girlfriend, Honey Rider, about to leap into their double sleeping bag. And yet, despite being in paradise, Bond longs for ‘the douce weather of England — the soft airs, the “heat” waves, the cold spells — the only country where you can take a walk every day of the year.’
It used to be just eccentric Englishmen who acquired this peculiar taste for the changeable English summer. But no longer. Quietly, but decisively, the English summer and social calendar have been globalised and commercialised. The rackety, amateurish, faded charms of high English summer have been replaced by a professionalised, slick operation, supercharged by oceans of international cash. London is the new Rome of the globalised empire, and the English summer has fallen meekly into the imperial line.
Last week, the hedge-funder Arpad Busson, raised an admirable £17.2 million at a Kensington Palace gala auction for his children’s charity, ARK. The ARK dinner has become the most lavish and best-attended party in England — but this was an event not for the English, but for the hedge-funder master race. Yes, the new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were there, but the royal element was really just an adjunct to a new global hedge-fund monarchy. Most of the guests were from the international private jet set — by necessity. Who else could afford the £5,000 raffle tickets? Squillionaires bid a quarter of a million pounds for a weekend in Blenheim Palace, and £220,000 for a weekend’s hunting, shooting and fishing on the Hebridean island of Jura. Even James Bond might have found the weather on Jura a little grim; now the international elite are falling over themselves for a few days with the midges and the mizzle. Drinks were served by waitresses in white hotpants and pink gauntlets. Male models in skimpy trunks dived into a pop-up swimming pool. Prince William told guests he was worrying about ‘the conversation I’m going to have with my grandmother tomorrow when I try to describe this’.
Little wonder. As well as helping children in Africa, India and Romania, ARK was raising money for its inner-city school projects in Britain. Again, all very admirable — but few old-fashioned English charity balls would have staged auctions for deprived children in London estates alongside those for Romanian orphans.
For the super-rich, the world isn’t divided into countries any more; just rich and poor parts. And, like swallows, their favoured rich parts in summer are now their English boltholes in the north. England should be proud to welcome them, proud that they have chosen us over Monaco or Biarritz. And even more proud that, rather than live in a globalised bubble, they are fascinated — fixated even — with the echt English events of the summer season.
We should be pleased that these events — rather than being abandoned by the natives as outdated remnants of a bygone age — have been rejuvenated by the injection of international billions. It’s comforting, too, how uncomplainingly England has accepted all this, in our outward-looking, welcoming way. Thanks to the Empire, we’ve always been globally minded, the original multi-ethnic state.
But then, we used to be the masters. No more. The English elite isn’t really English any more. When the Sunday Times launched its rich list in 1988, just 11 of the wealthiest 100 were from abroad. In recent years, nearly half of them have been. Walk around the City — or Mayfair, natural habitat of the hedge fund — and you enter a new gilded Babel, where international bankers scoop up their billions in English, the international language. Britain now has a Wimbledon economy: we provide the charming venue, and foreigners come over to enjoy themselves on Centre Court.
The paradox is that the recession has accelerated the globalisation of England. The English have been hard hit: with half a million jobs lost, and our rich stung — or chased abroad — by the 50p tax and the tax on bank bonuses. But the globalised elite, with their money parked offshore, have emerged almost untouched: their assets diversified, their wealth hitched to the booming East. The takeover of the English summer is clear to anyone who can still afford a ticket to the events that define the social calendar. At Epsom, Ascot and Goodwood, executive box after executive box is booked up by businessmen, charming their international guests with seafood and champagne. Sometimes a few of them even make it out of the box to watch the races. Glyndebourne, Grange Park, the new Garsington transplanted to the Getty estate at Wormsley… all of them echo, not just to the whisper of arias fading over the ha-ha, but also to the clink of international businessmen cutting deals with each other.
Cash-strapped galleries must sign up, too, to the embrace of international finance. Just as the Derby was sponsored by Investec Bank, so the Gauguin exhibition at Tate Modern was sponsored by Bank of America Merrill Lynch — now one of the greater benefactors of the English arts. This year’s Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy was sponsored by Insight Investment. All a Good Thing, too. How else can the galleries survive, with government arts funding slashed? The head of the Old Vic, Kevin Spacey, made the case well in his Spectator lecture last year.
Foreign philanthropy is a lifeline. But it’s also another step towards world cultural domination by the international banking elite — less than three years after international banking was facing complete meltdown. Staggering new fortunes — far greater than those built by medieval English aristocrats, or Victorian English tycoons — have been accumulated across the world in recent decades. The collapse of the Soviet Union produced commodities and utilities empires in the 1990s. In India and China, the booming new market economies have spawned a fresh generation of billionaires.
But these countries don’t have the right infrastructure for the super-rich: the racecourses, football pitches and tennis courts that host the most famous sporting events in the world, the Palladian country houses, the garden operas, the ancient private schools. England has all these things. And it also has the sort of secure political and economic structure that means the billionaires of Egypt and the troubled Middle East are pouring their billions into Britain. Sixty per cent of homes in London worth over £2.5 million are now owned by foreigners.
So England has become globalised — but the old-fashioned clichés of typical Englishness have never been so popular. Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United have all been snapped up by Russians and Americans with money to burn. Harrods has gone to Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund; the Savoy to the Saudi prince Al-Waleed bin Talal. And here’s another paradox. This tide of foreign money into England, and the English summer season, has revived the ancient institutions and nostalgic rites that many English natives had long ago rejected as over-formal, affected and ever so slightly embarrassing. In Scotland — where the foreign billions never arrived — indigenous arts, traditional music and highland sports have withered. Scottish cultural cringe means that German and Italian opera are imported by the Scottish Arts Council while fiddlers head to Nova Scotia to make a living.
But it’s only the juiciest English cherries that the new billionaires pick. The Oval and Lord’s are packed, while county cricket goes to the wall. West End theatre and the opera at Covent Garden thrive, while regional theatres dim their lights for good. As provincial racecourses face bankruptcy, high-end racing has
dodged the recession. At last week’s Derby, attendance was up by more than 6,000; hospitality sales soared by 25 per cent, as punters drank 14,000 bottles of champagne, 65,000 pints of lager and 35,000 glasses of Pimm’s. The English summer is no longer ‘sand in the sandwiches, wasps in the tea’ — as John Betjeman described it. It’s caviar on the smoked salmon, bees in the Bollinger.
The international celebration of Englishness reaches new heights on sports day at the best English private schools. At Eton, the fourth of June now plays host to a United Nations of the richest parents in the world. Gone are the days when prep schools were the last word in austerity chic, when Molesworth warmed his frozen fingers on the only radiator at St Custard’s. Now Russian oligarchs fly in to sports days at Oxfordshire prep schools, landing their choppers on the rugby pitch. Again, though, it’s only the most expensive, ancient and famous English schools that get the moneybags treatment. Many of England’s lesser private schools — those dependent on recession-struck English parents — are closing down or making last-ditch appeals for their survival. Meanwhile the elite schools have never been so flush. In its annual appeal last year, Westminster School sought donations from old boys — including Nick Clegg and, incidentally, myself — for a £12,200 ‘planetarium projector’, a £5,000 ‘ultraviolet-visible spectrophotometer’ and a £25,000 set of theatre lights.
An educational arms race has escalated among the global elite, who want their children at English schools and American universities. As our state schools plunge down the international league tables, the best English private schools cruise heavenwards into an altogether headier stratosphere. They have morphed into hi-tech luxury hotels, purpose-built to satisfy the new breed of international client. And, while the hedge-funder elite drive up school fees, house prices and the cost of a Wimbledon ticket, the Merchant Ivory vision of an English Arcadia is rigorously maintained: whether it’s strawberries and cream at Wimbledon, the top hat and tails dress code at the Derby, or the shorts, cap and blazer of the prep school uniform, frozen in the 1950s.
Most of the English, though, have long since fled this gilt-edged wonderland for cheaper climes, like Tenerife and Florida. The English summer has never been so English. It’s just a shame that the English can’t afford it any more.
Harry Mount is writing a book for Penguin on why England looks like England.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated June 18, 2011