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‘Basically, we’re stuffed’

Christina Patterson meets Simon Thurley, English Heritage’s aesthetic boss,who is realistic about the current economic landscape

You might expect a chief executive of English Heritage to look quite English, and Simon Thurley certainly does. He has the pale eyes, and fine bones, of the English upper classes. He has the clipped vowels of the English upper classes, too. In his nice pink shirt, in his nice white office, in a nice big Victorian building near Chancery Lane, he has the air of a man who lives a nice, quiet, clean, ordered life.

He also has a very big job. He looks after, or at least the organisation he runs looks after, more than 400 historical sites. He advises the government on ‘England’s historic environment’, which must mean he has to give an awful lot of advice. And he writes books. He has written books on Hampton Court, and Whitehall Palace, and Oatlands Palace, and now he’s written a book about the men – and yes they were all men — who ‘saved’ Britain’s heritage.

‘Not many eight-year-olds want to be an inspector of ancient monuments,’ he admits, when I ask when he decided that he wanted to be one of those men, too. It started, apparently, with the discovery of Roman remains in the back garden of the house he grew up in. Which, I’m guessing, wasn’t a Sixties box, like mine. ‘Baptist manse,’ he says. ‘In a central plot of land, with a big wall all around.’ An old Baptist manse, perhaps? ‘Regency.’

He reminds me, I tell him, of a character in a novel I’ve just read. The character is, like Thurley — or Dr Thurley, as his website keeps calling him — a TV historian. (His website says that he ‘believes that television is a very important medium for architectural history’, which does rather make you think of someone telling you that there’s a great new invention called the internet.) The character was an aesthete, even at university. Was he?

Thurley, or Dr Thurley as I can’t quite bring myself to call him, looks surprised. ‘Well, I’ve always been very interested in making the environment I live in…’ He doesn’t quite finish the sentence. I’ll take that, I tell him, as a yes. He laughs. It’s quite a dry laugh. ‘If you saw where I lived you’d get the picture pretty quickly.’ And that is? ‘800-year-old Grade 1-listed, full of moths eating the carpets.’ Ah, yes. English style, history, and beauty, so English self-deprecation, too. What, this old thing? Oh, just something the moths are eating up.

The house is in King’s Lynn, but there’s a flat in London, too. He works from home on Fridays, and goes back to Norfolk, and his beautiful historian wife (Anna Keay, who used to work at English Heritage and is now the director of the Landmark Trust) and their two small children, on Thursday nights. None of this, I’m tempted to tell him, is doing all that much to dispel the image of ‘heritage’ as something really quite posh.

And nor does the TV series his PR sent me to watch, which was on BBC4 in March. A joint project between English Heritage and the BBC to mark the centenary of The Ancient Monuments Act, it was called Heritage! The Battle for Britain’s Past. It was, as you might guess from the exclamation mark, a jaunty account of the attempts that have been made to preserve England’s, er, heritage. (You can’t, I’m discovering, write about English Heritage without using the word the whole bloody time.) It was full of fascinating facts. You hear, for example, about how the Nazis used Baedeker guides to target buildings they wanted to bomb. You hear about the Ferguson gang, who wore masks and adopted guerilla tactics to raise money for the National Trust. And you hear an awful lot of very plummy voices. From the present, and not just the past. ‘Very interesting that you noticed that,’ says Thurley very politely. He doesn’t sound all that thrilled.

The series covered some of the same ground as Men from the Ministry, Thurley’s history of ‘the one official body that the government charged with what is called “preservation”’, which is also a homage to men — and women, I suppose, though there don’t seem to have been any — who do quiet, important, painstaking work behind the scenes. The book’s pretty painstaking, too. It’s packed full of facts about the people, events and bureaucratic procedures involved in trying to make sure that important parts of the nation’s history aren’t wiped out. No one could accuse Thurley of stinting on the detail. If Mastermind ever wants ‘heritage’ as a special subject, and can’t get him, they could probably now ask me.

He wrote the book, he says, because he ‘felt cross’ with politicians, because, ‘for them, culture is most succinctly and accurately represented by canvas covered in paint’. He certainly sounds cross in the book when he talks about the £95 million used to ‘save’ two paintings for the nation, which wouldn’t actually have been destroyed, he says, if they hadn’t been bought. But if the ‘men from the ministry’ hadn’t filled out their forms, and gone round the country gazing at ruins from the windows of their Morris Minors, we would now be ‘living in a horrible, ugly country’ because ‘it would all have been knocked down’.

If the ‘men from the ministry’ could afford to be a little bit casual about money, Simon Thurley certainly can’t. Like the head of pretty much every other organisation that gets public funds, he has had to make massive cuts. He has cut English Heritage’s deficit from £8 million to £2 million, and he has made 370 people — many of them his friends — redundant. But ‘big, bold, exciting thinking’ about how you deal with public services is, he says, ‘where the game’s at’. He is not, he says, going to ‘sit around weeping tears’ about the lost jobs of people he’s known for 20 years, because he knows, and he says his remaining staff also know, that ‘basically, we’re stuffed’.

For someone who’s ‘stuffed’, he looks quite cheerful. He looks, in fact, like a man who knows that being ‘stuffed’ is just part of the economic landscape of Britain in 2013, and part of the challenge that faces the people who are involved in managing and preserving its physical landscape, too. ‘If you don’t understand your past,’ he says, ‘you don’t value it.’ And value, he doesn’t need to add, isn’t quite the same as price.

You have to be steely to do a job like this. Simon Thurley is, I think, quite steely, and he seems to be doing the job pretty well. Like ‘every public servant’, he is, he says, ‘apprehensive’ about the future. But he wants, he says, to be part of ‘organising things in a different way’. He also wants to write. He’s got a whacking great history of English architecture coming out in September. He would, he says, be happy just to sit at home in his ‘library’ and write. Ah yes, the library. Ah yes, the 800-year-old house. Ah yes, the nice, quiet, clean, ordered, and really rather lovely, life.

Men from the Ministry: How Britain Saved its Heritage is published by Yale University Press.

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