MOTOR CITY Classic cars parked in front of Goodwood House.
Vanity Fair Magazine - September 2013 issue
I had a dream. I’m in a car. It’s a Maserati. I’m in the passenger seat. The engine makes a noise like Johnny Cash picking up the soap in Folsom Prison. We’re on a country lane. It’s narrow, with twists and turns. There are people on both sides screaming at me and waving. They look frightened, but I can’t hear what they’re saying. We’re going far, far too fast. And then suddenly ahead of me there’s a white brick wall—it charges at the car. In a panic I look at the driver, and it’s a member of Pink Floyd. Panic goes into sixth gear—it’s the drummer from Pink Floyd. F***, I’m just another brick in the wall. But when I open my eyes I’m not safe, home in bed. I’m still in the Maserati with Nick Mason, who is the drummer from Pink Floyd, and here is the smile of a man who, having tried everything else, has been reduced to experimenting with his own adrenaline.
“Well, that was fun,” Mason says as we unstrap and get out of the Maserati. Around us, and beneath us, stretches Goodwood, the seat of the Dukes of Richmond, a 12,000-acre estate that lies 60 miles south of London and is famous for the motor-racing track, the world-class horse-racing track, the organic farm, the golf course and its club, the fantastic pheasant shoot, the hotel, and the stately home, with the art and the naturally sublime views. Oh, and the World War II airfield, where, even as we look, the helicopters of those who simply can’t face a three-hour traffic jam from London are landing. What could be more agreeable than Goodwood? Grandiloquent Goodwood and its two annual motoring events, the Festival of Speed and the Revival. A big boy’s vision of a patrician heaven. A great, green toy box that surpasses the dreams of oligarchs.
Nick and I and the Maserati have just completed the Hill Climb, a race up a wholly improbable course, and one of the main events during the four-day Festival of Speed. It’s the sort of thing aristocrats come up with instead of completing full-time education, learning to read without moving their lips, or working. They invent dangerous dares and limb-snapping games to weed out the weaker heirs. Goodwood is a paragon of toff derring-do. There is barely an inch of this blamelessly pretty estate where you can’t be rendered a bruised black-and-blueblood. The motor-racing track was built by the current duke’s father in 1948 but was mothballed after he became disillusioned with the sport. Now Goodwood’s Festival of Speed and the Revival have become two of the most popular four-wheeled events in Europe, attracting more than 300,000 each year as well as sponsorship from an elbowing scrum of elite and desirable luxury-goods brands. Belstaff has just launched a line of clothing called Goodwood Sports & Racing.
How did all this happen? How did Goodwood become the posh daddy of corporate entertainment and the mass-market plebe’s day out? This is the story of aristocratic folk. Bear with me. Bring your best doffing cap. We’re going back into black-and-white and the impermeable permafrost of the English class system.
The British aristocracy, for the most part, has been strangled by its own articulacy, drowned in the mass of the middle class. The only real trace of it is a few sepia-toned photographs ironically hung in five-star-hotel bathrooms. What is left of the old aristocracy is sorry, lost, and irredeemably stupid. Refugees in their own houses, living in corners, cutting coupons, eating out of cans, complaining to the postman about the state of the nation and the hell of modernity. But if you had to save one, just for breeding purposes, as an ideal specimen, it would have to be 58-year-old Charles Henry Gordon Lennox, Earl of March, heir to the Duke of Richmond, Gordon, and Aubigny, and the man behind Goodwood.
Within a minute of meeting Lord March you will be aware that he is warm, charming, amused, interested, and self-deprecating about his deftness in a very British way. He’s also easy on the eyes. He works far more diligently and longer than he would like you to notice. He is not the man he would have chosen to be, but then that’s the toll that heredity demands. He wears his titles and history with a fatalistic shrug, like a birthmark, or a limb. He would have been, if all things had been egalitarian, a successful photographer, which he was, for years, in London. But that wasn’t his fate. The luck of the Gordon Lennoxes is that they have bred themselves better than anyone else. (When you consider that breeding is the only thing aristocrats have to do, it’s astonishing they’ve produced so many human mules.)
Gordon Lennox is the family name. The double-barrel usually means an injection of mercantile cash somewhere back down the line from a fortuitous marriage. “March” is a courtesy title for the heir to the dukedom. Charles’s father, 83, is the current duke. None of the 10 Dukes of Richmond have been mouth-breathing window lickers. All have served their nation and managed to stay away from packs of cards and showgirls. The fourth duke fought two duels, winning both, built Lord’s Cricket Ground, and died of rabies in 1819 after being bitten by a fox in Canada.
The titles originate from the 17th century and one of Charles II’s mistresses, a French lady whose talents were admirably suited to her calling. She was a goddess on her back but a spy on the side. The French king paid her a fortune to share the English king’s pillow talk; the English king paid her a fortune to keep the pillow under her bottom. She was possibly the most publicly loathed woman in all of Merry England’s history. One day, what was believed to be her carriage was stoned by a furious mob incensed by her Catholicism. The window was pulled down and Nell Gwyn, the King’s other mistress, pushed out her famously beautiful embonpoint and shouted, “Pray good people. I am the Protestant whore.”
King Charles’s illegitimate son was made the first Duke of Richmond, and, not to be outdone, the French king made him the Duke of Aubigny. With this auspicious start, the Richmonds amassed wealth, art, and position, all of which is expensive to maintain, and by the time Charles got to the big house, something middle-class needed to be done to keep the spoons polished. He was and still is a very good photographer—that was the life and vocation that he loved and might have continued but for the ancestors frowning down from their drafty walls, stonily calling him to his birthright. So he set about preserving the estate and the house and his grandfather’s racetrack. He reinstated it for the Festival of Speed in 1993 with a smart counter-intuition that is rare for his class. Charles celebrated the motorcar when everyone else was saying that it was utilitarian and pointless. He insisted that there was a great romance in cars and that there was nowhere to go if you felt romantic about them. He understood that a lot of people would pay to spend a lot of hours just watching cars do what they were made to do, which is make a lot of noise and go very fast. He also knew that a lot of very famous people would turn up to drive them. And that nearly every retired racecar driver with all his limbs would love to take a spin around the track. Film stars, pop stars, and aristocrats don’t have to be asked twice to come to Goodwood to show off their vintage Morgans and Ferraris. There is a concours d’élégance, a beauty parade, of which I am occasionally an inexpert judge. We walk around looking at polished curves and chrome back ends, staring in the way that you’re not allowed to look at women but with a similar yearning.
There are hospitality tents and shops and restaurants and dim sum as far as the eye can see, and there is music and promenading and buckets of champagne, and it’s all wrung with a silky confidence that comes with a certain British élan. The festival has grown and grown until it’s like Woodstock for highly tuned combustion engines that howl protest songs against the dullness and boredom and risk-filtered tedium of modern motoring.
Then there is the Revival, every September, which is the same thing all over again though in fancy dress. This is fantastically balmy but winning entertainment. The British are very partial to dressing up in what Americans call “costume.” They used to stipulate an era for everyone to come dressed up in, but then they gave up because the public’s grasp of history wasn’t as keen as their need to come as a W.W. I fighter pilot or a can-can dancer. So now everyone comes as whatever or whoever they like. And thousands a year do, and it is a spectacular and otherworldly vision. A milling horde that looks like extras from every British film ever made, particularly war films. And to make it all matter, Lord March runs an organization called Goodwood Actors Guild, with more than 200 thespians who mingle with the crowd and have impromptu dramatic moments, like nostalgic theater. So you might come across Lawrence of Arabia on his camel or Charlie Chaplin having a quiet moment or an Andrews sister broken down at the side of the road. Seen from a distance in the summer light it could also all be a day of judgment, the rising of ghosts. Goodwood’s Revival is a little like passport control to heaven.
The last time I was there Charles asked if I’d like to go around the track with a man, dressed as J. R. Ewing, driving me in a large American car with fins that rocked through the corners, while beside us the 20th century rolled past. Wars and politics, weddings and parties, entertainments and vanished jobs, all swam into the distance. Above us a flight of Spitfires and Hurricanes rose from the airfield in tight formation with the unmistakable fruity sound of the Merlin engine. They banked and climbed in the blue sky where 70 years earlier the Battle of Britain had been fought on days exactly like this one. Even the weather had come in fancy dress.
On the last evening of the Revival, Charles hosts a grand costume ball. And a ball is what his family is most famous for. The Duchess of Richmond gave a ball in Brussels in 1815 on the night that Napoleon marched his army into the Battle of Waterloo, in Belgium. The young British officers had to hurry to their regiments still in their dress uniforms to fight. Byron wrote of it in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, the poem that made him the first celebrity: “Ah! then and there was hurrying to and fro, / And gathering tears, and tremblings of distress, / And cheeks all pale, which but an hour ago / Blushed at the praise of their own loveliness ” That could also be the epitaph of the British aristocracy. Two years from now will be the 200th anniversary of the ball. I expect Charles is coming up with something spectacular.
I sit in London’s Wolseley restaurant at lunchtime waiting for Lord March. He bustles in, as hurried as a man who fills his days with the eternally optimistic expectation that an extra hour will be produced from some ethereal clock by some accomplished flunky. He walks through the room. Businessmen reach out to greet him. Lunching women beam. He knows everyone, and I’ve yet to find one among them who has a critical word to say about him. He talks candidly but guardedly about his life and achievement of securing the great pile of responsibility passed to him without choice, making it not just solvent but hugely successful and an enviable brand that grows year by year without desecrating or cheapening the estate. He takes it seriously, but he’s not serious about it. Given another life, given the choice, he might have remained in the terraced house in London and taken pictures. He’s done his duty, done what the silent ancestors with the eyes that follow you around the room have demanded of him. He has secured the land and the heritage for generations of Lord Marches. But he’s also something even more impressive, something they never were—he has managed that aristocratic oxymoron: he is a self-made man.