When the Earl Came to Dinner
Aristocracy derives from the Greek word ἀριστοκρατία (aristokratia), it is actually two words combined aristos meaning “excellent” and kratos meaning “power”.
It is a term meaning “rule of the best” and in later times aristocracy was seen as rule by a privileged group, the aristocratic class and was in stark contrast with democracy. Perhaps the best example of this contrast was the French Revolution of 1789 to 1799 when aristocrats were dragged onto the streets and beheaded as the French people attempted to remove aristocracy – “the rule of the best” – to a democracy – “the rule of the people”. The world has seen the demise of virtually all ruling aristocracies yet the mystic of the aristocracy remains. In the United Kingdom, Queen Elizabeth II remains adored and in Thailand King Bhumibol Adulyadej is protected by lèse majesté laws that see any negative comment about him harshly punished.
The general public’s romance with aristocratic life is the stuff of films and television and the success of Downton Abbey re-inforced this love affair. I recently had drinks in London with an old friend who is The Dowager Countess of Pembroke & Montgomery, an hereditary Earldom created in 1551 and continuing down through its male line to the present day. During the conversation I made reference that the Earl of Grantham was coming to my house for dinner, to which she paused and replied “oh I do not know the Granthams”. I then reminded her that this Earl was merely a character in a television show that has attracted a global audience in the hundreds of millions. She laughed at this cross over of worlds, this blurring of reality and the dream that the life of the aristocracy is so perfect.
The Earl of Grantham is the actor Hugh Bonneville and I had the great fortune of meeting him during a visit to Hong Kong where he very kindly attended a workshop arranged by Shakespeare 4 All, a non-profit organisation of which I am Chairman that reaches out to under-privileged students and teaches them the power of their voice through the works of the Bard. For Hugh to come to a band 3 school and spend 90 minutes inspiring them through a re-enactment of scenes from Macbeth was for them, a life changing opportunity. The students choose drama not because it is part of the curriculum, but because of their love of theatre. To meet such an aristocrat of his craft was inspiring for both Hugh and the students.
During the question and answer session the topic of fame was raised, with one student boldly asking how he could be “famous like you, I want to be a star”, to which Hugh replied that he was not sure that he was famous and he certainly did not feel like a “star”. He reminded the students that being famous is not the creed of an actor; it is the passion for the craft of acting that must be at the foundation of any dream to tread the boards. He also reminded them that his ‘fame’ in Downton Abbey was the result of four decades of hard work. Fame he reminded them is fleeting and, as in all careers, hard work is required. The students will have listened to this advice and hopefully some of them will realise that the pursuit of excellence is always the result of hard work. As Hugh signed photographs the children screamed with delight as he ignited in them the flame of aspiration, the reality that from any walk of life, one can become an aristocrat.
The following evening Hugh and his wife Lulu came to my home for dinner. In attendance were business leaders, consul generals and a friend whose mother is a friend of Lulu’s mother, who is herself a British aristocrat. It was a fun filled evening of laughter, good food, great wine and conversation. Hugh commented again how fulfilling he found his time with the students and how being able to reach out in to the community and spread the love of his craft meant so much to him. He joked about how people actually bow and curtsy to him as they feel the power of his television show has made them think he is a real Earl.
Our fascination with aristocracy continues even in countries where democracy has been removed; the replacement of class with wealth has seen a myriad of families and individuals attain great wealth, they are often referred to as ‘princelings’ and members of the “new aristocracy”. But here the similarity stops, for wealth is not the gauge by which aristocracy is measured. “Excellence with Power” was created because those who attained the rank of the aristocracy were the best of their field, they were the craftsmen of their chosen careers. In the United Kingdom the House of Lords preserves an upper chamber whose members can act independently, without being beholden to party loyalties or partisan scruple. Reform is taking place to keep the upper chamber in step with our modern society, but the requirement that peers, or aristocrats, remain the best of their field remains.
Hugh Bonneville is an aristocrat of theatre and film, not because he played for six years an imaginary Earl but because he has devoted his life to his craft. His passion for acting is not borne of a desire for fame or fortune, it is his belief in the tradition of theatre, his commitment to his craft is that of an apprentice who seeks to learn from a master in order to excel and then to pass this knowledge to a new generation.
We live in a world of instant gratification; the pursuit of excellence is not the short cut, it is a commitment to spend your life becoming the very best of what you want, it is to fall passionately in love with your chosen career, it is to become the definition of ‘excellence’. Achieve this and you can truly become an aristocrat and reap the rewards of respect others will pay you.
Author: Mark Peaker, CEO & Co-founder of 3812 Gallery. All photos are provided, courtesy of Mark Peaker.
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