I always feel a little sorry for National Trust volunteers – in much the same way that I feel sorry for ardent royalists who camp out for royal events and proclaim undying ‘love’ for the royal family – very rich people they don’t know and who don’t know them.
Each public room at the National Trust’s Wallington Hall – the home of the Trevelyan family – had a tweeded retiree bursting to tell us fascinating details about the décor and which Victorian notables had swaggered around it. I knew without being told that the wallpaper was by William Morris – that man certainly got around and I’ve always admired his knack of concealing the joins when he papered – something I’ve never mastered.
I observed to the elderly guide in the central hall that one of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings depicting the history of Northumberland took a lot from Ford Madox Brown’s ‘Work’ - painted a full decade earlier. She smiled and moved on to recite her script to some loud Americans.
The name Trevelyan, though, was troubling me. I spoke to my mother that evening and she sang a few lines of ‘The Fields of Athenry’ down the phone - reminding me that the Irish convict transported in the song ‘stole Trevelyan’s corn’. Wallington, we realised, had been home to Charles Edward Trevelyan, the British administrator who famously described the Irish Famine as:
‘an effective mechanism for reducing surplus population.’
‘So what will you do?’ my mother asked, ‘Will you go again and mention their oversight in the background information? Maybe send them an email.’
I thought about this and realised that either action would be a very English response and would be politely rebuffed, or passed on. I recalled a dispute I once had with Maude – during which potatoes were used as missiles. This memory led to my decision to employ direct action and involve my daughters who would be simultaneously thrilled and reminded of their heritage.
‘Operation Wake Up Wallington’ began to take shape.
Aurora produced a storyboard, a plan and an equipment checklist.
Backpack 1 (me): ukelele, potatoes.
Backpack 2 (Aurora): potatoes, water pistol.
Backpack 3 (Casta): potatoes, water pistol, harmonica.
Enter Wallington Hall.Smile and act 'normal'. Take leaflet.
Move through rooms, walking normally and not giggling.
Dad asks question about wallpaper and looks really interested.
Arrive in central hall.
Wait until central hall is empty (apart from old lady in tweed).
Dad talks to old lady. Girls get out as many potatoes as they can hold.
Dad gets out of way. Aurora (best aimer) throws potatoes at old lady (not face).
Dad gets out ukulele and stands in centre of hall (best sound).
Dad sings ‘Fields of Athenry’ and shouts the line about Trevelyan.
Casta (worst aimer and loudest shouter) uses noise and potatoes to repel all those who try to enter until Dad has finished song (or security people appear).