What the Romans can teach us about riches

“The £200m super-mansion,” said the headline in the Daily Mail. Marcus Cooper, a property developer, has bought seven houses facing London’s Regent’s Park and is planning to knock them together to form a single stuccoed “super-mansion”. It will mean taking down a few walls in the Grade I-listed Regency houses – but what are a few walls if it gets you a pad with 15 bedrooms and a 40ft-long roof garden with a giant sliding glass roof? “With an estimated £200m asking price,” says the Daily Mail – 1,229 times the average house price of £162,606 – “it will be one of the most expensive properties in Britain”. Who on earth would want such a house?

But then I had a similar reaction about weddings when I saw pictures of Tamara Ecclestone tying the knot last week. “Was Tamara’s £7m wedding a feast of vulgarity?” wondered the Daily Mail, adding: “Wall-to-wall chavs, guests mooning and being sick, £3.5m blown on singers alone…” You get the gist (though to be fair to Tamara, her sister’s wedding cost even more: £12m).

Now, I’m not against people spending money. This column is, after all, called “Blowing It”. But when I read stories like these, I rather agree with India Knight, who said in The Sunday Times that we should learn from the ancient Romans. They had a law called “lex sumptuaria”, which, says Knight, regulated the use of luxury items and public manifestations of wealth.

The idea was to keep extravagance in check, though unhappily the law petered out by the time of the excesses of the Roman Empire. Similar sumptuary laws existed in Ancient Greece, in Japan under the Shoguns – and in England. “The excess of apparel and the superfluity of unnecessary foreign wares… is grown by sufferance to such an extremity that the manifest decay of the whole realm generally is like to follow,” read a statue issued at Greenwich in 1574 by order of Elizabeth I.

Knight reckons we could do with a return to such sumptuary laws. Reading about Tamara’s nuptials, and a zillionaire house-buyer ripping out a previous owner’s luxury kitchen, which had cost the price of an average house, she wonders: “What has happened to restraint, to modesty, to thinking ‘how amazing that I can afford a house with an unbelievably expensive kitchen; I must be the luckiest person alive!’ What’s with throwing the kitchen away?”

All over London, “ludicrously expensive areas that were once affordable are being colonised by ludicrously rich people who tear up basements, dig down for swimming pools and private car parks, add extensions for private cinemas and nanny flats and God knows what else”.

As for Tamara’s wedding: the ostentation, the vulgarity, “the pathetic neediness of being seen to be suffocatingly wealthy” at a time when others are struggling. Why can’t Tamara behave like Keira Knightley, who married modestly a month ago in a dress she had worn before and looked blissfully happy? I’m no revolutionary, but one has to admit that Knight has a point.

Tabloid money: ”Spain is not a country, it’s a crime scene”

 

• Last week I was confronted by an “incredible, amazing, awful and shocking spectacle”, says Jeremy Clarkson in The Sun. I went to an airport in Spain, about 70 miles from Madrid. There were trolleys and scanners and luggage carousels, but no people. “Not one. And no planes either… This massive airport was built at a cost of €1.1 billion. It opened in 2009 and went bust three months later.”

In April last year, it closed for good. But what is incredible is that anyone “with half a brain” could have seen the failure coming, because the airport “is in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but deserted hills for miles in every direction… You just know what happened though, really. You paid your taxes to Mr Brown. He gave them to the EU. The EU gave them to Spain, which spent them on idiotic projects that could only ever benefit the get-rich-quick property spivs and their mates in local politics.

“It’s not just a solitary airport either. There are whole towns with no one living in them. I went to a brand new school that had just four pupils. I drove on motorways where I saw no other car. I found one with goats grazing in the central reservation. It’s said that today there are between 700,000 and 1.6 million new flats and houses for sale. Flats and houses that simply were not necessary. This then is not a country. It is a crime scene… How many of the world’s problems could have been solved with the money Spain’s leaders have wasted?”

• “The staggering bill for the eight-year battle to boot out Abu Qatada highlights the idiocy of not taking swift action on foreign terror suspects,” says The Sun. “The legal fees total £1.7m. And they’re just the start. Qatada’s prison stays have cost hundreds of thousands. Monitoring him costs £100,000 a week. Then, of course, there’s his £25,000 a year in benefits. Our mistake was abiding by every letter of the Human Rights Act… If we’d been as quick as France in sticking hate preachers on the first plane, we’d have been rid of him a decade ago. For the price of an air fare.”