روز سوم - عصر موقع - 03

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روز سوم - عصر موقع - 03

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I trust I need hardly underline the extent of the discomfort I suffered tonight on account of the unfortunate misunderstanding concerning my person. I can only say now that in all honesty I fail to see how I might reasonably have prevented the situation developing as it did; for by the stage I had become aware of what was occurring, things had gone so far I could not have enlightened these people without creating much embarrassment all round. In any case, regrettable as the whole business was, I do not see that any real harm has been done. I will, after all, take my leave of these people in the morning and presumably never encounter them again. There seems little point in dwelling on the matter.

However, the unfortunate misunderstanding aside, there are perhaps one or two other aspects to this evening’s events which warrant a few moments’ thought – if only because otherwise they may come to niggle one throughout the coming days. For instance, there is the matter of Mr Harry Smith’s pronouncements on the nature of ‘dignity’. There is surely little in his statements that merits serious consideration. Of course, one has to allow that Mr Harry Smith was employing the word ‘dignity’ in a quite different sense altogether from my own understanding of it. Even so, even taken on their own terms, his statements were, surely, far too idealistic, far too theoretical, to deserve respect. Up to a point, no doubt, there is some truth in what he says: in a country such as ours, people may indeed have a certain duty to think about great affairs and form their opinions. But life being what it is, how can ordinary people truly be expected to have ‘strong opinions’ on all manner of things – as Mr Harry Smith rather fancifully claims the villagers here do? And not only are these expectations unrealistic, I rather doubt if they are even desirable. There is, after all, a real limit to how much ordinary people can learn and know, and to demand that each and every one of them contribute ‘strong opinions’ to the great debates of the nation cannot, surely, be wise. It is, in any case, absurd that anyone should presume to define a person’s ‘dignity’ in these terms.

As it happens, there is an instance that comes to mind which I believe illustrates rather well the real limits of whatever truth may be contained in Mr Harry Smith’s views. It is, as it happens, an instance from my own experience, an episode that took place before the war, around 1935.

As I recall, I was rung for late one night – it was past midnight – to the drawing room where his lordship had been entertaining three gentlemen since dinner. I had, naturally, been called to the drawing room several times already that night to replenish refreshments, and had observed on these occasions the gentlemen deep in conversation over weighty issues. When I entered the drawing room on this last occasion, however, all the gentlemen stopped talking and looked at me. Then his lordship said: ‘Step this way a moment, will you, Stevens? Mr Spencer here wishes a word with you.’

The gentleman in question went on gazing at me for a moment without changing the somewhat languid posture he had adopted in his armchair. Then he said:

‘My good man, I have a question for you. We need your help on a certain matter we’ve been debating. Tell me, do you suppose the debt situation regarding America is a significant factor in the present low levels of trade? Or do you suppose this is a red herring and that the abandonment of the gold standard is at the root of the matter?’

I was naturally a little surprised by this, but then quickly saw the situation for what it was; that is to say, it was clearly expected that I be baffled by the question. Indeed, in the moment or so that it took for me to perceive this and compose a suitable response, I may even have given the outward impression of struggling with the question, for I saw all the gentlemen in the room exchange mirthful smiles.

‘I’m very sorry, sir,’ I said, ‘but I am unable to be of assistance on this matter.’

I was by this point well on top of the situation, but the gentlemen went on laughing covertly. Then Mr Spencer said:

‘Then perhaps you will help us on another matter. Would you say that the currency problem in Europe would be made better or worse if there were to be an arms agreement between the French and the Bolsheviks?’

‘I’m very sorry, sir, but I am unable to be of assistance on this matter.’

‘Oh dear,’ said Mr Spencer. ‘So you can’t help us here either.’

There was more suppressed laughter before his lordship said: ‘Very well, Stevens. That will be all.’

‘Please, Darlington, I have one more question to put to our good man here,’ Mr Spencer said. ‘I very much wanted his help on the question presently vexing many of us, and which we all realize is crucial to how we should shape our foreign policy. My good fellow, please come to our assistance. What was M. Laval really intending, by his recent speech on the situation in North Africa? Are you also of the view that it was simply a ruse to scupper the nationalist fringe of his own domestic party?’ ‘I’m sorry, sir, but I am unable to assist in this matter.’

‘You see, gentlemen,’ Mr Spencer said, turning to the others, ‘our man here is unable to assist us in these matters.’

This brought fresh laughter, now barely suppressed.

‘And yet,’ Mr Spencer went on, ‘we still persist with the notion that this nation’s decisions be left in the hands of our good man here and to the few million others like him. Is it any wonder, saddled as we are with our present parliamentary system, that we are unable to find any solution to our many difficulties? Why, you may as well ask a committee of the mothers’ union to organize a war campaign.’ There was open, hearty laughter at this remark, during which his lordship muttered: ‘Thank you, Stevens,’ thus enabling me to take my leave.

While of course this was a slightly uncomfortable situation, it was hardly the most difficult, or even an especially unusual one to encounter in the course of one’s duties, and you will no doubt agree that any decent professional should expect to take such events in his stride. I had, then, all but forgotten the episode by the following morning, when Lord Darlington came into the billiard room while I was up on a step-ladder dusting portraits, and said: ‘Look here, Stevens, it was dreadful. The ordeal we put you through last night.’

I paused in what I was doing and said: ‘Not at all, sir. I was only too happy to be of service.’

‘It was quite dreadful. We’d all had rather too good a dinner, I fancy. Please accept my apologies.’

‘Thank you, sir. But I am happy to assure you I was not unduly inconvenienced.’

His lordship walked over rather wearily to a leather armchair, seated himself and sighed. From my vantage point up on my ladder, I could see practically the whole of his long figure caught in the winter sunshine pouring in through the french windows and streaking much of the room. It was, as I recall it, one of those moments that brought home how much the pressures of life had taken their toll on his lordship over a relatively small number of years. His frame, always slender, had become alarmingly thin and somewhat misshapen, his hair prematurely white, his face strained and haggard. For a while, he sat gazing out of the french windows towards the downs, then said again: ‘It really was quite dreadful. But you see, Stevens, Mr Spencer had a point to prove to Sir Leonard. In fact, if it’s any consolation, you did assist in demonstrating a very important point. Sir Leonard had been talking a lot of that old-fashioned nonsense. About the will of the people being the wisest arbitrator and so on. Would you believe it, Stevens?’

‘Indeed, sir.’

‘We’re really so slow in this country to recognize when a thing’s outmoded. Other great nations know full well that to meet the challenges of each new age means discarding old, sometimes well-loved methods. Not so here in Britain. There’s still so many talking like Sir Leonard last night. That’s why Mr Spencer felt the need to demonstrate his point. And I tell you, Stevens, if the likes of Sir Leonard are made to wake up and think a little, then you can take it from me your ordeal last night was not in vain.’ ‘Indeed, sir.’

Lord Darlington gave another sigh. ‘We’re always the last, Stevens. Always the last to be clinging on to outmoded systems. But sooner or later, we’ll need to face up to the facts. Democracy is something for a bygone era. The world’s far too complicated a place now for universal suffrage and such like. For endless members of parliament debating things to a standstill. All fine a few years ago perhaps, but in today’s world? What was it Mr Spencer said last night? He put it rather well.’ ‘I believe, sir, he compared the present parliamentary system to a committee of the mothers’ union attempting to organize a war campaign.’

‘Exactly, Stevens. We are, quite frankly, behind the times in this country. And it’s imperative that all forward-looking people impress this on the likes of Sir Leonard.’

‘Indeed, sir.’

‘I ask you, Stevens. Here we are in the midst of a continuing crisis. I’ve seen it with my own eyes when I went north with Mr Whittaker. People are suffering. Ordinary, decent working people are suffering terribly. Germany and Italy have set their houses in order by acting. And so have the wretched Bolsheviks in their own way, one supposes. Even President Roosevelt, look at him, he’s not afraid to take a few bold steps on behalf of his people. But look at us here, Stevens. Year after year goes by, and nothing gets better. All we do is argue and debate and procrastinate. Any decent idea is amended to ineffectuality by the time it’s gone half-way through the various committees it’s obliged to pass through. The few people qualified to know what’s what are talked to a standstill by ignorant people all around them. What do you make of it, Stevens?’ ‘The nation does seem to be in a regrettable condition, sir.’

‘I’ll say. Look at Germany and Italy, Stevens. See what strong leadership can do if it’s allowed to act. None of this universal suffrage nonsense there. If your house is on fire, you don’t call the household into the drawing room and debate the various options for escape for an hour, do you? It may have been all very well once, but the world’s a complicated place now. The man in the street can’t be expected to know enough about politics, economics, world commerce and what have you. And why should he? In fact, you made a very good reply last night, Stevens. How did you put it? Something to the effect that it was not in your realm? Well, why should it be?’ It occurs to me in recalling these words that, of course, many of Lord Darlington’s ideas will seem today rather odd – even, at times, unattractive. But surely it cannot be denied that there is an important element of truth in these things he said to me that morning in the billiard room. Of course, it is quite absurd to expect any butler to be in a position to answer authoritatively questions of the sort Mr Spencer had put to me that night, and the claim of people like Mr Harry Smith that one’s ‘dignity’ is conditional on being able to do so can be seen for the nonsense it is. Let us establish this quite clearly: a butler’s duty is to provide good service. It is not to meddle in the great affairs of the nation. The fact is, such great affairs will always be beyond the understanding of those such as you and I, and those of us who wish to make our mark must realize that we best do so by concentrating on what is within our realm; that is to say, by devoting our attention to providing the best possible service to those great gentlemen in whose hands the destiny of civilization truly lies. This may seem obvious, but then one can immediately think of too many instances of butlers who, for a time anyway, thought quite differently. Indeed, Mr Harry Smith’s words tonight remind me very much of the sort of misguided idealism which beset significant sections of our generation throughout the twenties and thirties. I refer to that strand of opinion in the profession which suggested that any butler with serious aspirations should make it his business to be forever reappraising his employer – scrutinizing the latter’s motives, analysing the implications of his views. Only in this way, so the argument ran, could one be sure one’s skills were being employed to a desirable end. Although one sympathizes to some extent with the idealism contained in such an argument, there can be little doubt that it is the result, like Mr Smith’s sentiments tonight, of misguided thinking. One need only look at the butlers who attempted to put such an approach into practice, and one will see that their careers – and in some cases they were highly promising careers – came to nothing as a direct consequence. I personally knew at least two professionals, both of some ability, who went from one employer to the next, forever dissatisfied, never settling anywhere, until they drifted from view altogether. That this should happen is not in the least surprising. For it is, in practice, simply not possible to adopt such a critical attitude towards an employer and at the same time provide good service. It is not simply that one is unlikely to be able to meet the many demands of service at the higher levels while one’s attentions are being diverted by such matters; more fundamentally, a butler who is forever attempting to formulate his own ‘strong opinions’ on his employer’s affairs is bound to lack one quality essential in all good professionals: namely, loyalty. Please do not misunderstand me here; I do not refer to the mindless sort of ‘loyalty’ that mediocre employers bemoan the lack of when they find themselves unable to retain the services of high-calibre professionals. Indeed, I would be among the last to advocate bestowing one’s loyalty carelessly on any lady or gentleman who happens to employ one for a time. However, if a butler is to be of any worth to anything or anybody in life, there must surely come a time when he ceases his searching; a time when he must say to himself: ‘This employer embodies all that I find noble and admirable. I will hereafter devote myself to serving him.’ This is loyalty intelligently bestowed. What is there ‘undignified’ in this? One is simply accepting an inescapable truth: that the likes of you and I will never be in a position to comprehend the great affairs of today’s world, and our best course will always be to put our trust in an employer we judge to be wise and honourable, and to devote our energies to the task of serving him to the best of our ability. Look at the likes of Mr Marshall, say, or Mr Lane – surely two of the greatest figures in our profession. Can we imagine Mr Marshall arguing with Lord Camberley over the latter’s latest dispatch to the Foreign Office? Do we admire Mr Lane any the less because we learn he is not in the habit of challenging Sir Leonard Gray before each speech in the House of Commons? Of course we do not. What is there ‘undignified’, what is there at all culpable in such an attitude? How can one possibly be held to blame in any sense because, say, the passage of time has shown that Lord Darlington’s efforts were misguided, even foolish? Throughout the years I served him, it was he and he alone who weighed up evidence and judged it best to proceed in the way he did, while I simply confined myself, quite properly, to affairs within my own professional realm. And as far as I am concerned, I carried out my duties to the best of my abilities, indeed to a standard which many may consider ‘first rate’. It is hardly my fault if his lordship’s life and work have turned out today to look, at best, a sad waste – and it is quite illogical that I should feel any regret or shame on my own account.

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