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Taunton, Somerset

I lodged last night in an inn named the Coach and Horses a little way outside the town of Taunton, Somerset. This being a thatch-roofed cottage by the roadside, it had looked a conspicuously attractive prospect from the Ford as I had approached in the last of the daylight. The landlord led me up a timber stairway to a small room, rather bare, but perfectly decent. When he inquired whether I had dined, I asked him to serve me with a sandwich in my room, which proved a perfectly satisfactory option as far as supper was concerned. But then as the evening drew on, I began to feel a little restless in my room, and in the end decided to descend to the bar below to try a little of the local cider.

There were five or six customers all gathered in a group around the bar – one guessed from their appearance they were agricultural people of one sort or another – but otherwise the room was empty. Acquiring a tankard of cider from the landlord, I seated myself at a table a little way away, intending to relax a little and collect my thoughts concerning the day. It soon became clear, however, that these local people were perturbed by my presence, feeling something of a need to show hospitality. Whenever there was a break in their conversation, one or the other of them would steal a glance in my direction as though trying to find it in himself to approach me. Eventually one raised his voice and said to me: ‘It seems you’ve let yourself in for a night upstairs here, sir.’

When I told him this was so, the speaker shook his head doubtfully and remarked: ‘You won’t get much of a sleep up there, sir. Not unless you’re fond of the sound of old Bob’ – he indicated the landlord – ‘banging away down here right the way into the night. And then you’ll get woken by his missus shouting at him right from the crack of dawn.’

Despite the landlord’s protests, this caused loud laughter all round.

‘Is that indeed so?’ I said. And as I spoke, I was struck by the thought – the same thought as had struck me on numerous occasions of late in Mr Farraday’s presence – that some sort of witty retort was required of me. Indeed, the local people were now observing a polite silence, awaiting my next remark. I thus searched my imagination and eventually declared:

‘A local variation on the cock crow, no doubt.’

At first the silence continued, as though the local persons thought I intended to elaborate further. But then noticing the mirthful expression on my face, they broke into a laugh, though in a somewhat bemused fashion. With this, they returned to their previous conversation, and I exchanged no further words with them until exchanging good nights a little while later.

I had been rather pleased with my witticism when it had first come into my head, and I must confess I was slightly disappointed it had not been better received than it was. I was particularly disappointed, I suppose, because I have been devoting some time and effort over recent months to improving my skill in this very area. That is to say, I have been endeavouring to add this skill to my professional armoury so as to fulfil with confidence all Mr Farraday’s expectations with respect to bantering.

For instance, I have of late taken to listening to the wireless in my room whenever I find myself with a few spare moments – on those occasions, say, when Mr Farraday is out for the evening. One programme I listen to is called Twice a Week or More, which is in fact broadcast three times each week, and basically comprises two persons making humorous comments on a variety of topics raised by readers’ letters. I have been studying this programme because the witticisms performed on it are always in the best of taste and, to my mind, of a tone not at all out of keeping with the sort of bantering Mr Farraday might expect on my part. Taking my cue from this programme, I have devised a simple exercise which I try to perform at least once a day; whenever an odd moment presents itself, I attempt to formulate three witticisms based on my immediate surroundings at that moment. Or, as a variation on this same exercise, I may attempt to think of three witticisms based on the events of the past hour.

You will perhaps appreciate then my disappointment concerning my witticism yesterday evening. At first, I had thought it possible its limited success was due to my not having spoken clearly enough. But then the possibility occurred to me, once I had retired, that I might actually have given these people offence. After all, it could easily have been understood that I was suggesting the landlord’s wife resembled a cockerel – an intention that had not remotely entered my head at the time. This thought continued to torment me as I tried to sleep, and I had half a mind to make an apology to the landlord this morning. But his mood towards me as he served breakfast seemed perfectly cheerful and in the end I decided to let the matter rest.

But this small episode is as good an illustration as any of the hazards of uttering witticisms. By the very nature of a witticism, one is given very little time to assess its various possible repercussions before one is called to give voice to it, and one gravely risks uttering all manner of unsuitable things if one has not first acquired the necessary skill and experience. There is no reason to suppose this is not an area in which I will become proficient given time and practice, but, such are the dangers, I have decided it best, for the time being at least, not to attempt to discharge this duty in respect of Mr Farraday until I have practised further.

In any case, I am sorry to report that what the local people had themselves offered last night as a witticism of sorts – the prediction that I would not have a good night owing to disturbances from below – proved only too true. The landlord’s wife did not actually shout, but one could hear her talking incessantly both late into the night as she and her husband went about their tasks, and again from very early this morning. I was quite prepared to forgive the couple, however, for it was clear they were of diligent hardworking habits, and the noise, I am sure, was all attributable to this fact. Besides, of course, there had been the matter of my unfortunate remark. I thus gave no indication of having had a disturbed night when I thanked the landlord and took my leave to explore the market town of Taunton.

Perhaps I might have done better to have lodged here in this establishment where I now sit enjoying a pleasant mid-morning cup of tea. For indeed, the notice outside advertises not only ‘teas, snacks and cakes’, but also ‘clean, quiet, comfortable rooms’. It is situated on the high street of Taunton, very close to the market square, a somewhat sunken building, its exterior characterized by heavy dark timber beams. I am at present sitting in its spacious tearoom, oak-panelled, with enough tables to accommodate, I would guess, two dozen people without a feeling of crowding. Two cheery young girls serve from behind a counter displaying a good selection of cakes and pastries. All in all, this is an excellent place to partake of morning tea, but surprisingly few of the inhabitants of Taunton seem to wish to avail themselves of it. At present, my only companions are two elderly ladies, sitting abreast one another at a table along the opposite wall, and a man – perhaps a retired farmer – at a table beside one of the large bay Windows. I am unable to discern him clearly because the bright morning sunlight has for the moment reduced him to a silhouette. But I can see him studying his newspaper, breaking off regularly to look up at the passers-by on the pavement outside. From the way he does this, I had thought at first that he was waiting for a companion, but it would seem he wishes merely to greet acquaintances as they pass by.

I am myself ensconced almost at the back wall, but even across the distance of this room, I can see clearly out into the sunlit street, and am able to make out on the pavement opposite a signpost pointing out several nearby destinations. One of these destinations is the village of Mursden. Perhaps ‘Mursden’ will ring a bell for you, as it did for me upon my first spotting it on the road atlas yesterday. In fact, I must say I was even tempted to make a slight detour from my planned route just to see the village. Mursden, Somerset, was where the firm of Giffen and Co. was once situated, and it was to Mursden one was required to dispatch one’s order for a supply of Giffen’s dark candles of polish, ‘to be flaked, mixed into wax and applied by hand’. For some time, Giffen’s was undoubtedly the finest silver polish available, and it was only the appearance of new chemical substances on the market shortly before the war that caused demand for this impressive product to decline.

As I remember, Giffen’s appeared at the beginning of the twenties, and I am sure I am not alone in closely associating its emergence with that change of mood within our profession – that change which came to push the polishing of silver to the position of central importance it still by and large maintains today. This shift was, I believe, like so many other major shifts around this period, a generational matter; it was during these years that our generation of butlers ‘came of age’, and figures like Mr Marshall, in particular, played a crucial part in making silver-polishing so central. This is not to suggest, of course, that the polishing of silver – particularly those items that would appear at table – was not always regarded a serious duty. But it would not be unfair to suggest that many butlers of, say, my father’s generation did not consider the matter such a key one, and this is evidenced by the fact that in those days, the butler of a household rarely supervised the polishing of silver directly, being content to leave it to, say, the under-butler’s whims, carrying out inspections only intermittently. It was Mr Marshall, it is generally agreed, who was the first to recognize the full significance of silver – namely, that no other objects in the house were likely to come under such intimate scrutiny from outsiders as was silver during a meal, and as such, it served as a public index of a house’s standards. And Mr Marshall it was who first caused stupefaction amongst ladies and gentlemen visiting Charleville House with displays of silver polished to previously unimagined standards. Very soon, naturally, butlers up and down the country, under pressure from their employers, were focusing their minds on the question of silver-polishing. There quickly sprang up, I recall, various butlers, each claiming to have discovered methods by which they could surpass Mr Marshall – methods they made a great show of keeping secret, as though they were French chefs guarding their recipes. But I am confident – as I was then – that the sorts of elaborate and mysterious processes performed by someone like Mr Jack Neighbours had little or no discernible effect on the end result. As far as I was concerned, it was a simple enough matter: one used good polish, and one supervised closely. Giffen’s was the polish ordered by all discerning butlers of the time, and if this product was used correctly, one had no fear of one’s silver being second best to anybody’s.

I am glad to be able to recall numerous occasions when the silver at Darlington Hall had a pleasing impact upon observers. For instance, I recall Lady Astor remarking, not without a certain bitterness, that our silver ‘was probably unrivalled’. I recall also watching Mr George Bernard Shaw, the renowned playwright, at dinner one evening, examining closely the dessert spoon before him, holding it up to the light and comparing its surface to that of a nearby platter, quite oblivious to the company around him. But perhaps the instance I recall with most satisfaction today concerns the night that a certain distinguished personage – a cabinet minister, shortly afterwards to become foreign secretary – paid a very ‘off the record’ visit to the house. In fact, now that the subsequent fruits of those visits have become well documented, there seems little reason not to reveal that I am talking of Lord Halifax.

As things turned out, that particular visit was simply the first of a whole series of such ‘unofficial’ meetings between Lord Halifax and the German Ambassador of that time, Herr Ribbentrop. But on that first night, Lord Halifax had arrived in a mood of great wariness; virtually his first words on being shown in were: ‘Really, Darlington, I don’t know what you’ve put me up to here. I know I shall be sorry.’

Herr Ribbentrop not being expected for a further hour or so, his lordship had suggested to his guest a tour of Darlington Hall – a strategy which had helped many a nervous visitor to relax. However, as I went about my business, all I could hear for some time was Lord Halifax, in various parts of the building, continuing to express his doubts about the evening ahead, and Lord Darlington trying in vain to reassure him. But then at one point I overheard Lord Halifax exclaiming: ‘My goodness, Darlington, the silver in this house is a delight.’ I was of course very pleased to hear this at the time, but what was for me the truly satisfying corollary to this episode camé two or three days later, when Lord Darlington remarked to me: ‘By the way, Stevens, Lord Halifax was jolly impressed with the silver the other night. Put him into a quite different frame of mind altogether.’ These were – I recollect it clearly – his lordship’s actual words and so it is not simply my fantasy that the state of the silver had made a small, but significant contribution towards the easing of relations between Lord Halifax and Herr Ribbentrop that evening.

It is probably apt at this point to say a few words concerning Herr Ribbentrop. It is, of course, generally accepted today that Herr Ribbentrop was a trickster: that it was Hitler’s plan throughout those years to deceive England for as long as possible concerning his true intentions, and that Herr Ribbentrop’s sole mission in our country was to orchestrate this deception. As I say, this is the commonly held view and I do not wish to differ with it here. It is, however, rather irksome to have to hear people talking today as though they were never for a moment taken in by Herr Ribbentrop – as though Lord Darlington was alone in believing Herr Ribbentrop an honourable gentleman and developing a working relationship with him. The truth is that Herr Ribbentrop was, throughout the thirties, a well-regarded figure, even a glamorous one, in the very best houses. Particularly around 1936 and 1937, I can recall all the talk in the servants’ hall from visiting staff revolving around ‘the German Ambassador’, and it was clear from what was said that many of the most distinguished ladies and gentlemen in this country were quite enamoured of him. It is, as I say, irksome to have to hear the way these same people now talk of those times, and in particular, what some have said concerning his lordship. The great hypocrisy of these persons would be instantly obvious to you were you to see just a few of their own guest lists from those days; you would see then not only the extent to which Herr Ribbentrop dined at these same persons’ tables, but that he often did so as guest of honour.

And then again, you will hear these same persons talking as though Lord Darlington did something unusual in receiving hospitality from the Nazis on the several trips he made to Germany during those years. I do not suppose they would speak quite so readily if, say. The Times were to publish even one of the guest lists of the banquets given by the Germans around the time of the Nuremberg Rally. The fact is, the most established, respected ladies and gentlemen in England were availing themselves of the hospitality of the German leaders, and I can vouch at first hand that the great majority of these persons were returning with nothing but praise and admiration for their hosts. Anyone who implies that Lord Darlington was liaising covertly with a known enemy is just conveniently forgetting the true climate of those times.

It needs to be said too what salacious nonsense it is to claim that Lord Darlington was anti-Semitic, or that he had close association with organizations like the British Union of Fascists. Such claims can only arise from complete ignorance of the sort of gentleman his lordship was. Lord Darlington came to abhor anti-Semitism; I heard him express his disgust on several separate occasions when confronted with anti-Semitic sentiments. And the allegation that his lordship never allowed Jewish people to enter the house or any Jewish staff to be employed is utterly unfounded – except, perhaps, in respect to one very minor episode in the thirties which has been blown up out of all proportion. And as for the British Union of Fascists, I can only say that any talk linking his lordship to such people is quite ridiculous. Sir Oswald Mosley, the gentleman who led the ‘blackshirts’, was a visitor at Darlington Hall on, I would say, three occasions at the most, and these visits all took place during the early days of that organization before it had betrayed its true nature. Once the ugliness of the blackshirts’ movement became apparent – and let it be said his lordship was quicker than most in noticing it – Lord Darlington had no further association with such people.

In any case, such organizations were a complete irrelevance to the heart of political life in this country. Lord Darlington, you will understand, was the sort of gentleman who cared to occupy himself only with what was at the true centre of things, and the figures he gathered together in his efforts over those years were as far away from such unpleasant fringe groups as one could imagine. Not only were they eminently respectable, these were figures who held real influence in British life: politicians, diplomats, military men, clergy. Indeed, some of the personages were Jewish, and this fact alone should demonstrate how nonsensical is much of what has been said about his lordship.

But I drift. I was in fact discussing the silver, and how Lord Halifax had been suitably impressed on the evening of his meeting with Herr Ribbentrop at Darlington Hall. Let me make clear, I was not for a moment suggesting that what had initially threatened to be a disappointing evening for my employer had turned into a triumphant one solely on account of the silver. But then, as I indicated, Lord Darlington himself suggested that the silver might have been at least a small factor in the change in his guest’s mood that evening, and it is perhaps not absurd to think back to such instances with a glow of satisfaction.

There are certain members of our profession who would have it that it ultimately makes little difference what sort of employer one serves; who believe that the sort of idealism prevalent amongst our generation – namely the notion that we butlers should aspire to serve those great gentlemen who further the cause of humanity – is just high-flown talk with no grounding in reality. It is of course noticeable that the individuals who express such scepticism invariably turn out to be the most mediocre of our profession – those who know they lack the ability to progress to any position of note and who aspire only to drag as many down to their own level as possible – and one is hardly tempted to take such opinions seriously. But for all that, it is still satisfying to be able to point to instances in one’s career that highlight very clearly how wrong such people are. Of course, one seeks to provide a general, sustained service to one’s employer, the value of which could never be reduced to a number of specific instances – such as that concerning Lord Halifax. But what I am saying is that it is these sorts of instances which over time come to symbolize an irrefutable fact; namely that one has had the privilege of practising one’s profession at the very fulcrum of great affairs. And one has a right, perhaps, to feel a satisfaction those content to serve mediocre employers will never know – the satisfaction of being able to say with some reason that one’s efforts, in however modest a way, comprise a contribution to the course of history.

But perhaps one should not be looking back to the past so much. After all, I still have before me many more years of service I am required to give. And not only is Mr Farraday a most excellent employer, he is an American gentleman to whom, surely, one has a special duty to show all that is best about service in England. It is essential, then, to keep one’s attention focused on the present; to guard against any complacency creeping in on account of what one may have achieved in the past. For it has to be admitted, over these last few months, things have not been all they might at Darlington Hall. A number of small errors have surfaced of late, including that incident last April relating to the silver. Most fortunately, it was not an occasion on which Mr Farraday had guests, but even so, it was a moment of genuine embarrassment to me.

It had occurred at breakfast one morning, and for his part, Mr Farraday – either through kindness, or because being an American he failed to recognize the extent of the shortcoming – did not utter one word of complaint to me throughout the whole episode. He had, upon seating himself, simply picked up the fork, examined it for a brief second, touching the prongs with a fingertip, then turned his attention to the morning headlines. The whole gesture had been carried out in an absent-minded sort of way, but of course, I had spotted the occurrence and had advanced swiftly to remove the offending item. I may in fact have done so a little too swiftly on account of my disturbance, for Mr Farraday gave a small start, muttering: ‘Ah, Stevens.’ I had continued to proceed swiftly out of the room, returning without undue delay bearing a satisfactory fork. As I advanced again upon the table – and a Mr Farraday now apparently absorbed in his newspaper – it occurred to me I might slip the fork on to the tablecloth quietly without disturbing my employer’s reading. However, the possibility had already occurred to me that Mr Farraday was simply feigning indifference in order to minimize my embarrassment, and such a surreptitious delivery could be interpreted as complacency on my part towards my error – or worse, an attempt to cover it up. This was why, then, I decided it appropriate to put the fork down on to the table with a certain emphasis, causing my employer to start a second time, look up and mutter again: ‘Ah, Stevens.’ Errors such as these which have occurred over the last few months have been, naturally enough, injurious to one’s self-respect, but then there is no reason to believe them to be the signs of anything more sinister than a staff shortage. Not that a staff shortage is not significant in itself; but if Miss Kenton were indeed to return to Darlington Hall, such little slips, I am sure, would become a thing of the past. Of course, one has to remember there is nothing stated specifically in Miss Kenton’s letter – which, incidentally, I reread last night up in my room before putting out the light – to indicate unambiguously her desire to return to her former position. In fact, one has to accept the distinct possibility that one may have previously – perhaps through wishful thinking of a professional kind – exaggerated what evidence there was regarding such a desire on her part. For I must say I was a little surprised last night at how difficult it was actually to point to any passage which clearly demonstrated her wish to return.

But then again, it seems hardly worthwhile to speculate greatly on such matters now when one knows one will, in all likelihood, be talking face to face with Miss Kenton within forty-eight hours. Still, I must say, I did spend some long minutes turning those passages over in my mind last night as I lay there in the darkness, listening to the sounds from below of the landlord and his wife clearing up for the night.

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