The Remains Of The Day
Wow. If ever there was a worthy Booker winner, this is it.
I loved this book. It is so simple yet multi-faceted, easy to read yet very deep. It reminds me of the Frank Capra quote ‘I thought drama was when actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries.’ All of the action is under inches of stiff upper lip, making it all the more moving when we unearth it for ourselves.
The novel is about Mr Stevens, a butler of advancing age whose service has seen him wait on almost the highest in the land during the wars of the last century. The book is his memoir, written as he drives the scenic route from Oxfordshire the west country, to visit a previous housekeeper (and probably the secret love of his life) of Darlington Hall.
There is much reminiscing, an illustration of how times have changed, as well as offering sharp glimpses inside a man for whom ‘dignity’ and ‘good service’ is everything. Even during the death of his father he puts the needs of the guests first, while obviously his heart is breaking.
He quotes the conversations had between him and the old Lord Darlington, one in particular about democracy, and how the lords wished to do away with voting as the common man had no idea about complicated foreign or economic policy, I found was bizarrely, alarmingly convincing. Although, not for the reasons of only allowing the educated to vote, but more in light of the post-truth world we are now in, where what was once saved for wartime propaganda is now a daily occurrence. It made me think about what the men mentioned in the book, Churchill et al, would make of Trump, Farage, and the showbiz circus politics has become.
What strikes the biggest cord with me is the attention to detail, and why if I ever wanted to run a tea shop or bed and breakfast, it would be fabulous one. I am highly sensitive to quality, I am Mrs Bouquet (‘B-U-C-K-E-T, yes, bouquet’), the lady of the house speaking. I inspect forks, I notice tea stain in cups, and while I never mention these things at friend’s houses, in a hotel I am very particular. Once a friend’s where I was staying the night before we left for an early flight I pulled back the guest bed covers to find little spots of blood all over the sheets. I then remembered she had a nephew with eczema, and this was evidence of scratching, and the hairs in the bed were a suggestion that this was not an irremovable stain, just someone who didn’t think to change the sheets between guests. I did not say a word. I shook the sheets out the window, turned them over, and slept on my towel.
I once stayed in a lodge attached to a hotel and ordered breakfast to the room. I saw the waiter carry the tray, open to the world, over 50 yards of February car park, and deposit a tray of cold toast and lukewarm scrambled eggs (£12 a head that breakfast was, over 15 years ago!). My ex-husband made that ‘Please don’t complain’ look as I called the waiter back, but I already had my Hyacinth Bucket hat on (not literally, although that would be good, she had great hats) and made him take it away again.
I think Mr Stevens and I would have got on. We both know when things are right and tie ourselves in often paranoid knots when they are not. My grandmother was a maid in service until her marriage, I have lead blacking and silver polish in my genes.*
Nowadays I think the natural home for those who would have been great butlers is the job where I spend half of my week, the funeral profession. Not many jobs today assess the posture, gait, and tone of speech of some employees, require the wearing of dress uniforms which are attacked with lint rollers before going out the door. There is no familiarity unless invited, it’s always Mr or Mrs Smith, or if we don’t know their names, sir, madam, etc. In the face of devastated, angry, silent, occasionally drunk people (and even the odd loud, funeral-crashing by feuding family members), we must take with good grace whatever is said, and never react. And if the funeral, the sort-of equivalent of one of Mr Steven’s functions, has an mistakes, we similarly pull ourselves apart about it afterwards.
*And yet, my house is not perfect, my excuse for this is work, children and animals. Alas, my wish to live in a shiny house is sabotaged by life. Boo!