IT turned out there would only be four of them for dinner. Plus, of course, the elephant. This glittering centrepiece sagged under its weight of precious stones and gave me a piteous look. Another evening was looming up. It had seen too many already.
Unlike me. I was young. This was my first time.
Halfway through the first course, the prawns began flying across the table. Supposedly thrown to feed and fatten up the two young women from London (all expenses paid, full board and cash fee in advance), the seafood was targeted at the nearest available cleavage. Much hilarity and laughter. The instant the host’s right foot was discreetly pressed down, a bell rang in the butler’s pantry. At this cue, I’d been told to enter the dining room and clear away the plates, even if the guests hadn’t finished.
Loading article content
“More prawns quick – I’m starving!’ called out one of the girls as I took away her almost untouched dish. The gentleman opposite – he’d arrived at the house in his own helicopter – tossed her a generous handful. Prudently, she lowered the front of her dress to maximise her catch.
And so my first night wore on. When I went upstairs the following morning to take my gentleman his tea, I needed only to follow the adult paper trail of jacket-shirt-shoe-another-shoe-trousers-dress-underwear along the corridor to reach his room. Having opened the curtains, I turned round and said nothing before heading back out of the door and down to the pantry.
I was 16 and from Dumfries. I was beginning to grow up, and fast.
Many years later, when I came to write Billionaires’ Banquet, I found myself remembering that evening (not included in the novel and so no spoiler alert is needed!) and other similarly convivial get-togethers organised for people who have Money. Please note, I don’t mean money as you or I know it, but Money. Such Money is never spent, it is an attitude. I was employed by an agency that provided staff – butlers, footmen, maids and the like – for dinner parties, receptions, weekend house parties all over Britain.
I lived in the company’s four-storey Georgian townhouse in the centre of London and had the run of the kitchen and cellar. I didn’t drink, but soon learned. The job was a very steep learning curve.
The head of the agency had started his career as a lowly footman at an aristocrat’s ancestral country seat, and in his old age – he looked over 90 to me, but was probably a stripling in his early 50s – had had a most brilliant idea. He set up a business where everyone else did the work while he, in the guise of staff training, was waited on hand and foot.
His morning tea in bed was followed by his perfectly-run bath, after which he slipped into a fresh and newly-ironed set of clothes.
A series of trainee butlers and footmen in full livery served him breakfast, lunch and dinner.
When fatigue set in, he retired upstairs to his turned-down bed and to his nightcap already poured and waiting on the bedside table. He even employed someone to arrange all the agency’s bookings, which left him free to take the air at his leisure and be seen in Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens or wherever his fancy took him, sporting his superbly tailored and cared-for attire.
Did this glorious future await the rest of us junior footmen and butlers as we scuttled off to Eaton Square or the Home Counties’ gin-and-jag belt or those post-colonial mansions beyond, where everyone still knew their place – to offer drinks on silver salvers, lay out evening wear, to smile and pocket tips? Clearly the arithmetic was against us.
The experience left me with a deep and abiding interest in philosophy, if nothing else. In due course, as Thatcher’s 1980s powered on into the dotcom 1990s with greed firmly in the driving seat, I was still drifting here and there across the globe – from a commune in the Land of Oz so far from any road that I had to learn to ride a horse, to the spiritual calm and reflection of northern Bali, the frenzy of multi-cultural Paris.
I was trying to get a handle on Life. Sometimes I did, sometimes I didn’t. Finally I returned to Scotland and got married.
Billionaires’ Banquet is my fifth novel. Though drawing on those so delightfully cheerful and off-the-wall footman days, it isn’t autobiographical. I am told it’s very funny and also very serious. I hope so. Only a sense of humour can save our inevitable mortality from being tragic by definition. Set firmly in Edinburgh, the novel spans twenty years of global change. My next will likely try to make sense of what is going on now. Like the elephant on the dining table contemplating the evening ahead, I can only gaze around me, and wonder.
Billionaires’ Banquet, by Ron Butlin is published by Salt, priced £9.99