Tales From The Pantry: A Butler's Diary

From the pantry of an historic country house comes the ongoing diary of its butler, Mr Dean Fielding. I shall be giving you a glimpse of the family I serve and of the lives both 'Below Stairs' and 'Above'. I hope you follow my jottings daily.

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Have been butler here for over 15 years. Having previously, and unusually for these days, worked my way up from footman to under-butler to my current post. You can now follow me on Twitter via: http://www.twitter.com/butlerfielding

Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Stately Homes of England

The comment by 'the Hon. Brian' that popped up in response to my previous post, has made me dig out the lyrics to Noel Coward's 'The Stately Homes of England.' It is a song that I have often listened to with much amusement. The previous butler of Carstone had served Mr Coward (as he was then, his knighthood only coming later) on a couple of occasions and always spoke of him with the utmost fondness and admiration. So, as I prepare to enjoy myself tonight at the Servant's Ball, here are the lyrics to that most apt of songs:

The Stately Homes of England (Noel Coward)

Lord Elderley, Lrd Borrowmere, Lord Sickert and Lord Camp,
With every virtue, every grace,
Ah what avails the sceptred race,
Here you see-the four of us,
And there are so many more of us
Eldest sons that must succeed.
We know how Caesar conquered Gaul
And how to whack a cricket ball;
Apart from this, our education lacks co-ordination.
Though we're young and tentative
And rather rip-representative,
Scions of a noble breed,
We are the products of those homes serene and stately
Which only lately
Seem to have run to seed!

The Stately Homes of England,
How beautiful they stand,
To prove the upper classes
Have still the upper hand;
Though the fact that they have to be rebuilt
And frequently mortgaged to the hilt
Is inclined to take the gilt
Off the gingerbread,
And certainly damps the fun
Of the eldest son-
But still we won't be beaten,
We'll scrimp and scrape and save,
The playing fields of Eton
Have made us frightfully brave-
And though if the Van Dycks have to go
And we pawn the Bechstein Grand,
We'll stand By the Stately Homes of England.

Here you see
The pick of us,
You may be heartily sick of us,
Still with sense
We're all imbued.
Our homes command extensive views
And with assistance from the Jews
We have been able to dispose of
Rows and rows and rows of
Gainsboroughs and Lawrences,
Some sporting prints of Aunt Florence's,
Some of which were rather rude.
Although we sometimes flaunt our family conventions,
Our good intentions
Mustn't be misconstrued.

The Stately Homes of England
We proudly represent,
We only keep them up for Americans to rent,
Though the pipes that supply the bathroom burst
And the lavatory makes you fear the worst,
It was used by Charles the First
Quite informally,
And later by George the Fourth
On a journey north.
The State Apartments keep their Historical renown,
It's wiser not to sleep there
In case they tumble down'
But still if they ever catch on fire
Which, with any luck, they might
We'll fight For the Stately Homes of England

The Stately Homes of England,
Though rather in the lurch,
Provide a lot of chances
For Psychical Research-
There's the ghost of a crazy younger son
Who murdered, in thirteen fifty-one,
An extremely rowdy Nun
Who resented it,
And people who come to call
Meet her in the hall.
The baby in the guest wing,
Who crouches by the grate,
Was walled up in the west wing
In fourteen twenty-eight.
If anyone spots The Queen of Scots
In a hand-embroidered shroud
We're proud Of the Stately Homes of England.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Disastrous Dinner

I have felt very low over the past few days. I take it quite badly when an event I have had a major hand in planning goes dreadfully wrong. I should have the experience to know that, no matter how good the planning, one cannot always legislate for the behaviour of guests. Below Stairs we can only do so much. Events of the weekend did not run smoothly.

Eighteen people sat down to dinner a few nights ago. The guest list included the local great and good, as well as a few of Mr Miles' friends thrown in for good measure. Things started well enough. I announced the guests as they arrived. Mr Thomas greeted them. So far, so good. Before dinner conversation seemed lively and all seemed well. It was after I had struck the dinner gong that the problems began. As I served the starter I noticed that the guests were not sat in their correct places. I had organised (with Mr Thomas) the correct placements for all the guests. I had inspected the Dining Table minutely moments before the guests processed into dinner. I could not understand what had happened. The guests could read, they knew the protocol involved in dining: What had gone wrong?

This unsettled me slightly but it could not be helped. Perhaps things would turn out splendidly in any case. The two footmen served the next course, while I supervised. As I was filling up the local MPs glass, I noticed that an animated conversation was occurring at the far end of the table where the Bishop was sat next to one of Mr Miles' friends. This friend, who was not in correct evening dress, seemed to be expounding loudly and with much vigour his thoughts on mysticism, and proceeded to give a detailed explanation of how and why organised religion had got it all wrong. The Bishop seemed strained. Mr Thomas looked pained, and, suspiciously to me, Mr Miles looked amused. The tense atmosphere seemed to slowly seep throughout the table. Laughter became more nervous. Polite conversation seemed to die down. Guests became fascinated either by the 17th century plasterwork on the ceiling, or by the splendid job the Housemaids had made in cleaning the chenille carpet that morning. Awkward is the word that could best be used to describe dinner at this point. The atmosphere begged to be carved more than the meat.

Guests left early and from the look on Mr Thomas' face, I knew that the evening had not improved after dinner. It had died a slow death, but not a quiet one, as Mr Miles' friend, not taking the hint, had continued his tirade against religion, over the port. Dreadfully bad manners. It was like being invited to Windsor Castle, being placed next to the Queen, and then spending all night singing the praises of the French Revolution, all the while expressing a hope that a similar craze would soon break out in Britain. I felt dreadfully sorry for the Bishop. What a terrible evening he must have had.

Later that night, long after the guests had wearily departed, I entered the Servant's Hall to thank the staff for their hard work that evening. There was much muttering about the dinner. I asked Simon (a footman) about the place settings. He told me that just before dinner, Mr Miles had entered the Dining Room, and had switched the settings. He had deliberately placed the loud mystic next to the Bishop. Puck would have been proud of that one, but I cannot say that I was.

Something deep within me can never trust a gentleman who attends dinner improperly dressed. This prejudice, I am sorry to say, has now been reinforced. I should have realised that a man who wears a lounge suit with multicoloured tie to a (semi) formal dinner would only cause trouble. Spirits are low. Hopefully the Summer Servant's Ball tomorrow evening will cheer me up. Mrs Berry has been splendid with the organisation.

Sunday, August 27, 2006


The Brothers Carstone are as different as two brothers possibly could be. One is studious and has made a great success of his London legal practise, (to nobody's surprise here) and is a firm believer in duty and tradition. The other is Mr Miles Carstone....

Both brothers are to co-host a dinner party this evening for the local great and good. Their father, Sir Geoffrey, believes it important that the heir (and dare I say, the spare) play a greater role in the local community. They spend so much time away from the ancestral home that they could probably stroll around the local village without being recognised. Perhaps the odd person might catch a glimpse of their noble profile in the early morning light and find it familiar, but few could confidently identify the sons of the baronet from the 'Big House.' Theirs is a London life. Carstone but a week-end retreat and a place where the family roam.

Mr Thomas arrived early this morning, punctual as ever. We spoke for twenty minutes in the Drawing Room, discussing the plans for this evening. Mr Thomas is a most thorough man. It was decided that the festivities should be simple but elegant. I am not sure that Mr Thomas enjoys the social aspect of his role; he appears to see it more of a duty than a pleasure. We inspected the guest list. It seemed rather disparate to me. Several of Mr Miles' friends have been invited. They are not local, or great, or, I hesitate to say it, particularly good, as far as I have been informed, but perhaps that was the carrot dangled before Mr Miles to entice him to Carstone for the evening. We are expecting 18 to sit for dinner. No guests are staying the night, which simplifies matters.

Mr Miles arrived not long ago. There is a wonderful refreshing breeze whenever he appears. I have known him since he was young, and have a lot of affection for him. I do however concede that what I describe as a 'refreshing breeze' is often seen by others as a 'howling gale'. Things are rarely dull in his company. He does have his little eccentricities. It is little wonder that he gets on so well with Lady Blanche. The weather has been quite kind over the past few days and there is little sign of a downpour today, and yet, while sweeping into the Entrance Hall this morning, Mr Miles handed me an umbrella. This was curious enough in itself. If I inform the gentle reader that the umbrella happened to be purple in colour I am sure my surprise (shock is too strong a word when applied to umbrellas) will be appreciated.

After gingerly placing the umbrella in the stand, and assuring that Mr Miles was settled, I sought the company of My Master's valet, Mr Copeland. I found him in the Servant's Hall locked in conversation with Mrs Berry. Copeland was not surprised by the purple umbrella, even though his expression suggested a distaste for it. In fact, he knew its history, and the Boswell of Brollies enlightened me. Apparently, about a fortnight ago, Mr Miles attended a cocktail party in Knightsbridge, where everything, from the paint on the walls, to the attire of the staff, was coloured a rather garish purple. He greatly enjoyed this 'purple party' and picked up the umbrella for the occasion. He has grown rather fond of it, and it is now quite as a cane to him. I am sure it is only a phase, and it will pass.

The Bishop is due to arrive later to have lunch with Sir Geoffrey. My Master is not staying for dinner; he has a prior engagement.

Wendy has handed in her notice. It has come as quite a shock to us all. I must ponder the matter carefully. She has been very badly let down by a young man who works on Home Farm. It seems rather dramatic to give up her position here for that reason. I am sure she would regret such a drastic move. Her heart seems quite broken. I used to be known as something of a heartbreaker myself at one time (although I confess that was rather a long time ago. I am more likely to break a hip than a heart these days) but was ultimately unlucky in love. I am therefore sympathetic to Wendy's plight. I gave up on the possibility of marriage several years ago. As a notable Welsh peer once said: "I have stood on the precipice of marriage for so long, I can now peer over the edge, without fear of falling."

The Wendy matter must be resolved soon.

NB: I was very pleased to find an image of a purple umbrella to add to this post. It is not quite the same as Mr Miles', but, purple umbrellas are purple umbrellas, and a little illustration DOES help matters along, I always think.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

A Ball To Look Forward To

Sometimes duty is a painful business and, my goodness, how Mr Cromwell must have suffered over the past week.

The first evening (Thursday) he settled down behind a tree near the lake to await the dastardly fishermen. I remember as I prepared my hot chocolate (yes, I know it is summer, but hot chocolate is one of my little pleasures no matter what the season) that night that the storm seemed intent on barging its way, uninvited, through my bedroom window. The wind howled, the rain battered against my poor innocent window pain, and I thanked my lucky stars that I was a butler and not a gamekeeper.

The next morning I got the rundown from Mr Cromwell, who seemed none the worse for his nightly vigil. Yes, the rain was heavy, he explained, but that was neither here nor there (a phrase he is particularly fond of using). The point was that the rain seemed to keep the miscreants away. There was no sign of them. They had lost their desire to fish. Cromwell kept up his lonely vigil for the three following nights and still the fishermen did not arrive. Perhaps they did and caught a sight of the determined looking Cromwell. That would be enough to put anybody off fishing for a while. Perhaps it even turned them vegan. Peace has now returned to the lake.

Good news was confirmed last week. Sir Geoffrey has given us the go-ahead for a Summer Servant's Ball, in commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of the noble baronet's succession to the estate and title. In the old days we only had one Servant's Ball a year (usually around Twelfth Night) but over the past decade or so, perhaps sensing a certain lack of lustre in the eyes of those Below Stairs come August, a smaller, more modest, summer event has also been added to the calendar. I think this might be a bigger event than previous summers. I have to do some of the organising but everything should be arranged by the time of the Ball (on the last day of August), so that I can enjoy myself.

Quite a surprise today: Wendy (one of the Housemaids) has handed in her notice. I must consider the situation carefully.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Quick Cromwell Update

It is now 10.39pm as I type this. I have just returned from the lake where Mr Cromwell is settling down for a long night. He seems in good spirits and is armed with a flask of something that smells suspiciously unlike coffee. It has just started to rain again, but that will not dampen his enthusiasm for the task ahead.

He is a determined man. Meanwhile, safely ensconced in my butler's flat, I am about ready to make myself a cup of hot chocolate.....

Mr Cromwell's Mission

It is very good to be back. The problem with fishing on the lake has increased. Apparently the miscreants are sneaking into the park at night, fishing away happily, but then leaving a dreadful mess behind them. This greatly concerns the Gamekeeper Mr Cromwell. He is a man who would quite happily live outdoors. He rarely enters the House and when he does he seems rather claustrophobic, even in a place this size. He yearns for the freedom of the Great Outdoors.

During the heat-wave Mr Cromwell and Mr Barton would have frequent discussions whilst looking sagely up at the clouds. Cromwell is the man you go to for that type of thing. No problem with that now though. As I type this I can see rain hammering down on the window. The gardens will get a good dousing and Barton will be happy. Or as happy as is possible for a man like Barton to get.

I have a feeling that Cromwell will be lying in wait for the fishermen tonight. Anything that damages the countryside deeply wounds Mr Cromwell. He takes it personally. I can imagine him now, hiding behind a tree near the lake, ever alert, eagerly waiting for his prey to come toddling along, unsuspecting. Sleep, rest, even blinking, will be ignored by him tonight. I saw him just 25 minutes ago. I took a local university student to see the shack (I hesitate to say 'cottage') that lies within the woods, that used to be home to Sir Ronald Carstone's pet hermit in the early 18th century (I kid you not!). The student wants to write an assignment about it. Didn't actually pick up what the assignment was going to be entitled. I am fairly certain it won't be 'Pet Hermits of the 18th Century', probably something more subtle and sophisticated than that. As we were leaving the Hermit's House we saw Cromwell. He looked intense, like a prizefighter before a title bout. He nodded briefly to us, but his mind was elsewhere. I said I would pop over to see him tonight, just before it gets too dark. Again he merely nodded.

I warn you, do not be a fisherman on Carstone Lake tonight. Cromwell is about. Hope he doesn't get too soggy if this rain keeps up. Then again, he likes that sort of thing. You wouldn't find me outdoors in that kind of weather. I am more the tucked up in bed, hearing the rain rattling the window pain type of chap. I am quite content to hear bad weather. I do not wish to be buffeted by it.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Back From The Brink

Well, perhaps I was not as ill as all that. Perhaps the obituary writers in the local village were not sharpening their pencils and trying to think of something nice to say about me. But I was ill. It had been quite a while since I was last unable to attend to my duties. I have suffered a very frustrating week.

As I lay in bed I could not help thinking of all the things that needed to be done: were all the doors and windows locked? Had the correct wine for the day been taken out of the cellars? Was Simon aware that we were expecting delivery of the new monogramed writing paper? Myriad thoughts and worries haunted my rest.

I was kept informed of proceedings and I should have been most grateful for the little stream of visitors that arrived to attempt to cheer me up. Unfortunately, when ill, I can get ever so slightly cranky. The sunshine goes out of my life. Clouds gather. It has been whispered that I am not good company. Nevertheless, like courtiers visiting a dying monarch, much of the staff trooped in to pay their respects at one point or another over the week.

Mr Copeland was the first to arrive. He has recovered his usual elan now that Lady Blanche is safely back in Scotland. His conversation was gossipy and really rather entertaining. Although I did notice that he attempted to keep his distance from me. At one point when I leaned closer to hear one of his trademark conspiratorial whispers, he recoiled quickly and placed a silk handkerchief to his mouth, as if a bubonic plague victim had just asked him for a kiss.

Mrs Berry was always making visits. She was very kind. Bringing me tonics and medicines and keeping me updated on everything Below Stairs. Apparently the Wendy situation has solved itself but she did not elaborate.

The footmen (Simon and Richard) visited every day as I had requested. No problems seem to have occurred in my absence. I should not have expected any. I have never worked with a more dedicated staff in all the years I have been in service.

Robert (the Hall Boy) was the most interesting visitor. Chiefly because we could chat about cricket. He thinks Flintoff should be England captain on his return from injury. I am an Andrew Strauss man. He also told me of problems over on the lake. Apparently people are sneaking into the park after dark to fish on the lake without permission. The Gamekeeper, Mr Cromwell, is no doubt on the case.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

An Ailing Butler

Apologies for the lack of updates. I am ailing. Since Sunday I have been struck down by a mysterious bug. Well it probably isn't that mysterious but it certainly is a bug, and one of flu-type proportions. I stumbled through the day's work yesterday but I am afraid I have been unable to conduct my duties today.

I feel lethargic, listless and shivery. I type this from the chair near my computer but I shall shortly return to bed.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

A Few Questions

Tonight I entertain Llywelyn, whilst remaining on my guard the whole time. He always has schemes and plans. I think it must be the boredom of being stuck at the Lodge Gates all day. The last time we met up for a convivial beverage after work he roped me into a nocturnal ghost hunt. I shall not make that mistake again.

Since, against all odds, and against people's better judgement, this blog seems to have been gaining in readership, I have had an influx of emails from inquiring minds. I like having feedback. They do not ask me about the mysteries of life, they do not want to know if I have a good tip for the Grand National, they reasonably ask for the small details that I may have omitted in my posts. So I shall take this opportunity to answer a few questions:

How did Lady Blanche put the fear of God into Mr Copeland?
She gave a scathing appraisal of his attire. Simple as that. There is nothing that hurts a valet more than when people deride their clothing. It strikes at a valet's very identity. It leaves them wondering whether becoming a Groom might not be a better idea. Horses rarely comment on a badly-cut waistcoat. It was a couple of years ago that Mr Copeland first encountered his most severe fashion critic. He was dressed immaculately, or so he thought. Lady Blanche took one look at him, sniffed (someone is always in trouble when Lady Blanche sniffs), made a unflattering comment about peacocks, and then proceeded to criticise everything from the bagginess of his trousers to the softness of his collar. I even believe an unflattering comment about the cut of his jib was made, before Copeland's aristocratic nemesis swept away leaving him feeling shabby, rather like Bob Cratchett after Tiny Tim had hidden the darning equipment.

Will we ever see your Pantry?
This question came up on a PG Wodehouse forum recently. I believe it SHOULD be possible to post a photograph of my pantry. Very rarely does anybody from 'Above Stairs' find themselves there. Sir Geoffrey and Lady Carstone would be unable to point out my pantry from an identification parade. It is an alien land to them. It was decided that I should make sure it is an artistic shot, just to make identification that tad bit trickier. A wide-angled lens was suggested. I shall see what I can do during the week.

What is the pattern for dinner-time at Carstone House?
A good question this. It shows keenness and interest in custom. Well done. It is all rather traditional. I bang the dinner-gong at 7.15pm which is the signal for the guests to change. I then bang it again at 8.00pm precisely to herald that 'dinner is served'. The assembled party then process into dinner. Everything will have been arranged down to the finest detail. I keep a ruler to measure the distance between cutlery, plates and glasses. Laying the table for dinner is a precise affair. A mistake, however miniscule, would be noticed, especially by me. I am a perfectionist when it comes to the Dining Table. I believe in my job I have to be. After dinner the ladies leave the gentlemen to their port; then all re-assemble afterwards. Sometimes to listen to music (Lady Carstone has a fondness for the harp. A harpist is nearly always present at a large dinner party) or to converse. If Mr Miles is host then the next bit can become rather embarrassing. He is addicted to parlour games, and after dinner he tries to coax all the guests to take part in sometimes excrutiating games of his own concoction. Personally I prefer the harp.

What WAS Barton up to, on his own, wandering around the grounds at night, all those weeks ago?
I am afraid I still do not know.

So, how DID you break the dinner gong handle?
My, is that the time? Better run.....

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Odd Gift

I was deeply moved yesterday morning to discover a small envelope waiting for me on the Servant's Hall table. It contained a pair of pince-nez and a kind note from my erstwhile employer. Obviously deciding that contact lenses (which, of course, I have never worn, or for that matter, owned) were a curse upon me, and that if this terrible affliction continued something really bad might happen, such as tea being delayed, Sir Geoffrey sent me what he saw as a more than adequate substitute. That was an enormously kind gesture. It is just a shame that I don't really need them. I DID try to tell him the truth but, perhaps thinking that I was about to be emotional in my thanks, he waved me away. I shall store them somewhere safe.

The Wendy situation seems to be an ongoing one, which is of great concern to me. I have a lot of sympathy for her. Affairs of the heart are not totally alien to me. I must, however, hope that this dark cloud passes soon. Copeland pointed out that he saw her gazing out of the window for quite a considerable time yesterday morning neglecting her work completely. It is a good job that Lady Blanche is not coming tomorrow. I feel that the House would not look as sparkling as it did last week. Perhaps I should have a chat with her. Something avuncular in tone might prove beneficial.

The Tradesman's Entrance door needed a new lock. Mr Collins came in to fix it. Mrs Berry will be relieved. She was getting tired of deliveries turning up at her door. It was also rather irritating for her to have servants traipsing through the Housekeeper's Room to depart the House. As she pointed out (repeatedly): "If it were winter, I would be freezing with that door open all the time!" Of course it is not winter and I can only imagine that the light breeze was refreshing, but her point is nevertheless a valid one. Mrs Berry has a mortal fear of draughts. Perhaps a great-great-aunt of hers was felled by one in Victorian times. Victorians always seemed to die from 'chills.' Could a family tragedy be behind it all? Quite possibly.

Have decided to play host to Llywelyn in my butler's flat. It is only fair considering we met at the Lodge Gates last time. The summit meeting shall take place tomorrow night. I shall avoid the topic of ghosts.