Jewish World Review April 1, 2008 / 25 Adar II 5768
Quality for dinner. Pass the Fairy Liquid, Old Boy
By Paul Johnson
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | I have no objection to washing up. I prefer it to most other chores. When I was very small my mother allowed me to ‘help’ with the washing up. This meant doing the drying. I got praise for the thorough and conscientious way I did it, polishing the delicate pieces of old china till they reflected the light. My mother had a gift for making all dull jobs seem important and requiring craftsmanship. She said: ‘You’re a first-class dryer now.’ I preferred it to washing up in those days. Now it’s the reverse. I like putting on a big striped apron and taking over the sink. Normally the dishwasher takes all we use, but if there are a lot of guests I come into my own, dealing with the big saucepans and messy dishes, scouring with wire wool pads and brushes, handling expertly the silver forks and spoons, and making sure the wineglasses are properly and safely washed — afterwards drying them until they shine.
As I work, I sing old French advertising ditties I remember from the early 1950s, such as ‘Omo est là: la saleté s’en va!’ And I think of George Orwell. His Down and Out in Paris and London, a description of his extreme poverty in 1931–32, at the beginning of the Big Slump, and the terrible jobs he had to take just to stay alive, is his best book in my view, and certainly my favourite one of his. He had the inquisitive policeman’s nose for detail, and a deadpan way of setting it down. Among his other gruesome occupations was that of plongeur in the big Paris hotels, and later in a restaurant. The plongeur was the lowest male form of life in the catering trade. It is true that there was an even more abysmal level in the sculleries and outhouses performed by women. Only men were regarded as physically strong enough to be plongeurs, otherwise it would have been left to females. As it was, these men had to work at least a 12-hour day, sometimes as long as 17 hours, and during the climax of the breakfast, lunch and dinner services, the work was so intense, rapid and onerous that, when the pace slackened, they just lay down on the kitchen floor exhausted. Orwell says there was a staff of 100 to look after 200 guests at the hotel. He gives a blow-by-blow account of the heat, dirt, squalor, swearing, quarrelling and bullying which went on all the time among the staff.
Orwell’s underlying thesis is that so-called luxury living in hotels and restaurants is a fraud and a pretence, everything done for appearance, no real quality. I daresay things have changed radically in the three quarters of a century since he wrote, especially in treatment of the staff, but the underlying verities remain. The way the food is handled by cooks and waiters before it emerges from the kitchen and reaches the table is described by Orwell with grim puritan horror, and he says that the more expensive the establishment and elaborate the food, the more likely it is to reflect the sweat-drenched dirt in which the staff work behind the scenes. On his last page he swears he will never patronise a luxury restaurant. I rather share his view. If possible, I like to see my food cooked, and put on the plate, and as a rule would always prefer my meals in a private house (preferably my own) than in a restaurant, especially one run by a celebrity chef — for while the cook is imperious and arrogant, and highly paid, the waiters will bear grudges and will take it out on the customers by doing nasty things to the food before it reaches them.
When I say that, for the squeamish and the imaginative, it is safer to eat in a private house than in a restaurant, I am talking about the present. In Victorian times, a big country house, or even a large London establishment, was run on lines which meant the lower servants were or felt themselves to be persecuted, overworked and underpaid. A Mayfair or Belgravia house would have a kitchen staff of a cook and assistant cook, two kitchenmaids at least, two scullery maids and a male known by the old title of a scullion. He was the equivalent of Orwell’s plongeur, doing all the heaviest work at the sink, the scullery maids helping to stack dishes and dry. These lowly people never set foot in the kitchen proper, except when specifically told to do so. The business of waiters was done by the four footmen, under the direction of the butler, who acted as maître d’hôtel. All these people were needed to serve a nine-course meal for 18 people, standard for an upper- or upper-middle-class dinner party. The frenzied work at the climax of a big dinner left all tired if not exhausted, and resentful servants could take their revenge in disgusting ways I will not elaborate. On the other hand, as Orwell writes, some servants identified with the privileged recipients of the food. This was still true up to the second world war. A memoir which recalls Cliveden in the 1930s recounts how a maidservant was made to carry into the guests a soufflé dish so hot that she burned her hands, and she complained to the butler. He said: ‘Yes, my dear, and I am sorry but you must bear it. The scars on your hands will soon heal but a soufflé, once ruined, is ruined for ever.’
It is poignant to think that, until quite recently, men never did washing up, and even women had to be pretty far down the social scale to be forced to the sink, even in emergencies. We know from Jane Austen’s letters that from time to time she did various forms of household work even in the kitchen, but there is never a mention of washing up. In Mansfield Park, when Fanny Price, in temporary disgrace for refusing to marry Henry Crawford, is sent back to her poverty-stricken natural family in Portsmouth, she finds that even they can afford to employ a slatternly maid of all work. She would do the washing up. If Jane Austen herself had ever been called on to wash up, we should certainly have known about it. Jane Welsh Carlyle describes in detail her troubles with servants, and what maids would and would not do, but there is never any suggestion of her being forced to wash up Mr Carlyle’s dinners. A man would go through life without ever knowing where or how washing up was done. I suspect there is no cartoon in Punch showing a man washing up until at least the second world war.
Can you imagine Lytton Strachey helping with the washing up at Garsington? Or Aldous Huxley? I suspect the first writer who knew all about it was D.H. Lawrence, under the direction of his hausfrau Frieda. Who was the first prime minister to do it? Harold Wilson. Ramsay MacDonald would never have stooped so low. Princess Diana said: ‘I don’t mind washing up. Prefer it to making beds.’ ‘What about Prince Charles?’ ‘Never, never, never.’ Is there any reader who has never done the washing up? If so, time to take the plunge
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Eminent British historian and author Paul Johnson's latest book is "American Presidents Eminent Lives Boxed Set: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ulysses S. Grant". Comment by clicking here.
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© 2006, Paul Johnson