Savoy Hotel (3)
Past a narrow Edwardian chamber with a rack on the wall on which are written the names of innumerable chefs and assistant chefs, I travel on through a narrow door into a small room where the head chef is waiting to meet me, the Maître Chef de Cuisine. He produces a bottle containing a rather heady concoction and pours out two glasses. ‘I am always pleased to meet people concerned with the arts’, he says. ‘We must be fair. The reason being, you make people happy in one way, and we chefs make them happy in another way.’
I squash past him along the narrow passage-like room, and he invites me to sit down. The sound of the kitchen comes distantly to us here.
He presses a bell, and a commis chef approaches through the narrow door carrying a bowl of salad and a tray with innumerable bottles. He mentions: ‘I am inventing this salad-dressing especially for you.’
The antique phone rings on the desk behind us. He scuffles past: ‘Oh, good morning, my lady, good morning. What’s that? Eh? Oh, you’re depressed. I’m so sorry, my lady. Oh, it’s so gracious of you to say that, my lady. Oh, you are most kind, we must be fair ... well, you are a wonderful gastronome yourself, my lady ... so today you’re depressed. Oh, I’m sorry. You’d like something plain. Yes, of course. Well, may I suggest some poultry, garnished, with some smoked salmon to start with? Oh, you are kind. Well, we try to keep it varied. I must be fair. Then to finish, quite plain again? What about raspberries and fraises du bois, you know, wild strawberries and peaches? With a little liqueur? Oh, you’re too kind ...’
He makes some notes on a card, rings the bell, and hands the card to an assistant.
‘Oh yes,’ he says, returning to his salad, ‘I’m sorry to say the lady in question was rather depressed. Too bad. They have a lot of things on their mind, these top people. We must be fair. The clients they often ring me down, and they say, Chef, look, today I feel this, I feel that, I feel joyful, I feel depressed. This particular lady on the fifth floor, I’m delighted to be able to say that she phones me down almost every single day that she’s here to discuss the menu. She’s a wonderful gastronome herself, which gives added pleasure. I make all sorts of suggestions to her which, I must be fair, she usually accepts.
‘The time before last time, it was a Sunday. It called for something special. We made a salmon trout and we made it look like a boat, and then we cooked it in wine and served it with a garnish. I must be fair, she phoned me down to thank me to say that it was absolutely out of this world. I said, “Credit goes to you as much as to me, my lady, it was your brainwave to create it.” This is the sort of thing that goes on, you see, at a place like this. Hotels like this are hotels with a very much difference. The standard is beyond the beyond and they still want more. They are a legend. I think they may well go down as a big part of English history. We must be fair. And this lady, this wonderful gastronome, she is, I’m told, a very lovely lady. Immensely lovely. Of course we must be fair, regrettably I’ve never seen her, only once, for a moment, at the end of the main dining hall, I thought I saw, perhaps ...’
What would such a man do in his holidays? Would he have holidays? ‘I go to France. And I go and I stay at the best hotels that I can. We must be fair. And I always ask for the most intricate dishes, sometimes indeed very costly, we must be fair. But the thing is, this is one way that I learn. Not only shall I see the side that is cooking. But also the presentation. Here I can pick up tips. And, whatever I feel that is wrong, in coming home I can see if it’s wrong here too, and if so I put it right.’
A young waiter tiptoes into the Damask Suite.
‘Good morning, sir, a very fine morning sir, I’m glad to say, not too much rain, here are the morning papers sir, is there any other small thing I can do for you sir? Yes, of course. Some fresh orange juice? Kedgeree? Curtains open or shut sir? Run the bath? You were busy yesterday sir, weren’t you? Yes, I noticed, most busy, out and about all day, sir. Really, you should take time off. You should try to relax.’
In a subterranean office, amid a welter of hanging dinner jackets that he’s been pressing, stands, iron in hand, one of the older valets. His gleaming dentures clack, soon he will speak:
The Valet: ‘I’ve had dealings with quite a number of clients, Indian Princes, Maharajas, Overseas Prime Ministers, famous Film Stars, also, I am able to disclose, quite a representative section of the British aristocracy. Ah. We tell them by their funny ways. Not so much now. No, although they do still come. Not so much now, no. No. The aristocracy don’t come here so much now as they used to.
‘Most of the clients have got their own little characteristics. You know, funny ways. Well after all we’ve looked after them time and time again. You get to understand all their little familiar habits and ways. And once you have, I may mention, you soon get quite used to them, take no blind notice at all. Not a bit.
‘At one time, I am able to disclose, I was personal valet to the Hon. Geoffrey Lawkins who was Lord Follett’s youngest son, and stayed in quite a number of famous houses.
‘It was quite a number of these places I used to go to. Oh yes.
‘I used to stay in these places, as a personal valet to these various gentlemen I worked for. Oh yes. And so on.
‘The gentlemen who come here as residents to this hotel get the same kind of service that they would get from their own personal valet. Oh yes. You go in to the gentleman in the morning and ascertain what he’s likely to be wearing, and get it all ready, prepare his bath, and all the other little things that they’d like to have done, you see, their peculiar habits. Personally I go in to a gentleman and say, “Good morning sir.”
‘Now, as often as not, the gentleman replies: “Good morning Jones.”
‘What comes next? Well, I ask, “What will you be wearing today sir?”
‘”So and so.”
‘Well, I mean, we’ve got to know more or less what he’s going to wear with it, you see. Certain type of shirt? Certain type of tie? Certain type of socks? Shoes? And so on.
‘Some of the other floor waiters here, I am able to disclose, keep a diary or a little notebook whereby they can jot down little peculiar things that the various clients might require. I’ve never done that. The reason being, I’m able to memorise it.
‘Now, what to do if the client is in a talkative frame of mind, wants to have a chat? What is favourable to me is, I’ve travelled.
‘I can converse with the clients about the places they themselves have been to. It leads up to quite an interesting conversation.’
The Hotel Policeman: ‘Sometimes, most regrettably, clients have to be shielded from one of their own number. I’ve just had details of a fellow, appears to be going round hotels of this sort, smartly dressed, cavalry officer type, he’s apt to talk rather big and ask his way to various suites as he goes along the corridors. He seems like a typical client of this hotel, a man of substance. Indeed, I believe that he is an ex-public school boy. But that’s not the sort of customer he is any more. No. In fact, he’s a criminal. Should you come across him, grab him.’
The foyer of the hotel is its heart. Here stand the hall porters, splendid in their peaked caps and long great-coats which they wear even in summer. Here the head porter has his lair.
And here too, lit by a spotlight, amid exuberant swaths and curlicues and sprigs of flowers, stands a young flower girl.
Speaking in a clear Scots lilt, she says, ‘Although the money is good here, people don’t seem to get much pleasure from flowers here. I like it better really when I’m selling flowers in the lower-class districts, where people actually get enjoyment out of flowers.
‘Here clients buy by price, not by name. They ring down and name a price. Five, six, seven pounds, flowers to that value.
‘Whereas when I worked on the edge of the Gorbals, it was quite different. You got the person coming in who would tell you their whole life story, why they wanted the flowers, who they’re for, and what they did and where they worked and why they were very sick in hospital and how much joy they would get out of these six carnations; I loved all that.
‘Occasionally I’d give away flowers, perhaps just a few half-dead flowers I’d give some old woman, she’d be so overpoweringly thankful. A person here just throws you down twenty pounds and says, “Send them to so and so.” Often they can’t even be bothered to provide a message card to go in with the flowers, or even if they do enclose a card they can’t think what to say on it because their whole desire is so insincere that it doesn’t matter.
‘These are rich people. You have to be rich to stay here. And they don’t care. They just don’t care. They just sling down the money and ask for a vase. They’re distant. They’re not real. They have no deep feeling. You can never get them to smile or be angry or anything. They order a wedding bouquet: they order it in the same tone as tomorrow they’ll ask for something for their funeral.’
There is a small commotion in the foyer. A bevy of debs and their delights come sallying through, bound for the third ballroom.
The flower girl comments, ‘Specially the debs. People think they’re happy. I don’t. They’re sad. They know they can only live so long in this way. That’s what gives them their pathos. They must have this money and this life. Which needs money to buy it. They’re not willing to fall in love and start from the beginning, it’s too big a step. They either back out of it before they start to be a deb, or they go through with it and become a deb, but by the time they’re going through with it they’re in with it for life. They’re never going to back down, they’re going to go on with it all their lives.
‘When I’d just left school I used to dream of being a deb. The abundance of pretty flowers drew me to it for a start. It is a pretty thing, there are pretty flowers and pretty girls and pretty dresses and pretty hair-dos. But when you find out what sort of little artificial race it is ...’
The man in charge of putting on balls, who also controls banqueting, dinner parties, cocktail parties, wedding receptions; ‘It all rests of course in interlocking the various parties. Often we have ten a day processing through our various rooms. Some of the clients’ demands are fairly exotic, obscure. We may be asked, for instance, to deck a room with lilies. Another party where we have to produce a highly exotic bird by the name of phallopeaea. Most, most unusual fowl.
‘On a great day, such as a wedding, this one day in a lifetime, I try to produce something out of the hat. One trick I love to play is at weddings where we have a ball. The bride and groom are called by the toastmaster onto the floor. The band strikes up with a waltz. Just as they start to dance the whole room is pitched into darkness and on comes this tremendous spotlight to pick them up, this whooshing tremendous white spotlight, this has a tremendous effect. I mean, this really has a startling effect, one of sheer joy, you can hear it on everyone’s lips, the sound of Gosh! How wonderful! How tremendous! Oo-o-oh!
‘Interlocking parties can, of course, sometimes give trouble. Trouble when it does come is caused by delay, itself caused by clients, for instance the late arrival of some highly important guest of honour. This can be disastrous. The whole time schedule of interlocking parties is put back. Recently we had a reception, which was to follow a banquet. The banquet speaker was on his feet, most eloquent, everyone listening. He should really have finished at a quarter past two but at quarter past two he was still speaking, going at a steady pace. And at half past two he was still happy, still speaking quite content. And at twenty to three no sign at all of wanting to sit down. He was happy. A few coughs in the audience; people getting a little bit edgy about getting back to the office, I think.
‘And what about us? What are we going to do? Here we are, in the Viennese ballroom, all very well, and in this very same room, in what is now only half an hour we have another party starting, and here we are, we’ve still got these clients with us. One can’t just go and usher them out, after all! He’s still in the flow of his speech. We just don’t do this! But what do we do? I’ll tell you.
‘We pile up our resources behind the scenes, behind the green baize doors. Finally, just after quarter to three the speech does finish. The clients leave. The moment they’re out we hit that room so hard with tremendous force of staff, that has been piling up all the time into twenty, thirty, forty, it must be stripped, re-set, re-ventilated. Housekeepers must clean, tablemen work in a fury because to put it mildly, we’re pressed. In only twenty minutes the bride and groom will arrive. And the room, we hope, will look absolutely, well, only for them.
‘Two years ago a client booked the Maid Marion’s Parlour two years before the event to ensure that he got that particular room, on this particular day, for a ball, for the family. And then the unthinkable occurred. Twenty-four hours before the great event it so chanced that there blew up a tremendous rainstorm, a cloudburst, devastating gush of water. The technicalities of it I’m not altogether sure. All I know is, water in such great waves began to seep and rush through the room, and others as well, that soon it had inundated the whole of one floor of the banqueting rooms and reception rooms in water, all over the carpets, vases, saturating the base of our pillars, carrying off the gilt chairs. With my heart in my mouth I telephone the client. I inform him. He says: “Stay right there! I’ll be along! Don’t move!” Jumps into his car. Two and a half hours later he is here with his wife. Well, the first thing we do is to pacify them; “Not to worry. You mustn’t worry. We have got this worry, not you.”
‘With considerable manoeuvring and shuttling around we transfer this party into another room. This means a different kind of set-up, because the room we put it into is a much bigger room, we have to vary the lighting, vary the table plans, vary the flowers. Everything has to be changed. But it worked. The client at the end told me how very happy he’d been.
‘It happens sometimes, during a party a client will meet me and say how pleased he is that everything is going smoothly, and all his guests have said they’re enjoying themselves tremendously, but he’s then aware that there’s another party, and yet another party going on, in the same department, and he is quite amazed at this, he says: “But are they all going absolutely?” If a party runs very smoothly, as it should do, they’ll think they’re the only ones having a party at this moment, at this hotel, and then this gives a feeling of great satisfaction. Everything is going click, click, you know. This gives me a feeling of joy, of happiness.’
The Head Waiters embody, possibly more than any of the staff, the ideals of the grand hotel. There are ten of them. They do no serving. Their job is to make the client feel at home.
A Head Waiter: ‘I ask, “How many are you?” I say “Good evening, Nice to see you,” all that sort of thing, then take them to the table. That’s an art in itself. Give them the menu and then call the waiter to actually take the order. There’s quite a lot in that, although you might not think it, every step counts. Quite an art in itself, there’s quite a lot in it. You can’t be, shall I say, sulky, you’ve got to receive the client, you know, make him welcome. If you rush up to them, you see them come in and you rush up to them and say “Good evening” (or whatever the case might be), “Good morning, Sir George” (whatever the name is), the client seems to appreciate that, that he is known, he is not a stranger. There’s quite an art in that. Now what do you do if you don’t know the name? Like this. I say “It’s very nice to see you. How are you? Good evening!” and all that sort of thing. You have to use your judgement. There’s quite a lot in that. “How long are you going to be? This isn’t one of your short visits, I hope, I am sure!” Or: “We like to have you here a bit longer than that.” I must admit that there are some, just a few, that when you try to have this little conversation with them, well I can see that they for some reason or other close up, they don’t like it. What do I do then? Well, of course, I don’t. There’s quite an art in that. I don’t, you know, carry on, I just find an excuse, finish off my conversation, in short, I just leave them. There’s quite an art in that.’
In a fetid vault an ancient glassman is straining to get the luncheon glasses washed up in time to be used in the evening.
An Ancient Glassman; ‘I’m in my retiring stage, going on eighty-seven and I’d like to stop working but I feel if I did as though somehow I wouldn’t be happy. So in my spare time I go into the glass pantry. I’ve been used to doing that and I like to go on doing that, I like the atmosphere, I like the way we carry out doing this certain job and I think it’s a grand thing. We may have a banquet of five hundred, or even may have two or three banquets going together, that brings in a mighty lot of glasses.’
A Dispense Waiter: ‘These banquets of a number of people, say four hundred, is always a problem, is always a headache, because that could well mean about three or four hundred different orders going on. Take twelve people at a table. There might be five different parties of the twelve on that particular table-order, and each order individually for their guest and themselves; each client wants the wine list. You get the amusing one who will say, What are we eating, Waiter? You say, Chicken, he says, Oh, that’s white wine. You take it to the next one, he says, Oh, we’re eating chicken, oh that’s red wine! Well this causes a certain amount of amusement! We know what’s been laid down, we know what should be drunk.’
A Head Banquet Waiter; ‘The secret is a little planning beforehand. You must draw up your charts, put key men in each room. You supplement these key men who are on the staff by the freelance waiters. These are the ones that you hire for a pound or thirty bob a night. They call them casual ducks. Sometimes we may have to draw casual ducks away from one function to supplement another. This is like a general on a battlefield.’
A Senior Barman; ‘Long ago, when I took this job, banqueting was in its infancy. I took it on what we term the rough and smooth basis, according to the season. The rough is when you start work at nine o’clock in the morning doing mise en place, getting stock out, cutting lemon, preparing tomato juice, splitting ice, getting all the junk into the right rooms at the right times and at the right temperature, then the party starts at half past twelve and you carry on right through the lunch, serving, doing the bills, then mise en place again, more tomato juice, more ice, going on to a supper which finishes at four o’clock in the morning; this can go on a whole week where you’re working eighteen hours a day. With the idea that, out of season, you could have the smooth days when you’ve got nothing. That’s what we call the smooth part. We refer it to the sea. Rough is all pitch and toss, you’re here, you’re there, everywhere. Smooth is when you take your time, relax, have yourself in peace.’
A Plunger; ‘Y’are the fella on the plunger. Those great pots are three feet across, the ones they do the vegetables in. Ya work in fantastic heat and grease. Ya wear nothing on ya. Ya get a great grease pan which has had chips in it, ya’ve got half an inch of chips on the wall, ya have to go at it with a paint scraper. There’s no red in your hands, they’re all white with the washing soda. Ya work like that for nine hours, and they’re like slave traders. But if ya’ve got no cash and nowhere to sleep ya’ll take it.’
A very old Glass Washer; ‘In the kitchen where I work there’s beetles and cockroaches. They crawl all over the food. One of these days they’ll be crawling up the stairs. They won’t be able to ignore them for ever. One of these days they’ll be crawling into the bedrooms.’
Only one man at the hotel has been both sides of the green baize door; he’s been both servant and client. This is a retired boxer who works in the lowest subterranean layer of all, operating a vast dish-washing machine.
This man is somewhat slow of response, and in the little room where he works, criss-crossed with twisting pipes, the swarming Pakistanis have built a fairly well-known ritual interchange to engage him in;
‘Tell him how much you used to earn in half an hour. Tell him how much you used to earn in half an hour. Go on, you tell him how much you used to earn yourself in half an hour,’ cry the swarming Pakistanis.
The man says, surly: ‘Five thousand pounds.’
‘Tee hee!’ cry the Pakistanis. ‘Now tell him. Tell him how much you earn now in a week. Go on, tell him how much now you can earn in a week.’
The man says, surly: ‘Five pound a week. Five pound a week.’
‘Tee hee!’ cry the Pakistanis.
‘There’s no surprise,’ says the Boxer. ‘Boxing is a very highly paid profession while plunging the pots is not.’
Music is striking up upstairs now, the night is beginning to come alive with the sensuous pump of swing. Hundreds, thousands of clients are streaming into the hotel as they do every night. In a beautiful marbled room a group of debs are sitting on gilded chairs. A Deb; ‘I think rhythm to start with is the important factor. A gay, fast twisting sort of rhythm. And the band must look cheerful. If the leader or any of them look bored, it sort of carries on through the ballroom, or if they start off with a slow, smoochy music, you’re bored before you ever get off the ground as it were, and then if they also turn out the lights you can’t see any of your friends, you don’t know who’s there, everybody gets bored with the person they’re with, you can’t see where the person you really want to dance with is, you’re stuck in the dark with someone too early on, and it’s terrible if you can’t see the person you really want.
‘The band must keep on playing. If it stops for too long, then often something is lost, something you never get back again. I think the ideal band just follows the mood of the people there, at the beginning they’re feeling gay so they probably want to dance quite lively and sort of twist, then later on if they see that people are rather tired, what I’m saying is that at three in the morning and the band begins to play a twist it can be rather dire.
‘From a girl’s point of view the least important thing about a deb ball is the food, because if one goes to a good party before, very often you don’t want to eat, you haven’t got time, you just don’t feel like breakfast and the most enormous buffet from ten till three o’clock, you know, ham and tongue and everything, bacon and eggs and kedgeree. Most of the girls, they just take a drink and they hardly eat at all, they pick at strawberries and grapes. But the worst thing of all is, the smell. Yes, the smell wafts through into the ballroom from the kitchens. Oh, it’s horrible then. And sometimes the waiters look so tired or bored.’
Far below, the staff are still at work, many of whom keep their whole families for years on the cost of one ball or dance function in the rooms up above.
A slight commotion in one of the long corridors as a packing-case edges down them, flanked strangely by four floor waiters. Should a client be tactless enough to die he is not removed in a coffin as happens in humdrum places. It might distress other clients if, returning from a late-night ball, they were confronted with a coffin lurching along one of the long corridors.
The hotel instead employs a large packing-case, large enough for a client, yet small enough for a lift. Floor-waiters are alerted, so that it cannot come out till the corridors are clear. The packing-case is edged out, down the corridor and through the staff entrance. Outside, the same tact is shown. The packing-case is transported away in a simple van.
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