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

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

An Artistic Soul

The repairs to Mr Miles' gondola have been completed. The eccentricities of the heir to Carstone would be enough to make any father pull out the few remaining hairs on his head. Sir Geoffrey wears hats quite a bit these days. I have seen, on a week-end (when the son and heir often visits the ancestral home) Mr Miles entertain a party for lunch and then, dressed in full Venetian gondolier's uniform (complete with black trousers and striped shirt), take them to the lake, and row them to the small island in the centre for cocktails. Several times I have been deposited (in a normal rowing boat from the boathouse. Gondolas seem rather precarious to me. I believe they belong only in Venice for a reason) on the island, as an advance party, to prepare to serve the drinks. One gets used to such quirks.

Mr Miles telephoned this morning to inform us that he will be visiting Carstone this week-end. His career as a portrait painter has had a rather bumpy beginning. He is bringing with him his latest commission. Perhaps that is how he now drums up business: be painted by Mr Miles Carstone and get a free week-end at Carstone House into the bargain! He is to use a large room in the attics which at one time used to be the Footman's Sitting Room (those were in the days, before the Second World War, when there were four footmen here, who would, if there was a party larger than six for dinner, wear full livery, complete with breeches, buckled shoes and powdered wigs) so I must ensure that everything is set out for him.

Lady Carstone seems rather down. Perhaps she misses Lake Garda. Usually a very vibrant personality, she barely said a word at breakfast this morning. Sir Geoffrey was, in sharp contrast, in most loquacious form. When I informed him about the gondola, he told me a story of when that 'blasted extravagance' (as he calls it) first needed re-gilding. Without his son's knowledge the baronet ordered that it be painted gold rather than gilded. This money-saving plan came unravelled when after only a few months in lake water, the gold paint started to go green. I remember that very well.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

'The Chat': A Concerned Master

Sir Geoffrey has returned from Italy with a furrowed brow. This had nothing to do with the climate, the food, or the hotel arrangements. They were very acceptable. No, the fly in his ointment, the bug on his pasta, the exploding bottle in his wine cellar, was caused by a visit to a castle in a town quite close to his hotel.

On the third day of the Carstone progress around the rim of Lake Garda, the happy party visited the splendid town of Malcesine. A beautiful spot, to be sure. An important place whose dramatic towering 13th century Scaglieri castle once played host to Goethe, who dropped in there to rest his weary head, in the year 1786. Unfortunately for Goethe, the local populace, unused to German poets dropping in on them in such a flighty manner, took him to be a spy and threatened him in a very un-poetical way. He managed to charm them and all was well, but the poor chap could be expected to have been unsettled by the whole affair. The castle at Malcesine left Sir Geoffrey in a similar unsettled condition. He wasn't taken to be a spy. Surely, they thought, a spy would be more adept at fitting in with his surroundings. A spy might have had a slightly better grasp of Italian, for a start. No, it was not the people, as such, that upset the noble baronet, but the castle itself, and what had become of it.

The castle has been restored, Sir Geoffrey explained to me, but many of the rooms have been modernised and stuffed with glass cases. It has become a museum. Upon entering what Sir Geoffrey took to have been a banqueting hall at one time, he found a modern wood floor, and the place full of glass cases with stuffed animals looking back at him. The animals looked bored by it all. Another castle nearby had a similar theme: a once beautiful bedroom had been converted into a museum to fishing. Of interest, no doubt, to fishermen, but an historical shame nonetheless.

In short, Sir Geoffrey explained, before asking for a whisky to settle his nerves, the once grand, bustling castles, had become dead, soulless places. Would Carstone House become one of those one day? That was what worried him. He did not want modern pine panelling put in his Italian Drawing Room, and the place stuffed to the gills with glass cases explaining the fascinating history of the local basket-weaving profession. He could not bear the thought of dear old Carstone becoming lifeless.

There are hidden depths to Sir Geoffrey Carstone. I got him his drink and left him to his thoughts, but not before reassuring him that there was little chance, at present, of the castle becoming a local attraction for basket weavers, taxidermists, or the makers of glass cases. He nodded in relieved agreement, but did concede, however, that he would allow one large glass case to be made for Carstone, on the understanding that Lady Blanche could be stuffed and put in it. As soon as possible. The thought seemed to cheer him up no end.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Return of the Baronet

Sir Geoffrey, Lady Carstone, and Mr Copeland returned yesterday evening from their trip to the continent. All seemed to enjoy the intense Italian sunshine as far as I can ascertain. It always takes me a little while to get used to Sir Geoffrey with a tan. His is the sort of skin which looks unusual when tanned. His moustache (a soup-strainer affair) looks extraordinarily white when his face has spent time basking in the sun. It sits there, droppingly, daring anyone to pass comment.

After ensuring that the family were settled and unpacked I shared a quick snifter with Copeland to ask how the holiday went. On the whole a good time was had by all. Sir Geoffrey, as usual when in foreign climes, attempted to fit in, and failed in a rather endearing way. He is dreadful at languages and always has been, but, alas, nobody seems to have told him. He attacks the local population, phrase book clutched in one hand, with great enthusiasm, and mangles their noble language beyond all recognition. The only thing worse, Copeland wearily confided in me, than Sir Geoffrey's Italian, was Sir Geoffrey's Italian accent. He cannot escape Eton, even though it has been many years since he was taught there. His accent shines through no matter what language he is speaking.

I have been summoned to 'have a quick chat' with Sir Geoffrey in an hour.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Berry Picking

Blackcurrants. Raspberries. Apples. All three have been picked in abundance by me over the past few days. Home Farm is awash with them. They are taking over the place. I have been reliably informed that the heat is causing them to grow to a size that would be seen as impressive by even the most cynical hard-bitten observer of fruit. If there was a local competition (and for all I know, there is) for 'Largest Raspberries' then a victorious Sir Geoffrey Carstone would be carried through the streets of the village by a jubilant throng.

Berry-picking was a pleasurable experience. The estate has been bathed in sunshine over the past few days. I do not have a great deal of work to do this week, as the family are away on holiday in Italy. Life in the House continues however. Carstone carries on no matter who is present within its stone (or, in all honesty, mostly brick, with stone cladding) walls.

All seems peaceful as I type this. The only sound I hear is a light tapping noise coming from the direction of the lake and boathouse where some repairs are being made to Mr Miles' gilded gondola. I believe the nice weather has left us now though. Spots of rain have begun to spatter on my window and the clouds above look dark and ominous.

Today is not a berry picking day.