First-Hand: The remains of my day: A butler's life does require total devotion, says Marcus Wignall Parry

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Indy Lifestyle Online
I TRAINED in 1981, when I was 18, as under-butler in the silver pantry at Buckingham Palace and we are it - the ex-Palace boys. There are no butlers in England, to my reckoning, other than us.

I failed my A-levels to defy my Ma. I had been a choral scholar at King's, Chester, but I decided instead of exams to take off for Chester races each day in the sidecar of my cousin Lily's Triumph Bonneville.

Serious grief from Ma, of course, and when I'd flippantly said to her I want to be a butler like Mr Hudson in Upstairs Downstairs - he's so marvellous, what a rock - she wrote off for an application form without telling me.

Ever since my Pa died when I was six, I have looked after people, my younger siblings, mother, grandmother. I was always the one who put the log on the fire and made the tea. That's all I thought it was about. It was something of a shock to find myself at the Palace, spending 90 per cent of my time cleaning silver. There are still few who can match me for speed and diligence when it comes to cleaning silver.

I was paid pounds 138 per month in 1981. We belonged to a civil service union and signed the Official Secrets Act. Section G for grandeur - and grimy. I did not complete the full three years Palace training. I left without the diploma after I fell in love with a member of the household. The ultimate sin. Frightful. Can't say who it was of course. The person was certainly not aware of it.

Then I worked briefly for the Duke of Marlborough and went on to be valet to the Spanish Ambassador. You can't get more personal than valet. You care for one gentleman, everything from his socks to his bathtub. People I have been with of late have been . . . considerably different.

Often if people can afford someone like me to oversee the household for about pounds 25,000 a year, to create an illusion, all's probably not quite right. You can't give somebody an aristocratic lifestyle if they don't have it already. Arrivistes who think they can get a butler in tow and smart it up with the rest of them, well, you can't fool the butler. He will look at the silver most disdainfully, look at the glasses, no, they're just not on. He'll look at the paintings and know that those three are copies. But what is acceptable these days? Who's to say?

The whole concept of a gentleman's gentleman - which was still around in the Sixties - was an equal subservient to another equal. That's what gentleman's gentleman means to me, it's your impoverished gentleman looking after your affluent gentleman. They both know how to behave, they both know how to dress. One can afford to pay for it and the other can't. How often do you come across it in 1993? It seems almost like the dodo. It's on its way out. Gone.

Of course the whole concept of butlers is antiquated. The job requires total devotion. It's worse than slavery, it's a marriage. At times I felt like somebody's possession, completely trapped. That's why there are perhaps 350 butlers in England, no more. The best bit is when everything's done and you sit down with the last three inches of port. I've always been looked after well when it comes to eating and drinking. You get the best bit: before they go up to the dining-room.

I've remained on very good terms with most of my employers, get invited back for supper in the kitchen. But sometimes the old reactions come out. At a birthday party last week a boy in the drawing-room was evidently going to be sick. I just grabbed him and took him downstairs, And I was a guest. If you see someone is going to make a tit of himself, you remove the situation to another place. And if milady is escaping from her dress, you don't wait to warm a spoon. You just pop it back in quickly and say Ma'am.

The sole function of a butler is to make sure there are no embarrassing situations. It is nothing to do with dignity. That is why Ishiguro's butler Stevens irritates me from page one. From cover to cover that man denies himself love, a social life, an identity almost. I've tried to do that but couldn't. There may be something of Stevens in me but there is a limit. There have been days when I couldn't cope and I would disappear and get drunk to escape from it all. I don't work full-time any longer and for a year I haven't lived in. That's much better. It is a vocation but an impossible one.

Stevens glorifies his self-denial by describing it as dignity. It's absolutely the opposite, to my mind. Stevens thinks his greatest triumph is to work on while his father is dying upstairs. I would go and have a last 10 minutes with Pa saying all those things that might not have been said for 50 years.

Far more important. There's no dignity in depriving oneself of one's own life to that degree. I can think of two butlers who have literally fallen off chairs and died and have done nothing with their lives except look after their employers. I'm not going to be one of those.

(Photograph omitted)