The valet's gone, nanny's in tears and I'm guilty

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The Independent Online
Anyone who has had a disastrous experience of employing someone to work in their home must feel more than a smidgeon of sympathy for the Prince of Wales, whose private displays of petulance and rage (when he couldn't open a window in a friend's ho use hetwice broke the glass) have been exposed by his valet, Ken Stronach, this week.

I hold no brief for Charles. He is clearly an incredibly indulged creature. But everyone has a good and bad side, and reading Stronach's tales, I couldn't help but think that this was a partial picture. And isn't even the Prince entitled to a bit of privacy, too?

But - and here's the bad news, Charles - in order to have this, you are going to have to change your lifestyle and live more modestly. Who else in 1995 employs a valet? Country house life all but collapsed after the Second World War because working-classpeople hated being in service to the upper classes, and who can blame them? Nowadays, it is the middle classes, driven by the demands of their dual-employment lifestyles, who have had to reinvent domestic labour - although, it seems, with great reluctance.

Everyone I meet is talking at the moment about Tears Before Bedtime, the dark BBC Sunday night drama about family life with nannies. I think the fascination with this serial arises from the simple fact that so many dual career and working parents see echoes, or worse, of themselves and their own experiences in it.

I found one incident in the first episode of this so-called comedy so painful that I mentally ducked behind the sofa, then switched off - but only for a moment. It was a scene in which a mad nanny, addicted to washing clothes, was stripping the small children in her care as they placidly ate their tea, so that she could feed the machine.

The whole house rumbled ominously with the sound of tumble driers, just as mine had when - you've guessed it - I employed a mother's help who just couldn't stop washing. Use a tea towel once and it was whisked away. The children went through three changes of clothes a day. The only mitigating factor was that she worked for us during a period when I was at home full time, it was a hot summer, and the poor, battered garments at least dried outside.

Tears also captures the way in which some nannies mercilessly slag off their poor, imperfect employers, their food, their houses, their lives, their husbands. One nicknamed me "noodle brain" (she may be right); another said that after looking after my children she never, ever wanted a family.

How do I know about these inner thoughts? Well, they were left in half-written letters to absent nanny friends, carelessly strewn about the house. And yes, I did read them.

This experience, of employing people privately hostile to you, determined to interpret every action by you in a bad light, is beautifully caught in a recent academic study, Servicing the Middle Classes. In a scene which could come straight from the drama, a university lecturer who works from home told the book's researcher he felt very strongly that between 8.15am and 5.30pm, when he is in his study and the nanny is working, the children should not be disturbing him.

The nanny, when questioned, says: "He doesn't do much work anyway. He goes in at the last minute just before he has a lecture, then he comes home again. ... he goes upstairs and watches telly. And he'll come down at 29 minutes past five" (she finished at

5.30pm).

We clearly haven't got the relationship right, but at least the middle classes agonise about it - as exemplified in our reaction to Tears. And we are certainly farther along the road than members of the Royal Family. Nannies, valets and cooks have to be treated as employees, with set hours and conditions that are not abused. Reading of the huge demands and total dedication demanded by the Prince, and doubtless other members of the Royal Family, makes one realise how totally different they are from even the surviving members of the English aristocracy.

I'm not suggesting the Prince of Wales doesn't need someone to nanny him, or iron his shirts - it would be cruel to expect him to manage on his own. But he could make sure he keeps control of his own cufflinks in future.

Even meat eaters meet their Waterloo. I wouldn't dream of eating veal, always try to buy real free-range eggs, but at home we eat game, mainly pheasants (bought from game butchers), during the shooting season. But last Sunday I flirted, briefly, with vegetarianism.

With the season coming to an end, I realised that we had spent Christmas and New Year in Wales without tasting woodcock. In the country at this time of year there are more dead pheasants than the dealers know what to do with, but they also usually manageto produce the odd brace of woodcock to keep us happy.

These are tiny birds, in size rather like quails, but 1,000 per cent more tasty and very rich. However, this year ... no show. My mother-in-law normally produces them, cooked for 20 minutes, on a piece of fried bread.

My local butcher in London said he would track some down, and found four. But when I came to cook them I almost fainted. The heads had been left on! Tiny and delicate, with three-inch beaks, they looked far too much like real birds for me. The game cookery book said the heads were not there by mistake: the brains were a delicacy (news to me).

By now my squeamish children, whom I am saving from a veggie life thanks to such tempting morsels as woodcock, were coming down the stairs. I took the kitchen scissors and cut off the heads, rather like the farmer's wife in "Three Blind Mice". Lunch wen t ahead. But I didn't enjoy it.

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