Big Boy Up A Ladder
Today a few more recollections of working at the Savoy Hotel, in response to a request from a reader:
Musings from Middle England: the listening blog, the market-focused, customer-led blog, proactively fostering customer relationship marketing strategies in accordance with best practice, subject to benchmarking standards and rigorous performance targets, and working towards OFBLOG 'Beacon Status'.
[Get on with it - Ed.]
When I started at the Savoy my temporary boss was the young Spanish man who, as previously described, had anointed my middle finger with vintage brandy. That must have been one of the rare days that I did any work. 'Manuel', as I'll call him, couldn't be bothered to teach me anything or give me any work and told me to bring a book to read.
He didn't do a great deal himself, apart from shouting down an ancient speaking tube to the unseen troglodytes who worked in the wine cellars far below. "Go and fuck yourself, you son of a bitch", he would scream before stuffing tea towels into the tube to stifle any further demands on his time.
So in my first week I read 'Catcher in the Rye' by J.D. Salinger. I think I read it twice. It proved an inspired choice as an aide memoire because a Manhattan cocktail is made with Rye whisky, not Scotch. To this day I call a Manhattan a 'Salinger'.
Now I'd sometimes been made to read books at school: during singing lessons where my croaking would have thrown the rest of the class off key, and during rugby games because of a susceptibility to nose bleeds. But I hadn't thought that hours of reading would be a feature of my working life. Still, I wasn't complaining. At this rate I'd have read all the classics of English and American literature before I was 30 and quite possibly have become a world authority on quantum physics too.
All that changed when the regular boss returned from holiday.
He was a small, bald man in his fifties with pebble glasses. Imagine an East End Jewish version of Arthur Lowe and you won't be far out. I'll call him 'Joe'. He always called me 'Sir' but I don't know whether this was sarcasm or in deference to my education. He also called me a "fucking little shithouse".
He called everybody a shithouse. It was because everybody was a shithouse that he'd spent his entire life working for a pittance in the bowels of the Savoy. Not that he had a chip on his shoulder. No, it was more the size of a brick shithouse which is why he walked with a stoop, peering up at the Art Deco splendour of the Savoy through his pebble glasses like a mole that had emerged on the well-manicured lawn of a stately home.
One day he sent me up a ladder to get something from a high shelf. As I reached up he did the same and grabbed hold of my genitals. For a few seconds he weighed them in his hands as though it were a Guess the Weight of the Cake competition at a village fete. Then he said: "You're quite a big boy, Sir" and walked away. He never repeated it and it was never mentioned again. Since I had never discussed my sexuality with him I was amazed he did something so blatant and risky.
The only implicit reference to the groping episode was when an elderly Irish floor waiter walked in one day. Because of his Irish accent the 'r' in 'cork' was silent so his request came out as "Have you got a big cock I could use?" Joe immediately called to me: "Sir, someone wants you."
The Irishman was unaccountably terrified of Joe. One day he spilled some whisky going through a swing door and came back for a refill. Joe lifted him up by the collar and said: "Let me smell your breath. You've drunk it, you lying, fucking Irish shithouse." I made the mistake of defending the Irishman and was made to scrub carafes for the rest of the day.
It's well-known that the staff of such hotels become much grander than the guests and will look down their noses at people who are actually far higher up the social scale than a waiter. I remember one waiter fulminating against Princess Margaret's former husband, Lord Snowdon, calling him a "jumped-up little bastard." One Maitre D'Hotel used to write restaurant reservations in his ledger in pencil so he could quickly rub them out if the people didn't measure up to his exacting standards.
Another would walk slowly round a prospective diner, looking them up and down, assessing the quality of their suit and shoes and their suitability to eat in 'his' restaurant.
Soon after I left the Savoy, my new employer held a reception there. I sneaked off through a staff door and went to visit my old workplace. I got a friendly reception but then one of the waiters discovered I was now there as a customer. He immediately went into the circling routine, feeling the material of my jacket and after a lot of tut tutting rebuked me for my cheap shoes which didn't match my suit.
"Take no notice, Sir", Joe said, "he's a shithouse."
For more behind-the-scenes stories from top hotels, mainly in America, I recommend the books of Ludwig Bemelmans, starting with 'Hotel Bemelmans', available from Amazon.