Friday, 18 January 2013


There are very few sybarites swimming about in the puddle which was once the deep pool of my life; apart, that is, from the moment of high excitement when Sarah, the lady who obliges, polishes my silver watch, chain and sundry fobs. Ventures into the watch-bearing outside world being  nowadays limited to bouncing off pavements, the watch and chain have languished in dull obscurity on the chest of drawers in my bedroom, a chronological Cinderella.

The fobs hang limp and undistinguished. The copper medal made from the metal of Nelson’s Victory to mark the first centenary of Trafalgar, the Victorian half sovereign, the family crest, and the silver match box taken from the bloodstained tunic of my 18-year-old Uncle Willie, killed in the Gretna Green troop train disaster on his way to the Western Front in World War One, droop, grimy shadows of their  former selves.

Then lo, from some magic kingdom floats down the Divine Sarah, be-wanded on a white cloud of Duraglit, and once again the belly becomes an Aurora Borealis. The chain a fiery Milky Way, a Halley’s comet. Odin and his wild herd streak across my 60-inch firmament. Nelson’s Victory hoists its battle flag; the matchbox, a farewell gift to Willie from some unknown girlfriend, sheds sparkling silver tears; and a shining Queen Victoria is for once highly amused.

I am tempted to loan Sarah my treasured “Butler's Guide to Running The Home and Other Graces"  by Stanley Ager, butler to the third Lord St Levan at St Michael's Mount in Cornwall. I was born to be buttled but, alas, four monarchs have neglected the peerage I have always believed my due. I am doomed never to be handed a freshly ironed newspaper on a silver salver. I must be content with this with this account of newspapers so favoured:

“We had to keep them looking fresh so we ironed the newspapers three or or four times a day. Some people screwed the paper into a ball and then threw it down in disgust if they read something they disagreed with, others managed to crumple a paper simply by handling it. We ironed the papers on the pantry table. It only took a couple of minutes to press each one. You need a warm iron. Press the front and back pages, starting at the top of a page and working down. There is no need to iron the rest of the paper, the heat of the iron will flatten the intervening pages.

“Only the better newspapers, such as The Times and Financial Times were read in the drawing room. I certainly would not bother to iron  the cheaper ones – they are not worth the trouble, and the print is very likely to rub off.”

It was a long haul to reach Butler Rank. Ager, at 14 in 1922, began as a hall boy, learning his trade by serving the servants. Only after six months in the servants' hall were hall boys permitted in the front of the house. If they proved able there, they were promoted to second or third footmen who served at table, cleaned silver and cared for clothes. First footmen assisted the butler. Footmen were in their thirties and had valeted the gentlemen of the house before they were fit to buttle. Fully trained, they earned £90 a year, a formidable sum, and were entitled to impose demands. No servant would accept a job unless the owner had several houses which offered opportunities to travel - and one in London.

The more time I spend in Ager’s company, the more Downton Abbey appears a Greasy Spoon in comparison. Beer was delivered daily to the Servants' Hall in ten gallon barrels. Gentlemen for breakfast were offered ten fluid ounces of whisky in little silver decanters to pour over their porridge. After a day with hounds Ager poured three tots of whisky for the Huntsman. One in each boot and one down his neck to warm himself for the hack to kennels . At lunch the gentlemen drank light ale, the ladies sherry. Sherry was served again before dinner; white wine was offered with fish, red with meat, white wine and champagne with sweets. Then came the dessert wines - port, brown sherry and malmsey - and liqueurs after coffee. At ten o'clock, before bedtime, the grog tray was brought in - whisky, gin and mixing brandy; soft drinks for the ladies, followed by a flask of hot water.

On New Years' day Royal Punch was served. For the recipe Ager advised using inexpensive glasses. After the first toast the custom was to hurl the glasses to the floor. It was wise, he said, to have a dust sheet on the floor for the quick removal of broken glass.

Ager also warns:

“This punch is very potent. When making it beware the fumes arising with the steam...

"Brew two ounces of Indian tea in a quart of water. Pour a bottle of Burgundy into a large saucepan and heat slowly over low heat. As soon as the heat arises add a bottle of hock; stirring, add a bottle of medium sherry and a bottle of rum. Mix the juice of six lemons with a pound of lump sugar and add to the wine mixture when it is near the boiling point. Pour the tea through a strainer into the simmering liquid. Finally add a pinch of ground ginger, a pinch of nutmeg and two sticks of of cinnamon. Pour into a silver punch bowl and serve with a ladle in glasses of about claret size. The glasses should be warmed to lessen the risk of breakage."

"Driven from the pleasing billows of debauch,
“On the dull shore of lazy temperance" as I am, I cannot tell you how difficult it was to copy those words by Lord Rochester.

Happily, from his banker’s desk in New York, my grandson Sam throws the following  lifebelt onto those remembered billows with this cutting from The Huffington Post:

“The Vaportini provides a revolutionary way of consuming alcohol. It is inhaled rather than swallowed. It is smooth and flavorful, the subtleties of the individual spirits are apparent. It is absorbed directly into the bloodstream and does not go through the digestive tract. This has the advantage of no calories, no carbs and all the effects of consuming alcohol are immediately felt, making it easier to responsibly imbibe. Unlike traditional consumption of spirits, Vaportinis give more control. Shortly after exhaling, all the effects of the alcohol are felt. In contrast it takes up to 30 minutes to feel the full effects of spirits that are swallowed.

"Visiting a friend in Helsinki we headed for his outdoor sauna with a group of friends and a bottle of vodka. He poured the vodka over the coals and breathed in the vapors until we were sufficiently inebriated. We then went outside to roll in the snow to “sober up”and headed back in the house to partake of smorgasbord. About an hour later we headed back to the sauna with another bottle of vodka. The rest of the afternoon followed this cycle."

Easy on the snow roll. But I’ll sniff to that, knowing at last the origin of "snifter". As a New Year tradition it beats the hell out of standing outside clutching a bit of bread and a lump of coal, waiting for the first stroke of midnight.