The Butler Did It

Arthur Inch, the former butler for Winston Churchill and the Queen Mother, talks about his book, “Dinner Is Served.”

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The evenings when Inch used to scent the air with perfume before dinner are long gone, but he hopes that his new book will help modern hosts and hostesses navigate the dizzying world of bullion spoons and ice cream forks. “You may sop up gravy with bread by putting a small piece down on the gravy and then eating it with your fork, not your fingers,” the book advises. The staff should serve from the left, never resting their right hands on the guests’ chairs. Cakes and pies should face diners point first. Glassware should be cleaned without “screwing off the stem,” as the footmen say.

In the book, Inch also describes the current Queen’s admirable manners, recalling an afternoon when she accidentally doused a strawberry with salt and ate it without causing a fuss. Winston Churchill, on the other hand, was “a nightmare to work for” and kept his dinner guests in the dining room until after midnight, leaving the staff, who had to begin work again at 6:30 a.m., no time to clean up. Then he “would stay in bed until midday, constantly ringing his wretched bell.”

But while Inch lodges a few mild complaints, he insists that the first rule of private service is discretion. “You’ve always got to be polite and loyal to the employers,” he says. “This so-called butler that used to be with Princess Diana, he’s letting out all these secrets. He’s not a loyal man. He’s just out for making money for himself.”

“I’ve seen a lot in my time,” Inch adds. “But I would never ever do anything like that.”

During his years in service, Inch says that the line between “the gentries” — as those in private service called their employers — and the employees was rarely blurred. “We weren’t envious of them, we just did our job and that was that,” he says. Some days Inch had only two hours off-duty, which he spent taking an afternoon walk. The rest of the time he honored “the two Ps”: planning and preparation.

Living in a cottage near the main house, Inch’s own dinners with his wife were less grand, but no less proper. “It was called the art of gracious living, and in a small way you brought it back to your home,” he says. “She would cook, I would lay the table and we would just have a nice meal together.”
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