CARRY ON, ELLWOOD.
VERY GOOD, ATWATER.
Evelyn had a manservant-cum-butler for most of the time he lived at Piers Court. One wonders why. Perhaps because he was an ardent admirer of the work of PG Wodehouse. Was Ellwood something of a Jeeves, then? That's one of the things this essay will explore.
I think the first mention of Ellwood (standing behind his master in the above detail from a photo I will be returning to) is in Waugh's Diaries. In November 1937, less than a year after buying Piers Court and about six months after marrying Laura, Ellwood's surname suddenly appears. His forename never does. The entry tells us that Ellwood asked Waugh to come and inspect the new cooker in the kitchen at Piers Court. Mrs Ellwood then asked Ellwood to stand in such a way that his shadow revealed a crack in the glowing red-hot plate... What's interesting about this entry is the mention of a Mrs Ellwood, because other sources suggest that Ellwood wasn't married until later. But I'll come back to this.
Next mention of Ellwood is in September 1939, when he signed up for the searchlight corps in Bristol. Once Piers Court was leased to the nuns for the course of the War, Waugh wrote to Laura, both at Xmas 1940, and in May 1942, in an attempt to get Ellwood to join him as his batman. I don't think such a set-up materialised (I've still got to research the War years), but when the Waughs moved back into Piers Court after the War, Ellwood was the first member of staff to join them. 'The only servant in the house is my pre-war valet.' is how Evelyn puts it in a letter to Penelope Betjeman of January 1946.
The nearest Ellwood approached the Waugh limelight is in a diary entry for 29 July, 1947. Evelyn describes how he was sitting in the train going to London for a ball, when he realised that he had not told Ellwood to pack a stiff white evening shirt for him. Would his servant have had the gumption to do so? A search of his bag suggested not. Evelyn then considered phoning Piers Court and putting Laura to the inconvenience of driving to the station with a labelled shirt and putting it on a later train. He calculated that there was no time for this. In the absence of taxis at Paddington, Waugh took a tube to Piccadilly, caught a cab there and left his bag at White's. Then he had the cab drive him on to Turnbull and Asser, where, after some difficulty, a suitable shirt was found. Back at White's, Evelyn was given an urgent message, originally from Ellwood, to phone Piers Court at once. The manservant had realised his mistake and had put a stiff white shirt on a subsequent train. Evelyn breaks off his account there, leaving it to the reader to decide if and how Evelyn retrieved his no doubt expensive but presently superfluous shirt from Paddington Station.
Another anecdote comes from Frances Donaldson, who, with her wine-loving husband, Jack, used to visit the Waughs regularly from 1947. In Portrait of a Country Neighbour, she describes the occasion where, as soon as they arrived for dinner, Evelyn took Jack aside to warn him that the champagne on offer was ordinary but that the claret was very good. Ellwood had been given instructions to take round the champagne first, offering no alternative to the guests. Jack was advised to refuse this, as Evelyn would do, safe in the knowledge that the claret would be offered immediately after. So that while everyone else would be stuck with inferior champagne, Jack and Evelyn would be savouring a first class claret. Alas, Ellwood offered the claret at the same time as the champagne. Frances Donaldson describes Evelyn as having been almost speechless with rage. Perhaps it was one of those occasions when it seemed to Evelyn that paying for the services of a manservant and buying the finest of drink - which was going to be offered to all and sundry by said manservant - was an expense too far.
On October 3, 1948, Ellwood handed in his notice. According to his diary, Evelyn was minded to accept this and to settle himself into a simpler way of life 'as befitted the century of the common man'.
In a letter dated the next day, Evelyn enclosed a photograph with a letter to Nancy Mitford, writing: 'Here is a funny photograph of my patriarchal home circle':
It's a carefully structured photograph. Waugh is sitting with wife and mother on either side of him, his oldest son and daughter at his feet and his butler behind him. There are no fewer than nine servants, four of whom are members of the Attwood family, as Alexander Waugh informs us in Fathers and Sons.
One of the servants may or may not be Jean Gabb. She was interviewed as part of an oral history project, an interview that can be found in a Somerset local government archive online. This reveals that she joined the staff at Piers Court in 1949 or 1950. She tells us that Ellwood got married during her three years there, and from then on would bicycle from his house in the village to Piers Court 'to do his butlering'.
The day after Waugh wrote to Nancy Mitford, Ellwood withdrew his notice. So that was Evelyn's simpler life postponed.
And on the day after that, Nancy wrote a letter containing her inimitable response to the picture:
'Oh the photograph it has made me completely happy for ever - very good of Laura who generally comes out so badly. You look a regular Uncle Matthew, I must say. If you lived here (Paris) you wouldn't dare have that photograph taken because having such millions of servants would be a signe extériur de la richesse and you'd be taxed accordingly.'
I can't help wondering if seeing the photo on Evelyn's desk had anything to do with Ellwood putting in his notice (realising he was being portrayed as such a lackey), or indeed withdrawing it (realising he might just as easily be proud of his position).
A grown up Bron (the male child sitting at Evelyn's feet in the above photo) gives us another glimpse into the life of Ellwood (who was in the habit of addressing Bron as 'Master Auberon', to the amusement of all). In his autobiography, Will This Do? Bron tells us that the second floor of Piers Court contained three attic rooms. One was used by Sanders, a cowman, another was shared by an unspecified number of nannies and housemaids, and a third, a rather grand attic room, was slept in by Ellwood (before he married). I wouldn't like to say which of the three rooms in the estate agent's diagram of the second floor of Piers Court (below) was Ellwood's, since they all seem to be about the same size. But obviously it was one of them.
I think I must have been aware of Evelyn's patriarchal picture in January 2006, when Kate and I visited Piers Court. Why else would I have set up the following photo in between the same two sculpted stone urns bordering the front lawn? It's the same picture, with everyone but the manservant removed. Yes, for all the world it looks as if I'm presenting myself at Piers Court in the hope of landing the job of butler, which I must have heard through the grapevine was about to be advertised.
Evelyn: "Ah, so you've come about the vacancy. What's your name?"
Evelyn: "No, that was his name."
Me: "Attwood, then."
Evelyn: "I've got four of them already."
Evelyn: "Interesting. In Work Suspended I called a character Atwater. He killed the protagonist's father in a car accident he could easily have avoided. Indeed, he killed 'my' father out of sheer insolence, and then had the impunity to turn up at my club and ask me for money so that he could avoid the trial by emigrating to Australia."
Me: "That all fell through. I'm staying in England."
Evelyn: "That fine abandoned story's all coming back to me now. In the second chapter, 'A Birth', when I'm waiting for my friend Lucy to have her baby, I bump into you at the zoo. I need distraction from the imminent birth so I pay you to take me to your club and we get drunk together. A spree that ends with me asking you to come and live with me. I tell you that I have a house in the country that has plenty room."
Me: "Stay as long as you like, you said."
Evelyn: "'Die there', I said."
Me: "And here I am."
Evelyn: "You can start your trial period of employment right away. I have a dinner party for six this evening. None of the party except myself has an educated palette. Need I say more?"
Me: "Indeed not, Master Evelyn."
Evelyn: "First, I had better show you a picture of my wife and children. It was taken on the same day as the picture of me with family and servants. One of your main duties will be to keep this lot out of the library. Mark well the features of these illiterates."
Me: "Forgive me for saying so, sir, but your good lady wife looks somewhat discomfited in this image."
Evelyn: "Well observed, Atwater. I believe that a guinea pig - which Bron is holding just out of sight, behind Hattie's head - had made a mess on Laura's skirt just a second or so before the photograph was taken."
Me: "Reminds me of our meeting at the zoo, sir. Remember, the Humboldt's Gibbon that was fed with bananas while I looked on, starving?"
Evelyn: "Would you like to get rid of the guinea pig? Not in the same way as you disposed of my father, but with similar permanence."
Me: "Your wish is my command, sir. Or should I say, your guinea pig is my banana?"
Soon Evelyn's guests arrive and I am run off my feet in an effort to collect coats, see that everyone has a cocktail in the drawing room, and finally get everyone seated in the dining room. Evelyn clicks his fingers for more drinks and I nod at him, conspiratorially. On the sideboard are bottles of claret and champagne. Everyone knows that champagne is my master's favourite drink. I open a bottle with professional dexterity and am happily pouring glass after glass when - just before I get to Evelyn - I remember the claret. Giving my master a wink, I go back to the sideboard, take up a bottle of red and pour all the guests a glass of gurgling claret so as to slow down their consumption of the wise old champagne. Suddenly I feel a sharp pain in my posterior. As if someone had come up behind me and applied their boot to my rear end with maximum force. Determined not to allow this sharp setback in my physical wellbeing to disturb the ambience of the dinner party, I retreat from the room and make my way up the stairs to what I sincerely hope will soon be my own room.
But which is Ellwood's old room? On the second floor I open the doors of bedrooms 6 and 7 and can hardly tell them apart, but then hit the jackpot with bedroom 8. For its former occupant has painted, on a canvas hung on the wall behind his pillow, an extract of a letter that Alastair Graham wrote to Evelyn Waugh twenty-odd years before, when they were lovers.
All things being equal, I too would like to carry a bottle into some bucolic place and drink like Horace. With Evelyn. Alas, right now my arse feels like it's on fire, so I settle for lying down on the bed. Those words of Evelyn's about staying in this house for as long as I like, even dying here, are haunting me. But that's ridiculous - whoever died from getting his backside kicked at work? It just doesn't happen. Temporary pain and humiliation, yes. Mortal injury, no.
To distract myself, I investigate the contents of the previous occupant's picnic basket. In doing so I come across further evidence that this indeed may have been Ellwood's room. A hand-written note which reads:
'I'M READY TO DROP OUT OF SERVICE
AND START A FAMILY WITH EVELYN WAUGH.'
Of course, it didn't happen. Almost certainly Waugh regarded Ellwood asexually. As a secular servant, pure and simple.
Poor Ellwood, then. No choice but to marry a nanny and live a lie in a cottage in Stinkers.
Ellwood the unbeloved!
In conclusion, it has to be admitted that this has become rather a whimsical piece. Though in an odd way it's grounded in reality. Layers of reality, even.
It's strange to think that for ten years or so Evelyn had a personal manservant to bring him his clothes, his post and his paper in the morning. What were Ellwood's duties in the evening? To oversee dinner and to fetch bottles of wine from the cellar, I expect. Nice work if you can get it. But then I've already been into that.
One of the reasons (there are several) that I can't carry on any longer as Evelyn's manservant, even if I wanted to, is that I already have obligations of that sort. My father, who is 88, is not at all mobile and relies on me to make him his meals and to give him lifts in the car when he needs to go anywhere. It is a joy looking after Dad. He has 44-year-old Evelyn's build but has a very different temperament.
Tomorrow morning I'll be serving my father's breakfast, along with the newspaper, at 9am. Once he's eating his porridge I empty his chamber pot down the loo and fetch his insulin from the fridge. Soon after that, the day is mine until it's time for our mid-morning mug of tea. So at 9.45am I'll climb the stairs that my father can't any more, sit down at this computer and work.
Right now it's late at night and a full day's word processing, interspersed with meal-making, is behind me. I've given Dad his last hot drink of the day and have prepared his bedroom for him.
I take the next picture. What does it remind me? That I'm living in Perthshire, not Gloucestershire. That I've let my hair grow since visiting Piers Court in January 2006 and that it's now a length that Evelyn wouldn't have tolerated in any servant in his employ. Not for one moment.
My last thought of the 10th of August, 2014, is connected with the work that absorbs so much of my mental energies at the moment: 'Ellwood was still in Evelyn's employ when Graham Greene came to stay for a week to ten days in September, 1951. So that's what I'll write about soon. If not next.'