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NEW YORK — Some might say that rules are made to be broken. Not Arthur Inch. The former butler, who served everyone from Winston Churchill to the Queen Mother in his day, prides himself on doing things properly. And judging by his new book, “Dinner Is Served” (Running Press) written in collaboration with Arlene Hirst, entertaining by the rules is much harder than it looks.
“We would start at 6:30 in the morning,” says Inch, calling from Sussex, England, where he retired in 1980 after 50 years in private service. “When you got to be butler, which was one step up from first footman, then your main work was overseeing the dinner table. Getting all the silver, glass and the china ready for a big dinner party used to take all afternoon.”
Inch, now 87, began his career as a hall boy at age 15, serving in the house where his father was a butler and his mother was a housemaid. “I grew up playing billiards with the footman and odd men,” he says. By 19, he’d landed a position as a footman for Sir John Dashwood and worked his way up the ranks, becoming a second footman at the Spanish Embassy, a first footman to the Duke of Marlborough, then a lady’s footman to the Marquis of Londonderry, where he occasionally served in full livery, breeches, stockings and bicorne hat.
“When you’re a boy, you’ve got your friends, and when I was working the weekends I used to think, ‘By jove, I wish I was out with them,’” says Inch. “But in those days you had to do what your father told you, and consequently, I just carried on working in private service until the war time came.”
For those serving in England’s grand homes, where staff members were plentiful and the lifestyle was as ritualistic as it was lavish, the war changed everything.
“There’s no sort of private service like there was before World War II,” says Inch, who consulted on the film, “Gosford Park.” “Now the girls just won’t go back into private service because they had so much freedom during the war. Private service is a very tiring occupation. Many’s a time I’ve worked a 20-hour day.”
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.”