One of the perks of being a director of a hotel is visiting and eating at the competition. The idea is to taste, look and learn. On this mission, and on the instructions of our chairman, the managing director of the Devonshire Arms Country House Hotel at Bolton Abbey in Yorkshire and I met for lunch in one of the most famous restaurants in London. The Devonshire Arms is the proud possessor of a Michelin star, so the managing director and his chef know a thing or two about the job. As I seldom go to London, it is an excitement to see what’s what in the fashionable world.
I have known the chosen restaurant for many years, but I am so stuck in my ways that I was surprised by the changes I found since I last ate there. There is a black-trouser-clad lady greeter, a new role in the restaurant. She was one of the few females to be seen as the place soon filled up with men, a good omen for the quality of the food (and for the size of the bill). The arrangement of the tables is ideal, as in a railway carriage with high divisions so that the booming voices of the confidant customers discussing business and sport are contained. The decor is brown and beige and more brown. The lighting is perfect. Full marks for that, as it is the hardest thing to get right. The plates are a normal size, none of those huge oval platters like dog dishes that put you off eating anything. Every table was taken.
The charming head waiter (French? Italian?) answered our questions very politely. How many covers? Is there a private room? He may have smelt a rat and guessed that we were from one of the many magazines which describe places to eat, or perhaps he just thought we were naturally curious country bumpkins on an outing. There were so many young long-legged waiters that they were in danger of running into each other as my companion and I considered the overheads. These boys have taken the place of the middle-aged women in white overalls with a lot of Nanny about them who used to serve the excellent plain English nursery food in a plain English nursery way. Bread-and-butter pudding and raspberry crumble came as naturally to them as they do to the customers brought up on such no-frills fare. I am sorry that the nannies have turned into waiters, but that is because second childhood is setting in. When the bill came, my companion and I smiled and marvelled at the prosperity of this country. Stuffed with decent food, one glass of house wine and two glasses of fizzy water, we went home to write our reports for the chairman. I can’t wait for the next outing.
To his surprise and delight, Andrew received an invitation from the president of the Cambridge Union to take part in a debate. He accepted without hesitation. The rather curious motion was: ‘This house would rather be an aristocrat than a democrat.’ He was asked to speak for the aristocrats. The old warhorse in him smelt an agreeable battle ahead. Years ago Andrew had taken part in another debate at the Union, and as the day drew near for this one he remembered the atmosphere and expected to find the same again only with knobs on. Imagine his surprise when the president wrote with the final arrangements: the times for drinks and dinner, and dress — black tie. That such an outfit should have shaken off its mothballs and re-emerged at a student debate was a huge surprise. Where are the jeans of yesteryear? What has precipitated such a change? Instead of missiles, from soggy bread rolls indoors to more serious weaponry in the street, he found nothing but good manners and a student dinner companion of such charm that he has been talking about her ever since. You will be surprised to hear that the motion was carried by the democrats, the poor aristocrats biting the dust as usual. Andrew abstained. I am told by someone who was there that when he finished speaking, the applause was loud and prolonged. ‘So what did you say?’ I asked. ‘Oh, I can’t remember.’ But the point was he made them laugh.
We constantly read about the organisations that are meant to keep things straight for those who use the relevant industries. Ofcom covers communications, Ofgem gas and electricity (but not jewellery), Ofwat — well, water of course. Then there is the aptly named Ofrail, OFT, poetic for the Office of Fair Trading, and Opra, which is nothing to do with music; pensions more likely. Now we come to the latest and most far-reaching of all the Ofs: Oftof. The idea is to ensure that Old Etonians looking for work are seen off before getting to the interview stage. Oftof will already have succeeded in blocking their progress to Oxford and Cambridge. Sometimes, in spite of this denial, the lads are accepted for an interview by a prospective employer. Then the pantomime begins. It is against the rules to ask a prospective employee if they are married, if they have children, what colour they are or if they are terrorists, yet the interviewer is allowed to ask if they’ve been to school and even to narrow it down and ask which school. Narkover is all right, of course, as is Fettes, but if the word Eton should slip out Oftof is summoned immediately and the candidate is told to push off and on no account to reapply for the job under another name because the ghastly truth will out. The Oftof man may himself be a public schoolboy, even an Old Etonian, and be up to all the ruses learnt there. He will also know of the despairing parents who have scraped and saved to pay for their lad to get a good education, have sweated down the M4 for the various school celebrations for five years only to realise that Oftof has the whip hand and there is no hope of the boy finding gainful employment.
Christmas seems a long time ago now, but at the time it was enlivened here at Chatsworth by 11 great-grandchildren who were staying with us with their parents and grandparents (who turned out to be our children). One of the little boys, aged five, was asked by a schoolfriend if he was going away for Christmas. ‘Yes, we’re going to a public house.’ On the day itself, in a frenzy of torn paper and string, a six-year-old shouted above the din, ‘Granny, GRANNY, GRANNEE — any more free presents?’