Tuesday, 17 April 2012

My grand old life 'Downstairs'

Daily dramas, noble suitors and a very happy ending – Annie Carter’s extraordinary reminiscences of a world ‘below stairs’…

Written by Annie Carter
Watching programmes such as Downton Abbey, we all dream of living an 'upstairs' life. But life 'downstairs' can be just as dramatic, just as colourful, and just as significant.

Once upon a time, my grandmother, as a very young woman with next-to-no formal education, and from a large family, was duty-bound to leave home and work 'below stairs' in a splendid house in the Shires.

She wasn't expected to enjoy the task – the work was hard and the hours long – but she had a roof over her head, for which she was grateful. Until, that is, she met someone on the 'upper landing' and became pregnant... after which, life was even more difficult than I can begin to imagine.

Matts-grandmotherThe intimate details of my grandmother's story were a closely guarded secret. In spite of her lowly status, she was, in essence, a true lady... far removed from the kiss 'n' tell brigade with whom we are all too familiar.

On rare occasions, however, my grandmother would reminisce. Two sepia photographs from the time when she was youthful and, I'm certain, a beauty, have been a particular source of speculation and intrigue.

One, a full-length studio portrait, sadly now lost, showed a dashing young military man of noble bearing. Although the delicate memento was much cherished, she never disclosed the subject's identity, but could it have been the father of her child?

The other (left) showed her young daughter, my mother, clothed in a very fine dress, possibly of silk, and adorned with a long, beaded necklace. We had often wondered how my grandmother had managed to afford what would have been, for her, such a luxury.

I also recall that she took my mother, when a young child, to meet a certain 'refined gentleman' at a London railway station. Sadly, she waited in vain. Could her lover have been the gardener, or the butler, or... a well-connected member of the family for whom she had performed beyond the call of duty?

When some years thereafter she became a 'respectable' married woman (to a work-shy suitor), she continued to work in service well into her 70s. The 'downstairs' really was her life's work.

Apart from earning a living in the civil service, advertising and retail, I have often followed in her footsteps. I have long earned an honest crust, enabling those who care not for domestic chores to pursue other less tedious pursuits. I clearly remember one such job that took me to an imposing property that suggested style and not inconsiderable wealth. In its prime, the historic building would have had a number of faithful retainers devoting their skills to its considerable maintenance. Electric sockets presented a serious health hazard. The ancient boiler clanked and clonked ceaselessly and was so vast it lived in a room larger than our entire floor plan. Confronted with crumbling cornices, moth-eaten drapes and dark, dank corridors, I thought to myself 'The times they are a-changing!' Nothing lasts for-ever... not even the grandest of properties.

On another occasion, I was employed in the home of a dedicated family of chainsmokers. From the beginning, I was confronted by canary-yellow paintwork and thought it jolly. On wiping the paintwork with a damp cloth, however, I discovered that it was in fact white, overlaid with years of nicotine. The blue fug that greeted me as I walked into the sitting room made my eyes water.

A few people for whom I've worked have just been happy to have company and to hell with the chores. It is nice to be greeted with, 'I shouldn't bother getting the vacuum out. Stick the kettle on and we'll have a brew...' In fact, my grandmother had great fun in her latter years. She was employed by a bank manager whose wife would instruct her to – 'bolt the door, bring the Dubonnet and Guinness up from the cellar and let's have a party'.

On one occasion, 'Madam', as my grandmother would address her, managed to render both ladies incapable of standing upright. 'The Master' returned home unexpectedly. On staggering to unbolt the door (carrying a shopping bag containing empty bottles) she slowly slid on to her backside. The master of the house enquired, 'Florrie, are you drunk?' and in a terribly upmarket, slurred voice, she replied, 'Hof courssh not...'

Anyway, she was sent home in some state of disarray in a taxi and confessed to having to spend an entire day in bed with an almighty 'bangin' hangover.

Working as a housekeeper has never prevented me from controlling my own destiny. Indeed, one such job enabled me to change my life completely.

Old-computer2-358I found it in The Lady 40-odd years ago. I had reached a crossroads and so started looking for a job in this magazine. The outcome was that I was offered the position of nanny/ housekeeper by two welcoming families, with very different prospects. One was wealthy and lived in some considerable style in Vienna, whereas the other had modest means and a home near the respectable town of Worthing.

Was I to choose the seemingly romantic and perhaps adventurous world on the continent? I imagined myself swirling around a ballroom to the strains of the Viennese waltz (on my days off) and accompanying the family on promised vacations to far-flung corners of the globe several times a year.

Or would I feel more comfortable as a valued member of the down-to-earth family on the dignifed south coast? I could never regret my decision to stay in my homeland. From day one, the mutual trust and respect we shared made for a very satisfactory, all-round experience.

What's more, in neighbouring Brighton, I met the man I was to marry – a marriage that ultimately led to the birth of our son, Matt Warren, (pictured above) the new editor of this very magazine. Now that IS the wheel turning full circle.



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