Who Said the Class System was Dead?

We take a closer look at how members of the hospitality and catering trades are really treated.

Maybe I’m being melodramatic or oversensitive. And then maybe I’m not. Let’s face it; England is probably one of the rudest nations in the world. I speak mainly from personal experiences from working in the hospitality industry myself, but also from comparison to the way today’s “servants” are treated in other countries. Take America, for example, a country which is just as guilty of racism, xenophobia and snobbery as we are. Yet their service staff are so happy-skippy-jolly in disposition; they introduce themselves and insist you call them by their Christian names – as though they were old friends. And the people love that. It was really then – during the visit to America – that I noticed how rude we can actually be. Upon working in a hotel subsequent to that, I saw the light fall even brighter on that unfortunate aspect of my home culture, and sadly, society itself.

If I think toward popular representations of the social divide between superior and servant classes, such as Upstairs, Downstairs, Downton Abbey and Gosford Park, for comparison, it is shocking the similarities and differences.

maggie smith gosford

Dame Maggie Smith and Kelly Macdonald in Gosford Park

Firstly, Julian Fellowes’ screenplay for the 2001 film Gosford Park, which sported an all-star cast of Dames Maggie Smith (see pictured), Eileen Atkins and Helen Mirren, and Sirs Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi and the late Alan Bates (to name a few), was designed to highlight the utter unexceptional dependence on the servant class by their luxury-drowning superiors. I can tell you it is not much different nowadays. Now as a barman, I do not always have something to do, so if it is quiet, I am more than happy to offer to carry a guest’s suitcase, or even if it’s a simple act of courtesy such as holding a door open. Of course, people do not always appreciate it (in fact some have been downright ungrateful.) Our elevator requires a door to be closed before it can operate properly, and when I pointed this out to one seemingly-hapless individual, she replied to me: “How do I shut it from in here?” Now here I am, contemplating which would be the answer least likely to get me shouted at, so naturally I decided to make the whole thing my fault “I’m sorry, I should have been here to hold it open and then close it, Madam.”

Conversely some of these period drama shows actually portray the upper class forming camaraderie of sorts between their servants, becoming confidantes to one another, at least definitely kinder to their staff than the manners exemplified these days. But it comes down to a tireless dependence on other people, who are expected to be without fault in what they do. Now I am not saying that all people display this – quite the contrary, I have met some of the loveliest people in the fifteen months I have been working behind the bar of The Wessex, but I have also met the most demanding, least deserving individuals who seem utterly incapable of a couple of Ps-and-Qs. My first genuine complaint (which in turn nearly got me sacked) was from a group of dancers who made my life Hell during their week stay only half-a-dozen-or-so shifts at the hotel. These people expected me – a trainee at the time – behind the bar on my own during our short-staffed period – to be able to carry out a successful lunchtime service with barrels in need of changing here there and everywhere. But these were also the people who actually trespassed into the kitchens and made their orders in there because they could not wait for me to return to the bar! I have had my share of moments of misery in my place of work, but it was only then that I ever considered resigning when I had received notification of my mention in their complaint review.

The only thing I hate about working in a hotel is the fact that I cannot refuse to serve anyone should they approach me impolitely, and neither can I defend any of my colleagues in the event of their being spoken to nastily. I believe that it is a human right to be treated decently (and indeed equally) regardless of the industry one works in. My generation is looked down upon for a lack of respect for their elders. I am pretty sure I was always taught “Treat others as you wish to be treated.” Well if that lesson had been taught to everyone, we would not be here talking about it now, would we?