The remains of my day – “just butlers” and service March 2013
I recall the Merchant-Ivory film The Remains of the Day (1993) from the 1990s. At that time, I found it profoundly irritating – somehow celebrating the great country house and (slightly), its pro-Nazi interwar owner, with the ever-attendance of Mr Stevens, the obedient butler. Drawn back to the novel by way of (oddly enough) an article in Keywords, the journal of the Raymond Williams Society, I have pondering the meaning of the butler-figure for my own life.
The novel is very different from the film, and although the film is slow, the novel allows the reader a much closer reflection on the life the butler. The setting is 1956 – the year of Suez and the year of my birth (one event momentous, one an irrelevance to the world), with Stevens taking a journey and reflecting on his life in the 1920s – but within his own self-deluding world in which the maintenance of his persona seems to him to be more important than to admit to feelings which fall outside his notions of work and service.
Ishiguro, the author of The Remains of the Day, chose a butler as a figure because “that’s what I think I am, and I think most of us are: we’re just butlers”. Ironically, very few workers ever had the formal title of butler, and Ishiguro did not carry out much research into actual country houses and butlers; it may be through their portrayal in films and novels that future generations will come to view country houses. It is the figure of the butler that counts: one whose life is devoted to those who serve higher interests.
While this may seem far distant from the world of a university lecturer, there are close analogies, perhaps with the way in which the butler/lecturer is viewed, but more significantly in the way that the lecturer/butler views their task. Mr Stevens is keen on the butler’s vocation, on what makes a “great” butler. Maybe lecturers too see their job as a vocation, or are expected to do so (especially when it comes to worsening pay and conditions!). Some more sensible people see beyond the ideology and consider themselves as a hired hand/brain, which is what the job actually entails. You are hired to fulfil various tasks, paid for it, and, if you have any sense, forget about it.
That is the reality of paid employment, but…I wonder why I haven’t followed this myself? I have become involved, on and off, in activities that feel like academic work – taking seminars, delivering lectures/talks. And much more significantly, doing research and publishing. The latter, not for the greater glory of some institution, but out of personal satisfaction and, just possibly, to encourage others who might go on to produce a lifetime of research and writing. Reading that last clause, that reads like a vocation – the elderly monk encouraging the novices, perhaps.
To satirise the attitudes of Mr Stevens the butler is not the main purpose of Ishiguro’s novel. It is indeed about “the remains of the day” (a phrase seemingly coined by Ishiguro, but now becoming common currency). It is what remains after work (paid employment, or maybe other forms of work?) is completed. Mr Stevens breaks down just once, when he realises that all that work for Lord Darlington was really for nothing, and there is very little left – except more work. He holds on to future work – for his new American employer who regards him with gentle amusement – as that which will give his life meaning.
Well, what a poor deluded fool he was. And yet, many of us are not unlike him. We are defined by our jobs – if someone asks me now what I do, I either say “full-time writer” or “retired teacher”. It’s a convenient shorthand, but for so many people their paid work is what provides meaning to their world, so that retirement seems like an affront – indeed, it seems to mock their former devotion to their work. Maybe we are all, in some ways, Mr Stevens – reluctant to admit the devastating truth that much of our paid employment, and the huge ideological burden with which we surrounded it, was simply so many wasted hours, months, years.
And, like Mr Stevens could have confessed, I have to say that I fell for the whole idea of service. “We” meant the university, some sort of greater good, and I saw teaching as a vocation, one I should fulfil well. I felt guilty when I didn’t do the job as well as I thought, and countless of “my” hours went in marking, preparation, admin, all done from the same home from which I write now. To what did it amount in reality? A reasonable salary, a redundancy payment and a pension (when it finally comes). I was not paid to regard the job as a vocation, although I worked with people who saw it as that, and more fool me, and them.
I can understand how it feels not only to lose a sense of vocation, but to have the meanings of a past based on that vocation wiped out. I would never be unsympathetic with someone who loses their job, and the sense of failure that attends it, but, much more significantly for most, the loss of money. One of the ideologies of our age is the worship of work – phrases like “hard-working families”, “getting off welfare and back into work”, stress that work is where you most firmly belong. The idea that devotion to work may be pathological, might kill some and damage the health of others, is never conceded.
Maybe I have the last laugh, but it is laughter I would love to share with others – all others if possible. I am no longer anything like Mr Stevens, no longer under the self-imposed yoke of service. I seem at last to have shaken off that sense that I am a servant. In the remains of my day, I pursue what interests me, not what my masters order. I would wish this for everyone – a reward for the proverbial lifetime of service. Service to something that matters may be laudable, but its effect may be to promote willing slavery – the curse of the service middle class. And yet, I am involved in work, albeit not paid work. I have neglected these entries because of that, not because of apathy. In what remains, it would be good to carry out something fulfilling, that could enrich the lives of others and provide personal satisfaction as well. I am not sure whether or not the “day job” (with myself as my own “employer”) is always doing that. But I do know that, for many years, I too worshipped the same false god served by Mr Stevens and his ilk. No more, no longer.