Class struggles in catering

Pat Edlin

Looking back on his time in the hotel catering industry and the struggles that took place.

On 6th June a huge fire tore though the 5-star Mandarin Oriental Hotel in London’s posh Knightsbridge. Over 120 fire-fighters fought the blaze and all occupants and staff escaped unhurt. I used to work at the formerly named Hyde Park Hotel in the 1970s.

The Mandarin Oriental was formerly run by Tory Sir Charles Forte and subsequently his sons. It was the flag ship of his catering empire. I came to the Hyde Park in 1974 and went from trainee manager to assistant banqueting manager. A title that sounds much grander than it was and paid a pittance of £15 a week to be dressed like a monkey wearing a long tailed coat with pin-striped trousers.

I became very boozy so was a discarded underling to be buried in the basement wine cellar. The biggest and, some say, the best in London. I eventually said “screw it” and opened up the wine cellar to the blue collar workers in the hotel to whom I happily dispatched 200 fags and whatever drink they wanted. Within eight hours I had done so much damage, letting rip with £6,500 worth (at today’s exchange over £100,000) of alcohol and fags to the workers whom I got mightily pissed. There was hardly a chambermaid, waiter, junior chef, maintenance staff member who was walking and talking straight. I avoided the hall porters and bar staff as well as an army of female receptionists. Well, somebody had to keep up appearances, hic.

All hell broke loose, as I with various bottles of pop went back to, with a terrible wobble, my staff lodgings in Ladbroke Grove. I was reduced to the lowly rank of dogsbody night porter and moved out of management accommodation to endure the company of fleas in a tiny room in Shepherds Bush.

I have never had so much fun and earned so much as over the eight months I worked as a night porter. Parking Rollers, Maseratis etc., seeing ladies of the night come into the hotel to ply their trade. Gamblers, high rolling criminals, Scottish football supporters booked in by accident, the Ireland Rugby team, many a rich and famous celebrity like Frank Sinatra, David Bowie and John Wayne.

But the darker side was that I saw graphically, and I’m sure it has not changed at all over the last forty years, the class divisions that still reverberate though our society as the difference is exploited.

I could tell you as many a tale of woe as funny anecdotes. But I’ll tell you just one. Manuel, a working class Spaniard paid next to nothing as a waiter, was late one night to fill his shift in one of the several restaurants the hotel had. This one was called The Carvery. The restaurant manager callously said “right that’s it, fire Manuel when he turns up.” Manuel did two jobs to make ends meet and sent almost every penny back to his family in Spain. Turned out Manuel had died forty five minutes earlier running tired to catch a bus to come to his second job. He slipped trying to get on the open back of a Routemaster whilst another bus right behind ran over him.

I got the news at my front porters lodge an hour after his death. I knew Manuel quite well. He often worked for extra cash as the night service waiter. I went down to The Carvery to report this tragedy. The restaurant manager scoffed and in so many words said casually and callously “No matter, we can get another waiter tomorrow.” I nearly decked him where he stood in the middle of a packed restaurant. My fists clenched but I knew if I hit him that would be the end and out on the street I would go with nowhere to live. But I later, calmly, extracted my revenge by making him a hot chocolate, with the added ingredient of a heap load of laxative. It was not equal to the sin but I did enjoying hearing that the sinner spent five hours crying on the porcelain.

All the experiences I witnessed in that five star gaudy charade put on for the wealthy taught me much about the class struggle and its divisions.