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That Gillies Macbain’s the last footman is the memoir of an eccentric character is clear from the first letter, striking in its lack of capitalisation, which is abandoned throughout the book. A note at the end explains that “the author believes that the imposition of capital letters upon children (and adults) who are learning to read, thus making forty or more letters to master rather than twenty-six, is unnecessarily conservative and perverse”.
It seems strange that someone who can’t even bear the tyranny of basic rules of grammar might be drawn into a life of domestic service, but upon arriving in Ireland from England in the early 1960s he took up just such a career.
This was a dying way of life at the time. The title the last footman is a play on his role as first footman, but in reality the staff of the homes of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy was so depleted at this stage of their decline that he was the only footman, and often filled many of the other roles that once might have been required an army of staff.
The dramatic beginnings of their descent have been captured in literature before, with the burnings of big houses seen in the works of Elizabeth Bowen and J.G. Farrell. This book shows a more gentle dying of the embers, but MacBain’s wit brings to life the vibrancy of the characters that remain. “sometimes societies in decline – like great cheeses – save their most delicious flavours for before they go off,” he writes.
MacBain is a perfectly placed observer. As a newcomer to Ireland, with no ties to the country, he passes through the different layers of society with an ease that might not be afforded to a native Irishman. He almost becomes a part of the Anglo-Irish society he once served. “i had never fully belonged to this world of domestic service ‘below stairs’. come to that, i did not belong to the ‘upstairs’ world of anglo-irish society either,” he writes. He encounters more of Irish society as he leaves behind domestic service, moving through jobs as a waiter, farmer, factory worker, landowner. Even movie stardom seems to beckon momentarily.
This position is used to great effect in creating a vivid portrait of Ireland of the time, but MacBain remains a mysterious figure, particularly in the first half of the book. Luckily, the circles in which he moves provide an entertaining cast. He notes that “people do not observe servants closely (unless something is late or missing),” and this may explain some of the appeal of such a role for someone who seems to want to remain elusive. There are hints throughout of an unhappy youth, but he does not expand on these. Discussing his relationship with some of his neighbours in Monaghan, where he establishes a homestead, he says, “the duffys were in many ways the first family i had ever been part of.”
While he may not be explicit about what he has left behind in England, MacBain’s purpose in Ireland is clear. He is looking for a home, and a sense of security. As his roots in the country strengthen, he becomes more of a character in the book himself. While personal relationships, both platonic and romantic, play their part in this, it is his love for Ireland, and the pieces of home that he carves out within her, that is the most significant tie for him – though he doesn’t present an overly romantic vision of the country.
He clearly has a deep understanding of its history, as well as experience of the effects of this history still shaping the country. He sees the reality of the Troubles taking their grip in Northern Ireland from his border position in Monaghan, eventually their presence even being felt in the more refined society he occupies in Dublin. He loves the country deeply but sees it clearly.
Significant personal events are at times brushed over. It is finding his home and fearing that he may lose it that are the most emotionally charged moments of the book. MacBain converts to Catholicism not for the love of any particular woman but for fear his Protestantism might hold him back from some marriage that would ground him further in the country.
His pursuit in his mid-twenties of a girl still in school may be uncomfortable to the modern reader, but at least there is the satisfaction of seeing him grow almost intimidated by her as she becomes a woman. Other relationships with women don’t seem strictly mercenary, though some of them are rich, but appear to be a general means to an end of the home he is looking for.
At the start of the book we are promised a “tale of loose ends”, but MacBain seems to have a strong sense of dramatic structure, not just within his writing, but within life too. “i always saw myself in the role of narrator of a tale, rather than living a life or pursuing a career. people write autobiographical books about their lives – i lived my life around a projected autobiography,” he writes.
Just as we think the book might peter out into a tale of quiet domesticity, a threat to his house provides a powerful dramatic coda. While this makes for a satisfying read, it may have made for an exasperating life. When he explains his actions to his wife, she simply replies, “you’re a poet.” His prose may be too sedate to be described as poetic, but like a good footman, it can work best when unobtrusive.