George Coulouris Memoirs

The "Majestic" Episode

In around 1985, George wrote this marvellous description of an episode that occured in 1924

"Don't you have to have had some experience?"

"Just say that you've worked at Ciro's and they were overstaffed and couldn't keep you on."

"I can't do that!"

"Course you can. I know, go and see the man I was going to see before I got this 'dose'! I go for treatment every day and it's bloody painful, I can tell you!"

"What man?"

"Monsieur Denarez, Maitre d'Hotel on the Majestic, the à la carte restaurant. Sailing in few days. Here's his address. Go and see him and ask for a job on the next trip."

That evening I knocked on the door of Mr. Denarez's house in Regent's Park. He opened the door and I told him I was a waiter and wanted a job on the next crossing. He then said,

"Vous parlez français?"

I answered, "Oui!"

He then said, "Vous avez votre passeport?"

I again said "Oui!". He left it at that and said that he had no vacancies at the moment. I reported this very inconclusive interview to my friend Kossarian. "He was just fobbing me off!" He said, "Don't worry! He'll be on the 6 o'clock train to Southampton the day after tomorrow. Catch him on the train at Waterloo and he may still give you the job!"

I was up early, got a platform ticket and looked along the train for Mr. Denarez. He was sitting in a corner of a first class compartment all by himself reading the Telegraph. I again asked him to give me a job. He thought for a moment and then said, "Where were you last?" I gave him the Ciro's story. He then said decisively, "As soon as I get to Southampton, I'll find out what vacancies we have and send you a wire." I left in high spirits and took the tube to Harrow-on-the-Hill and watched the sun rise, sitting on Byron's tomb. I knew Denarez would send for me.

And the wire arrived. I rushed around Soho buying waiter's clothes, including a long white apron, the uniform of a commis. All I had left to do was put my cane-rimmed bike into the left-luggage at the YMCA and say goodbye to my friends there. I crammed a copy of the Forsyte Saga into my holdall and set off.

I took a cheap room in a sailors' boarding house in Southampton, sharing with two tough-looking sailormen. I sat dowstairs - frightened to death by the jam I'd got myself into! I began to realise that I'd gone a bit too far. I'd never been in a proper restaurant in my life. Ours was a small, plain family restaurant in a poor quarter - no waiters there. I was going into a void. I closed the Forsyte Saga and crept upstairs. I began to wonder whether I'd live through the night. All the adventure stories of my boyhood now convinced me that my two roommates would set upon me and rob me as soon as I fell asleep.

At eight o'clock in the morning I paraded for boat drill on the deck of the Majestic in my new "evening clothes" plus a lifebelt. Afterwards, I was told to report to my chef. This stumped me - what was I to do with a chef? As far as I knew, a chef was a cook. I asked his name and where I could find him, and then I found out that a chef was a waiter and that full-fledged waiters were chefs-de-rang and they had us, the commis, working under them.

The set-up was as follows. My cabin was far below the water-line. Its lights stayed on day and night. I shared it with another run-away. (Were all waiters run-aways? ) A Swiss commis, he claimed he'd left his father's hotel business because the family wouldn't believe that he'd invented a cannon fit to revolutionise modern warfare!

There were two quite separate restaurants for first-class passengers. Mine was the French restaurant and I was to serve millionaires, tycoons and ambassadors. It was 1924, and they were all looking forward to eating and drinking themselves sill. No ordinary Majectic table d'hote for them. There were so many gourmets on board they'd had to put four tables a good two hundred yards from the kitchen in the palm court at the far end of the dining room, down a flight of about six steps. They were to be mine. My chef-de-rang was a Dane. I was to be the biggest dirty trick that fate had ever played on him! "My God, now I'm in for it," I thought, as we sailed.

I though, as we sailed out of Southampton. "At least they can't fire me. I don't know what the punishment is for complete incompetence, but it can't be to throw me overboard."

It was lunchtime. All my tables were full. This is what happened. The guests ordered. My chef wrote down the orders on slips of paper, each with a table's number on it, handed a slip to me and i set off at top speed up the steps, through the magnificent dining room, up another flight of steps int othe galley and past half a dozen plongeurs and up another few steps to the hatch. There I had to fight my way through any number of frenzied commis to pass my order through to be hitched to its numbered peg, while dish after dish was being slid forward to be grabbed by the waiting commis. I then did my 200 yard fast walk to collect further orders. Back at the hatch I handed in the slip and realised that my first order would be ready by now. As he pushed each covered dish forward the cook yelled out what it was in French. Six years of Manchester Grammar School French to Matriculation had given me the pleasure of reading Lamartine, Hugo, Daudet, but here I was just like a dumb tourist on a day-trip to Boulogne. Nothing I heard told me which dish was mine. All the others know exactly what they were waiting for. In my desperation I siezed the nearest dish and rushed off with it, holding it firmly with both hands, past the plongeurs, down the steps, through the glittering multitude, down the steps again to the palm court and up to my Dane. He lifted the cover and nearly went out of his mind. It was the wrong dish.

From then on I took care to get the English version from him until I caught on a bit. But this time it was back again to the hatch to face the resentment my presence had aroused amongst the 'professionals'. Now that I knew the English names I could at least find my dishes by lifting the covers. Many times they weren't mine of course, and the commis around me were furious. To them I was a dumb interloper who'd taken on a job he couldn't do just to get over to New York.

Kossarian was no more a waiter than I, yet he had made it sound very easy. I needed the money and I knew I couldn't be fired. It was a trip to New York and back, and as long as Mr. Denarez took me, why not? Had I imagined that I was going to spend two-and-a-half weeks in a multi-lingual asylum surrounded by malevolent commis, I might have drawn back. All I know is that if Kossarian had told me to apply to Ciro's for the job, I'd have laughed in his face.

I had to scrub the rubber floor of the Palm Court, starting at dawn. I laboured away with soap and water and was still at it when the guests came in for breakfast, among them my three celebrities, Basil Dean, Eugene Goosens and Somerset Maugham. (A few years later Basil.Dean was to produce and direct me in one of the most sensational failures of modern English theatre, Noel Cowards "Sirocco". In that piece I played a part in a festival scene dressed in a woman's costume composed entirely of coloured beads.)

My Dane arrived, stopped me and said, "Has no one told you to use 'Monkey Brand'? You'll never get finished in time using soap!" Not only had no-one told me, but now when I asked some other commis where the Monkey Brand was kept, they said, "Bloody well find out!" and noting my worn-out scrubbing brush, "that goes for the new brushes too!"

Maybe it was the same commis who, distracting my attention, poured salt all over my food while we ate our stew, standing at a ledge just inside the galley. I couldn't hope to take in all the details of the job in one five-day crossing, and I doubt if anyone could have seen any improvement in my work. I was still taking the wrong dishes every now and then, and my Dane had quickly found out that, in order to keep his job, he had to watch over me like a cross between a hawk and a guardian angel. I can't remember that he ever lost his temper with me, and looking back, I marvel at his patience even when I blithely approach him with a blazing chafing dish, having whisked it through the main dining room, inches away from the evening coiffeurs and furbelows of the diners.

When I got to him, Johansson took it from me. He didn't say much - probably wondering if I would think up something even more dangerous to do before we docked.

Just before we docked, as I was rushing past the plongeurs, they all began singing. I wondered what the hell that was - it sounded as if they were making fun of somebody. I began to make out the words: "I'm twenty-one today, never been twenty-one before". I realised it was me. Why on earth had I told the sâle Swiss room-mate it was my birthday?

Until Somerset Maugham asked me for it, I had never heard of French mustard. I doubt if very many people in Salford had either. We all though there was only one kind of mustard, good old Colman's English mustard, the sort that my father complained about so bitterly: "two fried eggs for sixpence and they leave three pen'orth of mustard on the plate!" All confused, I rushed to my Dane and he gave me the French mustard. So ended my only direct contact with the clientele.

In the middle of all my misery for the past five days, there had been an odd couple of hours off when I lay on deck looking over the rails at the bows plunging through the water - time off from being a commis.

I had a day off when we got to New York. I had seen Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis' in London and here I was in it! The shabby streets, the woe-begone passers-by, the rectangular charmless intersection of 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue, with the El thundering over my head. I felt absolutely alien. The aridity repelled me. To me New York was like a dream. For something to do I got on the subway and found I was in a train for Jamaica. For a time I though I'd end up in the West Indies and wondered idly how that was possible. Jamaica turned out to be a desolate end-of-the-line. There I took a single track tram through acres of ponds. Two old-codger passengers were discussing duck-shooting on them. I found I was at the sea shore when I got out. I lay there for a time and had a long conversation with a Rumanian emigrée, I've forgotten what about. Back in New York, I paid what I thought was I high price for a movie ticket, to see Douglas Fairbanks in 'The Thief of Baghdad' - something to boast about back in London when it would turn up some time later.

In an almost empty liner, the Dane and I relaxed on the return crossing. Two plump middle-aged cashiers at their posts at the end of the dining room were astonished to see me back. They had marked me down as a deserter - no true waiter, but a superior type, working his one-way passage to the golden pavements of New York.

When we got to Southampton, I was handed my salary, £3, from the Cunard Company, and £5 as my share of the tronc, the waiters' pool of gratuities, rigidly apportioned according to rank. Mr. Denares said to me, "Vous serez avec nous encore quand vous aurez appris le français et le service un peu mieux!" I was fired, but happy, because I had actually understood the French!

Continues: Berlitz Experience ...

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