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Why Brits hate the “s-word”

Domestic angst

There’s been a resurgence in paid domestic work in Britain. But talking about it is a thorny issue

There’s been a resurgence in paid domestic work in Britain. But talking about it is a thorny issue

Moni Mohsin | February 3rd 2017

Growing up in Pakistan in the Sixties and Seventies, I lived in a house full of servants. We had a cook, a bearer, a maid, an ayah, a sweeper, a driver, a gardener and a night watchman. Most people we knew had live-in domestic staff. Some more, some less. My mother spent half her life mediating their quarrels and the other half dealing with this one’s dysentry, that one’s dowry and everyone’s demanding families. She moaned about the servants, the servants groused about her. I didn’t think having servants was in any way unusual or peculiar, let alone wrong. It was just a fact of life. 

When I moved to London in the mid-1990s, I was reliably informed by my British friends that servants were not a fact of life. On the contrary, they were extinct. Along with the demise of the Great House, they had bowed out soon after the second world war.

But having lived in London for 22 years now, I can reliably report that this is an “alternative fact”: domestic service not only exists, it is thriving. The care needs of an ageing population and a rise in the ranks of working mothers created a need for domestic help that was met by an influx of immigrants. A successful media executive I know, whose husband works in the City, travels frequently for work and employs a nanny, a cleaner and a part-time cook. Her domestic arrangements are not unusual among her high-flying peers. Even less well-paid working couples may rely on some form of paid domestic help, be it babysitting or a weekly clean. 

Before the supposed mass extinction, cleaning ladies in London tended to be English or Irish and they were referred to as “char women”. These days their counterparts are mostly Eastern European or south-east Asian. What they are called, though, is a thorny issue. 

Obviously the s-word is out. So too is “maid”. Nanny is still fine, but only if active child care is involved. So what, then, do you call the “lady who does for you”? I realised how acute the problem was when an English friend related how, on discovering moths in her cupboard, she had turned the house upside down with the help of her…her… her… She blushed as she struggled to find the appropriate noun. “Cleaner?” I suggested. No, she said. Anna did far more than just clean (Anna also does the laundry and cooks occasionally). To describe her as a mere cleaner was disrespectful. Housekeeper, then? Well, yes, except that housekeepers supposedly live in, while Anna popped in three days a week. And housekeepers are associated with grand establishments like Downton Abbey or Daphne du Maurier’s Manderley, where they managed and directed a battalion of maids. So it sounded a tad pretentious to claim that you had a housekeeper when you lived in a flat and she was your sole employee and part-time at that. 

Whether they are called au pairs, “the lovely girl who comes in”, or my favourite, “part of the family”, the semantic awkwardness reveals genuine angst in the British psyche about the morality of employing domestic help. 

The old master-servant relationship with its connotations of paternalism and subservience belongs to England’s long dead, shameful past. It has no place in a progressive, egalitarian society where everyone is expected to look after their own homes and families. Employing domestic workers, however attractive their emoluments or secure their rights, is therefore freighted with guilt. So while it is entirely legitimate to criticise laziness in juniors in the office (who may well be paid a fraction of what you pay your housekeeper) to rebuke your housekeeper for not tidying the house is grossly impolite. It is also perfectly acceptable for a migrant to change your elderly parents’ soiled clothes in a care home but it is embarrassing to have one clean your oven. The guilt, then, is not about inequality. It’s only when that unequal relationship enters your home that it becomes fraught. As long as you keep it at arm’s length and call it transactional, it’s fine.

One way of managing the discomfort is by minimising contact. A journalist who lives alone in a flat in central London admitted that she has never met the person (she thinks it’s a woman) who has cleaned her flat once a week for the past year. She leaves cash on the kitchen table and returns to a spotless home. She likes it that way. No relationship means no guilt. And, voila! No servants.

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