The Silent-footed Butler


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Review by: Judy Gahagan

This story, provoked by the search for a brother who died tragically young, is told with such directness and unflinching engagement with a life, time and place that the reader is drawn in effortlessly. It is a story, essentially autobiographical, narrated by the family member who researched that family’s distant and immediate past. The text then is that most modern of texts – a collage of research findings, archives and memorabilia, photographs, life episodes, intimate relationships, the backstage life of the musician, the shifting ideas and consciousness of particular social groups, and the drawings, illustrations and jokes that bring back to life the lost brother. The extraordinary vitality of the story is powered by a narrator whose own memories are detailed and immediate; also by an overwhelmingly open and joyful outlook that confronts fully every aspect of life and every kind of experience – whether painful or ecstatic. The main tragedy that frames the account, the brother’s death, is not the only tragedy. Here is a household of grandmother, parents, twin girls and the brother, four of whom are brilliantly gifted musicians: a pianist mother whose precocious youth merged into married life and teaching; the twin girls are both gifted, particularly the narrator; the boy was also precocious musically and intellectually. The Scottish grandmother, with all the dogged virtues of practicality, frugality, toughness and assertiveness, controls much of the daily life of the household. The other tragic figure is that of the father – perhaps representative of many fathers of that era. He reads as a man of no special gifts or qualities, with a fragile self-image, weak, reclusive and depressive. His anger and his desperate claims for recognition are the dark source of unhappiness in the family and in the marriage where his wife, a person of great restraint, somehow contains her disappointment and unhappiness. Above all, in such a powerful matriarchy of ruling grandmother, most likely lacking insight into how her presence shapes the dynamics of family life, a brilliant wife and children, he’s not going to establish much of a role for himself. Not that the narrator, chief protagonist, doesn’t try; but such a miasma is way beyond the comprehension of children. In spite of the shadow of the depressive, angry father and the orthodox Puritanism of the grown-ups, what comes across is an extraordinarily rich life for the children: not only the music and the assumed engagement with educational achievement, but the Forest School Camps holidays, the music summer school holidays and the engagement thus with countryside, camping and a dozen pursuits that contrast starkly with the electronic fixations of much of today’s childhood. The story too is about a place – the outer suburbs of London, not in themselves scenic, but attracting enormous loyalty on the part of the narrator and others in the big canvas. Apart from anything else it seems to have hosted an extraordinary number of musically gifted and committed individuals. Simply from this aspect the book is a contribution to local history. Fascinating, of course, are the later insights into the lives of performers and the whole hidden infra-structure of professional musical life.

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The Silent-footed Butler by Cathy Giles