What The Butler Saw
By Natalie FilatoffNovember 2, 2012
There are some 300 butlers in Australia. Here is how three more were added to the service.
The butler’s jacket is sharp. Black, with flat white piping around the edges of the lapels. I take a glass of champagne from the tray he offers me, and as he leaves the terrace I turn back to the conversation and the view of Sydney Harbour. I remark on the jacket to our hostess: “Love those piping-hot lapels.”
“Well, yes,” she says wryly, “He’ll have to tone that down in service. We’re working on it. You can’t dress more splendidly than your employer.”
We are guests at a soirée organised by three butlers in training with the Australian Butler School. The dinner, for which the trainees have sent the invitations, and planned and prepared the menu, and which requires them to surround us with a sense of ease, is part of their assessment. The butler who greeted me at the end of the driveway took me by surprise, welcoming me by name. I find out later that we’ve been researched; there’s a head chart in the kitchen identifying each of us.
Among the seven guests on the jacaranda-shaded Bellevue Hill terrace are three other butlers, long-standing experts in their field. Their outfits betray quality beneath discretion. On a night when most Sydney women would be sporting a fake tan, the female butler among them is wearing fine stockings. In October, when Sydney girls might be baring their shoulders, this butler knows that a lightweight, black polo-neck is more appropriate — she has chic reserve down pat.
The terrace chat is surprisingly frank: past and present employers are revealed. It’s an impressive list of city-based politicians, titans of industry, legal eagles and country members of parliament. All High Net Worth Individuals, or principals, as they’re referred to by the butler school, of which this trio are alumni. One accomplished butler, Tom*, recalls his first principal, who has long since died and says, “Now that’s one case in which I would speak ill of the dead.” He doesn’t.
Otherwise these long-time butlers frequently use the word “we” when describing what’s happening in their jobs. “We’ve got builders coming at 7am tomorrow”, “We’re often still in meetings at 10pm”, “When parliament is sitting, we …”. It’s not a royal we, but shows how closely their lives are intertwined with those of their employers. And in the course of conversation, they let drop that a butler’s duties can be as varied as scheduling building maintenance while their employers are in France or at the United Nations, planning parties and barbies, polishing shoes, keeping the cashmere in condition, ensuring the hedges are trimmed, using the Stairmaster to charge its batteries, caring for a fleet of luxury boats, ironing, or driving their employer’s car thousands of kilometres to another city so the principal, who arrives by plane, can slip in behind the wheel of a loved vehicle and gun it back along a desert highway.
In demeanour, the ideal butler is solicitous but invisible, caring but not involved, observant but blind. Duplicitous? If they didn’t have to pass a security check, you might say a good butler is like a good gangster – both know how to get the job, any job, done. When a guest shatters an expensive ornament (no, we didn’t), a butler knows where to take it to be fixed. Chances are, a butler holds a gun licence, has a way with floristry, can pull a beer like a barman and a coffee like a barista; our trainees say later that they intend pursuing further education in these areas.
An underlying rule of butlering, says hostess Georgie Owens, who runs the training for Australian Butlers, is that you are duty-bound to protect your employer from embarrassment.
Did you think seven was an odd number for dinner? One guest didn’t show, and Owens will later explain it’s the one thing the night’s trainees got seriously wrong – not clearing the extra place setting, and not reorganising the seating to ensure an optimal arrangement.
The butlers will say they knew it was a test, but, “We overthought it. We thought, what if he arrives afterall? And we didn’t want the seating to end up girl-girl, boy-boy. And because we waited for him a little too long, the entrees were starting to look not so pretty and we thought, ‘Oh nooooo.’”
All night I wanted to ask one of the trainees, Russell, “How did you stop yourself from joining in the conversation?” He’s so clearly used to being the life of the party. He later agreed, “When I was serving and one of you said something funny, I smiled, but I had to check myself. I realised right away I wasn’t even supposed to be listening.”
Ultimately, Russell wants to combine his love of travel with his love of service, and work for Middle Eastern royalty — “It’s another world,” he says. Another trainee, Deirdre, plans to run an exclusive guesthouse and says, “I realised the services I’d be providing in such a situation would be very much like a butler, so I’m going to get some experience in the role before I start my own business.” Peter of the flash jacket, and who’s had a long career as a manager in the corporate sector, says, “I wouldn’t mind a position where I would bring someone’s house to order.”
At the end of the dinner we repair to the sofas, to score our butlers. They are in earshot, which gives me goosebumps, not in a good way. I worry about their gentle caring characters out there in a below-stairs, Downton Abbey kind of world, where they’ll potentially have the white piping knocked out of them. Later, Deirdre sets me straight, “Possibly,” she says, “there are still houses like that. But you’re not servile anymore. You’re a professional, being paid to provide this particular level of service.”
Owens kept the actual scores close to her chest, but we were quizzed on how we’d been met at the door (10 out of 10 I thought); the quality of the canapés (an experienced butler found the mushroom tartlets too crumbly and unwieldy); and the pouring of the wine raised much discussion about whether it should come from the left or right (either, it seems — during the heat of a conversation, a butler just has to stay out of the way), and whether the bottles had been held so you could read the label (some people really did care). On the ‘sense of ease’ index, our trainees had excelled themselves, although as I retrieved my handbag and said goodnight it was clear there was still uncertainty about the line that shouldn’t be crossed. “Thank you for a lovely evening,” I (wrongly on my part) said to Peter, as if he might have had something to do with it. And he just wasn’t sure whether to acknowledge that he had.