A day in the life of a modern-day butler

An age-old profession is getting a new lease of life as the super-rich demand their very own Jeeves.

Shakespeare’s The Tempest features the alcoholic Stephano, Agatha Christie epitomised the butler with cold murder and then there is the very sombre Alfred; Batman’s own batman. We, the butlers, the manservants, the major domos were a dying breed until now. A fresh influx of money into the hands of the discerning has placed butlers back in the pantry crafting butterballs and hanging shot pheasants to toughen in the larder.  

I was having a quarter-life crisis and had turned down an offer from a law-firm for a training contract when I chanced upon a job advert looking for butler. It was either that or an ill-advised trip to Papua New Guinea.

I turned up in a suit, an old-school tie and brown brogues. I hummed and hawed and managed to get the job on the sheer admiration I professed for Jeeves. Training started the very next day at the deep end - mimicking the move of the portly and balding head-butler. The second day of work, I spilled three glasses of Prosecco down the ivory back of an MP’s wife. 

Shifty suspects and secret drunks aside, the art of the modern butler is altruism at its best. Butlers live a life of anticipation. Whether the silver-haired administrator butler at a large estate or a housekeeper butler at a dual-income middle-class home, he or she is marked by a remarkable devotion to service. Ever nimble-toed, the efficient manservant can scurry like a dormouse through a lounge full of broken crockery, scooping, clearing and dusting even as the guest rests undisturbed, couched in a chesterfield with the latest edition of the Esquire at his elbow and a tawny port by his side. 

The Howard, the 18-room Georgian townhouse in Edinburgh where I worked alongside half a dozen other butlers, dedication goes a step further. Each butler is assigned a guest and expected to be assiduous in their service. Perhaps unsurprisingly we had our own take on our place in the modern egalitarian world - we see ourselves as working for the common good. I was once called to the door with a tray of the finest Assamese tea and coconut scones at ten in the evening. I was met with a rather under-dressed portly gentleman who ushered me to his dressing table. Sporting a marvellous Dali-esque moustache, a combover and ten fingers draped in rings, the patrician wanted a tin of styling wax. I rushed downstairs, desperately disconcerted, to be met with a colleague who, after supplying me with a fortifying cup of Rooibos, calmly proceeded to the guest’s suite with his tin of wax. 

Hospitality is a much maligned field. It is seen with a jaundiced eye and is subject to much derision. Robert Watson of the Guild of Butlers puts it down to the profession being seen as a stop-gap employment before moving on to "sensible" jobs. The butlers that I work with are seasoned to the point of perfection. I had much to live up to. Freddy, the elder, was the oldest of the serving butlers at the townhouse and knew the nooks and crannies of not only the townhouse but also of the guest’s needs even before they themselves knew what they wanted. In service of the establishment for nearly fifteen years now, he has seen and met dignitaries, superstars and divas. He knows far more about them and what makes their day than their own spouses do. Stuart, the grave bespectacled butler, holds me in thrall with the ease at which he "troubleshoots". Andrew, the miracle-worker, has never known a difficult guest and Barry, the quickfire, can prepare the world’s best martini in under forty seconds. Shaken, not stirred. 

All establishments that sport butlers and valets have a common, regimented structure. The hotel or townhouse is neat in its divisions of upstairs and downstairs. The feudal trappings of the Victorians might have faded but the gist remains. It is important for everyone in such an establishment to know their stated place.The heart of the establishment is the butler’s pantry in the sub-basement. It is a warm, tropical place, the steam condensing on the ceiling, and forever warbling with the sounds of cutlery being polished, the kettle singing, the coffee brewing, or the milk frothing. It is a place we butlers like to call our very own. The pantry is where the day begins and ends. No two days in the pantry are the same and every moment is laden with the prospect of something new and bizarre.

The day starts early with the amassed butlers breakfasting in staggered shifts, each savouring the same fare that is meant for the guests above. There is much talk of the guests, and their individual needs are discussed. Shoes are scuffed, teapots are warmed and collars are starched. I have a good look in the mirror and dart upstairs to check-in a guest into their suite. It is a well-orchestrated move; a tray of teas followed by a quick installation luggage in the rooms, unpacking the bags and laying out the rose petals on the four poster. On this day I have been summoned to picnic duties in St Andrews. I am to caddy out transatlantic guests at the Old Course and then to lay out the most sumptuous picnic under a blue Fife sky. There are tea cakes and scones, brownies and sandwiches, fruit and venison and much champagne to be had. A violinist has been borrowed from the students’ union and does a good job of playing Vivaldi’s La primavera

I was very fortunate to have made the acquaintance of Rick Fink, perhaps the most well-known and respected butler in the world. The septuagenarian has a wealth of experience, having started at the age of eighteen, and has worked for bosses ranging from country lairds to the Royal Family. Rick, once faced with an implausibly early breakfast demanded by his master, rushed to the barn to scour for eggs at three in the morning. As he relates, he was overjoyed to find four pristine eggs tucked away in a corner. Putting aside the concerns of the cackling hens and the scratches suffered, he brought the eggs home and laid them on the rack in the pantry. Satisfied that the needs of his employer would be taken care of in the morning, Rick went back to bed only to find himself awoken by chirruping from the kitchen. The eggs had hatched! 

Polishing shoes or tracing a crease on a moleskin trouser leg are works of devotion and not of haste. The journey towards a well-pressed shirt transcends the pressed shirt itself. To this end, Rick and I both share something in common - we were both in the navy for some time. While he was a Royal Navy Steward, I was a Royal Marines recruit. Rick and I both learnt our first valuable lessons in the military.

I asked James, an erstwhile manservant with a prominent earl from the south-west about his views on the newfangled ascendancy of the profession. He was sitting on his cottage porch on the gorse moors of Perthshire, languid and recumbent. Red socks, a paisley patterned cravat andlanguid air filled with the smoke from an oaky cigar dominated the view. James was critical of the modern butlers employed by the foreigners in London. “It's all a gimmick,” he added dismissively.

Even though the number of butlers is growing, discretion remains paramount. Many that I spoke to were loath to be named or share a story or two and with good reason. One replied with the sheer incredulity of a surgeon being asked to part with his own medical records.

I write this remembering the days when I would await further instructions from my guests with their luncheon on the meadows. A rather sunny day, we spot a peacock much to the glee of a young lady aged three. I reach the edge of the picnic cloth to serve the scones and tea when I hear the most satisfying words a butler can ever hope to hear:

“We don’t know what we would do without you”.

A butler brings his mistress breakfast in bed, in 1930. Photograph: Getty Images

Ritwik Deo is currently working on his first novel, about an Indian butler in Britain.

Photo: Getty
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Peter Hitchens on Twitter seemed barely human – then he came round for tea

During his visit I realised I had an awkward duty facing me.

But what about Peter Hitchens?” everyone is asking after my last encounter with him. He came round to the Hovel, you see, the day before the column, in which I said all sorts of nasty things about him, appeared. The reason why he came round is complicated and boring, but suffice it to say that books were exchanged, in a spirit of mutual diplomatic tension.

I offered him a choice of red wine, whisky, or tea. It was five o’clock. (He was punctual, which unsurprised me. He chose tea; he is not a fan of intoxication. Aha! I thought, he’ll love this: as a foe of modernity in many of its aspects, such as duvets and central heating, he will appreciate the fact that I do not use tea bags. Loose Assam leaves, put into a scalded teapot. “Conservative in everything except politics” was a formulation – originally, I think, applied to George Orwell – that Peter’s late brother was fond of, and I thought my old-fashionedness would soothe him.

Not exactly: he noticed I was pouring semi-skimmed milk into the mug. Of course you put the milk in last when you are using tea bags. When pouring from a pot, you put the milk in first. Milk poured in afterwards does not emulsify satisfactorily. If you are one of those people who say “but how do you know if you’ve put in the right amount of milk?” then I exhort you to start trusting your pouring arm.

Semi-skimmed milk, I learned quickly, is a no-no in the world of P Hitchens.

“But Orwell himself,” I replied urbanely, “said that milk that was too creamy made the tea taste unpleasant. Not, of course, that I believe everything Orwell said, but on tea-making he is sound.”

Mr Hitchens demurred, saying that Orwell was referring to the equivalent of what we know today as Gold Top. This allowed me to go off on a little rant, a positive, life-enhancing rant, about how good Gold Top is, how my children love it, etc. We moved into the living room. I noticed my shoes were more old-fashioned than his. Come to think of it, they may have been older than him. They’re almost certainly older than me.

There was a mood of civility in the air. Slightly strained, perhaps, like his tea, but unmistakably present. Part of the reason was that I had mentioned our forthcoming meeting on a social medium, and two of my friends, one a well-known novelist, the other a well-known columnist, both women, both left wing, had asked me, extremely sincerely, to pass on their best wishes. They knew him of old, had worked with him, were fond of him. These are two women whose opinions I take very seriously indeed. The Peter Hitchens I knew, of column and Question Time panel, was clearly not the whole picture. If these women say he’s Basically All Right, or All Right enough to ask me to pass on their best wishes, then that is pretty much good enough for me.

During his visit I realised I had an awkward duty facing me. I was becoming increasingly conscious that, the next day, in newsagents throughout the land, the latest edition of this magazine would appear, and in it, on page 82, would be a column by me, which contained several jokes at the expense of P Hitchens, Esq. And I knew that this column would not escape his vigilance. I massaged the bridge of my nose and launched into a pre-emptive apology. “I think I had better tell you...”

He seemed to take it fairly well, though I’d not given him the full nature of my assault. When we were tossing insults back and forth on Twitter, he seemed barely human; now, in my living room, he all too clearly was. I suppose this is how we all see our enemies on Twitter: as botched versions of the Turing Test, spouting opinions that are quite clearly wrong in spite of all our well-reasoned arguments. The only variable is how quickly the arguments de-evolve into base invective. I have my own theory about this. It involves Lacan, so I’ll spare you.

A couple of days later I received an email from him, courteously asking after me and my latest troubles, the ones I can’t write about due to their immensity. It also contained the precise quote from Orwell regarding milk in tea. (“Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.” You have to love that “ninthly”.) “Tempus mutatur,” I replied... but noted, too, that there was no mention of That Column. I was rather impressed. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear