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.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
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This is the new front in the battle to control women’s bodies

By defining all of us as “pre-pregnant”, women are afforded all the blame – but none of the control.

For several weeks, YouTube has been reminding me to hurry up and have a baby. In a moment of guilt over all the newspapers I read online for free, I turned off my ad-blocking software and now I can’t play a simple death metal album without having to sit through 30 seconds of sensible women with long, soft hair trying to sell me pregnancy tests. I half expect one of them to tap her watch and remind me that I shouldn’t be wasting my best fertile years writing about socialism on the internet.

My partner, meanwhile, gets shown advertisements for useful software; my male housemate is offered tomato sauce, which forms 90 per cent of his diet. At first, I wondered if the gods of Google knew something I didn’t. But I suspect that the algorithm is less imaginative than I have been giving it credit for – indeed, I suspect that what Google thinks it knows about me is that I’m a woman in my late twenties, so, whatever my other interests might be, I ought to be getting myself knocked up some time soon.

The technology is new but the assumptions are ancient. Women are meant to make babies, regardless of the alternative plans we might have. In the 21st century, governments and world health authorities are similarly unimaginative about women’s lives and choices. The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently published guidelines suggesting that any woman who “could get pregnant” should refrain from drinking alcohol. The phrase implies that this includes any woman who menstruates and is not on the Pill – which is, in effect, everyone, as the Pill is not a foolproof method of contraception. So all females capable of conceiving should treat themselves and be treated by the health system as “pre-pregnant” – regardless of whether they plan to get pregnant any time soon, or whether they have sex with men in the first place. Boys will be boys, after all, so women ought to take precautions: think of it as rape insurance.

The medical evidence for moderate drinking as a clear threat to pregnancy is not solidly proven, but the CDC claims that it just wants to provide the best information for women “and their partners”. That’s a chilling little addition. Shouldn’t it be enough for women to decide whether they have that second gin? Are their partners supposed to exercise control over what they do and do not drink? How? By ordering them not to go to the pub? By confiscating their money and keeping tabs on where they go?

This is the logic of domestic abuse. With more than 18,000 women murdered by their intimate partners since 2003, domestic violence is a greater threat to life and health in the US than foetal alcohol poisoning – but that appears not to matter to the CDC.

Most people with a working uterus can get pregnant and some of them don’t self-define as women. But the advice being delivered at the highest levels is clearly aimed at women and that, in itself, tells us a great deal about the reasoning behind this sort of social control. It’s all about controlling women’s bodies before, during and after pregnancy. Almost every ideological facet of our societies is geared towards that end – from product placement and public health advice to explicit laws forcing women to carry pregnancies to term and jailing them if they fail to deliver the healthy babies the state requires of them.

Men’s sexual and reproductive health is never subject to this sort of policing. In South America, where the zika virus is suspected of having caused thousands of birth defects, women are being advised not to “get pregnant”. This is couched in language that gives women all of the blame and none of the control. Just like in the US, reproductive warnings are not aimed at men – even though Brazil, El Salvador and the US are extremely religious countries, so you would think that the number of miraculous virgin births would surely have been noticed.

Men are not being advised to avoid impregnating women, because the idea of a state placing restrictions on men’s sexual behaviour, however violent or reckless, is simply outside the framework of political possibility. It is supposed to be women’s responsibility to control whether they get pregnant – but in Brazil and El Salvador, which are among the countries where zika is most rampant, women often don’t get to make any serious choice in that most intimate of matters. Because of endemic rape and sexual violence, combined with some of the strictest abortion laws in the world, women are routinely forced to give birth against their will.

El Salvador is not the only country that locks up women for having miscarriages. The spread of regressive “personhood” laws across the United States has led to many women being threatened with jail for manslaughter when they miscarry – even as attacks on abortion rights make it harder than ever for American women to choose when and how they become pregnant, especially if they are poor.

Imagine that you have a friend in her early twenties whose partner gave her a helpful list of what she should and should not eat, drink and otherwise insert into various highly personal orifices, just in case she happened to get pregnant. Imagine that this partner backed his suggestions up with the threat of physical force. Imagine that he routinely reminded your friend that her potential to create life was more important than the life she was living, denied her access to medical care and threatened to lock her up if she miscarried. You would be telling your friend to get the hell out of that abusive relationship. You would be calling around the local shelters to find her an emergency refuge. But there is no refuge for a woman when the basic apparatus of power in her country is abusive. When society puts social control above women’s autonomy, there is nowhere for them to escape.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle