Do you have cash to burn and a yen to shoot? Do you dream of being waited on hand and foot? Robert Gore-Langton has the perfect solution. A butler offers service, guidance and experience. What’s more, discretion is the better part of a valet.
For many worn down by life’s domestic tribulations, having a manservant on permanent call is among the most persistent of daydreams. Imagine some ultra-efficient, black-hatted gentlemen who could telepathically know when you needed a whisky, who could tie a fly, grill cutlets to perfection, choose the right wine, solve crossword clues, drive you around and pacify your spouse. Instead of that hideous mantra, “Not a problem: ‘ uttered by today’s ultra-chummy serving class. what bliss it would be to hear at home a dignified, “Very good, sir”.
Tragically, most of us will never know what it is to have a Jeeves. A live-in multi-purpose Polish couple with a talent for plumbing and cooking cabbage is probably the best you can hope for. The picture we all have of the archetypal family butler-a loyal, tail-coated pensioner silently stalking the Axminster in some rural pile, his first name forgotten even by himself no longer exists. But the good news is that the magical service supplied by butlers is available. You can still get the staff if you are prepared to shell out.
If you fancy trying out life with a butler, Randolphs, the butlers, entertainment and recruitment agency, will supply you one for a weekend, a holiday or your next stint on a super yacht. Steven Randolph has a small fleet of impassive gentlemen’s gentlemen available for duty. These butlers are usually called by their first names, a dubious trend set by the Royal household. A typical client might be a hedge funder with piles of cash to burn and a yen to shoot.
“Say you booked a property for a shoot weekend. Your butler would arrive at midday on Friday,” says Randolph. “Guests would arrive to drinks and canapés in the evening. Then there would be an informal dinner. On Saturday morning the butler would wake the guests by banging the fire bucket, putting a print-off of the forecast under everyone’s door, a modern touch, that. This would-be followed by a good hearty breakfast with the butler on hand, though you don’t want him to be too in people’s faces over the porridge. Hot sausages and sloe gin would be provided for elevenses and then a good lunch in a bothy somewhere – then back to the house for tea and a formal black tie dinner into the wee hours.”
Do butlers have fixed hours determined by health and safety? “Any butler clock-watching would not survive very long. A Saturday shoot is an arduous day for a butler (an experienced butler would act as a loader as well as his other duties) but he should never show that it is hard work. A good butler is always thinking ahead, from an estate’s helicopter co-ordinates to the times of the next train to London.” And what sort of money do they get? “We never discuss costs publicly. It’s that old thing- those asking how much it is probably couldn’t afford it ”
Towering over the butler’s trade is, of course, the emblematic figure of Jeeves (though technically a gentleman’s valet he could, according to Wooster, “butle with the best of them”). While Jeeves regarded Wooster as “mentally negligible”, Wooster regarded Jeeves as a genius: “I gave up trying to run my own affairs within a week of his coming to me.” But the mythical Jeeves is of little relevance to the modern industry. You wouldn’t reasonably expect your butler to provide you with le mot juste or protection from the wrath of a draconian aunt.
For unerring high-calibre service the nearest you’d get to a Jeeves is probably Rick Fink, a butler of 54 years’ experience and the man who personally trains butlers at his school in the stately seclusion of a Georgian mansion. Any aspiring butler with fancy ideas of standing at a front door waiting in white gloves for a VIP in a Roller is in for a shock. His courses are all about elbow-grease and the techniques of service, and he places much emphasis on correctly butlering the rural pursuits.
“I could train a retriever if I had to,” says Fink, without sounding boastful. “The packing of the guns, kit and an ample supply of cartridges is vital. You’ve got to watch the dogs in the house, too. You don’t want the guests’ dogs lifting their legs on the furniture. Laying out clothes is a dying art that I teach. Even most butlers don’t know how. I teach my students how to burnish and bone shoes properly. One hunting family I go to invited Lady X – you’ll understand if I don’t give her name – who had awfully dull boots. She said to me, `Other people have tried to do them, including my game keeper and my stud groom, and they won’t come up.’ I thought, `She’s not going out with boots looking like that,’ so I gave them an hour. They were like glass when she left.”
Self-discipline is another key aspect of butlering. Fink never drinks on the job and has even gone hungry in the interests of his employers. “A VIP was once staying with the people I was working for. I was told he would be arriving late and that he wouldn’t have eaten. The gentleman turned up and he hadn’t had anything to eat. The chef had gone home and all that was left was my supper. `I have salmon parcels, duck in cherry sauce for a main course followed by raspberries and cream,’ I offered. `Yes please, that sounds delicious,’ he replied. The point is you can’t just offer a guest a sandwich. You do your very best ”
Hollywood’s long affair with the Brit butler (the tradition being that butlers ; played by stage aristocracy such as John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Denholm Elliot and Anthony Hopkins) would mean that if it wasn’t for the Green Card system restricting employment, there would be endless job opportunities in America where Brit butlers are popular and earnings are northwards of $120,000 per year plus some very fat extras. Playboy magnate Hugh Hefner has a prize Geordie butler who has learnt not to bat an eyelid at “Hef’s” live-in collection of bunny girls.
According to Sarah Dawkins of The Guild of Professional English Butlers, “Butlers are in demand all over the world. Across the water they are called `lifestyle managers’ and they perform a multitude of roles. It’s become deeply fashionable to have a butler – even the hotel have butler service.
“We run a household butler course. A lot of the employers we get are people who have come into money and how can I put this politely? – don’t know quite how to behave in their new social circle. Sometimes a butler is taken on and becomes their guide to etiquette without the client knowing it.”
Butlers tend to be deeply conservative, terrible snobs and bridle like thoroughbreds at anything noisy or flash. In one household, Trow admits he nearly fainted when he discovered that his fellow staff were allowed to wear tracksuits at work. He soon put a stop to it. As for Fink, he’s been in the game too long to stifle a sigh at the memory of some of his more clueless employers. At the top of his list of horrors are show-off hosts. “Believe it or not, I have seen new-money people ask to taste the wine at their own table. It was truly incredible. If you don’t trust your own choice or your butler to know if it’s off; that really says something about you, doesn’t it?”
Published in The Field Magazine, September 2004 (Edited)