Dear Mum and Dad,
Well here I am, school almost over and me only weeks away from becoming a full-fledged, graduated butler! There have been times, especially when our teacher, Mr. Ivor Spencer, was teaching us how to keep from looking at your employer’s wife’s cleavage in bed while serving her breakfast coffee, when I really wasn’t sure this was for me. It’s difficult to, as he puts it, “be there and not be there”—how can you act dignified but not there? But before you decide you’ve poured £1,725 [$2,550] down the drain, I hasten to add I’ve finally got the hang of it, and in the exercise where we ran into a male houseguest in milady’s chamber I won out in aplomb over everybody. In fact, Mr. Spencer says I have a good shot at the ultimate butler’s dream—a job in America! I don’t expect I’ll wind up serving Linda Ronstadt or an oil magnate in Palm Beach or a Louisiana divorcée or a New York millionaire, like four other chaps from this school, but he says it’s not too much to hope for Houston!
And isn’t it grand that Mr. Spencer will give any Yank who hires me four hours of instruction on the proper way to treat a butler? “That way,” he assured us, “you don’t get a pop star who doesn’t know any better trying to impress his friends by ordering 14 courses for lunch.” I’m afraid I didn’t care for having to learn gun handling and kung fu, and I shan’t enjoy taking a lie detector test, but Mr. Spencer says it is quite necessary for buttling in America these days.
After six months of Sundays here at the Ivor Spencer School for British Butlers, I have learned a tremendous lot from old Spencer—actually he’s only 58. We have been to Möet et Chandon to learn about champagne, Dunhill’s for cigars, the Savoy for cocktail instruction, Harrods for the fine produce, and the best hotels like the Dorchester, where Spencer was under-chef when he started out at 18. But sometimes I feel enough’s enough. I now know his bloody rules by heart! Never munch garlic! Hold glassware by the stem! Clip your ear hairs! Never discuss politics or religion! Don’t overdose with after-shave! Shake hands with guests only at their departure! Oh, and “Never associate sexually with people in the household”—that is another great principle of his (so relax, Mum!). Still, it doesn’t do to grouse. “I train butlers to keep the old-world courtesy,” Mr. Spencer says.
Now a word about the other lads in our class here. Did you know we 12 are fewer than 5 percent of the applicants, and he has grads working in Saudi Arabia, Italy, Germany, France and Buckingham Palace? Spencer’s actually the son of a fruit wholesaler, and he’s best known as a Toastmaster, the chap who introduces notables on great occasions and is a sort of emcee in livery (Mrs. Thatcher calls him “Ivor”). He got the school idea while he was organizing a party for a movie mogul in L.A. when he found Americans couldn’t get proper permanent help, and his place is unique. This year’s students go from 17 to 35 and are all sorts—private schoolers, married men, and one applicant actually was the sacked sales director of a multinational food company. “I’ve had a driver, eaten in the finest restaurants and lived well on my expense account,” he said. “This is the only way I could live in the same style.” Mr. Spencer did not take him. “I teach my butlers to be very low-key,” he likes to say.
Actually, I fear the life I’ve chosen will be very hard. I shall work 16 hours a day for $25,000 to $30,000 with a day and a half off, two weeks’ vacation and precious little conversation indeed. “Butlers have no small talk for their employers,” Spencer instructs us. “American employers are usually very friendly, and the butler must pull back. The American butler talks too much.” We must pinch pennies dreadfully—”Millionaires hate waste,” Spencer says. And the guests! We must make notes on every bloody one—do they want champagne for breakfast, do they have hay fever—and treat all royally. “If a shabby-looking guest comes in,” Spencer says, “take his coat off as if it’s a mink.”
Our day will start at 6, and at the appropriate hour we will knock on the master’s door with tea or coffee, having ironed the better papers to get the creases out (you start at the top). Then we will draw open the draperies and ask if the coffee is wanted on a table or on the lap—that’s where the cleavage-avoidance comes in. Then we inquire when bath and breakfast shall be and after that we cease talking. We present the master with two outfits, iron the shirt collars, and set out the socks uppers foremost so they are easier to don (for the madam, we deal with outerwear only—no nether garments). Later we pick up yesterday’s clothes—Mr. Spencer says they may well be on the floor—for sponging and pressing. We shall of course attempt discreetly to improve the master’s less fastidious habits. “American millionaires love junk food for lunch,” Spencer told us. “Try and educate them in a nice way.” That American oilman actually used to dine in his oil field garb, but since the butler came and they moved to Palm Beach, they now dress for dinner at least once a week.
Which just shows challenges still exist. They may be having a recession over there but, as Mr. Spencer put it so nicely, “The rich are still with us.”
Your obedient future servant, Hobson