The way you take your coffee, what time you wake up every morning and your favourite topics of conversation are all things butler Simon McInerney makes it his business to know.
And when your employers are aristocrats who live in castles, international entertainers and business heavyweights that knowledge can be powerful - but Mr McInerney’s lips are sealed.
A good butler does not share these things, knows when to disappear and when to hide the day’s headlines.
The butler life
Dividing his time between his family home in Trevallyn and his employer’s homes, Mr McInerney considers he has the best of both worlds in that being a freelance butler means he can concentrate on his family and Launceston service business Tea & Etiquette most of the time, and then spend two or three weeks at a time working as a butler for another family.
“My office is someone’s house, effectively,” Mr McInerney said.
“It’s just knowing how to act, interact and converse in someone’s house as you are their representative, much like an employee is a representative of a company. The only difference is that it’s on a personal level not a professional one,” he said.
The role of a butler is not all about opening doors, shining shoes and serving tea, but can extend to anything and everything that happens within a family home.
“If you think of what happens in your household on any given day, and you having to do virtually none of it,” Mr McInerney said.
“From the beginning of the morning right through until late in the evening, anything and everything that involves household duties to cooking, the butler is either overseeing or participating in all of those activities,” he said.
Starting out in service
Mr McInerney started in the industry 14 years ago, graduating from Drysdale hospitality management course and taking up a position in room service at Perth’s five-star Hilton Hotel.
“Room service plays completely into the role of what a butler is. That is, going into someone’s personal space, doing what needs to be done, doing it discreetly and moving on,” Mr McInerney said.
From Perth Mr McInerney and his wife, Robyn, took the position as house managers at Highclere Castle, which Downton Abbey fans would recognise as the stately residence from the television series.
The couple worked for the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon at the Newbury castle for two years, which involved the dual roles of serving the family and those who hired or visited the estate.
“You might have a wedding on a Saturday and that might go to 12am or 1am,” Mr McInerney said.
“You have to move the family furniture to make the wedding happen and then the family might be coming in the next morning at 10am for morning tea or lunch so you’ve got to turn the whole place around into the family home again and be on the job the next morning as if nothing ever happened,” Mr McInerney said.
Working for an aristocratic family meant learning long-standing traditions.
“You didn’t even contemplate saying ‘can we do this differently’, it was just this is the way it is done, and this is the way it has been traditionally done for 150 or 200 years - and you don’t mess with that,” he said.
Families who are used to having staff to assist them in their homes on a full-time basis are less common in Australia, so those Mr McInerney works for here are often surprised at having someone in their personal space.
“In Australia the people I’m looking after are generally still self sufficient to some extent and, particularly if there’s guests, you have to say ‘no this is my job. I make the tea or the coffee. You just sit down and relax, you’re here to be looked after’,” he said.
In his freelance role Mr McInerney generally works as a supporting staff member for the family’s full-time employees.
“You have to learn what you’re doing really quickly. There’s interaction with the other household staff along the lines of, ‘how does the family like this’ or ‘how do the guests like this’, rather than going to the guest saying ‘how do you have your coffee’,” Mr McInerney said.
“That’s not an interaction you have as a butler; it’s your job to know,” he said.
Conversation and keeping secrets
Another important job is the art of making light conversation.
“You have to have that light, easy conversation and, invariably, that’s weather, front page news or sport, depending on the person,” Mr McInerney said.
“That way you can’t put your own foot in it by going too in-depth into a conversation and getting into really uncomfortable territory. That’s the zone you never want to be in as a butler,” he said.
Understanding what is happening in the wider world is as important for holding a conversation as it for avoiding the topic.
Discretion is second nature to a butler, which means signing confidentiality waivers and never spilling the beans on what they see or hear.
Working for a UK-based entertainer meant Mr McInerney served many celebrities, but those names stay firmly in his mind.
“There were certainly days when I would decide The Sun is not going to be in the house today because there are articles in there relating to a guest who is in the house,” Mr McInerney said.
“Your job is to ensure that the family you’re working for is not embarrassed and the guests aren’t either. You are the representative of the person you are working for on a personal level, which is so much different to a professional level,” he said.
Launceston residents can treat themselves to their own aristocratic experience through Mr McInerney’s Tea & Etiquette business.
This service involves morning or afternoon tea served by Mr McInerney in your home for between four and 10 people.
“It’s that notion of personalised service and giving people an opportunity to have a little experience in their house where they can invite some friends over and sit around and be pampered with tea and cakes,” Mr McInerney said.
Word of mouth
One of the questions to ponder is how does one go about finding a butler?
While keeping mum might be an important attribute for a butler, those who employ such service professionals are happy to sing their praises.
“You can’t put on your website I’ve worked for X, Y and Z unless they’ve given you the go ahead. Invariably, in the greater number of jobs, the first thing you’re doing is signing a confidentiality waiver anyway,” Mr McInerney said.
“For me it’s not important who I’m working for, it’s the fact that I have a job to do and there’s an expectation about that level of service that I have to provide,” he said.