The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - Luke Slat­tery

RE­CENTLY I made my first trip to In­dia on a jour­ney that also gave me a taste — a rather mor­eish one — of time travel. For a cou­ple of glo­ri­ous days at a ro­man­tic tur­reted pile in the old Mogul cap­i­tal of Jaipur, I al­most for­got that I was an Aus­tralian lad of hum­ble birth, for I was made to feel like a peer of the realm. This was a meet­ing of Down­ton Abbey and the Raj.

It was not sim­ply the for­mal greet­ing: a shower of rose petals, a pro­ces­sion of ex­trav­a­gant bows, fol­lowed by a turn around the grounds and a spot of tea (first flush Dar­jeel­ing) with sand­wiches by the bil­liardtable lawn. It was the help. I’ve since be­come ex­er­cised by the no­tion that I need a but­ler, or at least a foot­man; that many things askew in this world would be put right with a lit­tle as­sis­tance from a friendly fac­to­tum.

His name was Omar and he met us in the foyer. Dressed in an em­broi­dered waist­coat and rid­ing breeches, he guided us to our quar­ters — a rather long stroll, given the size of the palace and the length of the arched cor­ri­dors — and in­di­cated the abun­dant fea­tures re­quir­ing ex­pla­na­tion in the suite.

It came as some­thing of a shock when I re­turned later that day to a pile of my clothes that Omar had folded care­fully or hung, and to socks he had paired and smalls he had ar­ranged by colour. There was also a fra­grant gift: a kind of mo­saic of flower petals ar­ranged just inside in the door.

At first I was cu­ri­ous about th­ese many small un­re­quested in­ti­ma­cies. ‘‘ Don’t you think it odd,’’ I asked my wife one morn­ing, ‘‘ that Omar has been touch­ing my undies?’’

‘‘ Shush,’’ she replied. ‘‘ Don’t you re­alise — he’s the but­ler.’’

In the fol­low­ing days we no­ticed lit­tle touches of needle­work on var­i­ous gar­ments. When asked about his ef­forts with nee­dle and thread, Omar con­fessed he had cy­cled to the cen­tre of town to ob­tain a pre­cise match for a miss­ing but­ton. Ex­otic fruits and sweets would greet us on our re­turn. Sched­ules would be ad­justed. Book­ings made. Re­quests met.

One evening I came back from watch­ing a game of ele­phant polo, as it hap­pened, and found a cake the size of Car­cas­sonne sit­ting on the side­board.

Omar must have seen my pass­port — per­haps check­ing ev­ery­thing was in order, head­ing off any im­ped­i­ment to my smooth on­ward trav­els — and no­ticed my birthday was a mere week away. I think he would have sung a lit­tle happy birthday tune if I hadn’t bought things to a close.

Dear Omar: he was more than a but­ler. He was a be­nign guardian; he made good things hap­pen. In his pres­ence, the world mo­men­tar­ily be­came a lighter place. No longer bur­dened with chores in a for­eign place, I felt more at ease. My pos­ture im­proved. I grew a few cen­time­tres taller. At least I hope I did. His farewell was mov­ing and he car­ried to our car a picnic: sand­wiches, cakes, fruit, juices, nap­kins and plas­tic cut­lery the size of a suit­case.

Omar was the only but­ler I have known. But there are a num­ber I’ve en­coun­tered vi­car­i­ously. The first was the saga­cious Jeeves, foil to the daffy English aristo Ber­tie Wooster, both of them the brain­chil­dren of P.G. Wode­house. He was an ef­fer­ves­cent prose stylist with a great gift for comic tim­ing and im­prob­a­ble plots that race along with a tremen­dous mad­cap brio. I’ve come to love Stephen Fry’s tele­vi­sion por­trayal of Jeeves (op­po­site Hugh Lau­rie as Ber­tie) al­most as much as the prose of PGW. Fry is a nat­u­ral Jeeves, at once deco­rous and all-know­ing.

Few high-end ho­tels open th­ese days with­out pro­mot­ing (and mon­etis­ing) the noble art of but­ler­ing. The newly re­opened Park Hy­att Sydney, for ex­am­ple, has ap­pointed a but­ler to ev­ery room.

But the flir­ta­tion with the but­ler comes to its full re­al­i­sa­tion in Down­ton Abbey. The ac­claimed minis­eries has its crit­ics, and it has spawned a lively de­bate about the real con­di­tions of work­ing peo­ple in Bri­tain be­fore and dur­ing the Great War.

The drama’s cre­ator, Ju­lian Fel­lowes, ap­pears at times to have for­got­ten the dark world of Dick­ens. And yet the beauty of Down­ton is that the gilded par­adise up­stairs is so in­ti­mately en­meshed with the world that sup­ports it down­stairs. And this re­veals an oft-for­got­ten as­pect of strat­i­fied so­ci­eties: there are no se­crets, and no one is ever alone.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.