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.