You do what? Ordinary people with extraordinary jobs

Publication: The Sydney Morning Herald Good Weekend  
Published: 11-Feb-2012

I always wanted to be a butler.  I just loved the pomp and ceremony, the antiques, the art and the fabulously interesting people.  But there’s not much call for it in New Zealand, where I’m from, so I was in hospitality for 20 years before I got my break eight years ago.  I was put forward for a job at the British High Commission in Wellington, and two weeks later there I was, working with the high commissioner and his wife in a historic 150-year-old home.

I got to know all the New Zealand politicians.  I remember one extraordinary dinner that included the five most powerful women in New Zealand, including the PM and the governor-general.  You always serve in order of importance so for each course, from hors d’oeuvres on arrival to the coffee and chocolates at the end, you have to remember that order.  Luckily, we had a social secretary who’d run us through the who’s who before each special event.

I’ve never dropped a tray of drinks or anything like that but my staff did, and at $100 for each glass or $1000 a tray – not to mention the worth of whatever’s in the glasses – that can be painful.  I once slopped soup all over somebody’s leg.  Thank God it was my boss and not one of the guests!

In 2005, I flew to Australia to do the Australian Butler School course, which took six weeks.  It was there I learnt how to set a table correctly, how to look after clothes, how to pack a suitcase, how to clean antique cars, how often to polish silver and crystal and how to do an antiques inventory – sometimes you need that to make sure the silver isn’t walking out the door!

Three years ago I moved to Sydney, where I’ve worked for various families.  They’re all different, so you have to be flexible.  The last family I worked for didn’t entertain much, so often I’d just look after the kids, chauffeur them to school and cook, clean and shop for them.

I don’t begrudge (my employers) their money; they’ve worked hard to get it and keep it.  Some of them only sleep five or six hours a night.  They may have the latest Maserati or Ferrari but they don’t often get time to drive them; it’s the butler who probably drives them the most.  And they have the same problems we all have – love, marriage, children – they just pay someone else to deal with the small stuff, like the internet not working.

One of the aspects I love most about the job is the people-watching.  When they’ve got a bit of money, it’s like “What do you do with your money?”, “How many people are you dating? My God, I thought you were married!”  or, “How many Birkin bags to you really need?”

When I tell people what I do for a living, they say, “You’re a battler?” because of my New Zealand accent!  I say, “No, I am a butler, the Queen has them.”  People can’t believe we exist in Australia.

Nina Karnikowski

                                                          Symon Kerslake - image Australian Butlers Pty Ltd