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  1. Wealth
August 31, 2007


By Spear's

You spoil ’em rotten, they rob you blind – well, sometimes. Josh Spero on the pleasures and perils of domestic staff.

You spoil ’em rotten, they rob you blind – well, sometimes. Josh Spero on the pleasures and perils of domestic staff.

Butlers have come a long way since P. G. Wodehouse had Jeeves running after Bertie Wooster, trying to cover up his every indiscretion while still serving the perfect cup of tea. They are no longer just found in aristocratic households, arthritically ringing the dinner bell, but have spread into the new aristocracy, the circles of high-net-worth individuals, in the form of concierge services too.

The unhelpful consequence of all this help is that many people become over-reliant on their services, entrusting the very running of their lives to them. Instead of the halcyon Jeeves era, we have moved into one closer to that of the movie The Servant, where a malevolent Dirk Bogarde sadistically takes over James Fox’s household and life. Not only can many modern households and employers fall apart without these fixers and doers, they may even fall apart because of them.

The busy nature of a modern metropolitan existence, with a job, family, house(s) and social life, demands help, which is where these concierge services derive their raison d’etre. It is precisely those mundane tasks which make up the bulk of one’s life – picking up the dry cleaning, delivering packages, booking theatre tickets – which they are there to cater for. The luxurious side of jets to Geneva and yachts to St. Bart’s is well represented, but the importance of these services stems from their ability to deal with the minutiae.

Fraser Russell, managing director of Head Concierge, says a large proportion of calls to his business are for ‘basic’ functions, including a surprising number asking for reservations at Pizza Express. ‘They can’t be bothered to open a Yellow Pages or look on Google,’ Russell says. The benefit of having Head Concierge on speed dial is that at a moment’s notice you can receive information: ‘You phone up and say, “Look, I’m in Soho, walking down Old Compton Street, and I’m with five friends – where would you recommend?”’ Some clients call Head Concierge three or four times a day, surely not for a surprise anniversary trip to Bermuda every time.

Indeed, Errands Etc. only provides the luxury of having your everyday tasks performed. Based in the Docklands to capture the bonus-rich, time-poor who populate Canada Square and its environs, the firm allows you to delegate your errand online, so you don’t even have to rotate your head to run your life.

Some clients have a way of making even the most mundane tasks unusual. Fraser Russell says he does not consider it ‘extremely strange’ to have been summoned to change a light bulb in a Knightsbridge apartment or to take over a box of cornflakes to a client at 2 am. Two tins of baby milk nearly necessitated a £700 overnight flight to Italy and a lady sat at her hairdresser’s until Errands Etc. could fetch her more extensions.

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A butler in a modern house certainly has to perform these day-to-day tasks too. Harvey Pascoe, who spent four and a half years as the butler at the palatial Burghley House after three decades in the hotel industry, says these errands all come within the modern butler’s remit: ‘The butler runs the private household – people are asking for their personal lives.’

It is the personal aspect that butlers are able to provide much more than concierge services; even the best client of a down-the-line concierge will never be much more than a voice with chores. Mr Pascoe says discretion and diplomacy are indispensable: ‘You have to be a confidant. You’re bound to hear a conversation you’re not meant to hear – you need to be tactful.’ Although over-familiarity is strictly censured, Mr Pascoe talks of the ‘synergy’ which evolves between an employer’s family and their butler, making the latter much more responsive to the former.

This trust can be terribly misplaced, according to Matthew Mellon, scion of the Pittsburgh banking dynasty. ‘I bring my staff in like family,’ he insists. ‘A part of me would feel lost without them. One of them had power of attorney to sign my cheque books and managed to skim £50,000 a year for three years. It was a very personal relationship, but sadly I had to let him go.’ Such dependence and the resultant exploitation are very real risks of handing over your life to your staff. However, the problems can easily move from the realm of the financial to the psychological.

These notionally normal tasks may be elevated to the status of the luxurious by virtue of their odd timing or whimsy, but concierge services pride themselves on catering for the more obviously luxurious.

One of the principal attractions of a concierge service – or of an experienced, knowledgeable butler – is access. As well as facilitating daily life, they can realise special occasions. They know exactly how to get you into that film premiere when your invitation gets lost in the post, and which strings to pull to make sure you are on the guest-list de jour. Those who own a Vertu phone also have access to such services through a special button on their handsets, which connects you straight to their concierge.

Quintessentially is perhaps the best-known concierge service, and it now has branches in 38 cities around the world, with ‘fixers’ in many more. It specialises in making travel arrangements for its members; a Quintessentially card is the quiet key to upgraded hotel rooms and VIP service, while their glossy database overflows with insider knowledge and exclusive benefits. They are not alone here: Head Concierge’s experience runs to securing Gulfstream 5 jets for private hire and for purchase.

What these services provide are greater opportunities more easily than you could hope to obtain yourself, even if you are a high-net-worth individual. It is like having the ultimate social insider, the consummate travel agent and the best-informed shopper in a single package. They are a means of extending yourself beyond your imagination as well as managing your daily reality, and so the leap to dependence is easily made.

‘Try to imagine running a company without a CEO,’ says Steven Ferry, the chairman of the International Institute of Modern Butlers, about losing your butler’s services. ‘Have you ever lost your computer for a week or two? It’s pretty painful.’ These 21st-century analogies aptly capture the pitfalls of this modern reliance. If you lose your BlackBerry, you may forget when your children have to be picked up; if you lose your concierge, you may not even be able to pick up your children.

As long as your butler does not walk out on you and your concierge service remains solvent and swift, it seems as if life may be under control. Yet the risk of disappointment, of being left with tickets to book and presents which need to be bought, is inherent in subcontracting your life to others.

The concierges themselves can describe the characteristics of this sort of dependence. Clementine Brown of Quintessentially claims subscribers cannot go without. ‘Our members definitely rely on the services Quintessentially offer,’ she says. ‘They rely on us to look after them.’ Fraser Russell of Head Concierge tells how he gets repeated calls from clients every day.

‘Frantic,’ says Jennifer Kabaaga of Errands Etc. about her clients when they cannot get in touch or when her company cannot fulfil a request. ‘The errand girl wouldn’t be there in time, so I personally called a client. She couldn’t wait two hours. She was very, very upset – a lot of other things depended on her getting this done.’ A reasonable response, you might feel, since she was paying for a task to be done, but nonetheless indicative of how a busy life can come to a juddering halt when the butler drops the ball.

Steven Ferry does see that most people would be able to emerge from a post-concierge slump, if only by finding another concierge. Fraser Russell and Harvey Pascoe also stress this: such is the vital function they perform, it is not so much a case of picking up the pieces and moving on, but of bringing in someone else who will allow normal service to resume.

It is this phenomenon that betrays the truth depth of dependence: rather than manage by themselves, the employer moves on as soon as possible to the next concierge. Life without a concierge is either inconceivable, or unmanageable, or both.

There are serious psychological issues behind this relationship, with destructive results for your mental health, says Dr Mike McPhillips, medical advisor to the Causeway Retreat, a rehabilitation centre based on a private island off the Essex coast. If you hand over your whole life to your staff, he says, ‘you make yourself less than an adult. It begs the question “What are you doing really? What does your life amount to?”’

Dr. Peter Honey, a chartered psychiatrist who has been practising for nearly 40 years, sees a similar relationship between CEOs and their personal assistants: ‘They leave more and more of their life to them. Officially, what it’s called is delegation, but it’s actually abdication.’

Dr. McPhillips describes the case of one woman – an extremely high-net-worth individual – who experienced such severe shame and guilt because of her relationship with her large staff that she had to seek psychiatric help. She came to be dominated by them, bending her life around their misbehaviour because she had been unable to set proper emotional boundaries.

Francis Fulford, whose family pre-dates the Norman conquest, thinks people are ‘better off’ without staff, having seen many examples of this kind of dependence develop. ‘It’s a very good idea never to rely on your staff,’ he says. ‘The better the staff, the more tyrannical they become. They end up running the show because we’re terrified they’re going to leave.’

This lack of boundaries can lead insidiously to co-dependence, a term derived from the literature of addiction psychology, betraying its true nature. ‘You’re delegating things that create a half-normal life,’ says Dr McPhillips, ‘so you feel almost bereft when they’re not there. You forget how to structure your life.’ ‘Bereft’ is also a word used by Dr. Honey. So strong are the ties that breaking them can result in a form of grief.

Harvey Pascoe sums up the place of the butler, but his observation applies to the concierge as well. ‘You’re the lynchpin that holds all these things together,’ he says. ‘You orchestrate the entire running of the household.’ While this seems like an ideal situation to be in – not to have to worry about any of your daily chores or even luxurious desires – it has an infantilising result, damaging the psyche of the employer even as they think they are profiting from the arrangement.

It is a combination of all of those factors – reliance, trust, access – which renders these services indispensable. The counter-effects are, of course, the chaos provoked by their absence, but also the unhealthy emotional dependence that develops, causing chaos when it dissolves or reaches a crisis-point. When you have so many others running your life, it is hard to know where it starts and where theirs ends.

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