Drudgery and Grace


All of us have our prejudices, and a recent overseas trip has reminded me of one of mine. Perhaps it is my North Country English background and the stories of a grandfather forced to leave school at 13 to work but I am convinced that having servants is bad for people.

Before I take the high moral ground here, however, I must confess that I do get some paid help around the house. I employ a cleaning service weekly, an ironing service and a man who mows the lawns. When my children were young and childcare places impossible to get, I employed a nanny three afternoons a week to collect my daughters after school, supervise their homework and feed them.

Maybe some would call this having servants, but I’ve never seen it that way, I see all these people as professionals doing a job that I pay them for, just as I do a plumber or an electrician. I am certain all of them see themselves that way as well. Our transaction is between service provider and customer. In fact this is one of the things I have always liked about Australia. We are often criticised for our poor culture of service but I have found that when it is done well, it has a refreshing quality entirely lacking in servility. That, for me, puts it among the best in the world.

I remember taking two Americans to a rather ritzy guest house in the Blue Mountains for a weekend. We arrived and were shown into a comfortable lounge and served afternoon tea. The young man who brought it to us had a long (but neat) ponytail down his back. He carefully placed the tray and tea things within easy reach and began to leave the room, but before he departed, he smiled beatifically and said: ‘If you need anything else, just give me a hoy.’

To my mind, this young man was emblematic of Australian service at its very best; casual and relaxed without being over-familiar; graceful and considerate without being affected or cloying; completely genuine and authentic. We knew he meant what he said, that he enjoyed helping us and would not for a moment resent being given a ‘hoy.’ Even better, he presented himself as absolutely our equal, the fact that he was serving us tea and we were paying for the privilege did not make either of us inferior or superior to the other. This is the kind of service that makes me feel entirely comfortable and at home. I know what the boundaries are and how I am meant to behave.

A few years ago, however, on my way home from Europe, I stopped off in Singapore to catch up with an old colleague of mine who had recently moved there. He lived in a huge and luxurious condominium, one of a series of enormous buildings that all looked so identical that I was constantly getting lost walking from one to another. His apartment was also large and was the last word in fixtures and fittings, marble floors, plush carpets, brass taps, and lots of gold trimmings. Like everything in Singapore it was efficiently and effectively air-conditioned, apart from, as I discovered, one small room.

Like every expat family in Singapore that I’ve met, my colleague and his wife employed a maid, a pleasant young Asian woman whose English seemed rudimentary at best and who, when not minding the children, kept to herself. She lived with the family in a miniscule room reachable only via a small balcony used for airing laundry. This room was the only room in the flat without air-conditioning.

I was shocked. After all, she was the person who did all the work.

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

When I next left the building I checked the exterior carefully. Every one of the buildings in the complex had the same small balcony and the same small room, piled one on top of the other, floor after floor. As I looked, I realised the building had been specifically designed to exclude the maid’s rooms from the centralised air-conditioning system. Thought had gone into it. Maybe it had even cost the developers more to build it that way as a simpler façade could have been built if the room had been included in the floor plan.

When I gently asked my hosts about the conscious exclusion of the maids from the comfort provided to their employers, it seems they had never previously thought about it. It was simply the way things were done and, anyway, the maids had never complained and they were used to the heat. I left Singapore the next day, glad to see the back of it, to be honest.

The justifications put by my hosts in Singapore reminded me of another rationalisation made under a much more extreme set of circumstances. I remember reading about the kind of self-justifying excuses made by white southerners during the slave trade in the US. Observing the distress of mothers and children parted at a slave auction people reassured themselves by saying that black people simply didn’t feel things the way white people did; a bit, I suppose, as we react to distressed cows and calves at sale yards today.

On another trip, I stopped off to visit friends who had moved to Hong Kong. They also had a maid, a Filipino woman who they appeared to treat very well and who lived much more comfortably than her Singaporean equivalent: in an air-conditioned room off the garage.

But despite this perfectly civilised arrangement, I still don’t think having servants had done them much good. On my last night in town we went out to a grand restaurant and proceeded to have a very pleasant meal, however, I didn’t really enjoy myself. I simply couldn’t get over the tone of voice my friends used when talking to the waiters. It wasn’t that they were rude; they were just abrupt and demanding. They spoke to the Chinese waiters in a way that’d cop an earful from anyone treated the same way in a restaurant in Australia. There were no pleasantries as menus were perused and orders taken. What really jarred with me, however, was the assumption of superiority on their part — unconscious, I am sure, but no less real. In a way, it was the staff’s response that most discomfited me; it was as if they accepted their status as inferior. This was not a situation I felt comfortable in.

It might be nice to have servants, to have all the boring drudgery of domestic work done silently and efficiently by someone else, but I don’t think it is very good for the soul. The excessive courtesy of those you can command seems to remove any corresponding capacity to be courteous. Without meaning to, perhaps, in response to each obsequious gesture you become a little more arrogant, a little more demanding and a lot less attractive to the extent that you can sleep quite comfortably in your luxuriously air-conditioned bedroom without giving a thought to the maid sweltering in her hot little room on the other side of the wall.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.