The Strange World of Hotels

Several people have asked the question as to how the lunatic who carried out the massacre in Las Vegas was able to stockpile so many guns in his room without staff at the Mandalay Bay hotel noticing. Well, that’s an easy question to answer: hotel staff are conditioned not to see stuff.

Even the finest hotels can be the venues for quite dodgy goings-on. Consumers of amateur porn might have noticed that an awful lot of it takes place in hotel rooms (which must be nice for the next guest), and if Hollywood films are any guide so do most major drug deals. The splendid book Hotel Babylon, an inside view into life in a upscale London hotel, gives several examples of strange things which happen in hotel rooms with alarming regularity. The author explains that people often go to hotels to commit suicide: it saves the family having to find the body and clear up the mess afterwards.

When I worked in a fancy hotel in Manchester (there’s your contradiction in terms for the day) we used to share stories of what we’d seen during our shifts. A receptionist told us she’d checked in the same middle-aged couple regularly for a number of years when one day the man turned up with a new woman in tow. A mistress, perhaps? No, the new woman was his wife. One of the shift managers said he’d brought breakfast to a rather respectable middle-aged woman only to find her in bed with another, equally respectable-looking woman, who’d checked in separately into a different room. Neither batted an eyelid and, more importantly, nor did he. Hotel guests expect discretion from the staff, and they usually get it.

There are some countries that immediately cast suspicion on anyone staying in a hotel. You must show your passport in the UAE for example, and I was rather surprised to find that the Belgian police require hotels to collect a copy of the ID of each guest. Unless things have changed since I stayed in American hotels, there is no such requirement stateside. You can be sure the Mandalay Bay had every inch of the hotel monitored by camera – it is a casino after all – and had anyone banned from the gaming floor been found wandering around they’d have been ejected within minutes. But nobody is going to pay attention to a white bloke in his fifties going in and out with a lot of luggage (I’m going to assume he dismantled his guns and put them in a holdall or suitcase, and didn’t just stroll in through the front door with a heavy machine gun and a thousand rounds of link over his shoulder, even if the cretinous European media would believe you could do this and nobody would notice). That said, if anyone from housekeeping or room service entered his room and found weapons lying everywhere, they’d tell their manager straight away and they’d keep an eye on him. My guess is he hung the “Do Not Disturb” sign on his door and left it there, and the staff paid him no attention.

That’s not to say hotel staff aren’t observant, though. Several years back I was on a business trip to Paris and stayed in the Sofitel in La Defense: this was in the days of $100+ oil, nowadays we’d be given a horse-blanket and told to cuddle up to a tramp beneath a railway bridge. Anyway, by coincidence a friend arrived in town from London on the same morning and we met up in the afternoon. In a moment of quite spectacular dimness she’d come to Paris to stay with a friend without actually telling them in advance; when she arrived and tried to call, their phone was switched off. As the afternoon wore on it became increasingly clear her friend was out of town and she had nowhere to stay. Generous chap that I am I let her stay in the Sofitel with me: the beds are the size of tennis courts and the room is set up for two anyway. The next morning we went down for breakfast and the female maître d’hôtel sat us in a corner. She was a tall, dark woman with a long pointed nose, perhaps half-Arabic and extremely efficient and professional. I’d seen her every time on my previous business trips, so she was long-term employed and I dare say she’s still there. Anyway, we had breakfast and my friend got her act together and went back to London.

The next morning, a Monday, I come down for breakfast and the maître d’ leads me to a particular spot. With a slight grin she says:

“Zere you go, sir. Ze same place as wiz madame yesterday.”

If the Las Vegas police want to know about the movements of this headcase in and out of their premises, they probably just need to find the equivalent of this woman. Every hotel has one.

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Des: Oil & Gas Contractor

I’m at a seminar and away from a keyboard until Thursday evening, so in the meantime I’ll leave you with this tale I wrote in 2010 about a bloke I worked with in the Middle East. Enjoy!

I first met Desmond – let’s call him Des – on the first night I ever spent in Abu Dhabi, 12th June 2003.  I remember the date because it was the day I emigrated from the UK (even if I didn’t know it at the time), and you remember dates like that.  Des was the offspring of an English father and Swedish mother, and thanks to the latter sported a head of perfectly bleach-blonde hair with not a speck of grey, despite being in his late forties.  It was because of this hair that his colleagues nicknamed him Billy Idol.

Des, me, and a South African called Phil had come to the Middle East to join a consultancy carrying out risk and safety analysis work on various projects in the UAE and Oman.  I had transferred from the consultancy’s UK operations, whereas the other two were outside contractors.  As it happened, we all arrived in Abu Dhabi on the same day.  My flight got in late and by the time I’d checked into the hotel it was already dark, although still stiflingly hot.  It was a heat that I would quickly have to get used to.  I met up with another engineeer from the UK who had been to Abu Dhabi before, and we both went to a bar called 49ers where one of the Australian engineers was enjoying his stag do along with the rest of my new colleagues.  The 49ers bar in Abu Dhabi is one not to be forgotten.  It is situated way up in the upper floors of a skyscraper, I forget which floor, but plenty high enough and out of reach of any ladders.  The bar is accessed via a tiny, underpowered lift which can hold a maximum of 6 people.  The bar itself is decked out in a wild west theme complete with wood panelling, and features an open flame grill.  The place was packed with over 200 people when I arrived, jammed in cheek and jowl and barely able to move.  The lift was the only means of egress.  There was no fire escape.  This visit to 49ers was my first and only.

I met up with the others and enjoyed a round of handshaking quickly followed by a round of beers.  It was way too noisy to speak to anybody and, feeling a bit homesick, I was quite glad when after a while somebody decided on behalf of us all that we should go to a nightclub across the roundabout, behind – indeed part of – the Le Meridien hotel.  It took all of us about twenty minutes to get out via the tiny lift and congregate on the pavement outside, leaving me to shudder at the thought of a fire in the place.  I found myself with the others in a smart club filled with people who were anything but.  Dozens of low-class Chinese and Central Asian hookers lined the bars and the dancefloors, perfectly matched by the generally fat, sleazing expatriates and few locals for whom they were the sole reason for being there.  I remember being seriously tired and wanting to leave, but having no local money on me and no idea where the hotel was, or even what it was called.  It was a miserable experience, but I do remember meeting Des in the Foyer, shaking his hand, and him being very pleased to tell me we’d be going to Oman together on the Saturday (today was a Thursday, hence a weekend in the Muslim lands).

I didn’t know Des then, but by golly I knew his CV.  He was recruited on the basis that his CV was probably one of the finest anyone had ever seen in the oil and gas business, and I’d read it when I was still back in the UK.  I still have a copy of it, and it is in front of me now.  Des was fluent in three languages: English, Swedish, and German.  This much was true.  Des held 5 higher education qualifications (including 2 bachelors and 1 masters) in no less than 4 disciplines.  He was a chartered engineer twice over, a member of an additional 5 professional bodies, and had another 15 professional certificates to his name.  He had been the safety manager for all of Shell’s offshore facilities in the Dutch sector and a senior safety specialist for Sakhalin Energy, which caught my attention even back then.  He’d held senior positions with Fluor Daniel, Kvaerner, Occidental, Statoil, and Mobil.  And his overseas experience covered the UK, Holland, Sweden, Norway, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Iran, and Pakistan.  On the basis of his CV, you’d be stupid not to hire him.  On the basis of his CV, you’d be equally stupid not to do some rudimentary verification of even a fraction of it.

On his first night with his new colleagues, none of whom he knew, Des borrowed the equivalent of $120 from the Australian stag and left the club in the company of a ropey Chinese prostitute.  I hitched a lift back to the hotel with the engineer from the UK, thankful he knew where he was going.

Des and I caught a Gulf Air flight from Abu Dhabi to Muscat the following Saturday, arriving mid-morning in heat equally as oppressive as that which we left behind.  We found our way to the apartment which would be our home for the next two months, buying some basic groceries on the way, and after a few more hours of getting ourselves kitted out with safety gear and other admin tasks we drove to the Mina Al-Fahal refinery situated on the coast just outside of Muscat.  Our job, as I remember it, was to carry out a risk and safety assessment of the refinery, most of which needed to be done at the facility itself.  The project schedule allowed two months for this phase of the work, so I was somewhat surprised when Des confidentally told me it would only take a couple of weeks.  However, Des was the lead engineer and I was his junior, so I trusted he knew what he was doing.

Now at the time I was delighted to be on this project with Des.  Here was me at 26 years of age, finally abroad and visiting a proper facility in a hands-on role with a chap whose experience was so impressive that I could not fail to learn from him.  And even though I was a bit homesick in those first few days and weeks, I did enjoy the experience.  It was roasting hot outside, and anyone sensible or not unlucky enough to be incarnated this time around as an Indian labourer stayed well indoors.  But Des and I had a job to do, so we walked down every pipe and vessel and piece of equipment in that refinery, crawling over hot pipes in an already oven-like temperature, me writing down every hazard that Des pointed out.  As a method of getting an up-close look at a refinery it was a good one, and it was even better at making you appreciate the Middle Eastern climate and the wonders of air conditioning.  As a means of doing the job we were contracted to do, it was almost worthless.  But this I didn’t know at the time, and we went on our merry way for the rest of the week.

Now Des liked to talk, and he especially liked to talk about himself, and most of all he liked to talk about how damned good he was.  At first, I quite liked his tales of the various jobs he’d been on and countries he’d visited.  I’m a gullible fool even now and generally believe what I’m told until proven otherwise, and I reckon it’s made me more friends than it’s got me into trouble so I’ll stick with it for now.  Des had been there and done it, and here was I on a job with him.  Yeah, this is all right, I thought.  We even talked about the next project coming up, the big one in Kuwait which would go on for a year, and we’d go together.  But as the week wore on, Des talked less about where he’d worked (tales which were suspiciously devoid of details, I saw in hindsight) and more about how great he was in other walks of life, especially his prowess with women.  Des was on his (if I recall correctly) fourth wife, the second of which had run away with his best friend and business partner, the two of them clearing him out completely and disappearing into the night.  The third wife was an Iranian whom he married for a joke, or convenience, or something.  He had a son by either the first or second wife.  And his fourth wife, who was a coloured South African, was living in his house in Holland with her two children (neither of whom were his own).  Describing his various marriages took up an entire evening, and his conquests with several dozen other women two or three more.  Then came the stories of when he was in the army and he was the best at shooting, driving, camouflage, escape and evasion, and every other aspect of soldiering which I can think of.  Next it was how he was almost shot to death in Pakistan, and how he saw a man executed in front of his eyes for some misdemeanour, and by that point I think even I’d stopped listening.  I used to scurry into my room, which unfortunately I shared with Des (who used to smoke in bed!), leaving a colleague assigned to another project but living with us, a chap called Chris, to make his own escape if and when he could whilst I lied and said I had to make a phone call to the UK.

By the end of the week, this had all got pretty tiresome, and so I was glad when Des told me we’d be going back to Abu Dhabi for the weekend for R&R.  I have no idea how we got the tickets, but when we got back the regional boss, whose villa we were now for some reason all living in, was somewhat surprised to see us.  He thought we were supposed to be down in Oman on the refinery tomorrow.  I looked bewildered and said I was following Des, who was supposed to be in charge.  It was all very confusing so Des, me, and another Brit called Steve who was also living in the villa set off to a bar somewhere in Abu Dhabi.  Within a remarkably short time we all found ourselves in the infamous Al-Ain Palace, or the Ally Pally, a low-down dive of a place known only for its abundance of cheap, third-rate Chinese hookers.  To cut a short story even shorter, the three of us ended up going back to the villa in a taxi with a huge Chinese prostitute with a smashed front tooth whom Des had picked up.  Steve and I weren’t interested in doing likewise, which seemed to annoy Des, which he showed by pretending the girl was actually with one of us even when she stopped at a McDonalds and came out with an armful of burgers which she presented to him as some sort of weird tribute.  I remember the four of us sitting in the villa around the nice, pine breakfast bar table (which, incidentally, I later took ownership of and it saw action in two of my apartments in Sakhalin, before I gave it away to a friend a week before my demobilisation in return for – ironically – a Chinese meal) with Steve, Des, and a huge Chinese girl with a smashed tooth who wouldn’t shut up or stop eating burgers.  Des had the bright idea of them going for a swim (in what was a family compound where hookers, much less nightswimming ones, were frowned upon).  She leaped from the stool, whipped up her dress to show a pair of large, sweaty, polyester granny pants and told us that she didn’t have a swimming costume.  However, she told us loudly in a comical Chinese accent, she could “go down for five minutes, no need come up for air”.  I have never laughed so hard.

Until, that is, Des thought the better of watching her perform strokes in the communal pool and took her to his bedroom, albeit for much the same purpose.  Within a few minutes Steve and I were stood outside the door listening to a Chinese girl screaming blue murder, an English-Swedish halfbreed grunting like a boar, and bedroom furniture testing the very limits for which it was manufactured.  This went on for about twenty minutes with all the subtely and finesse of a rock through a window, before the villa fell silent, Steve and I stopped laughing, and we went to bed.  The next morning, the Chinese girl safely paid off and sent packing before sunrise, Des denied having sex at all and insisted they were “just talking”.  Believing anything Des said after that was nigh-on impossible.

Once again Des and I took the Gulf Air flight down to Muscat to continue our work in the refinery.  The stories continued in the same manner as before, with each one of his exploits being better and more impressive than the last.  It was getting embarassing.  Before he’d even start recounting how he and a whole group of people had to do some very difficult test, Chris or I used to pipe up “Let me guess: you were the only one that passed?” in the vain hope of saving half an hour by cutting directly to the inevitable conclusion.  By this time his previous wives, girlfriends, and lovers seemed to have caught up with him because the apartment phone started going and he’d sit at all hours of the night talking and smoking.  Then, to my complete surprise, my UK mobile rang with some woman asking for Des.  Assuming it was important, I passed him the phone and he giggled like a schoolboy and launched into a twenty minute chit-chat with some ex-lover of his.  My UK phone was on roaming at a cost of over a pound a minute, and I was seriously unimpressed.  The cheeky sod had given her my number because he was too damned tight fisted to buy his own SIM card, and was now busy running up my UK bill whilst he relived one of his affairs.  Eventually I got the phone back from him, but he couldn’t see the problem.  He’d pay me back, he promised.

And that was another problem with Des.  He was a tight-fisted old sod, refusing to pay for anything and expecting the company – or failing that, his colleagues – to pick up the bill for everything.  He didn’t see why he should have to pay for his food even when on a per diem; when everyone in the villa went to the supermarket and chipped in, he’d be nowhere to be seen until he was spotted guzzling the beers we’d all just bought; and he certainly wasn’t going to pay a few dollars for a SIM card so his tarts could call him in Oman, not whilst he had my number to dish out!  And he was pulling the classic contractor’s trick of claiming destitution on arrival and needing an advance on his salary, which the boss gave him out of his own pocket.  Despite all this, Des would boast that back in Holland he owned a huge house, a yacht, and a Merecedes SUV.  Once I got the phone back from him, it stayed in my pocket and I’d told him the credit had run out.

Then halfway through the week he probably wished he’d not picked up a phone.  He had called his wife back in Holland on her mobile and from the music in the background it had sounded as if she was in a bar or nightclub, but she had told him she was at home.  I think there was a man’s voice in the background as well, I can’t remember, but Des got very agitated.  He called her at home (all of this using the extortionately expensive apartment phone) but there was no answer.  He called her again on her mobile, but she didn’t pick up, and nor did she answer her phone for the rest of the night.  Des was beside himself, confessing to me almost in tears that he thought his wife was having an affair.  By that point I’d lost all respect for the man, and just sloped off to bed leaving him to brood by himself (until he went to bed and smoked his way through five or six cigarettes on the other side of the room).

It wasn’t just the personal stuff that was going wrong with Des, the work itself was fast falling to pieces as well.  After a week on the site, and consulting the programme of work, it became clear that Des had not the faintest idea what he was doing.  He barely consulted the scope of work or project execution plan, and breezily dismissed my concerns that we should be doing certain tasks in a certain way with a wave of a cigarette-filled hand.  As it happened, the regional boss didn’t have much of a clue either (and if you want to extrapolate that across the entire company feel free, I’ll not stop you), so things just carried on the way they were for another week, with me doing what I was told and getting more confused and disillusioned by the day, until we were summoned back to Abu Dhabi.

Upon arrival, for no reason which I can remember, a decision was made that the work on site had been completed, I was to go to Dubai to prepare for the Kuwait project, and Des was to stay in Abu Dhabi to do the desk work associated with the refinery job.  Within minutes of Des having sat down in the office, a huge problem arose like a mushroom cloud.  Des’ bags had gone missing on the flight from Muscat to Abu Dhabi.  One or two of the old hands in the office swung into action, made a few calls, and told him not to sweat.  Happens all the time, they said, they’ll show up in a day or so.  But Des was beside himself.  He demanded to be driven to the airport and a search for his bags begun immediately.  The boss told him not to worry, he could buy some clothes in the M&S over the road, toiletries he had spare in the villa, and it would only be a couple of days.  Des refused to calm down, and would not do any work until something was done.  Smelling something a little fishy, the boss asked what exactly was in his missing bags.  Des flew into a rage during which we learned that in the bags he had checked into the hold of a Middle Eastern airline were the keys to his house, the keys to his car, the keys to his boat, the ownership documents for his house, boat, and car, his birth certificate, his bank documents, and seemingly every essential document a man will possess.

“Why the hell are you carrying all that about with you, Des?”, asked the boss, reasonably.

It turned out that Des did not trust his wife and had to carry all his worldly documents around with him to stop her from selling up and absconding in the same manner as his second wife.

“Why the hell did you put all that into checked baggage, Des?”, asked the boss, again reasonably.

Des didn’t know.  Nor did we.  But we did wonder if Des was half as well travelled as he, and his CV, said he was.

Des’ bags turned up a couple of days later.  But the problems didn’t stop there.  I was the youngest person in the regional office by about 20 years and most of the expat employees were middle aged with a wife and family somewhere, so the degree of compassion offered at that time was probably greater than you’d find in most companies, and certainly greater than that displayed a few months later (but that’s another post).  In short, Des wanted to see his wife and step-children, presumably to make sure the former was still around and not still in a nightclub somewhere with her phone switched off.  It is not easy to get a visa to the UAE for South African nationals (which is what his family was), it is more time consuming and requires more documentation than for, say Brits, who just turn up and walk in.  Rather than being grateful for the efforts the company was going to, Des was raging against the company for taking so long and not having enough power or connections to just get them all in.  Eventually, enough paperwork was collected to submit an application, but the immigration authorities returned a rather surprising decision:  Des’ wife and younger step-daughter were allowed a visa, but the older step-daughter, who was 12, was not.  The reason: the elder girl did not appear to be anything to do with Des, hence she could not be admitted as his family.  The boss asked a few basic questions, which Des, poor chap, did his best to answer.  It transpired that Des and his wife had sensibly decided some years ago for Des to formally adopt her children as his own.  The adoption of the younger girl went well enough, but at the 11th hour the elder girl – who had a mental age of 7 and a whole heap of behavioural problems and learning difficulties – decided she wanted to be with her biological father, who was some sort of bum or criminal or loser down in South Africa, who was long separated from the mother.  The adoption couldn’t proceed without her consent, and so she was never formally adopted by Des, even though she reversed her decision mere days later and came to live with the rest of them in Holland.  The result was that the company couldn’t get a visa for his elder daughter.  Des went bananas, bellowing that the company was useless and had no power or influence.  The boss’ exasperated reply is immortal:

“Des!  It’s not the company’s fault that you didn’t adopt your daughter!”

It was agreed that his wife and younger daughter would come over anyway, and so Des awaited their arrival.  In the meantime, he continued to demonstrate incompetence of impressive proportions as he burned through the remaining manhours allocated to the project.  Nothing that was supposed to have been done was being done, and sitting at my desk in the Dubai office I received several phone calls from the boss asking what the hell had happened down in Oman.  What I told you was happening, I replied.  The guy doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing.  Chris, a good mate of the boss, backed me up and I was in the clear.

Things also got a little complicated for Des when he was asked to provide his degree certificate in order to get his work visa.  Des replied that he didn’t have it, even though on his CV it says, as I have pointed out, he has five such qualifications which would suffice.  The story Des told was that the University of Gothenburg had moved and the records never moved with it.  Later the story changed to the records having all been lost in a fire.  Either way, he could not possibly get his hands on a degree certificate.  None of us was convinced, except possibly Des himself who was turning out to be a pathological liar.  Meanwhile, they decided to get Des working on something else until they could figure out what to do, and asked him to help write the method statements for some proposals they were putting together.  Des refused point blank, said it wasn’t his job, and put his feet up on the desk until his wife and daughter arrived.

Which in due course they did, and the company – in a rare display of generosity – put them up in a nice hotel with a beach in Abu Dhabi.  Des seemed to perk up when his family were around him, and although I wasn’t there I heard that they all went out for some nice meals in the evening and enjoyed themselves.  That is, until the Dutch embassy called the office with the news that Des’ neighbours had alerted the authorities because a 12 year old girl had been left home alone whilst her mother had cleared off to Abu Dhabi with her other daughter.  The daughter was now in the care of the authorities, and the mother really should get herself home pronto.  At this point, Des’ colleagues just shook their heads and wondered whether to laugh or cry.

The boss wasn’t sure what to do with Des.  He was lined up for the project manager’s role for the big job in Kuwait, but he had proven himself useless, unreliable, and uncooperative both in work and in every other way we could think of.  But we were short of people, and mobilising expats on short notice is not easy, and the boss was considering keeping him on.  Fortunately, Des made the decision for us.  His colleagues in the villa woke one morning with Des saying he was sick and would stay in bed.  By the time they came home after work, he had disappeared along with all his bags.  He never paid the Australian the $120 from his first night, I never saw the money from my phone bill, he owed the boss a few hundred dollars and the company even more.  He just upped and left.

We heard from Des a few months later.  The boss received an email from him saying he was working in Iran, the job was terrible, and could he have his old job back.  The email went unanswered, but it gave us a laugh.

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Working for Toys R Us

I see one of my former employers has filed for bankruptcy:

Toys ‘R’ Us has filed for bankruptcy protection in the US and Canada as it attempts to restructure its debts.

I don’t know if this will affect their UK stores, particularly the one on Great Ancoats Street in Manchester in which I worked through Christmas 1996. I know the store still exists because it’s in the background of this video from last July of a man carrying a crossbow and a knife being tasered by police:

That ought to tell you what sort of area we’re talking about.

I took the job out of necessity having failed to grasp the concept of budgeting in my first term in university. I secured it within five minutes of walking into a manpower agency; this was early December and Toys R Us was ramping up for the busy Christmas period. I turned up and was issued with a blue blazer with a yellow collar and a round badge of Jeffrey Giraffe, a garment I kept for several years after I left for fancy dress parties. My job was that of Product Adviser, the lowest position in the store which involved standing around trying to help customers.

There were a few of us, some of whom were brand new, others who’d worked there years. My manager was a Manc woman in her late twenties whose boyfriend ran the warehouse or something. From what I remember they were both nice people, and I had no problems with her or any of the other managers. It is worth mentioning that was probably the only job I’ve had where I can say this.

My fellow grunts varied. Two of the area supervisors were students, a little older than me, and good lads. The guy I was put to work with was called Greg, a youngster from Openshawe who was as thick as mince but a really nice guy. Nearby was a 16 year old Asian girl from Longsight, possibly of Iranian extraction, who was very attractive but way too innocent to be working around us. She was also very pleasant. Then there was some nasty piece of work whose name I forget, a man in his mid-twenties with a pierced eyebrow and a greasy ponytail down to his arse. On my first day he immediately told me students are useless and don’t know shit, and he seemed to resent me being there. He told me I was inferior because he had five years’ experience and I had none. Yet there we were doing exactly the same job. I soon figured out he was desperate to be invited onto the management training programme, but his being thick, nasty, and unpresentable prevented it.

We were kept busy. The lead-up to Christmas in a Toys R Us is mental, and on the last Saturday before the 25th we took £150k on the tills (this was in 1996). The most sought-after toy was a Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story which had recently been in British cinemas. Unfortunately the product people vastly underestimated demand and they were sold out worldwide. Customers would come running up to me and say:

“OhmyGodIheardyouhaveBuzzLightyearswherearetheywe’lltakefour!”

The girls manning the phones would get calls that went:

“HelloIwantaBuzzLightyearmycreditcardnumberisthreefoursix…”

We never had one in the shop the whole time, and we turned away a lot of disappointed parents who would have paid a hundred quid or more for one. The Toy Story sequel even made reference to this shortage:

The work itself was rather tedious, standing on a shop floor for eight hours per day, but the worst aspect was the Christmas musak. They played the same ten or twelve Christmas tracks over and over again to the point I still can’t go in a shop in the festive season and not think of my time in Toys R Us. I would have thought it would have been banned on human rights grounds (along with my children’s clothes) by now, but apparently such tortures are still permitted.

I only worked there a few weeks, then my new semester started and the store laid off the additional hires they’d taken on for Christmas. On my last day I was asked to go and see my manager and, instead of a bollocking of the type I’d have to get used to in my career proper, she asked if I’d be interested in joining the management training programme. I politely declined and said I was heading back to class, and she laughed and said they’d expected I’d say that, but they thought they’d ask anyway. I liked that.

I left her office and went straight up to the dickhead with the ponytail and said I’d been offered after a month what he’d been striving for his whole adult life, yet I’d turned it down. I’d worked with plenty of stupid people before on farms, but most were harmless enough and some were very pleasant. Toys R Us was the first of many jobs where I’d work with people who were both stupid and nasty.

Several years later I’d graduated, and was sitting in the McDonald’s in Fallowfield with a bunch of friends when I thought I recognised the Johnny-No-Stars who was sweeping the floor. Sure enough he was one of the Product Advisers I’d worked with at Toys R Us, a right horrible little shit with a big mouth. When he saw me he made the mistake of opening it again with a smartarse remark, and spent the next twenty minutes ducking pieces of burger and French fries my friends and I were hurling at him.

“I see you’ve moved up in the world,” I said to him as we were leaving. I pointed to the plastic yellow man who stands over wet spots on the floor. “He’ll be promoted faster than you. Now get sweeping!”

I hope the nice ones did all right.

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Clothes, Parenting, and Vanity

A while back I bought a negative scanner (this one) to transfer old film photos to digital format. It does a reasonable job, not exactly professional standard and the scanning process is rather repetitive, but it’s good enough for home use if you have time on your hands. Anyway, last weekend I started scanning the negatives of all the family photos we had from when I grew up in Wales, most of which are from the late ’70s through the ’80s.

Oh boy. Oh boy, oh boy. What would my siblings pay me to ensure they never see the light of day? Something which stands out straight away is the clothes we’re all decked out in (there are four of us, three boys and a girl). I have no idea where my parents got these clothes but they have surely since been banned by the UN on human rights grounds. Was purple really so popular back then? Dear Lord. Alas, my parents appeared to be dressed in whatever they found in a job-lot of clothes gathered from the fields after Woodstock. I’m being unfair, of course. When the photos include other children and their parents, their own sartorial selections were no less hideous. But there are reasons for this.

Firstly, economics. Back in the 1970s there was no clothing industry in China churning out hundreds of millions of garments dirt cheap. I have no idea where children’s clothes were made back then, but they weren’t being knocked out at the volume and price they are now. Like everything else, clothes have got cheaper. The number of hours a breadwinner had to work to clothe his kids in the ’70s was a lot more than today. Kids therefore were expected to wear whatever the parents could lay their hands on, and if you had more than one boy economies of scale would kick in. I don’t know how old I was before I got my first pair of trousers that weren’t hand-me-downs (I was the youngest) but I was pushing six-feet tall. As far as school clothes went, the first thing my brother used to do at the start of a new term was tell everyone my trousers used to be his. Thanks a bunch.

Secondly, availability. Not only was China not pumping out cheap clothes, shops in west Wales in that era were not selling them. The shops were absolutely abysmal, and remained so well into the ’90s. Buying school clothes entailed a trip to Swansea or even Cardiff, which was a fair hike in a VW Beetle with four kids. Even if Gap Kids existed in those days, they’d have been as unobtainable as Rolex watch for anyone living in Pembroke. A lot of people forget how appalling retail used to be.

But something else has changed too, which I alluded to in this post about how parenting has changed. There’s a vanity associated with children now that didn’t exist when I was a kid, or at least I was unaware of it. Frankly, back in the ’70s and ’80s parents didn’t care how their kids looked provided they were washed, their hair cut, and clothes clean. Whether they looked cool or their outfit wasn’t some hideous purple jumper over a paisley shirt didn’t matter a jot. Economics and availability played a role for sure, but practicality was the main driver. As my mother used to say, what’s the point in buying nice clothes for children when 1) they’ll get wrecked, and 2) you’ll outgrow them in weeks. She had a point. Living in a rural area my clothes were usually covered in mud and/or cow crap, and my trousers always had patches on the knees because I sort of lived on the floor. And I was one of those kids who you could watch growing in real-time. Being practical folk raised in the era of post-war shortages, my parents’ generation just kitted out their kids in anything that was practical and didn’t worry too much about what it looked like.

The only “cool” piece of clothing I remember from infant and junior school was the Arsenal strip, a red and white nylon t-shirt with the gun and cannon balls logo. One or two kids had one, and they were cool. I wanted one, but my mother said no (she’d not have had the foggiest idea what I was on about). Instead I did PE in the same green polo-neck that my older brothers had worn, thus consigning each of us in turn to playing in goal every time we had football. This was the ’80s, after all. Our football socks were also shared among us, knitted from wool by great-auntie Jessie. Little wonder the First Division scouts didn’t linger too long at our PE sessions.

Something changed in the 1990s, probably at the time China boomed and globalisation made us all richer. When I was growing up there were adults’ clothes and children’s clothes. Nowadays children’s clothes are often adult’s clothes but in a small size. Gap Kids and the others use the same or similar designs as their adult ranges. It now became possible to make your kid look cool, and boy did some mothers take it seriously. You started seeing toddlers wearing Lacoste and Ralph Lauren clothing which wasn’t much cheaper than the adult stuff. Parents would still use hand-me-downs but no longer would except sacks of clothes from cousins, neighbours, or friends of the family whose children had grown up. In fact, many would be offended if it were offered, but when I was a child it was gratefully received. There was nothing wrong with the clothes, other than they were absolutely hideous and they had someone else’s name sewn in them. And of course, they were a decade out of fashion: the clothes I wore in the ’80s dated from the ’70s.

I don’t know what came first, the availability of nice clothes or the vanity of the parents, but nowadays many mothers (and occasionally fathers) see their children as fashion accessories, objects which makes a statement about them in terms of wealth and taste (ha!). I’ve seen 5 or 6 year old kids walking around in Canada Goose jackets. For whose benefit are they being worn, do you think? It’s a subsection of the molly-coddling that I mentioned in my earlier post. If a mother thinks her boy needs to look super-cool in the latest designer clothes, you can be sure she’s pandering to him in other ways and her priority is not raising him to be a functional adult.

The same is true for those mothers who style their child’s hair, making it spiky or dyeing it. Ditto for those who give them mirrored shades. If they go on to post pictures of their kid thus adorned on Facebook, it’s a near-certainty the kid is a little shit. Ask any teacher what impression they’d form of a six year old who turned up in class with his hair shaved at the back and sides and spiked on top, as if he were a Premier League footballer. Equally bad is those mothers who refuse to cut their kid’s hair, saying “Oh I couldn’t, he looks so beautiful.” Here’s some advice: if your kid is under ten and has long hair that you refuse to cut because you “love it so much”, he’ll still be living with you when he’s thirty. Or he’ll be living in a one-bed flat with a guy called Ralph.

So looking back, perhaps my folks had the right idea after all. As my dad would say: “It never did you any harm!” Quite right.

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More on Lucy and Pete

Thanks everyone who commented on my previous post. Now some comments from me.

First of all, TDK makes an interesting point:

People seem determined to understand the question wrongly as “is she cheating?” rather than “is she lying?”

This is important, because I think the logic is that provided she’s not cheating then the lying doesn’t matter. So I’ll furnish you with some more background info.

Lucy was at university studying English when she met Pete, who was twelve years older than her and married, but with no kids. His wife was apparently open to her husband sleeping with other women, which allowed Lucy and Pete to see one another. But Pete, a freelance IT consultant, lived a weird hippy-like lifestyle which involved copious volumes of Class-A drugs, which Lucy soon got tangled up in. She used to smoke weed when they first met, but soon she was onto the harder stuff: cocaine, acid, and anything else that Pete could get hold of. She started to spend more time with him, cooped up together in her student flat or staying with his friends in other cities. She became more sexually adventurous, and had several threesomes with Pete and a woman called Amy who he met online. Her studies began to suffer, and within a few months she’d quit her course and taken an admin job at a magazine, but all the money she earned went on rent and feeding her drug habit. She loved Pete and believed he loved her in return, but after a year she began to regret quitting university, and wondered where their relationship was going. She was only 22 after all, but already her friends had graduated and some were settled down with men their own age and talking of starting a family. In the year that followed, nothing much changed for Lucy. She lost her job at the magazine and cut down the drugs, but when Pete got divorced and her hopes rose, he told her he didn’t want to be tied down again. They finally split up on her 24th birthday, when he confessed he was seeing another woman. Lucy was sad, but she understood: exclusivity had never been part of the bargain with Pete, but she didn’t want to share him any longer. For the few years she maintained the lifestyle, sleeping with Pete’s friends occasionally, and even dating one of them for six months, a man she’d known since the time they first met. On the odd occasion she’d bump into Pete at a party they’d usually go home together, but even that stopped eventually. She fell into depression and spent a month in rehab, and had several therapy sessions when she came out.

Her life took a turn for the better at 31 when her parents moved to London, allowing her to live with them while she went back to university and completed a degree in pyschology. She was working in a hospital and earning a reasonable salary when she met the narrator, an industrial chemist, who was 36 at the time. She’d not been in a proper relationship in the intervening years, just had the occasional fling. He gradually learned of her background and relationship with Pete, and they’d been dating four months at the time of the conversation I posted.

As the narrator goes on to say:

“I didn’t care she still spoke to an ex-boyfriend, nor even that she’d lied about it. In isolation we could have recovered from that, but this Pete was different. The only way I could overlook the sex, drugs, and the whole fucking lifestyle was by knowing it was in her past and she wanted to forget it. Her being friends with one of the main players cast doubt on that, and I’d put far too much faith in her already. The onus was on her to build trust with me, but she was doing the exact opposite.”

In short, the narrator never suspected her of cheating but considered it important to know whether she was still in touch with Pete. Her lying – if that’s what it was – therefore mattered.

Also interesting is what Watcher said:

It would hardly be surprising if people therefore discounted this as a form of serious interaction, even if it was quite regular.

In a way the key question (to Lucy, about being in contact, not to the commentators) is from the 1970s, but poised in the 2010s – it lacks key qualifications.

This is true, but as the narrator says:

“This why I went through the pantomime of asking if she could get hold of him. I had to be sure there were no misunderstandings.”

One thing which surprises me is that despite Lucy being asked several times whether she could get hold of this guy if she had to and her saying “no”, people – especially women – still think the question was open to interpretation, as if she didn’t know what he meant. It’s hard to think of how the narrator could have been more clear.

When the narrator finally confronted Lucy, the conversation went as follows:

‘Why did you lie about losing touch with Pete?’

‘I didn’t.’

‘Lucy, he left a comment under your photo a few weeks ago, and you replied to it. You comment on his stuff, too. You’re in regular contact.’

‘Are you sure you’ve got the right person?’

‘He’s called Pete Navardauskas, it’s a Lithuanian name. How many do you know?’

She emitted a nasty, bitter laugh. ‘Well, I can’t be expected to remember every comment made on my photos. And I’m not interested in these arguments any more. It’s over. Bye.’

‘You lied to me, Lucy.’

‘Well, we’re just gonna have to agree to disagree on that,’ she said, and hung up.

Later, he remarked:

“There’s no way you’d overlook a comment from an ex-lover with whom you had that shared history, let alone several comments. You might not remember the precise remarks but you’d not forget the interaction, and you couldn’t say you’d lost touch without lying.”

 And I think that’s important. This isn’t some random guy she met years ago, it’s a man she was in love with, slept with, shared a huge chunk of her life with, and had considerable influence on how her life turned out. Would it slip your mind if somebody like that was commenting on your photos ten years later? No, it wouldn’t.

Watcher was right about one thing, though:

It’s also the sort of question that would be a big red flag to me that this relationship had problems (not being a fan of tension and jelousy in relationships).

Yes, the relationship was fucked.

Thanks for the participation, everyone. It’s been a lot of fun.

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Did Lucy lie?

Over the course of the past year I’ve described a scenario to various people, and been surprised by the reaction of women. Just for fun (and readers interested in serious stuff are free to skip this post), I’ll lay it out here.

Background:

The narrator is in a relationship with Lucy. Ten years before, Lucy had a serious boyfriend called Pete, who she was with for about 2 or 3 years. She said there was a time when she couldn’t bear to be without him, and when they split up it was amicable but they gradually lost touch. The narrator has just looked at Lucy’s social media account.

The scene:

I should have given the account a wide berth, but the next morning I opened it. There was a photo of the toy rat, propped on its hind legs against a black ceramic skull she’d brought back from London. I’d been with her when she unwrapped it, and behind her as she took the picture. There was one comment underneath, a single word – ‘Beautiful!’ – left by Pete. ‘Thanks!’ Lucy had replied.

My throat tightened as the anger built inside me.

I looked at other photos and found more comments from Pete. I clicked on his profile, and saw comments from Lucy less than a month old. The interaction was ongoing, and in both directions. A photo from Glastonbury caught my eye, the caption alluding to how much he missed it. A sympathetic comment from Lucy lay underneath.

Lucy was outside a long time, probably on the phone with someone. By the time she came back I’d got a grip of myself, and when she sat down I buried my rage and said in a friendly tone, ‘Can I ask, is there anyone who still holds a candle for you?’

‘You mean an ex who still likes me?’

‘Yes.’

‘Michael still texts me. He wants to get back together, but there was really nothing there to begin with.’

‘All right,’ I said, nodding. This didn’t bother me. ‘Anyone else?’

‘No,’ she said. ‘How about you? Any of your exes still interested?’

‘Jane might be, I think. I get messages from her sometimes, asking how I am.’

‘Okay.’

‘So the rest of your exes – you’re no longer in touch?’ I asked.

‘No.’

‘Including those from university?’

‘Yes!’ she said, getting cross. ‘Why are you asking about this?’

I ignored her and asked, ‘What about Pete? Are you still speaking to him?’

‘No.’

‘Not at all?’

‘Why do you keep asking about this?’ she demanded again.

‘Lucy,’ I said gently. ‘Please don’t get mad, I’m just asking some questions and I’m doing it nicely.’

‘Look, if I saw him at a party I might say hello, but I wouldn’t make any special effort.’

‘So let me ask you something. It’s going to seem like a strange question, but humour me, okay?’

‘Okay.’

‘If you needed to contact him urgently – for whatever reason – could you do it? Could you get hold of him within twenty-four hours, for example?’

She stared at me in silence. I stared back until she answered the question.

‘Well, I might have an email for him somewhere,’ she said, trying to act casual and failing. ‘I don’t know, I’d have see if I still have it. Why?’

‘I’m just wondering. So you still have his email?’

‘It’s probably somewhere, but like I said, I’d have to look. What’s this about?’ Her temper was building, I had to wrap this up fast.

‘So if you wanted to get hold of Pete quickly, you could do it. Is that what you’re saying?’

With a face like thunder she picked up her phone, and I watched in silence as she furiously searched.

After a minute she stopped. ‘No, see!’ she said triumphantly, showing me the screen. ‘He’s not in my contacts any more, it’s gone. So no, I couldn’t get hold of him, even if I wanted to.’

‘Okay,’ I said neutrally. ‘That’s fair enough, thanks.’

***

When I’ve put this to women, their reaction has usually been to doubt that Lucy had lied, saying something to the effect of: “Maybe she didn’t think being in touch meant being friends on social media?” Men are a little less forgiving.

What say you, readers?

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Sexist Behaviour

When I was in Mykonos I was drinking with my three friends when we got talking to two Australian women, who I would place somewhere in their early thirties. One of them told us she worked in London as an insurance broker, and said she found the industry full of lecherous men. She said she would be at a works party (with plenty of alcohol) and men would start commenting on her breasts. Others would ask if they could “pet her later”. She said men frequently hit on her at or around work.

I’ll not be so crass as to physically describe the lady in question, but let’s just say we were all rather surprised by this. But we were surprised for another reason: this would never happen in the oil industry (at least, not in a western European country; it probably would in Russia and other places where sex tourists disguise themselves as engineers) and, according to my friend, nor would it happen in banking.

Even supposing HR policies covering sexual harassment didn’t exist, I’d not be making these sort of remarks. I’m not the most polite of people, what with having been encouraged to adapt to Parisian culture ‘n all, but I have enough class and manners not to make remarks about a colleague’s tits. I have quite a number of female colleagues and I can’t even imagine what they would say or do to me if I said something like that. They’re quite open to compliments which I know feminists complain about, but if you don’t know the difference between pleasant and lewd remarks by age forty then it’s probably best you keep your mouth shut.

I was thinking this over, contemplating whether the London insurance industry was the last bastion of rampant sexism in the corporate world, when something occurred to me about the same time the lady in question called me a pussy. She said this because I was considering quitting the drink early that evening; I’d been smashed the previous two nights and I had a flight the next day. I laughed because I don’t care if someone calls me a pussy, and she was only having fun. And the last person who suggested I couldn’t drink was a young chap at an Uzbek wedding whose uncle, who’d been plying me with vodka for the past four hours and was somewhat mystified as to why I was still alive, slapped him across the head for his gross inaccuracy as much as his insolence.

What I found interesting was that a woman would say that to a man she didn’t know at all. She’d also been happy to mention her breasts to four completely strange men. Now we were all having fun amid plenty of banter, but none of us had lowered the tone: that had come from her. I thought about which women I know who would come out with a remark like this, and came up short. I tried to imagine the women I work with speaking to anyone in this manner and couldn’t.

Now it could be that the London insurance industry is full of lecherous men who make lewd remarks in contravention of their companies’ code of conduct and corporate HR policies. Or it could be that when a woman acts like a “lad” and engages in alcohol-fuelled banter of an insulting or sexual nature – even in jest – it brings out the worst behaviour in the men around her. I’d hazard a guess that if any of my female colleagues had been at the same party, they’d have received no such remarks from anyone.

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Dutch Oddness

In the comments at Mr Worstall’s we’re making fun of the Dutch, particularly their reputation for stinginess which makes the Scottish look positively profligate by comparison. My input is as follows.

When I briefly lived in Thailand in 2010 I met a Dutch lady with a son of around five or six. She’d been widowed, her husband having a sudden heart attack in his mid-thirties while she was pregnant with their son. Her late husband was also Dutch and worked for a bank in a senior position, but I don’t know if stress played any role in his demise. It was a tragic story, with the only bright point being he’d been wealthy (or well-insured) enough to provide for his wife and son. She found it very hard to stay in the Netherlands afterwards, surrounded by memories, and decided to spend some time in Thailand, renting an apartment in my condo block where I met her. She was a nice woman, and doing remarkably well under the circumstances. I don’t know what became of her but if anyone deserved a spell of good fortune, it was her. Her kid was nice, too. I hope they’re doing okay, wherever they are.

Anyway, she told me her husband’s parents arranged the funeral in his home town, and she stayed with them a few days for the occasion. She said she got on with them okay, and was rather surprised a few weeks later to receive an invoice in the post: they’d charged her for parking in their driveway.

There’s nowt so queer as folk, as the saying goes, but the Dutch run them close.

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Manchester as I saw it

Tim Worstall links to a piece in The Guardian about thieving Mancunions stealing bikes. As Tim says: well, yes, it is Manchester.

As my regular readers will know, I lived in Manchester between 1996 and 2003, with the first four years being spent at the university. I have no idea what it is like now – perhaps it’s improved – but I knew what it was like then. Any student living in Fallowfield, Withington, or Victoria Park would have quickly learned what Manchester was like, firstly when they applied for home and contents insurance and got told “we don’t cover M14 and M20”, and again when somebody broke into that home and made off with those contents. Everybody I knew in Manchester got burgled at some point, and it happened to me twice.

I went further than the average student in discovering Manchester, though. In the summer of 1998 I responded to an advert looking for a part-time car driver, ideally suited to somebody semi-retired. I’d recently passed my test but had no actual driving experience, but I didn’t let that stop me. I arrived for the interview in Old Trafford, conducted by a chap with a passing resemblance to Jaap Stam (who was playing just across the road at the time) and a thick Mancunion accent. I got the job immediately, learning afterwards it was because I “could string a sentence together”. This wasn’t the high-end of the Manchester job market, although looking back, perhaps it was.

My new boss Danny ran a car hire company which would lease a car to anyone who’d had an accident and claim it back from the insurance company of the person at fault. It was basically a branch of the ambulance-chasing industry, but I didn’t care. Some loophole in the law made it all possible and Danny made his living renting out cars, and I delivered and collected them. The only problem was we were serving the absolute bottom of the market. We weren’t hiring out Range Rovers in Alderley Edge, we were supplying Puntos and Fiestas to council estates. My job wasn’t only to deliver the cars, but get the customer/whiplash “victim” to sign the lease agreement. Most of them couldn’t read, and those that could wouldn’t have been able to understand it how the arrangement worked. I know I couldn’t.

My new job was a good one by student standards. I was provided with a bus pass (saving me £15 a week), a PAYG mobile phone (an unheard-of perk in those days), and at weekends I could sometimes take a car home with me. I would normally work afternoons, Danny fitting the deliveries around my timetable. For my efforts I’d get paid £10 per delivery, and if I did 4-5 in a week that was my beer money easily earned. At some point Danny realised I had a car park outside my flat and used to store cars there occasionally, leaving my neighbours to wonder why this student owned four identical cars with sequential number plates.

The downside of the job was that it would take me to the terrible areas of Manchester and into the absolute worst housing estates, where I would find my way there with an A to Z (no Google Maps or GPS in those days) and get home via public transport. I delivered cars to Openshaw, Rochdale, Oldham, Wythenshawe, Levenshulme, Middleton, Moston, Ancoats, Ashton-Under-Lyne, Dukinfield, Eccles, and other absolute shitholes whose names I’ve forgotten. North of Manchester city centre is a total dump with two exceptions: Prestwich, which is the Jewish area and has lots of nice, big houses in immaculate condition, and Bury which is a posh suburb.

I’d deliver the cars then walk the streets and ride the buses, trains, and trams through the most God-awful areas of Manchester, often after dark, usually in the rain. I visited a garage where the proprietor was jailed a short time later for kidnapping somebody who wouldn’t pay an illegal clamping fine. I stood on doorsteps of council houses with people reeking of alcohol, trying to get them to sign the blue-and-white form before handing over the keys. I sat on disgusting sofas, trying not to breath. I walked through filthy streets with a mosque at each end, which are nowadays referred to as no-go zones. For whatever reason, nothing ever happened to me. Whatever one says about the Mancs – and they are a dodgy bunch – the vast majority are good people. I remember feeling nervous, but was never in any danger even in the worst places. But they were bad: In Ancoats, the roof of the corner shop was covered in barbed wire, and you’d get served like in a bank, with bullet-proof glass and a rotating carousel: you’d need to give a list to the bloke behind the counter and he’d fetch everything. This was to buy milk at 2pm.

In the summer of 1999 I quit working for Danny because I had to do an industrial placement as part of my Masters. Most people’s placement was organised by the university, but for some reason I went through the yellow pages and sent a letter to anyone calling themselves an engineering company asking for a job. I found one called Technical Automation based out in Weaste, a suburb of Greater Manchester between Salford and Eccles. And by Lord, was Weaste the biggest shithole I’d ever seen before and have ever seen since. It was so bad the betting shop, pub, and off license were boarded up. Our workshop was protected by spiked railings, bars, steel doors, and alarms yet still it got broken into. Later in my career I met a guy whose wife worked as a nurse in Hope Hospital just down the road. He told me a bouncer of a nearby pub (one that was still open) had been rushed into hospital with gunshot wounds, the victim of a drive-by shooting. When they cut his jacket off him, a claw-hammer fell out of his sleeve. Nice pub.

I went back to work for Danny after my placement, raking in the tenners for tramping around Manchester’s sink estates. I left the UK in 2003 and travelled the world, walking the dodgy back streets of Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Yalta, and a dozen other cities where visitors are warned to be careful, but I never saw anything that was a patch on Manchester. Even in Lagos people would rob you for a reason: they want your money. The Manc scallies were decked out in £300 Hilfiger jackets and Rockport boots and didn’t need money, they just wanted to beat someone up. Never in my life, anywhere else, have I seen a bunch of teenagers wrecking a bus stop, or have I climbed aboard a bus and found somebody has sandpapered the windows and set fire to the seats. In Manchester, this was all perfectly normal. Even now, when people tell me to be careful somewhere, or ask if I was afraid in (say) Paris, I laugh and say “God no, I lived in Manchester, FFS!”

Despite all that, and the fact I never went back, I loved my time there. I am still in touch with Danny – he’s no longer in the dodgy car-hire business and has turned all respectable, so he says – and occasionally I joke about the shitholes he sent me to at 6pm on a wet Tuesday night in November, helpfully telling me there was a tram stop a mile away from the address. It was “character building”, he says.

Yes, it was.

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In Memory of Steve Gerrard, SSI

There were two or three people who had a substantial and positive influence on me when I was in my mid-to-late teens, all of whom worked at the boarding school I attended.

Participation in the Combined Cadet Force (CCF) was compulsory at Seaford College, situated in the South Downs near Petworth, West Sussex. On my second day there I was sent to the “corps office” to collect my uniform, which might have caused me some concern had I not been in the Dyfed Army Cadet Force for the past year and taken to it like a duck to water. The Seaford College CCF was commanded by one Major (cadet force rank) Keith Woodcock who was also a geography teacher, part-time fireman, and all-round good bloke. He had no military experience, and so the unit was assigned a School Staff Instructor (SSI). This came in the form of a stocky, tough-looking individual with a moustache, hairy hands, and a voice which, when raised, would scare the absolute shit out of you. He was Steve Gerrard, a former Warrant Officer 2 (Company Sergeant-Major) who had completed 25 years regular service in the Parachute Regiment (2 Para) following 2 years in the junior army (also as a para).

I walked into the corps office, a skinny, insecure kid who couldn’t keep his mouth shut, and found the SSI, as he was known, behind the desk. He asked me where I was from and I said Wales, and from thereon he addressed me as “Taff” or “Taffy”. He took me into the stores, gave me my uniform, and for the next four years served as a sort of mentor to me. He was an extremely tough man – a veteran of the battle of Goose Green, he’d both boxed and played rugby league for the army – but he showed not the slightest aggression towards anyone. If he needed to assert his authority he only needed to raise his voice slightly, and anyone within earshot – child or adult – shit themselves and paid attention. You don’t get to be a sergeant-major in the Parachute Regiment by being unable to project authority. Occasionally I was on the receiving end of a sharp word of his, and it brought me to heel pretty fast.

His language was appalling and his eating habits worse: he would sit in the school canteen and wrap bread around whatever was on his plate and stuff it into his mouth like a sandwich. He told me he learned this in the army: you never know when you’re going to be kicked out of the canteen, and if you’ve got it in your hand nobody can take it away from you. But for all his rough exterior he genuinely cared about the welfare of the boys and girls who were placed in his care. He would obtain for them (meaning, steal from the nearest army barracks) the best kit he could lay his hands on, arrange special activities (such as firing machine guns we weren’t supposed to), and do his absolute level best to ensure everybody enjoyed themselves, learned, and were kept safe. I participated heavily in the CCF activities and went three times on the adventure training weeks in Wales and Exmoor. Steve arranged all the logistics, including doing all the catering. He was outrageously funny, mainly because none of us knew a character quite like him: he’d walk into a room of fifteen year old boys and say in his thick Derbyshire accent: “That were fooking lucky, if I’d been a minute later some humpty-backed c*nt would have taken my parking space!” None of our parents or teachers spoke like this.

Looking back, he was probably the first adult to treat me like one. I wasn’t an adult, but he spoke to me in a way that, in hindsight, was highly respectful: he would fire instructions at me, ask for help with CCF activities, teach me things, answer questions, and have conversations without the slightest hint of condescension, pomposity, or arrogance of being in a senior position. He treated everyone equally, and spoke to them in much the same way. Perhaps it was his having a short childhood himself, joining the army at 15, that made him understand that if you want young lads to behave as men you have to treat them like men. For dozens of us, it worked.

I spent a lot of time with the SSI, sitting in the corps office or in the stores, having conversations which were probably very immature on my part. I even met his mother and stayed in his childhood home when he gave me a lift up north one weekend when I was 18. I admired him immensely, as did most people who knew him. He left the army after 27 years somewhat lost – diabetes prevented him from getting a commission – and found a new purpose in teaching young boys and girls things which went way beyond his military remit.

Last week I heard from a schoolfriend, who had followed in Steve’s footsteps by joining the Parachute Regiment, that he had died. Diabetes plagued him even back then and apparently his health had been suffering. I regret I never saw or spoke to him once I’d left school: living abroad meant I rarely went home anyway, and his sharing a name with a famous contemporary footballer meant finding him online was impossible, assuming he was even there to be found. I wish I’d been able to let him know what a great help he was to me at a time when I needed it. I’m sure I’ll not be the only one.

Rest in peace, Sir. You really were one of the very best.

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