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:


The girls manning the phones would get calls that went:


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?’


‘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.’


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


‘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?’


‘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?’


‘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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


Of Sub-Letting and Scams

Back when I lived in Lagos I had an English friend who was married to a Nigerian-born British lady. Because of this, they interacted a lot more with the locals than the rest of us expats. We lived in a compound on a private island in accommodation that by any standards, let alone those of Nigeria, would get called luxury (lest you think we were spoiled, one of the issues that plague developing world cities is that there are generally two types of housing: total shitholes and ludicrously expensive luxury apartments).

My friends got chatting to some Nigerian neighbours and discovered that one of their income streams was sub-letting council properties in London to other Nigerians. They’d gone to the UK, got themselves a council house or flat, rented it out to somebody else, then came back to Lagos. When my friends started getting cross at this, the response of their neighbours was along the lines of:

“Why are you mad at us? Why aren’t you mad at the idiots who put this stupid system in place that allows Nigerians to get council houses and rent them out? Frankly, we can’t believe that they let us do this!”

They had a point. One of the worst aspects of the British welfare system isn’t that so many people game it, but that it does not adequately provide for many of the deserving poor either. Yet we’re always being told it’s a funding issue, rather than an organisational one.

I was reminded of this story when I read somebody on Twitter saying that in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, some poor sod is going to have to work out who was actually living there. I don’t know the mix of private and social housing in the block, but you can be sure that sub-letting of council flats was going on. Although disallowed, the practice is widespread, particularly among immigrant communities. Even identifying the dead might be difficult if the person living in a particular flat wasn’t the person whose name is one the lease. No doubt insurance claims will be affected as well, assuming they even had any.

This in turn reminded me of something else, bringing me back to Nigeria again. On the only occasion I flew from Lagos to Port Harcourt, i.e. an internal flight, I was surprised to find my boarding pass – handed to me by a Nigerian who was assigned to “look after me” – had somebody else’s name on it. Apparently middle-men buy up all the plane tickets the moment they’re issued by the airline and re-sell them at a marked-up price. That this is allowed to go on says everything you need to know about Nigeria, but it’s not just a cost issue. It occurred to me as the plane lurched and weaved its way towards Port Harcourt that if it crashed nobody would have any clue who was on it. There was no record of me being a passenger, some chap with a Yoruba name was supposed to be in my seat. People would assume he’s dead, which I’m sure would open up all sorts of opportunities for additional scams.

I’d not be at all surprised if opportunists seize on the Grenfell Tower tragedy to perpetuate various scams, either.


Mind Boggled

Commenter Simon Jester provides possibly the most ludicrous example of government stupidity that I have seen in a long while, and the bar is set high:

I once worked (in West London) in an office where there was an underground car park, in which half the spaces were cordoned off to prevent people parking in them – the local council insisted that only half could be used, as part of their efforts to combat Climate Change.

You can bet that the people at the council who approved this ensured their own personal car parking spaces remained close to the entrance of their nicely air conditioned offices.