Monday, February 12, 2007

Wotta lotta jobs!

Once upon a time you left school, got a job, worked for 50 years, got your gold watch and put your feet up!
But not any more!
Never the academic type me, so at the first opportunity I trotted off down my local High Street in search of something to do. I went shop to shop until I found myself in the Home & Colonial Stores, purveyors of all things grocery! There I was guided in the art of cutting, weighing, wrapping and being a jolly nice young man, by the manager Roy. Now Roy was your typical cartoon grocer. Portly and tall, with chubby shiny cheeks and a permanent grin as if he knew something I didn't.He strutted around the shop in his white jacket and blue striped apron. His adoring wife Glad worked with us - a smaller yet equally round version of her doting husband. Roy taught me how to turn a half pig into neat piles of bacon rashers and perfectly formed gammon joints. I turned sheets of blue paper into sugar bags and became expert at removing the wax and cloth from half hundredweight wheels of smelly cheddar. There I became expert at adding up our customers' weekly shopping bills in my head - this was before tills did it for you, and we still had 12 pence to the shilling and 20 shillings to the pound! About that time the mighty supermarket was beginning to appear . Key Stores opened in the town and I got itchy feet.
I had long been in awe of the commercial traveller from Spillers Flour who came to our shop monthly. Him with the sharp Colliers suit, the leather brief case and a company Ford Cortina in the latest shade of pale green. That's for me I thought. I'm going to be a salesman!

Soon after that I found myself in London. The sleepy market town of my childhood was now a million miles away. Eighteen years old on what might just have well been another planet. It was the sixties. Up there people were 'swingin' - 'til now the only swingin' I'd done was down the reck!

Anyway I had successfully applied to become a trainee Sales Executive for Lamson Paragon. I was to sell all sorts of business forms and printed office stationary. What were actually selling was paper - forests of it. It was just that printing on it made the task somewhat easier. On my first day I was one of twenty or so raw recruits from all over the UK some of which were to remain my friends to this day.
The MD met us all one to one. He was a slight man in a pin-striped suit and and had a few strands of Brylcreamed hair swept across his bald head. He had a screwed up face and an unfortunate speech impediment very reminiscent of the Godfather. He introduced himself as 'ECMB'. After an initial chat, a skinny bloke in a shabby and very baggy two piece, shiny at the knees and elbows, appeared . 'Thish ish Hughey Holmes' said ECMB. ' He will be your friend, guide and mentor'
And so he was. Within three months there wasn't a pub in North London I hadn't visited nor a blousy barmaid I hadn't been introduced to! We did hardly any work at all! This is the life I thought.
Anyway, armed with my samples, a standard issue brief case, and unlimited tube fares I plied my trade from Euston to Hampstead and all points in between. I originally stayed with friends - of -friends but it wasn't long before I had my own bedsit behind Finchley Road tube station. Things went well and in no time I became a product specialist. This involved helping the territory reps flog my Paragon cash registers! They used reams of multi-layered paper, one copy as a receipt for the customer and the and the other copies disappeared into a locked compartment where they couldn't be tampered with. My training manager for this most impressive devise was one TIK Fashom. A dapper little man from Hove. 'That copy is as safe as a letter in a letter box' he would bellow. 'What is it lad?' . 'Safe as a letter in a letter box' I'd reply.
By then things were going really well. I moved into a flat in a leafy North London suburb with three fellow Paragonites and together we moonlighted with a mobile disco. This was long before they were popular and we found ourselves in enormous demand playing at parties from Golders Green to Shoreham.
And then, by some kwirk of fate we all managed to get transferred to the Crawley office at the same time. We took on a huge house to share in rural West Susex. Soon after we all went our separate ways. New jobs , new wives! But we are still friends to this day.
When I told ECMB I was going to sell Miele domestic appliances it was as if I was becoming a drop out from the noble art of selling. 'White goodsh?' he roared. 'Washing machinesh?'. His face reddened. 'Conshumer durablesh?'.
I picked up my new company car from a VW dealer in St Johns Wood opposite Lords cricket ground. LUC 949 K . That's a bit of luck I thought! Good omen. And it was.It was a fantastic job. As well as the normal job of looking after my retailers I also had the enviable task of taking a selected few to Germany three times a year to visit the factories. Well, someone had to do it. At least, that was the official reason. It was, of course one long round of beer kellars, clubs and sightseeing. I had a company expense account and was king of the castle for five days at a time! I was however involved in one alarming incident when a customer failed to appear for breakfast one morning. After banging on his door without success we eventually broke into his room to find him dead on the loo. The whole experience was evidently too much for him.
One year the IRA decided to target the Ideal Home Exhibition when I was on duty . I emerged unscathed but I shall never ever forget the scenes I witnessed that day.
Like many young men I was passionate about cars, so I decided on a change of direction and ended up flogging new cars from a showroom in the Ashdown Forest. My interest in Citroen in particular, led to me becoming Sales Manager for that particular marque. My boss, Tom, suggested that such was my passion for that quirky product that I must have had LHM fluid flowing through my veins! (for the uninitiated, that's the stuff that Citroen use in their unique suspension system - end of lesson!)
After a while I changed direction again. All that I learned with Ray and Glad kept niggling away at me. I missed the sides of bacon and the Somerset cheddar. Grocers shops had gone, but now there was a new kid on the block. The delicatessen had arrived and I wanted some of the action! I got myself a run - down convenience store by the seaside, and wallah! - the Deli opened it's doors to an unsuspecting public! They queued and they queued! They wanted my regional cheeses and my home baked ham. They came for my green back and my fresh bread. I even got my own label wine. But it was too small. I didn't have room for an assistant. The queue went out of sight some days, but I simply couldn't take the money people wanted to spend. So I gave up.
About that time I came back in contact with one of my Paragon colleagues. Not one of the famous three but someone I'd got to know quite well. When I went to sell kitchen appliances, he'd joined Neff to sell built in cookers and the like. We decided we'd sell fitted kitchens. Not any old kitchens. Flat packs weren't for us. We decided to go to the top of the market with rigid built to order jobs from Poggenphol and Cuisine Schmitt. We got a showroom in a prestigious part of Eastbourne and launched the most up - market display in the area. And it worked. Our kitchens cost four times as much as your average MFI job, but people clamored for them. We were making money - real money. But unfortunately it didn't last, for reasons I'll keep to myself, and we went our separate ways never to meet again.
For a while I worked as UK sales agent for a range of up - market French kitchens, establishing outlets in the South East of England. But it wasn't the same as running our own business and the novelty soon wore off.
So the motor trade beckoned once again and I joined a company near Hastings as Sales Manager for their Citroen outlets. Westfield it was called. It was run by the Over family. Mr Over was officially retired but enjoyed running all over the country doing dealer swaps. The Matriarch, Mrs Over, made occasional royal visits and we all stood and doffed our caps! My immediate boss was young son Eric. The rest of the operation was steered by two other brothers. Most of the family lived in large houses all in the same road in posh Cooden. Mini Southforks!Don't know what they're doing now.
Then I had a real chance to move up the ladder. Citroen UK wanted a Fleet Manager to be based in their dealership back in Hampshire. It was a huge company on a 9 acre site with 5 new car franchises. That went well and from fleet sales I moved to retail Sales Manager and it was good - very good! But I wanted to go back to the South Coast so I landed myself a management position with a Citroen dealer down on the Sussex coast.
Then it happened! I suddenly had an overwhelming desire to become a chef! I'd had no training. No background, although I suppose there was a tentative link with my grocery days. Up to then my only experience of cooking was at a dinner party! Anyway, I was going for it and I did!
A few months later I opened the doors of the Stage Door Bistro & Wine Bar inthe theatre area of a seaside resort.It was an instant success. Even the stars and celebrities came flocking in. We had a stage of our own with a resident pianist and regular entertainment nights featuring everything from Gilbert and Sullivan to belly dancing!
Then I guess I got greedy and I took on a pub as well. The Brewers Arms in the middle of nowhere! My time at the pub was, without a shadow of a doubt, the happiest of my life. But it was simply too much. My absence from the Stage Door had a negative effect on business and my staff took advantage of me left right and centre. The ridiculous hours and the constant social life got the better of me and had a terrible effect on my health. The restaurant and the pub both had to go.
From there I went to Unwins Wine merchants, and after some training and some relief work I got my own branch in a posh part of Kent. Sedate it may have been but but believe me, when the sun went down the rabble came out!. In the short time I was there, we had one armed robbery, three night-time break-ins and too many grab and runs to count! I phoned the police so regularly that they even suggested that we should put them on the friends and family rate! However it soon became apparent that things weren't right. The deliveries of wine and spirits got smaller and less frequent, and soon I was stringing bottles out along the shelves to try and disguise the ever increasing gaps. Just after I got settled, Unwins went bust, so I went back to the kitchen! The one in an enormous out of town gastropub, where I was grandly known as Head Chef. Just got comfy and the owners sold it, so off I went again! This time I went to The Lamb Inn to stir a few pots, but that didn't work out.
That brings me up to date. For the last year or so I've been at a pub near Herstmonceux. It's a pub with so much potential, but it's underexploited. I'm known as head chef but I don't have much say in the way we offer our food, and as an ex-publican I find it all very frustrating.
So what's next?I don't know. But there's one thing I do know. There's life n the old dog yet!

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