Absent Friends

Now the dust has settled for the awards season, the End of Year Retrospectives on famous faces we have said goodbye to had a very poignant, personal meaning.

2012 was the year I lost two that were very dear to me. Both were English Gents who were family, and both, oddly enough, were East End London boys made good, who had transplanted to a life less ordinary in Los Angeles. Both retained their English sense of humor and intrinsic silliness and were Master Raconteurs who elevated any dinner party from mere dinner to a memorable event.

Ian, who was presenting, and lucky guest at the BAFTAs, Beverly Hills

Ian, who was presenting, and lucky guest at the BAFTAs, Beverly Hills

The first was my Uncle Ian, Ian Abercrombie, who over a lifetime of following his acting dream had appeared in nearly a hundred movies and several of the planet’s most watched TV shows, from Dynasty to Seinfeld, the latter of which he was best known in for his portrayal of the irascible Mr. Pitt, Elaine’s fastidious and impossible-to-please boss.
On his birthday, which would have been last September, his good friend Cathy Lind Hayes was kind enough to post a lovely memorial video of some of his best moments.
I wasn’t able to go to the service in Los Angeles in May, which made my heart ache, but I had written a blog honoring him and our thirty years of friendship. I thought I had put my grieving behind me quite tidily until I viewed the video reel in September, but suddenly, a flood of tears was upon me and a wave of missing dear Ian washed over me. You’ll understand why when you see it. The last moments, despite the laughs that come before, broke my heart. I haven’t been able to watch it since; just the thought of it sets me off.
See the countless famous names Ian worked with here:


The second, of course, known to you all, was the inimitable, influential and ground-breaking Vidal Sassoon.

My best friend in the world is Simon Sassoon. Vidal was his Uncle, brother of Simon’s dad Ivor, but since Simon’s parents both died in his childhood, Vidal became his de facto father for the rest of his life, stepping in and keeping a paternal eye on Simon. They were buddies for their lifelong shared passion for seeing the Chelsea soccer team play and the port of call on Thanksgiving.
I was fortunate enough to be invited to many a Thanksgiving at the stylish, modern art-filled Sassoon Neutra-built mansion in LA, beneficiary of the superb chef skills of Vidal’s amazing wife, Ronnie, who thought nothing of cooking incredible food for up to thirty guests at a time and showing us all just how the perfect hostess does it. Vidal would be in charge of the music during dinner, always his beloved jazz artists. We shared a love of the great female singers, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday. I remember at the end of one such impeccable evening, sitting in the sculpture filled garden under a warm, starry sky, he coerced me into singing a Billie classic for him in her style of vocal. I was shy to do it, but he was so appreciative of anyone who shared his adoration of the music, and it was a charming, intimate moment that I treasure.
In later years I was honored that he had read a piece I wrote on the nature of celebrity and was kind enough to tell me he thought it was ‘spot on, excellently written.’ High praise indeed from a man who not only read prodigiously but authored several books, including his superb autobiography, published in 2010.
The last time I saw Vidal was at a small and inevitably stylish dinner that Ronnie cooked herself at their fabulous, Sixties Moderne London home for Simon, myself and my brother. Vidal was in the country to promote his autobiography, even though he’d been gravely ill and had been undergoing treatment for the leukaemia that would eventually claim him. As ever, he was fighting fit and full of life. Vidal loved English jokes, and you could invariably crack him up with anything by Tommy Cooper, that corny, eccentric comedian particularly taken to heart by the Brits. I gave him my worst that night and he responded with many of his own.

Vidal left us in May, but it wasn’t until October that his beautifully planned memorial service came to fruition in that grandest of all venues, St. Paul’s Cathedral. I was lucky enough to be invited as one of many who came to hear tributes to this extraordinary man by such luminaries as Jeremy Irons and Sir David Puttnam. We sat next to Tracey Ullman and behind Michael Caine, Mary Quant and Zandra Rhodes, the later of whom, although quite terrifying in their late 70s and 80s respectively, made me hope that when I get to their venerable age I’m still as boldly and madly stylish as they are.

The magnificent setting

The magnificent setting

Jeremy Irons after his reading

Jeremy Irons after his reading

Ronnie receives guests

Ronnie receives guests

Michael Caine, looking dashing

Michael Caine, looking dashing

Terrifyingly Fabulous, Mary Quant and Zandra Rhodes

Terrifyingly Fabulous, Mary Quant and Zandra Rhodes

I took my daughter Sunny to the service. As we entered the magnificent, world famous building I marvelled at how far Vidal had come – a poor Jewish kid from the East End to St. Paul’s. Not far in miles – but a leap of a lifetime, around the world and back.
Sunny, who has the LA Rock Star look down pat, with her blonde hair and big shades, and who definitely looked famous that day, nipped out to the front steps for a naughty cigarette before the service, and got frenziedly snapped by a hundred photographers waiting outside, which she thought marvellous. In among a sea of Vogue editors and fashionistas with their precisely cut, tastefully blonde and highlighted symmetrical bobs, in themselves a tribute to Vidal who invented them, were Sunny and me with our tasteless, out-there bleached and unruly manes, sticking out like sore thumbs. I feel sure that Vidal, who loved the bouffant pink in its prime and always kindly complimented it, would have approved of the rebellion of it all.

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In The Hot Seat

For those of you not connected elsewhere, here is a collection of posts recently completed as guest writer for Julie Anne Rhodes, my soul sistah from another band, on her acclaimed and award winning site.  I am in the hot seat for her while she takes a well earned break. Enjoy!

Click on the links as follows:

Save A Prayer


Everything’s Coming Up Roses


Manners Maketh The Man




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Dark and sinister man – have at thee

One of the most frustrating aspects of the Savile furore currently blitzing the media is how he managed to commit so many crimes without a full investigation being launched by the police, when it’s apparent that several complaints were filed against him. However, times have changed and even one accusation is enough to secure the full weight of the law bearing down upon any suspected perpetrator. We see it daily; only last week the teacher who ran away to France with a consenting 15 year old has now been charged with abduction of a minor after a national manhunt tracked him down in another country.

I read a post by someone who said that a family friend of his went on a mission to bring Savile down for sexually abusing his young daughter. Only his eventual death prevented him from his continued mission for justice. Apparently, the man was informed by Savile’s lawyers that his quest would be fruitless, since high placed connections were stacked up against him and top police commissioners were in back pockets. One has to wonder how many of these instances those lawyers deftly fielded away over the course of representing their nefarious client. Savile was protected in more ways than one.

I read an article by a journalist who recounted interviewing Savile a decade hence. He said the most daunting thing was initially meeting his subject, who before even a hello could be spoken, coldly instructed his bodyguards with the words,
“Frisk him.”
You’d be forgiven for asking why a man who was known publicly for staggering charitable works needed bodyguards. Celebrities who (in this age of psycho stalkers) equip themselves with security, are not generally in the habit of assuming everyone they encounter, especially journalists with a pre-arranged appointment, are carrying weapons with intent to a violent attack. It would seem that Savile expected the worst for reasons he was already aware of.

This would seem to answer why victims, isolated from each other and unaware of a pattern of abuse, faced with offering the word of a child against the monolithic perception of a preternaturally charitable and philanthropic man, would be too intimidated to go up against such a reputation of saintliness. Who would believe them? Certainly not the 5000 people who lined up to pay their respects to the funeral casket. How well placed did the lowly nurses on wards feel, to stand forward and accuse the man who had raised 40 million pounds for their facility, and practically owned the building and institution they were employed by? Now the charitable work makes sense – an insurance policy.

I’m about to argue a case for vigilante-ism, which goes against all civilised moral code.

My sister was the victim of an attempted abduction at the age of 14, in 1972. Innocently enough, just after dark, she was waiting at a bus stop to come home from the local youth club when a man stopped his car and attempted to wrestle her into it. She struggled free and ran to the nearest house; from there she called home.
With a description of the car to go on, the first thing my father did was to jump into his own and scour the area for the culprit. He had no luck.
His next move was to visit the local police station and file a report. The police told him they immediately recognised who the man was; he’d been under observation, it wasn’t his first attempt. They also told my father that although they were aware, legally they were bound, and they could do nothing unless he was caught in the act. These were the restrictions of law back then that the police were obliged to abide by.

Some of the policemen on duty were on my father’s local rugby team and knew him socially. They considered the information and descriptions given, then did something highly illegal: Leafing through the file of complaints as they took details, they deliberately left the file open on the page with the man’s name and address, placed it on the desk in full view of my father, and invented a reason to walk away and look preoccupied. My dad didn’t need it spelled out. He paid the man a visit at home.

Now, my father was not a tall man, but he was built to be a formidable rugby scrum half, was on the local tug-of-war team and boxed for the Merchant Navy. He could be terrifying if it suited him.
The guy’s stringy wife answered the door. From my dad’s demeanour she understood immediately the reason he was on the doorstep, being apparently well aware of the nature of her husband’s activities. There were small children in the house.
“Don’t hurt him!” she pleaded. Restrained from violence in front of the children, my father hauled the man outside and gave him a talking to which more than likely scared the living shit out of him. He said, in later years, it involved pointing out that he was appraised of the address and if he ever heard from the police of another try, he’d disembowel him on the spot, kids or no.
The police were not aware of any other attempts in the long years that followed, but then, the local man did not have the power of obfuscation and wealth behind him. Could not buy bodyguards and expensive lawyers.

They say, It Takes A Village. It’s also painfully true that people are persecuted when they are innocent, and the law supposes, rightly, that one is innocent until proven guilty.
I once argued in favour of the death penalty for the rape and murder of a child with a learned friend, until I realised I was arguing with an intellectual standpoint that didn’t have children of their own. They had a right to their moral stand-point, but could not understand how emotion, and the protective instinct of a parent, trumps all ethic posturing.

If the village let it be known how offenders would be dealt with, without the shield of the law, would the issue persist?
Some may argue that in jail, offenders do indeed suffer wrath when breaking that peculiar criminal code of ‘what I do is crime, but paedophiles are outside honour among thieves and are liable for retribution at any opportunity’. That still isn’t a deterrent, it’s true.

Nevertheless, I don’t know how the Welsh parents of April Jones feel about that this week, now their four year old is presumed dead, having last been seen entering a car of a family friend.
I don’t know how I would feel, if it was my five year old grandson.
Actually, yes, I do know.

I’d feel murderous. Nothing could prevent me feeling so. Philosophically, I’m in the wrong. I do allow that to be true. Emotionally, I’m bang on the money.

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Fire and Water

It’s an interesting thing when long-lost people come back into our lives. I’ve been reflecting on two instances that happened recently to me, almost simultaneously, and curiously one was bad and one was good.
You know, really, they were both good, because the bad experience informed me of many things, not least of all how far I’ve come in the mad old journey of life and the games played against our younger, more naive selves.

The first to pop up, via that great milieu for stumbling across souls long forgotten – Facebook – was an old flame, and when I say flame, there truly was an inferno of passion that was the mark of a very short lived love affair. An affair that had smouldered for a year before the fuse lit led to its consummation.
Then suddenly, like a bucket of water had been thrown, it was over.

I communicate, it’s in my nature. Sometimes I do so to the limits of patience with people who know me, but there it is. About the worse offence you can commit to someone of that disposition is to shut down and walk away, denying and preventing any further discussion. One is left hanging, never able to understand why or learn from the experience. It’s cold and cruel and inevitably leads to self destruction and self loathing for the person left behind, forever asking themselves, what did I do wrong? What is so terrible about me?

This is what he did; he walked away – and not after dinner, not after a demand or statement, not after an argument on the telephone. No, he did it in the middle of sex.
I know, I know!
Not at the end of it…in the fucking middle of fucking. Coitus Interruptus incarnate.
Answers on a postcard please, if you can think of a single more damaging and crushing deed – to untangle yourself from being physically bonded in the most intimate of acts, get up and go away for good, never speaking to a woman again. I’ll buy you coffee if you can come up with one, because I reckon it beats breaking up with someone by text or post-it note hands down.
Of course, I was heartbroken for a few months. Surely even our deep friendship over the course of a year was worth more than that?
Life goes on, as you know, and eventually I fell in love again, with someone who at least stayed in the same room during orgasm. In fact, fifteen years passed, and only once or twice in those fifteen years did I think to myself, huh, what the hell was that all about?

Cue reintroduction. My former paramour is now married to a gorgeous women by any standards and greets me like the old friends we should have been. I wonder how long it will be before he broaches The Incident.

In the meantime, we catch up and I share that I’m writing another book. He’s a bright man with an admirable mind and soon he’s offering to share his thoughts on chapters and even co-edit, enthusing about the excerpts he’s seen. In a way, for me, it’s the mental equivalent to consensual sex; I open up my chapters to him. To me, they are intimate and I am vulnerable about them. The act of publishing is a leap of faith and you are offering the inner workings of your mind to the general public, but before you are ready to make that leap, before you feel it is polished and you are 100% sure you’re ready, those words are personal and kept close.
Since we are in sharing mode, the past may be discussed, it seems. Apparently, I read it all wrong – there was no brutal end, only conflict of emotions intensely felt. So I’m told. I think, this is good. People change and grow and for that I’m grateful. I not only have a dear friend back, but I now have a collaborator. He’d like me to review and contribute to his own art too. Life can be grand, sometimes.

What comes along with it though, like a busted house borne on the tide of a tsunami of water, is a graphic, sexual proposition and I have the same kind of reaction that a prim and rigid Hugh Grant portrays in Notting Hill, namely, can I just say thank you for your more than kind offer, and leave it at that?
It’s not personal, but I don’t get involved with married men. Those were lessons hard learned along the way and I hope I’m wiser now, despite how tempting it might be to rekindle the passion.
There’s no cup of coffee this time for guessing what happens next – a complete shut down of communication and a silence of several weeks and counting.
Aha! An epiphany!
So, I do have to say thank you very much, Coitus man, for letting me know that there was no great San Andreas fault line in me, it was you all along. Because I do know I’m worth more than throwaway sex, for more than one reason, and it definitely isn’t me who is atrophied in the ability to communicate meaningfully. Moreover, there’s no heartbreak this time, just a nod to myself and a wry smile.

Conversely, a falling out a couple of years back with a friend led to a difficult silence, one I should have been reluctant to shut the door on. However, I felt that because many words had been exchanged, to no avail, that to escalate the situation into a war of them would serve no purpose. I closed the drawbridge and flooded the moat.
In a bid to feel creative and valued, when I had felt the opposite was true of our friendship, I used the time to write my first book, so something positive came from it. My phoenix rising from the ashes.
The wounds remained, as they will always do until you walk through the fire and get to the other side of it. Of all people I should know that, having taken those scorching steps more than once with my ex partners, in order to heal and move on. I should have communicated.
It was she who contacted me recently and generously started to build a bridge. I realised it was me who’d metaphorically walked away and left someone cold. Yes, even middle age is no absolute guarantee of not being a giant idiot, at least sometimes.

I’m lighting a candle. This time I’ll be more careful not to let it go out.

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Pink Sea Snails and White Elephants

A love of Art Deco, with its elegant logic and lush curves, was instilled in me subconsciously from the age of 6 years old when my father took me to see my first film. (Incidentally, Dr. Doolittle. They’d have you believe Rex Harrison was the star but top billing, for my money, went to the giant pink sea snail).

Rex, sidelined. Told you he wasn’t the star.

I was hardly to know then that The State Cinema would be, in 2012, a Grade II listed building, one of the few remaining 1930’s masterpiece picture palaces left in the country, but the grandeur of the sculpted lobby lights and sweeping staircase seeped into my DNA and would cause me to forever gaze upon symmetrical geometry as perfection of form and the epitome of splendour and grace in design. I am enthralled and entranced by it to this day – it makes me go weak at the knees.

The State Cinema. Also contains the finest cinema Wurlitzer organ in the country.

The bar in the lobby of The State. Fabulous symmetry.

Since then I’ve enjoyed far more spectacular examples; the Wiltern Theater, The Pantages, both in Los Angeles, and the Holy Grail, the Big Daddy of them all, Radio City Hall in New York.

The glorious Radio City Hall

My fellow travellers, otherwise known to some of you by the name Culture Club, were jazzed to be playing a prestigious venue. Me, I was wandering around the empty building during the sound check, reverentially touching the walls and exploring the fabled ladies powder rooms with joy in my heart.

Yes, I powdered my nose here. In the old fashioned sense before you ask. Respect for tradition.

Sadly The State in Grays, Essex now lives up to its name, having languished decaying for 10 years while developers argue about how, or even if, to make the 2000 seat auditorium a useful public space again. It is rudely crowded by the greenly garish Morrisons supermarket and most likely will receive less salvation than the mire of a town Grays has now descended into.
Nevertheless, I have a soft spot for any rare survivor of the era that may lay waiting to be discovered in the most unlikely places. Such a building is the Mecca Bingo Hall in Hornchurch. The old Towers Cinema screened its last Bond movie in 1973 (Live And Let Die) and was snapped up by Top Rank. Outside, they could dress the old lady in a spandex jumpsuit but her pearls still shone – if you looked hard for them.

The Towers, blighted by Mecca plastic.

I wondered if there was anything worth loving left of her on the interior and decided to chance my arm and blag my way in. Cunningly disguised as a bingo-winged granny I might fool the entry guard.
If Sunny was rolling her eyes I chose not to look.

The bleak aluminum double doors were locked tight and my door rattling was as effective as the frenzied ‘elevator button press’ we do in the vain hope it will arrive faster, so I did the shaded eye with hand motion and pressed myself up to the glass. I wanted to see if anything was recognisable in the once ornate lobby. A few plaster ceiling tiles suggested a past. The rest was obliterated by neon blinking slot machines and gaudy enticements for cheap food and cheap entertainment.
Sunny noticed that the entry guard had buzzed us in but my glee was short lived.

The rhythmically named Mr.(according to his tag) Abimbola Mporampora, as polite and well clad as he was in his sharp suit and tie, said we could go no further than the door unless we swiped a membership card.
“Oh,” I said, rather crestfallen, catching a tantalising glimpse of decorative grill work in the distance over his shoulder, “I only want to look at the building.”
“You want to look at the building?” He seemed confused, out of his range of standard patter for old ladies desperate to drop a fiver on a bingo card. “I think you need some kind of special permit or permission to do that.”
“I just want to see it for a minute.”
Sunny, bored, patently used to low levels of eccentricity from her mother, continued to consume half of a tuna and cucumber sandwich with nonchalance in his colourfully flashing lobby.
“You cannot go in without joining.” Mr. Mporampora  pointed out reasonably. Apparently, I couldn’t take ten further steps to look over the glassed in auditorium either. Rejecting a lengthy discursive on seeking out architectural bygones as a strategy to win over Mr. Mporampora, I had a sudden light bulb.
“What if…” I put it to him, “What if I want to look around because I am considering becoming a member?”
Jackpot. The correct combination of words.
“In that case,” he said, “I will be happy to let you look around.”
I felt it was only fair to allow him his sales pitch while I grabbed an eyeful of Deco that soared up to a gilded ceiling somewhere behind the digital read out boards that blared out numbers and the plastic booths that now sat in place of the original (probably red velvet) seating. Some of it lived and breathed behind the ugliness still.
I was slightly happy.

Mr. Abimbola Mporampora waved us off, his ears ringing with our promises to fill out membership forms online according to the leaflets we’d been supplied with, which advertised ‘Great Fun and Games’. I have the registration form in front of me now. Amongst many other considerations, it wishes to know if I am a member of other clubs (I fret upon what might exclude me for candidacy – being paid up annually to Hornchurch Fist Fuckers?) and also if I am a smoker, as though if I were to tick YES they would direct me to the smoking section of the building. Or not like me as much. Or get the mints ready as my approach were heralded. Who can tell.
Alas. The days one could puff away and be sheltered from the weather are vanquished, along with the faint flickering strains of ‘The Phantom Light‘ starring Binnie Hale, the first film ever to be shown at the Towers in 1935.

Binnie Hale, (still from The Phantom Light) justifiably horrified at what they’ve done to The Towers Cinema.

After that we walked on to Langtons House Park, hidden behind Sainsbury’s, un-signposted and hitherto unknown to myself, although Sunny had chanced upon it recently.

Langtons House, refurbished in 1797 in the late Georgian style.

A Georgian manor and grounds, gifted to the borough in 1929, it had been bought in 1797 for the Massu family, Huguenot silk merchants who added on to an earlier structure. The duck filled lake (there’s also Canadian geese and a family of giant terrapins) and beautiful surrounds were designed by the renowned landscape architect Humphrey Repton, although there are records of a house on the site from 1350, the name deriving from old English for ‘a long hill’.
None of which I found out in the grounds or in the house, I’ve researched it online (not on the official web site, mind).

We peered into the windows and saw rooms full of corporately arranged chairs. Then we realised there were people walking around inside and we might conceivably be some of them. We found a back door open, the front said No Entry. From the one leaflet, we gathered the local council hired out the venue for weddings, so we decided our cover story would be (getting used to this) a mother and daughter considering the house for a wedding venue.

The peach flocked hall and the forbidden staircase.

I approached the disinterested receptionist, who was seated behind a desk in the peach flocked hall. I noticed that the grand staircase ascended three flights and I dearly wanted to see the upstairs and what, if any, architectural features remained.
“May we look upstairs?”
“Look at what?” she snapped.
“Whatever there is,”
She went blank, as if nobody in a decade had expressed an interest in the building for its own sake.
“There’s nothing to see. It’s just old offices.You can look at the rooms downstairs if you want. That one has a handicapped bathroom.”
We did want, although it was not the most je ne sais quoi  I’ve ever encountered as far as sales pitches go.
Left to our own devices we snooped around, opening random cupboards and tutting over walled up great fireplaces. A back staircase, clearly for kitchen staff in old times, beckoned temptingly but we chickened out when Sunny thought she heard someone on it, higher up. Maybe it was the ghost of servants past.

The ‘blue room’ with hideous 80’s committee chairs

More horror in the chair department. Are they expecting sales reps?

Not set up for a wedding when we saw it, only the crime against chair styles in evidence, matching the worrying shade of the curtains

I snapped this indeterminate animal. He presides over wedding services in the great hall. From the look of him I assumed he was unhappy with the décor.

Attached to the house outside is an 18th century Orangerie. It is locked, but inside someone must regularly tend to the ‘exotic plants’ it has been furbished with ‘similar to what would have been inside originally’, according to the sole notice. To the east lies a small, unloved rose garden.

The unloved rose garden. More of a rose patch. Sunny gives it a cursory glance.

The Orangerie. Afternoon tea, anyone? No, sorry, it’s locked up forever.

My picture of the Orangerie from across the lake. Duck Island to the left. It appears to have no flag on it, suggesting I might claim it as Hay Territory at a future date.

All of it suggested a wholly under-utilised asset to my retail eyes; an uncelebrated historical building only superficially used for weddings, no corporate organisation, no tea room in the Orangerie to make optimum use of the kitchens and ancient walled gardens, no information available, no staff that gave a monkey’s toss that they inhabited such a wonder that was drowning in a sea of Eighties tat.
I hunted down the email of the head of the county council. Rather than moan and do nothing, I wrote to him asking if I could be so bold as to forward some ideas to maximise the potential of the jewel it could be.
I am currently taking bets on whether or not I get a reply. Go on, you can risk a fiver. If you lose, I’ll put it towards bread for the ducks.

The ducks and geese, who appreciate your bread. Feel free to donate any kind.

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Time Bandits

This week has left me pondering how pervasive and powerful one person’s fear can be. A would be butterfly on the West Coast of America gets their wings in a flap and a draft is felt in East London.

Friends we have built over decades of shared experiences we assume are solid and immutable. We tend to think that bonds forged over trauma endured or thousands of laughs and kindnesses exchanged are unshakeable – the rocks in our lives we can count on to be there no matter what. We think that because we have travelled through life’s most profound journeys with a person and emerged, survived together, no deed can unmake the past. What’s done is done and set in stone.
Therefore it is unsettling to suspect that, in fact, the past is fluid and unstable. Pull one thread and it unravels. Take for granted that understandings reached half a lifetime ago stand protected and sacrosanct and you will find they have to be renewed like a magazine subscription, fought for all over again with battles you imagined long ago won and buried.

I’m exasperated for two reasons.
Firstly because all the time spent building good will has been eroded, stained and stolen by the instant gratification of insecurity. Secondly, I’m disappointed with myself for falling prey to feeling cowed and self-conscious about a relationship I’ve always openly celebrated and been proud of. No matter how defiant I am regarding the principle that positive should always triumph over negative, the seed of doubt and fear of offence has crept in. It has sullied any joy and innocence in celebrating my own history, whomever may be a part of it, all for someone else’s perception, which I am now obligated to view through the warped prism of.                                                                                                                                               I can’t become unaware of it.

I’m reminded of Kevin in the film Time Bandits watching his parents approach the charred lump inside the oven. He yells, “Mum! Dad! Don’t touch it! It’s Evil!”
Of course they do and malignancy persists, spreads, infects everyone in contact with it, just as gossip, insults, fear and jealousy infect and mar a whole slew of people down the line from their origin.
Sides are taken, acrimony magnifies out of proportion. People shut themselves off instead of communicating with love and maturity.
Something good gets hidden away in the cupboard under the stairs, to be ignored and moulder, collecting dust. It’s as if you were suddenly informed that your Chiparus bronze was a deeply embarrassing wedding present of a Lladro figurine, allowed to be placed on the mantle in case of certain relatives visiting, then shuttled back into obscurity for the sake of diplomacy.

Someone said, peeved, “You love to stir shit. Why do you have to write about it?”
“Because I’m a writer. That’s what I do.”
“Yes, but you’re not a real writer.”

Maybe not. And friendship, loyalty and decades of love and truce are imaginary concepts we also fancy are real until a Time Bandit steals them away.

“Good one of Wally…” said Fidget, eyeing a Polaroid. At least that was one photo enjoyed for its own sake.

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Name And Shame

Without looking very hard one can find news articles on the parlous economic state of the British high street, from ‘mom and pop’ locally owned stores to huge retail conglomerates that comprise of the homogeneous chains we see ubiquitously in every town. Without exception they bleat about how they are suffering due to a financial ‘double dip’ recession. Bankruptcies and redundancies are a weekly occurrence, making it so much harder for those of us looking to fill positions in the industry to land jobs in an ever dwindling pool.
If you have a job, you hang on to it for dear life. Compounding the difficulties for job seekers are the myriad of laws in the UK making it all but impossible to fire those who are inept or lazy, perpetuating the closing windows of opportunity for those who might contribute more eagerly or add value to a company.

However, if cornered into being stuck with the workforce you already have, it baffles me as to why companies (in what is categorized as a service industry) too often score zero in the stakes of training and customer relations if they are fighting for their business lives.
I am in two minds whenever I read the latest bankruptcy roster. Half of me is dismayed that there will be another couple of hundred people going for rare positions. The other half of me feels that it serves them right for performing so badly.
It could sometimes be as simple as extending opening hours. I marvelled at a packed high street last week at 7pm when all the stores on it had closed at 5.30. All that potential footfall business going to absolute waste. Can they be that complacent?
Yes. Yes they can. But there are far more things on the list of easily addressed maladies, from rip-off prices and fake sale tactics to what is euphemistically termed nowadays as a ‘shopping experience’ – edging perilously close these days to a ‘dental experience’.
Paramount in customer perception, according to the recent WHICH poll, is bad customer service. It’s so endemic that all of us have our own stories about individual shops or chain brands.
I offer you some contrasting ‘experiences’, mostly from last week:

Costume shop inside a mall. We went in as it took our fancy that we might find something that would brighten the day of our favourite 5 year old.
The merchandise was badly organized and tightly packed. There were no sections for easy browsing such as children here, adults there. Everything was mashed into any old place. In the most likely areas I searched for a Spiderman suit. They had Superman and Batman, so I reasoned I could get lucky but despite wading through various cluttered wall racks I came up empty handed. I returned to the service counter, staffed by one bored girl who failed to acknowledge her potential customers when they crossed the threshold. Before I could complete a sentence, she answered the phone – a retail no-no when you have a live customer before you. I waited while she lugubriously interacted with the phone customer, necessitating several trips to the shop floor to answer simple questions with details she might have known had she been familiar with her merchandise. After all, she ‘lives’ there every day. It wasn’t beyond expectation that she might have seen some of the stuff before.
Eventually I asked her if she stocked what I was looking for. She shrugged, disinterested.
“Dunno, we got loads of stuff. I dunno everyfink we ‘ave. Go and look.”
I had looked. Perhaps she could check her stock on the system?
“Nah. It ain’t in the computer to look up.”
I said, “Thanks for nothing.” and walked out.
My daughter railed on me for being rude. She may be right. I might secretly relish being an embarrassing parent just a tiny bit. I must do, or I wouldn’t continually be one so disgracefully.
On the other hand, having run stores for many years, I have experience of training my staff to know every bit of stock they have at all times. Knowledge of what has been sold and which sizes are left. Keeping order to perfection of some 10,000 items. Being able to put their hand immediately to any single thing when requested, armed with all the information they might possibly be asked, from the complete ingredients of a perfume to where the wall paper was made. The art of actually selling, as opposed to sitting at a till waiting for people to bring you the product – or not. Giving a fuck. Being helpful and friendly. Treating customers like cherished friends instead of bloody nuisances. It most certainly can be done.

A few days later Sunny and I went into a local Blockbuster, having spied a bargain shelf with old stock. We are always on the lookout for old DVD’s that might yield an interesting movie, one that isn’t on the current list of generic releases. In a much larger retail space there was again just one sales associate. We browsed well stocked and tidy shelves. While doing so we remembered an old film we’d been on the hunt for and asked the young guy if it was in stock, perchance. He leaped to attention and said he was sure he had seen it on the shelf quite recently. Leading us to the correct section, he searched diligently himself but came up empty handed, admitting it may have been sold during his absence. Without being asked, he went to the system and searched for the item in other branches. Nope. Then he researched and offered to order it in at the lowest price of the version he could find.
When my daughter tried to buy one piece of candy, he did explain that it was actually sold by the bag…then told her she could have it for free, since she only wanted one piece. He could have forced her into paying for a bagful, if he felt imperious. Apparently he didn’t.
When we left, without making a purchase, he waved us off, smiling. I made a point of thanking him for his wonderful service.

The latest in Incidents My Daughter Chastises Me For happened recently in the local high street. We wandered into a clothing store just to look. I confess I was holding a (covered and sealed) drink but it was a blisteringly hot day – their door was wide open and I saw no sign forbidding food and drink. I wasn’t a four year old with a sticky hand of chocolate. This wasn’t Fortnums.
Having failed to greet us at all, the first response from a battleaxe of a woman sales assistant was to march up to me with indignation and order me out of the store for holding a drink. “There’s a sign!” she boomed. I looked around and still didn’t see one. Turned out there was a little hand written note in the corner of a door that was wedged open, making it all but invisible unless you were of a mind to scrutinize the glass diligently on the way past.
She stood resolute, blocking my path, with all the attitude of a teacher confronting a naughty child. I wanted to smack her in the face, actually. Instead, I laughed in it. Heartily.
I walked out. I could hear her mocking my laugh and flinging insults after me.
Daughter was mortified.
“Why couldn’t you just say OK? Why did you have to be rude like that? Now I won’t be able to go back in there!”
Because, the correct way to disarm a potential customer of food and drink is to politely and helpfully suggest you look after it while they are browsing. You offer. You don’t tell them off like they are four years old. You don’t alienate or lecture as a strategy to encourage custom. You assist.
I might have complied obediently or elucidated patiently and kindly but in my heart I knew it would be falling on deaf ears, so I did what instantly struck me as the best way to convey a mixture of stunned but well informed disbelief coupled with a soupçon of anarchy thrown in for flair. I laughed like a drain. Unsurprisingly, that too fell on deaf ears but I felt moderately better. Restrained, even.
Sunny, not having the advantage of several decades of social rebellion against narrow, small-town mindsets to draw upon, thinks I’m a complete git.

Then there’s Fortnum and Mason itself – a shining example of the gold standard of service. People who go out of their way to ask after you and be polite. Greet you respectfully. Personally escort you to what you seek. Do everything in their power to not only fulfil what is requested but better it with extra, thoughtful effort no matter how small a sum you spend. You bet I wrote to them and named every employee, without exception, who charmingly made me feel like a million dollars when I spent twenty. Absolutely they wrote back, thrilled and proud.
Contrast that with Liberty’s, where I roamed for 3 hours, a few years back, without being in the slightest bit engaged by a single person. They’re not doing well, I hear. I’m not sorry.

Lastly, here’s what to expect from one of retail’s giants, should you be foolhardy enough to chance their shopping experience, with apologies to my one friend who, I’m sure, runs his own branch flawlessly;
Having been encouraged by advertising campaigns which surely must run into the millions regarding budget, we looked online at Argos for a suitable toy for a 5 year old boy. Up came a list of the Top Ten most popular, out of which we chose number 3. Handily, we were offered the option to reserve it in our local branch and they’d even text us when it was in store. We went through a process to register and then reserve, avoiding the frequent pitfalls set up at every level to sneak in putting us on the spam list.
Having heard nothing back after a week on either one of the two phone numbers provided, we visited the store in person.
Come back to the service desk when you have browsed the catalogue and provided us with the stock number, we were told. They’d not heard of the toy.
Did that. No, we have no record of this item being reserved.
We reserved it in person. Still no notification several days later. Went in again. Nothing in the records of being reserved. Rebooked and visited two days later: Yes we have it. No wait, it’s not in stock.
Two days. Yes we have it in stock, there are two reserved, not in your name. 5 people around the computer attempting to access the right records without success. Leave empty handed.
Buy it the next day.
4 days later a text comes to say the item is in stock that we ordered.

I think we need to start a rebellion. Name and shame. Demand better. Participate in our expectations. Stop donating profit to companies who force us to pay them for the privilege of being treated shabbily. Go. Do.

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