Monday, 27 December 2010

A Secure Life Abroad 2 - Zambia

Zambia was my main overseas posting and I stayed there for 2 years. It was around 1973 which was the time when the battle for independence was in full swing in neighbouring Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). That did not bother me much as I was posted to the Zambian ‘city’ of Kitwe up on the Copper Belt and a long way from the border conflict. Or so I thought.

What I failed to grasp was that although the actual fighting was taking place in the south the fighters themselves had many reserve and base camps around Kitwe. This meant that not only did residents have to cope with the numerous local gangsters but also raw army recruits who had no money or food but plenty of assault rifles and grenades. Unfortunately it was not rare to see troops selling Kalashnikovs to the local bad guys for money and food thus increasing their dangerousness by 1000%

We looked after ourselves as best we could. Most houses had razor wire around their gardens, barred windows, alarms and fierce dogs. We had our fierce cat called Sooty which I told you about in an earlier story. At least he had hospitalised the next door Dobermans once which was a pretty good reference!

People also hired night security cards from a local company to patrol their perimeters until dawn. These guys were supposed to be there as protection and to scare off intruders but in actuality they spent most of the time asleep. Unlike the murderous guard I had in Ghana these people were mainly weak, hungry and very poor and, in some ways, I could understand why they were not willing to risk their lives for a bunch of wealthy Europeans. I used to recognise this so I paid mine extra, gave them food and said that all I wanted was for them to scream a warning before running. That and to stay awake and not smoke the local drug called Dagga.

The security company recognised the problem of guards sleeping on the job and they employed supervisors to cycle around the neighbourhood tinkling their bells and calling ‘guard’ until they got an answer. More often than not they used to get no reply so the volume kept on increasing until they were shrieking ‘GUARD! GUARD!’ at the top of their voices. By this time everybody in the house was awake…except the guard.

Our most regular guard was called Greatson. He was a little better than the rest so I ended up pampering him quite a lot. It got to the point that I would play his favourite ABBA record every night. He used to lean back on his patio guard chair until his head half entered the lounge window and join in with a baritone drone. I also gave him a case load of my dad’s old clothes and told him to help himself.
Unfortunately the better I treated him the more complacent he got and the less reliable. Things came to a head when he turned up one evening drunk and dressed in an old silk smoking jacket/dressing gown which he had found in the case of cloths. He flopped in his chair looking like Noel Coward on a bad day and started singing Chiqitita from ABBA’s greatest hits. I went to bed in disgust.

About 2 in the morning I was woken from an uneasy sleep. As I regained consciousness I started to hear tinkling of bells, loud shouts of GUARD, GUARD and the loudest snoring possible. Clearly Greatson was out cold and his employer had lost patience. The next thing I knew a stone crashed through the bedroom window. It had come from the security supervisor and been aimed at Greatson but missed him by yards.

‘That’s it’ I cried and stormed outside to confront Noel Greatson Coward who was tucked up in his dressing gown smiling angelically in his sleep. I shook him again and again with no success. He is not going to beat me I thought. This man is going to wake up the hard way I thought and I picked him up. I held him for a moment in my arms and was about to drop him on the patio when he started nuzzling his head up against my neck still with that daft smile on his face.

No, I decided, the patio is too good for you my friend, and I carried him around to the swimming pool. It was well illuminated by the security lights and I lurched to the edge of the deep end. I dropped him. Well actually not dropped, more stumbled. We both went over and crashed into the water. Greatson woke up when he was about 3 feet under. His eyes dilated and his mouth opened discharging a large bubble of water. My face which was about 2 inches from his was being held in a panicked and vice like grip.

With a little bit of help we finally managed to get out. We looked sorry figures. Him in his soggy smoking jacket and me in my now transparent pyjamas. Greatson kept saying he had not been sleeping. ‘I was resting my eyes Bwana’ he said. Yes, and ears and senses I thought. His supervisor who had managed to climb over the garden gate to help pull us out started hitting him over the head with a stick and it took 10 minutes to throw them both out.

I heard they had sacked Greatson and I was very sorry. After all he had only let us down once and I felt responsible for him being thrown back on the streets. A couple of weeks later I went a nearby friend’s house for dinner. It was a great evening and we sat in his lounge drinking brandy and listening to the African night sounds. Suddenly I could hear some faint deep singing from around the corner. Someone was singing ‘Super Trooper’ by ABBA. I peeped around the corner and yes, it was Greatson reclining in his new security guard uniform and smoking something suspicious!

Thursday, 16 December 2010

A Secure Life Abroad 1

Having been born and raised in foreign parts I had no qualms about working and living abroad when I became an adult. After all, what could possibly happen to a strong and smart young man? I was invulnerable wasn’t I? And I knew exactly what to expect. Didn’t I? Err…no I am afraid not. I got mugged twice by the same person, shot at and even seduced (allegedly) by a Zambian ‘Mata Hari’. I had a suspected revolutionary in the office and a pet maniac in my garden.

It all started when I got a job working for an airline called British Caledonian. They retained a pool of individuals whose job was to travel around the world taking over from overseas managers when they took their annual leave. This meant I ended up travelling from one place to another spending four weeks in each location which was great work for a single young man.

My first trip was to Accra in Ghana. It was a jolly nice stable place I was told and so it seemed. The local folk were very nice and very efficient. I was granted temporary membership to the sailing club, polo club, rugby club and various private drinking establishments so I felt pretty smug.

The only problem was my night watchman. He was a one-eyed giant of a man in long white robes and he took his job very seriously indeed. I nicknamed him Cyclops which suited him well. I mischievously told him my name was Mr Heracles so we seemed to fit together quite well! Only trouble was that I began to wonder whether I was his employer or his prey.

He would arrive in the evening with a large sack containing the tools of his trade. These consisted of stones (specially selected to fly further) knives (yes plural) and a range of clubs. His two spears he left in the garage for safe keeping. On arrival he would slink around the garden hiding his weapons under bushes so that he was never 2 metres from anything sharp or lethal. You only had to look at his eyes to see he longed to use them and I even saw him once leave the garden gate open as bait for opportunist thieves.

The trouble was he used to consider himself my personal bodyguard. He literally shadowed me and when I looked out of any window his form brandishing a spear would rear up from the undergrowth in front of me. If I went in the garden he would ghost around about five paces behind me and occasionally flatten himself against the wall. ‘Mr Heracles, I think I see something’ he said.’Rubbish Cyclops’ I would say but it did not stop him leaping forward spear raised.

It really is unnerving to be watched that closely. I would brush my teeth at night to see him in the mirror with his nose flattened against the window. He would not allow me to get into bed without him checking under the bed and in the wardrobe. I finally had enough when he held two of my dinner guests at spear point until I vouched for their good intent.

Then one day the army arrived. There was apparently a coup against the then president Kwame Nkrumah and the army was securing their position. This included digging a large circular machine gun trench in the middle of the garden. The hole was dug out, surrounded by sandbags and occupied by two armed soldiers and an enormous antique looking Bren gun.

Imagine what this did to Cyclops when he arrived for his night shift. First he was startled, then he was enraged and finally a tight lipped grimace of anticipation spread over his face. ‘Oh, new toys’ I could imagine him thinking as he started walking around this new ‘flower bed’ while two nervous faces looked out.

I went to bed around about eleven after saying goodnight to Cyclops in the bathroom mirror and slept like a baby. After all, what could go wrong with two soldiers and Cyclops to protect me? However, when I woke up there was only Cyclops and an abandoned machine gun nest . What have you done with them I demanded to know but he just squinted devilishly at me through his one eye.

I received a visit from the military later that morning. The guards had endured Cyclops for only around 3 hours before they fled. It had been something like the Blair Witch project with strange sounds, shadows and rasping breath from every direction. The clincher was when ‘somebody’ had thrown a snake in there with them. The trench was never occupied again. Cyclops was bereft. Who had stolen his toys he seemed to ask.

Night guards can sometimes be nearly as problematic as the people they are supposed to save you from. The police can often be worse as my sequel will tell.

My life in Toilets - Part 2

Not only did I risk a criminal record and incarceration in Australia as a result of a pressing need to relieve myself but I have also found such a simple function nearly disastrous elsewhere too.

A prime example was when I travelled to the north of England to meet my future wife’s family for the first time. I knew it was going to be difficult anyway because they viewed anybody born south of Sheffield with acute suspicion and prejudice. I, having not even been born in the UK let alone Yorkshire was not considered human by them let alone suitable marriage material for their daughter.

I had to make a good impression so I rehearsed the things I would say and the complements I would pay to her mother. We arranged to make our arrival gradual by stopping off first at her sister in Malvern so she could phone ahead and say how nice I was. Or that was the plan anyway.

We arrived in Malvern to a warm welcome which immediately put me at my ease. However, shortly after arriving I felt the need to pay a visit to the smallest room in the house. They had kids and their main toilet was full of their stuff so I was led to the newly decorated en-suite bedroom and invited to use that one and, having paid the right complements about the decor and carpeting I settled down.

How can I explain this? It was a ‘big’ visit is all I will say. Having finished I pulled the flush and went to the basin to wash my hands. Suddenly in the mirror I saw water. The toilet had blocked. There was water and everything else pouring onto the carpet.

How do you go to someone you have just met and explain that you have made their toilet overflow? Well I had to and mine host spent the next hour or so with a coat. hanger, mop and rubber gloves clearing things up. The news had spread by the time we reached Judith’s parents and I saw the look of fear on their faces when I asked where their toilet was. Relations deteriorated even further during our short stay.

You get toilets in all shapes and sizes as you travel around the world on business and many are strange indeed. Like the rotating, self cleaning seat in Athens and the Tokyo Karaoke bar whose loo had cowboy saloon type doors so anybody walking by could see all of you sitting there apart from your groin area. Made it hard to concentrate especially when having a wipe!

Then there are those hotel toilets they insist on placing directly behind the door. I came back to my hotel from a late dinner in Paris not that long ago and went straight into such a bathroom. I hung my jacket on the hook behind the door and, after my bath went to bed. On opening the door the next morning I found my jacket had fallen off the shallow knob on the door and dropped into the open toilet. My first thought was 'had I pulled the handle before going to bed'. Thankfully I had and after 45 minutes with the hotel hair dryer I made my meeting although I did get some very funny looks.

I got some even stranger looks a few weeks later. I had got a job with the AA and was meeting a new and very formidable senior director at their Bristol regional headquarters. He was an ex military man and liked everything in its place including more junior visitors. On arrival some of my colleagues arranged a buffet lunch for me which was very kind. We loaded our plates from the table and sat on chairs to eat from our laps. Unbeknown to me a portion of butter was stuck to the bottom of my plate and had transferred in a greasy mess to my trousers.

Oh no I thought. What am I going to do? 10 minutes away from meeting someone even fiercer than my mother-in-law and my trousers were a mess. I shot into the nearby gentlemen’s toilet, soaked my handkerchief in scalding soapy water and rubbed the stain as hard as I could. It mainly spread the problem but then worse was going to come. There were no linen or paper towels but I needed to get it dry.

All they had was a wall mounted warm air hand dryer. I could not take my trousers off in such a public place so I tried to think of another solution. I found out that if I put my dry leg over the top of the dryer, an elbow on the sink next to it and a hand gripping a sink tap I could raise my body off the ground and dangle the wet trouser leg under the dryer. I was in the process of adopting this position when the door opened.

A very distinguished man walked in. he stopped mid stride, his jaw dropped and he muttered ‘what the hell?’ before turning on his heel and walking out. When I finished I went to the regional director’s office and met the great man. I had met him a few minutes earlier. He was the man who quite literally had nearly caught me with my pants down!

My Life in Toilets – Part 1

Yes I know…a strange title but stay with me.
In the process of writing these blog ‘memoires' I started to realise how often the word toilet was coming up. This sounds odd to me too but I began to realise that toilets had played an important (albeit traumatic) part in my career over the years.

Some of you who may have read my rambling will remember how I fought an Australian in a Sydney W.C. and a large female attendant in a toilet next to the Paris perimeter motorway but these are just small skirmishes in my war with public conveniences of the world. I have fought with and in toilets across all continents and I feel I owe it to posterity to clear my conscience now as I lurch towards my twilight years. After all, how many people can say they have lost business, ruined relationships and been arrested whilst simply trying to relieve myself.

My most disastrous first memory was when I got arrested for indecent exposure in Perth, Western Australia. It was an awful misunderstanding. I had flown to the other side of the world to visit my then girlfriend who had been ‘forced’ to emigrate with her parents a few weeks previously. I travelled on airline staff tickets and it took me two sleepless days to make the journey. I found her address which was in the suburbs of the city and presented myself on her doorstep unannounced. Her new boyfriend answered the door!

What has this terrible tale of a jetlagged and broken heart got to do with toilets? That came later when she, her new boyfriend and her parents felt obliged to take me along to a dinner dance they were about to leave for. I was clearly as welcome as haemarrhoids .We sat at a big table with huge flagons of cold Swan Lager in the middle and I sat and watched the lovely Sue dancing with her new love so closely that you could not squeeze a cigarette paper between them.

There was nothing for it so I turned to drink. After consuming one flagon by myself I felt the most excruciating need to relieve myself so I stood up and made my way unsteadily across to the corner of the room where the toilets were. It was all a blur to me but apparently I first went into the ladies and got ejected. I went through another door which said ‘MEN’ and there was a further plain door on the left going into the toilet itself and another on the right that provided access to another entertainment room.

By this stage I really feared I was not going to make it in time so I started unzipping and preparing as I walked. I was out and ready as I turned right and fell into the other function room where they were celebrating a golden wedding. There was uproar. One of the people there was an off duty police officer and he immediately pinned me to the wall, read me my rights and arrested me for indecent exposure.

He phoned for back-up and a car and marched me out onto the pub forecourt whilst I continued trying to pull up my zip. The zip got caught (some of my male readers may understand the pain) which made things even worse. To cap it all they would not let me go back in so I had to pee against the wall which added another charge to my sheet.

My lovely ex and her family knew nothing of this until they got a call from the police station and an order to come and collect me. By this time I had been able to explain my jet lag, tiredness and misery and they took pity on me after having a good laugh at my expense. Needless to say I was disowned by my reluctant hosts who drove me to Perth Airport where I spent the night in the departures hall.

Whenever I go back to Australia I always wonder if one day I will stand at the immigration desk and this arrest with reason will flash up on the screen. So far so good but there is more to come in ‘Toilets 2’ the sequel!

Pets Abroad 2 – Carnage in Kitwe

You may remember I told you about our Kent farm cat Sooty (he was black) and how we took him with us when we got posted to Kitwe in Zambia. I explained how this small dinky looking fiend incarnate made himself quickly at home by terrorising our house staff and laying waste to the neighbourhood. In the next few paragraphs I will tell you more of his antics and how he became known within the community as ‘Madam’s Devil Cat’.

I preffered ‘devil cat’ to our house servants name for him which was ‘Madam’s pussy’. It started to get embarrassing as Silas would frequently burst into the lounge in front of guests and say “I cannot find Madam’s pussy” which raised many a guffaw. “I last saw it in Madam’s bedroom” he would continue.

Silas and I had a number of issues about who he should call what. For instance he would insist on calling me Bwana which made me feel like some kind of ancient white hunter. I frequently had conversations with him about it which went something like this:

Silas I cannot find Madam’s pussy Bwana.
Me. How many times have I told you? Stop calling me Bwana.
Silas. Ya Bwana
Me. I want you to call me sir.
Silas. Ya Bwana sir.
Me. No! Not Bwana sir. Just sir.
Do you understand?
Silas. Ya Bwana!
Me. Give me strength.

After a couple of weeks Sooty was beginning to feel at home. Despite being black and furry he seemed completely oblivious to the incredible heat although he did start to pant like a dog. He set about establishing himself as the top cat in the neighbourhood and rarely a day went past without hearing the sound of yowling, spitting and barking as he wreaked his havoc. He further amused himself by ambushing our gardener Patrick by lying on top of the garden archways and hurling himself on Patrick’s head as he walked underneath. The poor man would then run around the garden shrieking until Sooty stopped chewing and jumped off.

Another problem Sooty caused involved venomous snakes. I remember he found one in the garden where it had nested under the pool pump cover. He used to kill them but sometimes, as in this case, he wanted to show off by bringing it in and dropping the live and angry serpent on the lounge rug. Everybody jumped up onto the furniture as the thing thrashed around while Sooty sat a safe distance away licking his bottom and grooming himself in general.

The uproar brought Silas in. “Oh Bwana” he cried. Before I could say ‘don’t call me Bwana’ he was out the door. He returned a few seconds later with Patrick’s machete and chopped its head off. We had to live with a stained rug with a four inch cut through it for the rest of our stay

When he was not eating creatures such as insects, spiders, geckos, snakes (he always left the head) and other such things he insisted on Whiskas tinned cat food which we brought in on our trips back from holidays in England. It created great interest at customs. The officials saw the pictures on the tin and became convinced that it was tinned cat. “What does cat taste like they asked? I had trouble getting through to them that it was tuna jelly meat Whiskas for cats not of cat but with little success. In order to get it through customs I had to leave a few tins for them. They told me afterwards that cat tasted delicious and quite a bit like fish!

We only actually lost Sooty once. I reminded Silas of our agreement which was effectively ‘no cat equals no job’ for him and the neighbourhood was mobilised. Things looked bleak and we became resigned to the likelihood that Sooty was probably in some cooking pot or had fallen prey to one of the local guard dogs who harboured a grudge against him.

Suddenly we heard some ghostly wailing and an urgent cry of “Bwana, Bwana I have found Madam’s pussy!” We ran around the side of the house to find Silas leaping up and down pointing to a large diameter storm drainpipe where the yowling was coming from. Sooty was stuck in the ‘U’ bend. We had to tear the pipe off the wall to get to him. When it was horizontal a large lizard shot out with Sooty in hot pursuit. It ran up the wall and so did Sooty and the lizard was no more. He ran up the slope of the roof with the lizard’s tail hanging out the side of his mouth and on reaching the peak evacuated his bowels in shock.

In all the years we had Sooty it was his one and only showing of fear. Unfortunately it was one to remember as, for the next six months the pyramid of excrement stayed there until the monsoons washed it away. Despite everything he was a lovely cat and one you could definitely call a ‘character’, although many in Zambia did not share my admiration for the ‘Devil Cat’.

Pets Abroad 1

The British do not like to be separated from their pets and you might be surprised if you knew just how many of us tuck our little Fidos and Felixes in wooden boxes and take them with us if we get posted to foreign lands. I was no exception and, when we were posted to Zambia my wife gave me a non negotiable ultimatum. “Either me AND the cat or you go on your own”. The decision was made and Judith, me and a small bundle of furry hell prepared for our big adventure.

Sooty was his name and he was mad. We bought him from a farmer in Kent and he was clearly half feral(the cat that is not the farmer). He made his mark on the way home from collecting him when he broke out of his transportation box and ran amok in the car whilst I was trying to navigate through heavy traffic. Anybody nearby would have seen flailing arms and flashes of fur as we tried to catch him until finally he jumped on my head, stuck all four sets of claws in my scalp and refused to move. I had to drive to the nearest pet shop looking like Davy Crocket in order to buy a ‘Sooty proof’ wicker box. The guy behind the counter barely kept a straight face as he helped peel the spitting cat off me.

I went out ahead of Judith and Sooty to ensure everything in the house and garden was ready for their arrival. Having located our new house which was in the north of the country on the outskirts of the Copper belt town of Kitwe I started to prepare. The house had a servant called Silas and a gardener called Patrick. Silas was a giant of a man with a nasty bottle scar across his face. I took him aside and told him the raw facts of life

I explained that Madame was bringing her cat. I then told him he had two choices. He could protect little Sooty and make sure he did not end up maimed, poisoned or eaten and, in return he would be the best fed, best paid house servant in Kitwe. Alternatively he could let something happen to Madame’s cat and become instantly out of work.

He took the point so well that I started getting complaints. Apparently Silas, supported by Patrick had been touring the area beating all the other house servants to a pulp and explaining that if anything ever happened to ‘Madame’s pussy’ he would be back to finish the job. Not quite what I had in mind but very effective. Not only did Sooty remain undamaged and uneaten but, if he disappeared for the shortest of time the neighbourhood would echo to the sound of searching servants calling ‘here pussy pussy’.

Zambia Airways lost Sooty. Unfortunately they found him again in his box on the tarmac next to some pallets destined for Abu Dhabi. Apparently someone tried to stroke him by poking a finger through the bars only to have it shredded. So, off he went and finally arrived with us after two flights and a 24 hour delay. He was not happy and resorted to tormenting Silas by leaping on his head and tangling his claws into the curly hair. Our bar-room brawling giant was absolutely terrified and remained so for the two years we were there.

The average life expectancy of an English cat in the snake infested, hungry and wild area we were living in could be measured in weeks. Clearly they had not seen a cat like Sooty before. He laid waste to a wide area around the house, neighbouring gardens and the surrounding scrubland. After a couple of weeks there was nothing left to crawl or slither around the place.

He got bored and started new games like taunting the next door Doberman guard dogs. He would sit on an overhanging tree branch just high enough that the dogs could not quite reach him. They tried and tried until finally Sooty lowered himself a little further. The dogs never knew what hit them. As their slavering jaws strained upwards he simply raised his paw and slashed his claws across their noses. The neighbour presented me with the vet’s bill and had to admit that our three kilo cat had hospitalised his two guard dogs that both needed stitches. We did not speak much after that.

Sooty had loads of adventures in Zambia before we returned with him to the UK. He got stuck in drains, choked on a preying mantis; fell into the pool and everything in between. I will describe some of the mayhem he caused in another episode! Finally we had to get him out in a hurry because of a spreading outbreak of rabies and he ended up with his own seat on a light aircraft out of the country. Only the best for Madame’s cat!

He died a few years later at our home in Hampshire. The vet said it was feline leukaemia. I reckon it was more likely to have been boredom. He had a great life as his passport will testify!

As I said at the very beginning the British are mainly very attached to their pets but that can equally be said of a German I met in Zambia. He had bought a local German Shepherd as a guard dog and fell in love with it. He went on leave back to Germany and returned with a young and very attractive bride. Unfortunately the dog did not think so.

Every morning he would set off to work and his wife would have to lock herself in the house as the dog would try and set about her as soon as the car was around the corner. When he came home again the dog would be sweetness personified and go to her to be stroked. This went on for over a week until one day the dog got in to the house and bit the poor girl quite badly. Enough was enough and she gave him an ultimatum. It was her or the dog. He thought for the briefest moment and she caught the next flight to Germany

Corporate entertaining 1 - A few painful lessons learned

Now the whole thing about entertaining or being entertained is one networks, enjoys oneself, meets people and forms relationships beyond pure negotiation. If you are lucky you get all these things each and every time. If you are gaffe prone like me you can get into all sorts of trouble as I will explain by way of a few examples.

Hosting Golf:
My company used to invite its key clients to a golf day at one of the main prestigious courses every year. I got to front them as nobody else on the board played. The last one I hosted was at Moore Park in Hertfordshire and we spared no expense in making sure it went well. The trouble was that everything seemed to conspire to go wrong.

It was just one of those days. It started when the Chief Exec of one of our top clients got locked in the ancient toilet cubicles in the old manor house. It turns out he suffered horribly from claustrophobia and he went berserk in the tiny cubicle unable to climb out (he was large) and was finally rescued when we kicked in the door. He went straight home.

We had arranged for a chap to do our clubhouse scoring for us. He had a lot of kit including computers and TV monitors that he somehow managed to jamb into a small hatchback. We did not want him to disturb our guest so we told him to go behind the manor and reverse up to the sweeping outside staircase so that we could discretely unload through the French windows of our allocated room. I idly watched as he arrived and started reversing, and reversing, and reversing.

He must stop I thought otherwise he would back into the huge old and rare urn planter that was standing on a tall concrete plinth at the side of the staircase. But no. It all seemed to happen in slow motion as first the crunch and second the sight of the ancient urn fragmenting as it went through his back window and then his monitors. Horrendous and very expensive to put right.

Finally the guests all arrived and a good day’s golf was enjoyed by all. Well perhaps not everybody. One team of guests fell out badly with each other because of alleged cheating and another got bitten by the only venomous snake in the British Isles. Oh and one broke his buggy and another fell down a small ravine. Not bad really considering everything.

After the golf we all sat down to dinner. My board colleagues turned up including my own chief executive. He had never played golf and clearly was not a fan. He was most put out when he saw the table plan and wanted to know why he did not have all the most senior people at his table. I tried to explain that after golf guests always sit with the team members they played with but to no avail. He clearly felt slighted especially as the only subject talked about at his table was golf.

At the end of the dinner it was his turn to take centre stage and address the guests. I had been announcing the winners and prizes and it was all very relaxed and jolly. My final task was to introduce a more and more impatient CEO. Let’s keep it relaxed and fun I thought so I said “I would like to introduce my CEO who some people describe as like a lighthouse in the desert. Brilliant, but absolutely useless”. Much chuckling took place and the great man spoke

The event finished and goodbyes were spoken. Everybody said they had a good time (including the wounded) and two chaps told me that one of the reasons they use us is the approachability of our directors and the way we could ‘have fun’ together.

I was pretty pleased with things and thought quite fondly of the last remark until my mobile phone rang as I drove home. It was my CEO. He said that if I ever humiliated him like that again my days in the company were numbered!

What did I learn? Apart from checking toilets, avoiding urns and maybe having a medic around I guess the main thing was never to expect your boss to automatically have a sense of humour similar to yours!

Beware the bearded Scotsman – SPA Dinners

In my long and varied travel career I have been fortunate and unfortunate enough to have attended many an industry dinner. Some have been smug, self congratulatory affairs; others thinly veiled sales promotion and others downright boring. There have been times of the year when I think if I see another lamb chop I will start baah-ing and others when there is so much salmon around I fear an outbreak of spawning.

But there is one annual event that stands out in the crowd. Surprisingly so as it never changes its format, menu or entertainment yet it has not once failed to deliver a surprise. I am of course talking about the Scottish Passenger Agents Annual Dinner which takes place close to Burns night in Glasgow every year. If you ever want to experience a mixture of Scottishness, comedy, eccentricity and life in the raw this is the place to be.

If I was a blackmailer this particular evening would be a must to attend because never do you see so many prominent industry names let their guards slip anywhere else. In fact all one would have had to do is position oneself outside the lifts of the 10th floor (where the ‘hospitality’ rooms where) of the Albany Hotel and watch the great and the good fall in and out. It was at this very place that I experience the ‘Bearded Scotsman’ of my title but more of that later.

The invitations and allocation of tickets come out a few weeks in advance and it is here that you get your first inkling of how the association or your Scottish regional staff view you. Between them they decide who outside Scotland is to be invited, where you are going to sit and what hospitality you are to be offered by the sponsoring suppliers. It can be quite informative. For example when I first attended the dinner I was placed somewhere like seat 36 in row Z where the top table was like a tiny peck in the corner of one’s vision and the food was blood temperature by the time it got to you. Strangely I got invitations to all the hospitality so somebody clearly wanted me to get drunk. In some cases the invitations were photocopies which highlighted the afterthought or counterfeit of their availability

As I said earlier the format never changed. One would fly into Glasgow airport the afternoon of the event along with all the other Sassenachs where there would be a bizarre dance around the taxi rank as people tried to secure or avoid shared taxis with each other. Arrival at the then Albany Hotel would be equally fascinating as people jockeyed for position at check-in whilst hailing friends and associates across an already crowded bar. It was also here that you would have your first encounter with various supplier sales reps that saw it as the best opportunity to make friends with you as, once in the queue you could not really escape.

Once in you room (which again highlighted your status or lack of it) you changed into your dinner jacket, sorted out your invitations and observed the complimentary mouth freshener, Alka-Seltzer and miniature whiskey on your bed and prepared for the onslaught. My preparation included a ham sandwich, glass of milk and two aspirins in anticipation of their need. Then it was into the fray!

Arriving back at the ground floor was like walking into a vast bear pit. By this time the place was packed and many looked and behaved like it was the end rather than the beginning of a long and boozy evening. The noise level is immense as people jostled for drinks, introductions and access to the various sponsored rooms. It is the only event I remember where the sponsors had to provide bouncers to keep uninvited customers out. Even at this stage one could not be but impressed by the hotel management and staff who somehow managed to control this seething mass of black and tartan that seemed to be everywhere they should, and should not, be. Their ability to turn out so many drinks so quickly to so many guests is also a testament to their skills and desire to avoid abuse.

The first moment of crisis arrives. Somehow they have to get these hundreds of partying folk into the vast banqueting hall ready for dinner. It is not easy. They do it in a way similar to airports. It starts by making a statement that dinner is served and they do this 15/20 minutes before. They then go through the repertoire of second call, final call, ‘gate closing’ and finally the threats start and the team reminiscent of Tokyo train pushers move in. Eventually the vast herd is in, the doors shut and the next phase of getting everybody to sit down and shut up starts.

It is then that you look around to see who you are going to spend the next few hours with. And I do mean hours as this has to be the longest dinner in the travel calendar involving mainly interesting and funny speeches…but not always. All the time the tables are plied with sponsored drink and pre-ordered bottles of wine. Your table guests are a mixed bunch as you were not then allowed to choose them yourself. Sometimes this was good and others catastrophic.

I soon discovered that as ones status increased and the move up the table plan starts the quality of the guests and the evening diminished rather than increased. But not always as there were always ways to make your own entertainment during any boring bits. I remember one particular occasion when the guy opposite me fell asleep during the speeches. As time progressed his eyes closed, his head started falling back and his mouth opened like a stranded fish. The snoring then began and the rest of us collapsed in giggles like a bunch of school kids. In the end we devised an impromptu game which involved throwing peas scavanged from our main course at his gaping mouth until one made him choke and he woke up.He then glared at us saying he could not hear the speeches for our giggling.

The food was always great. They had a brilliant chef who somehow turned out hot and tasty food for the massed ranks of guests and he never failed at any of the dinners I attended. I was always a little worried as his name was something like ‘Bogey’(sp) which I have to admit put me off eating any desert with currants in ‘just in case’.

After the dinner the pipes started up again which heralded the beginning of the serious drinking on the infamous 10th floor. Just time to check my invitations, swig down another couple of Aspirins and up in the lift I went to meet whatever fate was going to dish out on this occasion. Like everywhere else the place was a seething mass of humanity with guests, hosts, bouncers and barmen all vying to make themselves heard. Being hard of hearing I just grinned inanely at everyone and it seemed to work.

The rest was just a blur until my meeting with the bearded Scotsman. I had just slunk off from bumping into one of my first bosses. He was a very proper, well spoken chap (Jeremy Dixon, BCAL)  who marched up to me and said “Ah Platt isn’t it”? I replied in the affirmative and he gave me a withering look. “You’re MD of Hogg Robinson now aren’t you”. Again I answered in the affirmative. "Good God” he uttered “None of us thought you would get anywhere” he said and stalked off. Time for bed my bruised mind and ego told me, especially as my flight was due to leave Glasgow in four hours time.

It was three in the morning and the evening had started at five the previous evening and I was not in my full flush of health and strength. Is it time for another Asprin I thought as I walked towards the 10th floor lift. Before me a door crashed open and the biggest ginger bearded man in a kilt fell out. He made that big guy in the ‘Brave heart’ film look like a midget. He stood there and I cowered dwarfed before him. He then collapsed on me and passed out.

A wrestler could not have done it better. I was pinned flat underneath him and could not move. My lungs were squashed under his bulk and I could barely breathe let alone cry for help. I then lay there for what felt like hours but was probably minutes. During this time people stepped over us to go to the lift like it was the normal thing to encounter in a Glasgow hotel corridor. Eventually the bouncer from the British Midland lounge took pity on me and managed to drag the giant off me. Unfortunately not before ‘Brave heart’ was sick.

I missed my morning flight and got chucked out of my room at midday with a bruised face and sore ego. I was sitting on the plane going home when I noticed something. It was a long, curly ginger hair on my handkerchief. A fine memento of a pretty typical SPAA Dinner. How the hell did it get there I mused!

Brushes with the rich and famous – Frank Sinatra

Ok, so this one will be brief, but so was my brush with the great man. Well actually it was not so much a brush than an assault!

It was in Buenos Aires and just before the Falklands war. I had been sent over to meet our folk and say all the ‘right things’ one says just before war is declared between countries.

I sat in the taxi thinking of Churchillian like things to say before deciding that might not be a good idea as our local staff were all Argentinean except for the country manager who was Welsh (same thing really!). It was rather surreal as I was driven down the main streets of Buenos Aires which all seemed to be named after Irishmen including the Avenida O’Higgins. And even more surreal when I saw a cinema showing ‘Chariots of Fire' with subtitles which had queues of locals waiting to go in. Maybe they were looking for tips on how to defeat the imperialist oppressors?

On arriving at the Sheraton Buenos Aires I wondered what the hell was going on. The entire place was totally packed with over-excited, mainly female, Argentineans Who shrieked and whooped in a way I have not heard since. I elbowed my way through the swaying crowd and checked in. I asked the guy at the desk what was going on and he said “have a nice stay Mr Platt” He clearly did not understand so I asked again in the British way (loudly and slowly in English) and he smiled sweetly in feigned understanding and said “have a nice stay Mr Platt”.

It was all getting too much after such a long flight so I grabbed my key and fought my way to the lift. It fairly throbbed around that area so I lowered my shoulder and fought my way through. It was worse than playing hooker for East Grinstead third rugby team. Finally I saw a lift with the doors closing and I dived through the gap at the last minute.

The lift started almost simultaneously and I felt myself being grabbed. There were three others there. Two were enormous thug like creatures and the third was Frank Sinatra. The next movements happened in a seamless blur. First I was lifted off my feet by ‘thug one’, secondly ‘thug two’ frisked me and thirdly Frank (I like to think we were on first name terms by then) pressed the button of the next floor. Lift door opened, I was propelled out and against the hall wall with my feet still not touching ground and immediately the door shut. Welcome to Argentina I thought.

I got up without part of my shirt and a large chunk of dignity and got the next elevator too my room. To be 'frank' I was bloody annoyed so I rang and asked for the General Manager. “Have a nice stay” the operator started to say until I stopped him with certain words that need no introduction anywhere in the world. He said he would phone Frank Sinatra’s personal assistant and report back.

How did it end? Nothing until the next morning. I got up and saw that under the door had been posted two items. First was the local English written newspaper saying Sinatra was in town. The second was a clearly printed mass produced photograph of the great man with the word “sincerely Frank Sinatra”. Sincerely I thought? Was he sincerely sorry or was he sincere about chucking me out of his lift?
I guess I will never know now but I have my suspicions!

Brushes with the rich and famous – Michael O’Leary

What a man Michael O’Leary is. Mind you I cannot make up my mind whether he should have been more appropriately named Michael O’Loony or perhaps Michael O’Lucky. Then I decided the word luck does not really feature in either his profile or vocabulary so that one can be quickly discounted. This leaves us with the loony possibility and I think this option needs more careful thought.

When you see Michael you can almost be tempted to wonder what all the fuss is about. He does not particularly stand out in the crowd and is very often disarmingly charming in his soft Irish accented way. When I saw him I wondered if he was really the beast of Ryanair and the airline reincarnation of Rasputin the mad monk of Imperial Russian that I had heard about.

We were both invited to speak to a group of city analysts at a day conference sponsored by one of the large investment houses and it was his turn to go first. We had sat through some pretty dry stuff delivered by well meaning but character challenged airline CEOs which were received in a rather stony and impolite fashion by the audience. This audience was pretty typical of most city analyst groups i.e. average age 25, average experience 1 year, average IQ 150 and average manners 0.

When O’Leary stood up there was an expectant rumble of muted mutterings in the audience. Up to the podium he marched, looked at the audience and took a great swig of water direct from the neck of a large bottle whilst ignoring the glasses set alongside for his use. That really did silence the expectant audience and some even stopped tapping away on their blackberries.

He started talking gently and lucidly about Ryanair, their achievements and plans and it was really rather impressive. You could see the audience being wooed and I could not fail to notice the look of total relief on the faces of his advisers who had no doubt tried to school him about keeping to the script they had spent hours writing for him. Apart from the odd witty aside delivered in his soft Irish bur he looked word perfect.
And then something seemed to click in his brain.

He was talking about airport charges and suddenly he spoke the words ‘Stanstead Airport’ off his script and his eyes seemed to glaze and a red mist gathered in front of them. I heard a muttered “Oh shit” coming from the direction of his advisers and Michael was off into a wild tirade of abuse levelled at the leadership of that airport who happened to be in the audience. It was not pretty and it was not nice and it definitely was not in his script. It ended as abruptly as it started with O’Leary staring balefully and challenging at the Stanstead guys as he stalked off the stage. You could have heard a pin drop.

Follow that I thought. So up I got and took my place on the podium. I could see that the audience had not joined me. Most were on their blackberries having seen the ‘main event’ and those that weren’t were chatting, slipping out or leaning over to pat Michael on the back. So I decided to join them by subtly picking up where Michael had left off, after all I had little to lose by that stage. First thing was the bottle, or should I say bottles as I grabbed each one of the four on the table and took a deep drink out of all of them By this time I had some of their attention. This was followed by my delivering a much abridged version of what I was going to say and then I got on to Stanstead airport and Ryanair. I then gave what I thought was cunning but scathing comments that were a barely concealed attack on Ryanair and the way they work with/against the rest of the industry and finished to a reasonable spatter of applause.

Back to my seat in front of Michael I went and I could sense his eyes boring into the back of my head. At the end of the conference I decided to take the bull by the horns and introduce myself to the man and round I turned. He was very gracious and to my surprise thanked me quite profusely for the support I gave in my speech. Did he not realise I thought? Did he not see I was taking the Mickey I wondered? No I thought, this man is so vain he did not notice. Goodbye I said and walked away. I turned at the door and our eyes met across the room. His eyes looked glazed and I thought I detected a red mist in front of them.

So what do I think? Is he mad or very clever? Well there is little doubt he is very rich and very successful. He also has found a way to perpetuate this by being as unpleasant as possible to the industry and some would argue, his customers. In fact the worse he gets the better he does. Alongside this you have a man who is clearly a loose cannon. A man who says you should pay to go to the toilet on board and that air hostesses should learn to land planes in order to get rid of second pilots. I mean that is mad, or is it. Nobody, including him I suspect, believes either of these will happen but look at the press he has achieved for saying both. Remember, the worse he gets the better he does.

So my verdict is that he is a very clever man, a possibly dangerous man, but hopefully not one with a long memory as I would not like to see the outcome of that red mist!

Brushes with the Rich and Famous 4– Richard Branson

I have met some pretty strange ones in my time but I think the weirdest is Richard Branson. Why weird? Because he is to me, a mass of contradictions. He is sincerely insincere. He is brashly sensitive. He may not be what he appears to be on a minute by minute basis. Or put another way, I would not trust him with my granny but I am sure she would say he is such a nice man. I think he is like an entrepreneurial Tony Blair.

OK, I will confess. He makes me cringe. The cheesy smile, the wacky publicity seeking dressing up and the cheeky chappie mannerisms drive me to distraction and are even worse when he is doing it right next to you. I also think he treats women appallingly but at least he seems to have stopped picking them up and flipping them head over heels in public like he used to.

The first time I experienced his Jekyll and Hide personality was on the Virgin Atlantic inaugural trip to Hong Kong. There was a mix of press, travel industry people and corporate VIPs but Richard only had eyes for the newspaper journalists and he was excellent in the way he handled them. He was being briefed all the time by his PR people who whispered feedback into his ear and suggested who he should work on. For example one of his aids found out that a journalist had mentioned that he had left a sick son at home just to come on this trip but Richard had not spoken much to him. Within a minute Richard had located him, embraced him and called him by his first name. He explained how personally pleased he was that the columnist had made the journey despite his sick son and how keen he was to talk to him. The man was on cloud nine and Richard wandered off to use his talents on the next stranger. Pure class.

At the same time as he was working his miracles he was also creating antagonisms elsewhere .Top people from top companies were watching these routines and feeling their own egos being bruised. Some began to wonder why they had come along only to be treated like also-rans. You see that is the trouble with people like Richard. If you perform like that everyone wants a slice of it and gets annoyed if they don’t. If Richard is there and spreads his aura then any of his long suffering team becomes second best in many guests’ eyes and envy grows. As for me? I don’t think he addressed a word to me the whole trip….but I’m not bitter!

My next brush was far more personal. I had been contacted by Virgin and invited to have lunch with Richard at his private home. After I had got over the surprise I willingly set off to his house in a beautiful leafy lane west of Bayswater. It was a big and relaxed home full of family photos, toys and knick knacks and a liberal spread of dust and dog fur. A true home. Richard arrived, greeted us warmly and invited me and the rest of his travel agency guests to relax around his big old oak dining table. Very homely.

The lunch started and it was not very long before the main real agenda was made clear. In short Richard wanted to take the opportunity to rubbish British Airways and encourage us to do similar. It was extremely embarrassing and I felt compelled to gently tell him that I did not share his negative views about his key competitor. This proved unpopular. Richard only just stopped short of calling me a bloody idiot. In fact maybe he didn’t stop short? It did however mean that this particular subject faded away and other issues about Virgin were raised. Avoiding the risk of Richard being rude to me again I found something nice to say about Virgin which was not difficult as I admire them greatly. There was a pause and then Richard turned to me and said ‘You know John (he got my name wrong) that was the first sensible thing you have said today”. You could have heard a pin drop and I replied “you know John; I am still waiting for yours”! Indigestion all round.

The weirdest thing about this lunch is what somebody told me about the house afterwards although I cannot prove conclusively that it is true. I was told that the lunch house was his ‘entertaining home’ and that his real residence was next door. They said he gets his people to duplicate what he has in his real place right down to the photos, toys and dog hairs. Could it really be true? If it is it kind of puts into life my perceptions of Richard Branson. A complex man who only shares himself with some but tries to make all feel close. A genius in some things. Loose cannon in others. But despite his possible weaknesses he is one of the most enduring and wealthy self-made multimillionaires in the world today.

Brushes with the Rich and Famous 2 – Conference Moderators

Like many large companies we used to hold annual conferences for our staff and we always used to hire interesting/celebrity guests to either occupy a guest speaker spot or moderate the main sessions. The results were sometimes fascinating, sometimes disappointing but never boring. It was not at all easy for them because our workforce was young, fun loving and also pretty merciless to those that they felt were either patronising or disinterested in them.

We always tended to book people like newscasters, TV presenters, explorers, travel industry leaders or suchlike and their performances were as diverse as their occupations. Here are just a few of the people we used and what we thought of them.

The most interesting speaker we ever had was Sir Ranulf Fines. His ability to casually explain how he cut his own frostbitten fingers/toes off was pure theatre and the knowledge he imparted on some of the coldest most hostile parts of the world kept the audience rapt. Unfortunately he was also the most boorish bad mannered guest I ever met. He arrived and refused to speak to anyone. He said he was being paid for one purpose and that was not small -talk to our directors or VIPs. He literally went from snarling egotist to fascinating hero and back to egotist at the blink of an eye. A thoroughly unpleasant person in my view but I would re-book him tomorrow for his spellbinding speech.

Other explorers we used were Benedict Allen who demonstrated how to eat Witchety grubs and Quinten Kountze who took off his false leg to show us where a lion had bitten it off! Both good value but best not just before lunch!

Newscasters and TV hosts were another good source, particularly as moderators. The best I remember was Fiona Bruce who I admittedly drooled over especially when she charmingly ‘slapped down’ my over attentive boss. The very worst was Adrian Chiles who rivalled Sir Ranulph’s ego and lack of interest but sadly not his genius. He stomped in still wearing his cycle clips clearly un-researched and overtly showed he could not wait to leave..

The very best at his job was Peter Sissons. We booked him to moderate in the style of his show ‘Question Time’. Boy did he make me and the rest of the executive team squirm as he close questioned us on our salaries, strategy and staff benefits! Some still bear the scars but sadly not those who had the hides of rhinos but the guiltiest consciences.

The great thing about Peter was the way he really tried to join in which was almost his undoing. So much so that I could possibly still blackmail him if I had the desire to do so! We wanted to get all 1200 staff to the conference so we decided to run three back to back day sessions along with three evening dinner parties. It was like a huge endurance challenge and my part of the project included running the evenings and paying the bar bills. The latter were costing at least £11,000 a night which adds up to quite a few pints of beer and made my expenses claim interesting to say the least.

Peter stuck with us from start to finish. He was extremely self aware because of his public profile and very careful not to compromise himself in the slightest way. He wore exactly the suit and tie he uses on TV (he has a wardrobe full of the same suits) and behaved soberly and impeccably almost to the end. By the third night we were all pretty exhausted. Peter had worked hard all day and his guard began to slip slightly especially as he had been targeted by three of our naughtier girls from our London office who’s table he was sitting at. By the end of the evening I spotted him half asleep, jacket off, tie undone and the girls undoing his shirt buttons. I stopped them immediately after I took my all too damning photograph.

For a while after I still heard from Peter who always casually mentioned that photograph and wondering if he could have the original negatives. He never got them but I never used them as he was a good presenter and a great guy who behaved impeccably throughout.

Our conferences are legend and I will reveal all of what went on when I feel brave enough. In the meantime here are some verdicts on other ‘guests’:

Dara O’Brien the comic. Like most comics a miserable man when not performing. Spoke to nobody before/after although his act was great.

Steve Davis and Jason Leonard. Great sportsmen and good speakers. Both went out of the way to talk to our VIPs.

Bill Giles the weatherman. Awful.

Tiff Needell the car presenter. Bombed badly

Brushes with the rich and famous 1 – Royalty

During my career I have had the honour (sometimes dubious) of meeting the royals on a number of occasions. To be honest, all of these meeting have left an indelible mark in my mind, and on one occasion my buttocks, as I will explain. In fact I might as well explain that one first.

I was based in Zambia at the time they were hosting the Commonwealth conference which was to be opened by the queen. One of my jobs was to ‘look after’ the crew of the two giant Hercules cargo aircraft that fly out in advance with the Queen’s essential supplies. In those days (and possibly even now) everything the Queen uses, eats and drinks was all flown down in advance under considerable security by the UK armed forces.

The aircrews had a great time. Although Zambia is one of the most fertile countries in the world it was ravaged by shortages of even the most basic foods and almost everything had to be imported. Only problem was that it was almost impossible to arrange and here is where the crews used to come in. I would be prepared to wager that at least 25% of the aircraft payload consisted of cigarettes, apples, butter, oil and other such important staples. These were used to both sell and act as guaranteed invitation material to any party or event in the country during their stay. There was one expatriate lady who was famous for doing practically anything for a few sticks of celery

Anyway, the point behind this story is that I was allowed a sneak peek at the Queen’s ‘treasure trove’ of supplies and amongst it was two toilet seats. Apparently she always takes her own plus an aide that knows how to fit them on any type of toilet appliance. I am afraid I could not resist trying them . Out of respect to the monarchy I kept my trousers on but unfortunately my belt got stuck. I struggled and struggled until I popped out but for the next few weeks I had an indelible bruise to remind me of my heresy. Every time I see the Queen now I think of what we have in common!

Since that occasion I have had quite a few brushes with royalty including being studiously ignored by Prince Andrew, winked at by Diana, sworn at by Princess Anne and laughed at/with by Prince Harry but my most contentious was an altercation with Prince Philip. My wife still totally disagrees with me about this but I think his highness was totally out of order! After all he is known as a no nonsense, say what you like, approachable type of person. I wonder who you think was right.

We had been invited by Emirates Airline to attend a charity cricket match in the grounds of Windsor School between the airline and the Lords Taverners charity team. All the great and the good were due to attend the event and the guest of honour was to be Prince Philip (their next door neighbour). He swept into the ground and immediately worked the guests up into a frenzy of excitement by ‘chatting’ freely to all. He then headed off to his specially allotted seat and drank his usual bottles of brown beer. It was all very nice and a very English kind of event.

All went well until lunch. I was genuinely very honoured to find we had been put on the top table (of twelve place settings) just two seats away from the Prince with only Mike Gatting (the cricketer) and his charming wife between us. Prince Philip turned up last and then there was a rather long and embarrassing silence. Nobody was being introduced so I spoke up and told him who I and my wife were. It was as if I had thrown a hand grenade on the table. An audible gasp came from the Prince. He recoiled back and threw his hands in the air. His equerry finally appeared and manhandled me aside. “You NEVER speak to the Prince before being spoken to first” he muttered menacingly. “He will be in an awful mood now” he added. And so it was. Prince Philip sat down and would barely utter a word to anyone. Can this be the man who has made so many gaffes and unwise comment over the years I thought?

My wife reckons it was my fault. Do you? My view is that, in this modern world, politeness supersedes traditional etiquette. Needless to say that despite him being the husband of our Queen he will not be on my Christmas card list this year. Maybe someone told him about that toilet seat?

Paupers in Paradise

One of the most unusual things about working in the travel industry is that you can sometimes experience activities and lifestyles totally out of proportion with your personal wealth, or in this case, lack of wealth.

Many years ago when Judith and I, recently married and poor as church mice, had just such an experience. It nearly resulted in a quickie divorce on the grounds of emotional cruelty as I will explain.

We were in our mid twenties and had an enormous mortgage. I had a relatively junior sales job with British Caledonian Airways working in the head office department that supported their West Africa routes. They had just started operating to Abidjan, the capital of the Ivory Coast and all the operators and hotels in that country wanted a slice of the new business that the service would generate from the UK.

As I mentioned earlier we were broke but, like most airline people (except striking BA cabin crew) we got great flight discounts and perks including free tickets on new routes for ‘familiarisation’ reasons. A very kind and enthusiastic contact in Intercontinental Hotels came up with a complimentary room in their 5 star hotel in Abidjan city centre. This hotel was known at the time as the most prestigious and luxurious hotel in Africa. So off we went to what we expected to be a cheap but heavenly holiday.

It had started so well with a black hotel limousine picking us up at the airport and whisking us to the hotel. Mind you the driver looked pretty appalled when he saw our beat up old cardboard cases and various plastic Woolworth bags. The hotel GM came out to greet us and escort us to a special top floor suite and took about half an hour to explain all the amenities including introductions to our personal butler. The first and last time we ever saw him as I will explain.

When he left Judith strolled over to the fridge and was about to open a can of coke when I picked up the room service and mini bar price list. Stop! I yelled as that drink alone would have exhausted half of our daily food budget. It got worse from then on and we clearly could not manage such food and drink costs In fact it got so bad that we spent some evenings sitting in the bar sipping one beer between us and eating every last free pretzel and pistachio nut in the place. At one stage I ended up sauntering around the coffee shop waiting for someone to leave their table. As soon as they got up we slipped into the still warm seats, ate anything left and ordered a small snack using the tip money that had been left. I still feel guilty about that!

On the final evening of what was a miserable and hungry week the hotel General Manager invited us to dinner at their ‘signature’ restaurant that revolved around the top of the hotel tower. He insisted we try some of their special cocktails before dinner and Judith took enthusiastically to one called a ‘Tipsy Elephant’ which was a lethal mixture of three spirits. These on a half starved stomach could have only one effect. This peaked when the waiter brought out a plate with a fresh, live and uncooked lobster to get her approval before preparing it. To his horror she grabbed the offered lobster, put it on her plate and pulled a claw off. ”Look” she slurred. “It’s undercooked”! I quickly tried to explain that she must have caught sunstroke and wheeled her away as she yelled “I am not going to stay here to be insulted” or something similar.

We thought that would be the end of the nightmare but the worst was saved for the end when we went to check out the next morning. We were presented with our very meagre bill and I handed over my one and only credit card whilst praying we had not exceeded its credit limit. As feared the clerk started looking concerned and kept tapping entries into her computer. She then looked up and said she was sorry but we would need to wait for the duty manager to talk to us about our bill.

We sat squirming for a few minutes and noticed curious glances from various other members of staff who knew about our bill. Finally the manager arrived with a very serious expression on his face. “Do you not like our hotel” he asked. “Yes, it is lovely” I replied whilst trying not to be intimidated. “Do you not like our restaurants”? “Where have you been eating” “Is our food not to your standard”?

By this time I was getting very embarrassed and annoyed as people were beginning to stop and listen. I asked him directly why he was asking us so many questions. “Well”, he said “we have never had any guests who are on our VIP “all inclusive” basis spending next to nothing!

Judith’s head turned slowly and menacingly towards me. “Can you explain what you actually mean by all inclusive she asked. Certainly madam, he replied, it means you could have eaten or drunk anything you wanted free of charge for the duration of your stay in our hotel.

She nearly physically attacked me there and then. I did not know I muttered. Wait until I get you alone she replied icily as her tummy rumbled. I paid for my error over the following months but I learned one important lesson. Never go anywhere you cannot afford and also listen carefully when someone makes you an offer you will not want to refuse.

Peril on Planes 2

What with all the plane journeys I have undertaken over the years I think I have been relatively fortunate in that a) I am still here and b) I am still not afraid to fly. One hears that flying is safer than driving a car but see how much that reassures you when you have one engine gone on a two engine aircraft somewhere over mid Atlantic. I can assure you that statistic is of little help as I personally discovered.

I was flying with my boss between Heathrow and Miami on an American Airlines 767. We had been put in seats 3 A and B in a nearly empty first class cabin and I had just tucked in to my favourite caramel topped ‘Ben an Jerry’s’ ice cream and settled down to watch ‘The Mask of Zorro (sad I know) on the in-flight screen. All seemed very well.

My feeling of well-being was shattered when we noticed there were some very scared looking cabin crew shuffling around. Something had clearly spooked them and this impression was confirmed when they delved into a storage container behind my seat and brought out a survival manual and a first aid box. I spontaneously wondered how the contents of the medical box would help if we plunged 35,000 into the ocean. It would take quite a few sticking plasters and gauze to patch us up after that I thought.

No announcements were made so one of us sidled up to a pale cabin attendant, identified us as being in the travel business and offered our assistance. She then explained about the engine malfunction on the starboard side resulting in it having to be shut down and that the remaining port engine could possibly malfunction too “at any time”.

We started to gradually reduce height whilst the captain talked on his radio to the authorities about our situation and requesting an airport to try and land at. I had heard that twin engine transatlantic aircraft are required by law to be no further than two hours flying time from an airport so I assumed we would be heading for Canada or northern USA. The instruction came that we should instead fly to Bermuda which was by no means the closest. I can only assume they sent us there because we would do less damage if we crashed. You se Bermuda airport is bordered on three sides by lagoon and the immediate area is sparsely populated.

The captain finally had to make an announcement. This was greeted by a stunned silence punctuated by the occasional scream. It certainly created a surreal atmosphere on the aircraft. The crew read, and re-read their emergency manuals, a few passengers demanded drinks. Many folk wrote short letters to their loved ones in case they may be discovered ‘afterwards’. To my shame I made them re-start the in-flight entertainment as I wanted to know if Zeta and Antonio lived happily ever after. I could not go to meet my maker without knowing that. Could I?

For some reason I could not stop thinking about that awful joke about the beautiful woman who, on hearing they were going to crash, stood up, took all her clothes off and told the stranger sitting next to her to “make me feel like a real woman for the last time”. “I will” he said, stood up, took off his shirt and said “here, iron this”. I looked at my boss sitting next to me and thought no. It would not be the same!

Anyway, we finally neared Bermuda and, by this time all preparations had been made. The crew had been great and even moved a frail old lady from the back of the aircraft to seat 1A in the hopes of getting her out quick. We offered our help again and this time they gave us a task. I thought it might be to take some ‘heroic’ position like opening the doors but it turned out we were to be used as human barricades! You see they were worried by too many people charging the exit and as we were both “large gentlemen” we were ideally suited for the task. There we were, possibly minutes from death and insulted over our weight. I vowed to go on a diet if we made it.

The captain told us his strategy. Basically we were between a rock and a hard place. If we successfully landed on one engine there would not be enough reverse thrust to stop by the end of the runway. If we tried to start the damaged engine on our final approach and failed it might have an equally catastrophic result.

In the end he went for the latter option and the time had come. We all got into the brace position and those that believed prayed. Incredibly the engine started and the AA pilot did the perfect textbook landing. The fire trucks wound their way back to their sheds looking like a swarm of slightly disappointed red bugs and one of the crew came on a speaker saying “thank you for flying American” I am not sure whether she was being ironic or not. Meanwhile I was asking around to see if anyone knew the ending of the Mask of Zorro.

I often think of that flight but strangely not always in a negative sense. There was a lot of bonding and human spirit shown. I also wonder what happened to those letters that were written and if any got shown. They would have said so many important things that only get revealed at times like that. Finally I learned never to tell my wife I watched the film rather than wrote her a letter!

Stranger than fiction

On the lighter side here are a few facts/urban legends about some of our favourite suppliers which I have picked up over the years. Some are quite old but worth another airing. I cannot vouch that any of them are actually true……but!

RYANAIR are continuing their approach that “all publicity” is good. Residents of Barcelona were promised “free tickets” if they turned up with placards praising the carrier or disparaging Iberia, the national carrier. The 500 vouchers disappeared in 20 minutes and a riot ensued with staff taken to a local police station for protection.

AMSTERDAM recently hosted the Paralympics World Championships. Unfortunately the former 100 metres record holder in the ladies event was unable to take part …………….. British Airways lost her artificial leg at Heathrow.

KOREAN AIR hails itself as one of the most popular airlines in the Far East. Service was not mentioned but their lightweight pure wool overnight blankets, supplied on all long haul flights, were. It seems passengers regard them as being part of the ticket price and remove them at will. In the last 12 month period they have lost over 300,000.

IRISH FERRIES apologies to passengers who “took the hump” following a 45 hour delay to one of its Holyhead to Dublin services. The Captain somehow failed to negotiate the only whale in the Irish Sea, which caused extensive damage to the bow of the ship

VIRGIN has come under criticism following the behaviour of one of its flight attendants on a recent Gatwick to Las Vegas service. During severe turbulence one of the flight crew is reported to have “thrown”, hopefully unused, sick bags to the passengers and then started screaming “We are crashing”. Wholesale panic ensued before the Captain restored order. An investigation is under way but those of a nervous disposition should consider their options.

ALASKA AIRLINES already facing a half million dollar fine for not having emergency lighting in their cabin for a two month period, faced more media criticism when a passenger, travelling with her dog, witnessed the poor creature, in a crate, being thrown head height and headlong into the cargo hold. The airline said they were preparing the dog for turbulence.

RYANAIR have a clause in their terms and conditions that say they reserve the right to charge you for two seats if they consider you overweight. However, they cannot guarantee they will be next to each other.

Peril on Planes 1

What does the name CASA 212 mean? To those that know their aircraft it is a small twin propeller plane but to me personally it is a terrible reminder of a flight from hell.
The designers must have had bad day as it looks like something between a pram and a small boat. The latter description got me to wondering if even those that created it had much faith in its ability to stay out of the water. Then, to cap it all, they described it as an ‘Aviocar’ which led me to thinking that we could always taxi to our destination if necessary.

It was a long time ago but my journey is still etched in my mind. I had recently arrived in Puerto Rico and was due to connect onto a local island hopping flight to Anguilla, My incoming BA flight was on time, my suitcase was waiting for me at the carousel and off I went to the domestic check –in area without a care in the world. How deluded I was.

My first inkling of impending doom was finding myself in a noisy overcrowded non air conditioned shed behind a queue of about 40 people all expecting to get on my flight that had less than 30 seats. They seemed to have all their worldly possessions with them including large musical instruments and a fridge.

A solitary bored gum chewing female agent was languidly checking people in at a rate of one per five minutes which gave me a desk eta of two hours (one hour after scheduled departure) when help arrived in the form of her male supervisor who squeezed her butt, picked out her gum and plugged his face into hers. After giving the appreciative girl what looked like a full tonsillectomy he climbed on top of the desk and shouted “I got 20 bucks for any of yous who ain't getting on this plane”. If I had known I would have taken him up on the offer but other more knowledgeable travellers pounced on the idea of making money and self preservation.

Having completed their overbooking ‘cull’ they herded us, like lambs to the abattoir onto the tarmac to find our plane which they seemed to have misplaced. The way our check-in Lolita said goodbye seemed terribly final, almost as though she knew something we didn’t. The rain was sheeting down as we tramped across the tarmac like a bunch of refugees past lines of new shiny jets searching for our ‘aircraft’.

Then there it was! Our plane/car/boat, sat slightly apart from the others like a forlorn ugly duckling. It was old, oil streaked and there was a very worried looking man standing under one of its wings with a torch pointed at an engine shaking his head. “You gotta be kidding” I distinctly heard him say as he peered through the soggy gloom. At the back end of the plane they were trying to load the fridge and the rest of the bags using the wedge and push method. Some bags aren’t going to make it I thought.

We boarded. It was like trying to get in a coffin with a bunch of outsize people with no manners and two left feet. Sitting down was rather like that ‘Twister’ game where you squash together and put your hands and feet on different coloured circles but finally we all seemed to get there. I had what looked like a 7 foot basketball player with a ghetto blaster sat next to me. I reckoned I could have changed the tracks with my nose if it was switched on. In front of us we could see the open cockpit and the two pilots were having a heated exchange. “Well were going anyway” the captain said to the sodden co-pilot who I last saw under the wing. I saw him pale visibly.

And then we were off! After three tries the port engine started in gouts of flames which were told through a crackling loudspeaker was “quite normal”. By this time I was scrabbling for the safety card in the hopes of improving my survival chances. I gazed at it over the volume switch of the ghetto blaster which was now poking into my cheek. It said there were no life vests and that we were to use our seat cushions instead. I groped downwards and found they were the thickness of a slice of bread and probably just as porous.

I then browsed over the instructions for the brace position but discarded it as I did not think I could get into a foetal position around my neighbours ‘mega bass’. I also remember someone who should know telling me that the sole purpose for the brace position was to protect your teeth so they could identify you after the event, Nasty!

We lurched forwards and started to crab our way towards the end of the runway. Our co-pilot was sulking and had his arms folded while our gallant captain struggled with the controls. Then the engines roared, the rivets rattled, interior fitments fell off, a lady screamed and we were off.

The Casa rumbled down the runway. And rumbled, and rumbled and rumbled showing no sign of getting airborne. In the length it takes for a jumbo to fly our Casa still stuck to the ground like a limpet. The lady’s scream went up a decibel and the end of the runway came into view and at the last second we took off. Well actually not so much took of as lifted our undercarriage and lurched forward like an aged woodpecker. Another second later we had waves under our wingtips and the captain was hauling on the misnamed ‘joy stick’ as though his life depended on it. It probably did.

We never seemed to get as high as the clouds and all their content of rain and occasional lightening crashed down on us. We started being thrown around like peas in a drum and it was then that the hymn singing started up from the passengers in front who had a better view than me. We all joined in like demented gospel singers convinced that we were singing at our own funeral. We were half way through a particularly depressing number made famous by Paul Robeson when Anguilla came into view.

We did not so much land as fly into the runway. We barely had to dip our nose and there we were. The engines stopped and there was total silence. We sat there in the dark with the rain drumming on the aircraft roof and puddles forming on the carpet. Finally from row 3 there came a voice saying “thank you sweet Jesus” and we all stampeded for the exit.

So that was it! We survived! Hallelujah! But there was a sting in the tail. The guitar arrived safely and so miraculously did the fridge but my brand new Samsonite did not
I initially had to stifle an amused chuckle as I saw the contents of someone’s case come out on the belt until I recognised one of my T-shirts. My case had opened like an eggshell disgorging its contents everywhere. I still have two odd socks from that terrible night and often wonder where all my underpants went. I expect there must have been a shortage of them on the island at the time.

The Sleeping Salesman

Becoming a sales rep for an airline was not in my immediate plans. I had a much better idea that involved sex and travel. It was my dad who steered me away from my depraved plans by using his influence to get me into sales and I have never been sure whether I should have thanked him or not. Let me explain.

There were four of us. All good mates, working in the reservations office of British Airways and all with a keen interest in football, pubs, late night curries and the female of the species. The only small things we lacked were money, finesse and charm so one night we sat around a grubby pub table in Hampton and decided something had to be done.

I think it was Roger that had the idea. Why not become cabin crew? Most of the stewards we knew were wealthy and most importantly both gay and surrounded by pretty women in exotic locations. What if we with our heterosexual testosterone fuelled bodies joined up? It would be like a pack of horny foxes let loose in a hen house. Well that’s what we thought.

For some reason my mum and dad was appalled at the idea. They expected their son to become a captain of industry not a global gigolo and they immediately hatched a plan to divert me. Unknown to me they spoke to a godfather I never knew I had who was a big noise in Varig Brazilian Airlines who in turn told his poor UK GM to offer me a job in his sales department. So that is the route I took while my mates had a whale of a time until it became too much for them!

So here I was. It was my first week in Varig and I had been given the area of London SW1 to cover. I was keen as mustard to go out there and tell interested companies and agencies about the sheer joy of flying Varig to Brazil. I think my colleagues were less impressed as everyone bar me seemed to know how I got the job. Anyway, off I went with my squeaky new cheap suit and a shiny black suitcase my mum bought me with the same pride as my first school satchel. Shame it only contained a Sun newspaper and a tube of Toffee sweets.

Each rep had at lest one really big and all important office to visit and mine was a company called Wakefield Fortune (later to become HRG) in Milbank by the Thames. I did not know much about it apart from its importance and that I was to be ‘very careful’ by a helpful and possibly malicious colleague. So off I went with my eyes bright and my wits unprepared into one of the hottest days of the year. Life could not get better than this I thought as I strode through St James Park in the sunshine on the way to what became a very steep learning curve.

The entrance to the office was daunting. It was one of those very old and grand buildings and I marched through it with flagging confidence. The temperature changed immediately from hot to cool and there, ready to meet me was the manager called Peter. He greeted me warmly but in a similar way to that of Count Dracula welcoming Jonathon Harker into his castle.

He was very interested in me. He particularly wanted to know how experienced I was and promised, with a glint in his eye, to ‘show me the ropes’. He explained that it was pointless me walking around the office to speak to all his staff and it would be best if he sent them to see me in groups. He explained he did not have a convenient place to do this so he harmlessly suggested I based myself in the pub across the road and they would come over in shifts. How very kind, I all too innocently thought. It became a late morning, lunch and afternoon I would never forget. Actually that is not quite true because I don’t remember much, but what I do remember I will not forget….if that makes sense?

The first group arrived with Peter as a willing escort. Break the ice he said, buy them all a drink. I started trying to take their orders and Peter said not to worry as Reg behind the bar would be willing to do that and keep a tab for me. Oh what a fool I was. It turned out there were at least fifty staff and they all liked spirits and they were all thirsty. I tried to talk about Brazil but they were all far more interested in football, drinking and the opposite sex which was an amazing coincidence as they are my favourite subjects too.

Suddenly it was three in the afternoon and they had gone. I was sat there in the middle of a load of empty glasses and spilt peanuts with a queasy feeling in my stomach. The beginning of the mother of all headaches was growing behind my eyes and Reg was standing in front of me with a bill bigger than an entire month’s expenses. You bloody mug he muttered under his breath as I gave him all my money and tottered out of the door into bright sunlight. I even forgot the cardinal rule of all reps which is always get a receipt.

My head was spinning and the sun was burning. I started walking back through St James Park trying to rehearse what the hell I was going to say to my new boss. I had enough sense not to return to the office drunk so I thought I would just lie down on the grass for a few minutes until I felt more sober. Sitting on the ground I thought I can’t lie on my shirt because I would get grass stains on the it so I took it off and settled down.

I woke with a jump. Most people had left while I was asleep and there I was, two hours later, feeling like the living dead and probably looking like a corpse too. I then realised I was feeling something on me and, as I lay, there I pushed my chin down so I could see what was lying on my chest. The first thing I observed was that I was badly burnt. Then to my growing horror I realised that what was on my chest was my boss’s business card. The man had clearly walked past and seen me. He had not woken me, but simply left his calling card as a menacing invitation to visit him in his office on my return.

The horror of it. My first week in a semi resentful office and I had spent all my company money, got drunk and passed out in the local park. You prat I thought!
I gingerly got up and put my crumpled shirt back on to cover the worst of my burns. It was then that I noticed that he must have spotted me quite early because my skin under the card was as white as a sheet. In fact for the whole of that summer I went around with a lighter business card shape in the centre of my chest. It took a lot of explaining I can tell you.

Amazingly I survived my experience. Wakefield Fortune and Peter in particular were notorious and my humiliation was seen more as a baptism of fire than a disciplinary offence. Later in my career I worked alongside Peter and gained my revenge many times over!

Pets on Planes. Part 3

Noah’s Ark

I think most people would be shocked if they only knew what animals were flying with them or occupied their space last. They might even be more shocked if they knew what they had left behind.

One of the biggest problems caused by animals on planes is corrosion. For example I remember British Caledonian used to very often fly planes with passengers in one direction and then use the same plane to ferry race horses and even elephants the other way. In itself, not a problem as long as the interior was put right before and after but there became one issue that never seemed to disappear completely, and that was poo and primarily pee.

Sometimes these animals used to pee so much that when the aircraft tilted upwards a veritable tidal wave of faeces ridden pee rushed to the rear of the aircraft engulfing the ankles of any unwary staff that had their seats there. I know as I have a ruined pair of trainers to prove it! It used to then get crazier if the passengers were elephants as they, like us, get bored, but when they do their heads sway from side to side. You get more than one doing this in sequence and it causes chaos with the autopilot.

Anyway, back to the pee. This pee has to go somewhere and, unless the cabin is sealed like a Tupperware box that somewhere ends up being under the floor and amongst the aircraft structure itself. This stuff is full of ammonia and, when sloshing around on sheets of alloy, nuts, bolts and wires nature starts to follow its course resulting in various levels of corrosive threat to the aircraft infrastructure. These problems were always found during the major maintenance ‘D’ check which such planes went through but who would have thought that a Jumbo could have done so much damage to….well a Jumbo!

Welcome to Lagos

I noticed that there is a TV programme with the above title and that reminded me of a fine welcome I got in the murky past

Someone up there definitely did not like me. He probably sat in the heavens and decided “let us smote him around a bit and bring him down a peg or two”. After all he had been pretty good to me until that moment what with sending me around the world with a bevy of beauties and an expense account without the slightest payback of gratitude. “I know” he said, “why not give him a taste of life in Nigeria”

The first I knew about my impending comeuppance was when I was called into my then leader’s office and smugly informed that I was being transferred to the West Africa Routes office and my new job would involve lots of visits to Nigeria. To start with I would be escorting a group of UK dignitaries on an inaugural flight to it’s southern capital Lagos. My blood froze. Everyone I knew working in that area had either gone weird or eccentric or, in extreme cases, both. For example one chap started keeping chickens in the company house and insisted he was a reincarnation of Tolstoy.

I had passed through Nigeria on a number of occasions in the past and witnessed mundane day to day activities such as robbery, death, squalor and loss of essential services like water, sanitation and all types of power The thought of taking a bunch of top corporate executives on a luxurious fact finding visit to such a place was truly chilling. I think my worst fears were justified.

The first task was to select and invite guests and it was my job to organise liaison and correspondence as well as to finalise their itinerary with our office in Lagos. I was helped in this task by a young lady called Sandra, a beautiful girl that the male population of the office unanimously agreed was ‘sex on legs’ and very reminiscent of Loraine Chase in those old Campari TV advertisements. Unfortunately what she had in beauty was not matched by any ability to converse with industry leaders which is illustrated by when she told a company chairman that “Nah” I could not come to the phone as I had gone to the toilet. She did reassure him that I would not be long as I had not taken my newspaper with me “as per usual”.

Eventually it was all arranged. We had a seriously high profile guest list, most of whom seemed to appreciate talking to Sandra more than me. She even got past their protective P.As which I rarely managed One very well known chap even started sending her bouquets and propositions in the post. In the hearing of one of my colleagues she ultimately told this Chief Executive to “push off” or she would set her boyfriend on him. The big day came and off we went on a brand new DC10 aircraft heading south towards our destiny. The plane was so new that it was still being flown by the McDonnell Douglas delivery pilot who wandered out to see the guests, chewing gum and wearing a cowboy outfit including a Stetson which went down a bomb with our group of traditional British gentlemen.

We arrive and were engulfed by everything that Lagos Murtalla Mohammed had to offer. It was hot. It was humid. The air conditioning was not working and the express customs clearance that we had painstakingly bribed officials for never materialised. It took over 90 minutes to get our soggy guests out of that hell hole however, finally we decanted them all into a surprisingly ancient coach which "belonged to a brother" of our airport manager who was charging a fortune for it. In that part of the world the airport manager is the most powerful company man in the country as he controlled everything from upgrades to off-loading.

Our guests usually get whisked through VIP arrival centres and into limousines so they found the whole experience quite educational. At lest it stopped all the talking about profit margins and PE ratios and moved them on to wagering if the coach would hold out and what the ‘strange noise’ was coming from the back axle. I was more concerned about the recent hold ups on this road as there had been a spate of them recently where large planks full of nailed spikes were thrown in front of vehicles. Thankfully the Badagri Expressway allowed us to pass unhindered and the coach groaned into the EKO Hotel front entrance. It remained there for three days as it never started again.

Check-in was fine. We had been given rooms on the 17th floor which was their most recently decorated floor and all was well until we got to the lifts. They did not seem to be working and nobody knew when they would be fixed. I gestured to my motley sweaty group of dignitaries and we started the slow plod up the stairs. I felt like Hannibal leading his elephants across the Alps. On and on we staggered with people falling by the wayside as they stopped for breaks and I ended up like a shepherd dog with sheep coaxing and bullying them forward.

It took nearly half an hour to reach the 17th floor. It was an interesting human drama and a demonstrated of team spirit as they all joined together to help the stragglers make it at the same time. I felt quite proud and told them so however I was interrupted by the ‘ding’ of the lift bell as a porter emerged out of it with the last of our suitcases. I subsequently found out that it was the porters who had diverted the lifts so that they could transfer the bags up from the basement. It was not something I shared with my wheezing guests.

I barely closed my door before the phone started ringing. Apparently nobody had any running water. I started muttering to myself, a malaise that started then and continues to this day. A feeling of pure helplessness flooded over me and I rang the hotel General Manager for some word of explanation. "Welcome to Lagos" came the helpful reply. Welcome to a bunch of smelly, angry and very important customers I sneered back which at least resulted in a crate of Evian water being deposited outside each of our rooms.

The water debacle continued until early evening when miraculously it started running fitfully and brackish through our taps. I could hear the ironic cheers echoing down the 17th corridor as I settled myself down into the tepid brown puddle in my bath. No sooner had my bottom touched plastic when the phone rang. It was a call from the secretary of one of my group calling from London to advise me that Mr B could not turn his tap off. He had apparently rung her who rang me. I rang the hotel GM who rang maintenance who rang him back. He then rang me and I rang the secretary who rang Mr B to tell him that the taps operate in a different way to England. He was then able to stop the water so he rang her who rang me. I rang the hotel GM who rang maintenance to say the drama was over. I discovered later that Mr B had the room next to mine. Oh the joys of modern cutting-edge communication…and plumbing.

Somehow we all made it through the next three days. Fortunately most of the guests were blessed with a fine sense of humour and also spent most of their days visiting local offices thus passing responsibility onto their own folk. The end of the tour had come and all that remained was to run the gauntlet of the Badagri Expressway and head for dear old Blighty. I have to say I was already relaxing as what more could possibly go wrong once we reached the airport Such folly.

To be fair to the Nigerians they had a conscience about the way we were treated when we arrived so they decided to give us a special send off and boy did they achieve that. It turned out there was a special VIP lounge for royalty and heads of state and they invited us to use it while we waited to board. I wandered off to say thanks to our even richer airport manager and left them all with their glasses of champagne. On my return I was startled to see them all tucking in to some local nibbles and snacks provided by our hosts including some very dodgy looking prawns with a curry coating. One thing I have learned is never eat anything so risky and strange smelling before boarding a busy overnight flight.

It started about 3 a.m. London time somewhere over the Sahara when I was awoken by heated and desperate voices. I observed two of my charges having a pushing match alongside a toilet door and it was turning ugly. Then I saw other shapes in the gloom rising all round me and heading for the lavatories. Out of our dozen or so guests at least nine were suffering from acute food poisoning resulting in terrible stomach gripes and the need to go to the toilet instantly if not sooner. Nine people and two toilets? You can do the maths. It was mayhem. These were people in the public eye, household names and there they were literally fighting each other for the next free cubicle. Not nice and I decided to sink deeper in my seat and let them get on with it.

We arrived back at Gatwick in the early hours looking like a group of third world displaced refugees. Never again I thought. And then I remembered that this was the first of four such trips!