Monday, 24 December 2012

Entertaining Foreign Guests - Consolidated Report

At one stage in my career a major part of my job was to meet and greet VIPs from abroad and escort them on special tours around the UK. These journeys were usually linked to the launch of a major new air service to their particular country and designed to ‘build relationships’ with those that could smooth our way.

Naturally these guests were very senior, very demanding and sometimes totally out of order in the things they did whilst staying as our guests. The people I was responsible for were mainly from West Africa. They were very wealthy in their own right, used to getting what they wanted and usually Muslim which meant that you had to be very careful about what food or drink they were offered.

These visits were often great fun and I made some strong friendships during that time. Needless to say there were other occasions where I, they or both combined caused such havoc that it could have resulted in some major international incidents. After all, the combination of differing races, religions, cultures and nationalities in a confined area is always going to make for a volatile mix. This blend can result in both offence and hilarity as my recollections will show.

I remember standing nervously at Gatwick’s arrivals area waiting for the first Nigerian group to arrive. They were very easy to recognise in that they were all enormous and wearing large flowing, mainly grey/white robes. I could see by their body language that they were not comfortable or used to travelling in groups or passing through the public areas of airports. The second thing I noticed was they had barely any baggage which I found strange until all was revealed later on.

I walked boldly up to the first guest and introduced myself as his host and escort. I held out my hand to shake his but instead he dropped his big black attaché case in it. Where is my car he demanded as I stood squirming trying to explain to them all that we had laid on a coach for all transfers. They looked aghast. No cars? One said he had not been in a coach in his life and another said he would lose face if he travelled in one.

Having finally got across to them that it was coach or nothing we took them to the parking area where our rather aged non air conditioned 52-seater coach was waiting to take them to their London hotel. It was the hottest day of the year so far but probably not as humid as downtown Lagos.

The real fun started when we tried to board them. You see each one had their own vision of where they featured in the tour’s ‘pecking’ order and, rather like cows at milking time, they would not get on out of sequence. The leader would insist on the front seat with the other less worthy individuals sat in their own chosen order behind. The jostling by these supposedly mature and wise men was something to behold. One particularly fat gentleman wearing what looked like a huge tent sat down in the front seat and refused to move despite shouted protestations of others.

Somehow we finally got them seated and off we went. The whole lot of them fell deeply asleep and we drove up to the hotel to the constant drone of snoring with the odd staccato fart in accompaniment. The air inside the coach was ‘steamy’ to say the least by the time we rolled up at the Cavendish hotel. On arrival I had to wake them up which earned me many reprimands and one slap in the face from a guest who thought for a moment that I was his wife….or one of them.

They were with us for only three days and we gave them all the free time they needed aside from official dinners, a trip to the theatre and a guided tour which was mandatory. I tried to tell them this at the hotel briefing but, by the time I had finished most were already on their way to the shops. It was soon after that I got my first complaint from the hotel management.

The mystery of the non existent baggage on arrival was solved. Why bring stuff from Lagos where there were shortages when you are flying to London and get anything. In the case of my group this included hi-fis, refrigerators, half of Selfridges, a touch of Harrods and the equivalent of a whole Marks and Spencer lingerie department. The hotel foyer was soon completely filled with boxes and even crates on wooden pallets. They had to turn (at a price) a whole conference room into a temporary store.

The trip to the theatre was a disaster. We went to see Phantom of the Opera and had seats at the front of the dress circle. Firstly the seats were too small and secondly they would not keep still or quiet. The first rumblings of snoring started shortly after the first song and it began to put the actors and their audience off. I started creeping around poking the perpetrators or sometimes squeezing their noses to try and stop them. Finally our giant in grey broke wind so powerfully that everybody thought it was a gunshot. Then the smell started.

The next day was set aside for the coach tour of London and I was dreading it. I had only just come off the phone from negotiating compensation with the theatre and now I had to escort these shopping-mad sleepyheads around the sights. I lost four entirely but managed to shuffle the rest on the coach. The running feud as to who sat where continued. The only undisputed seat was in the front row where our grey-clad giant sat as the group’s undisputed ‘top dog’.

We had a really enthusiastic guide who bragged to me that he always managed to keep peoples attention with his knowledge and humour. You have never met my boys I thought o myself. It started badly and ended worse as he spent the whole time talking while they slept noisily. They woke up briefly for lunch and then virtually passed out when back in the coach.

When we arrived back at the hotel and they were still comatose. I found myself hemmed in at the front by the guide and his driver who gave me a right earful. ‘These people are rude’ the guide said. ‘Yeah, no manners’, the driver pitched in. ‘I am warning you now’ the guide snarled. ‘If you ever again have a group of Nigerians like this do not under any circumstances expect me to guide them’!

He had started to shout and our guests were waking up. Having seen we were back they started to disembark in order to do a bit more shopping. When one guy demanded that the coach take him to Austin Reid in Regent Street I thought things might get violent.

As they left our grey giant grabbed each one as he went past and muttered to them for some money. He was the last to leave and by that time he had a fist full of cash. He added another fist full from his own wallet and dumped the lot into the hands of the driver and guide. He gave me a conspiritorial smile as he left which made me wonder if he had been asleep at all.

My two companions gazed at the notes and started counting. There was just short of seven hundred pounds and this was around thirty years ago. It was a fortune and it immediately created a different mindset. The guide said ‘maybe I was too hasty so if you have any such groups in future do not hesitate to ring me. Here is my direct number, I am always available’.

The next day I had to commission a removal van plus our coach to take their baggage to Gatwick Airport. The guests themselves got their way and went by individual taxi. They would not share with each other and the big guy had to be in the first one to leave! Me? I was shattered and fell asleep. I probably snored!

My second group of West Africans consisted of a totally mixed bag of folk coming from everywhere between the Cameroon and Sierra Leone. They ranged from 25 stone robed Nigerians to a little chap from Ghana who wore a pin stripe suit with spats and a red bow tie. He had diamonds embedded in two front teeth. Their personalities also varied hugely from quiet and courteous to downright obnoxious.

Again we made the foolish mistake of thinking they would all mix in well with each other and not mind sharing things like coaches and tours. ‘I am not going to sit with these Gambian riff raff’ a portly Nigerian yelled. ‘You Nigerians are all fat and greedy’ came the Gambian reply. There were then cat calls and sneers and it was hard to believe these were top industry executives.

‘We must do something’ my boss confided, which translated to ‘YOU must do something Platt’. It was clear that failure would not be a viable option and, as they were due to have dinner with our chairman I had to act fast. I had visions of a pitched battle ‘food fight’ with our man ducking to avoid chicken bones and cutlery. I even seriously considered changing the menu to only soft food!

I then remembered a man called Charles. He had spent half his life posted all over West Africa and I was sure he could give me some pointers. During his sojourn abroad he had unsurprisingly turned to drink and adopted strange habits like keeping chickens (live) in his company house and making crowing noises instead of laughing.
Anyway, I tracked him down to a pub in Crawley.

I bought him a pint of IPA bitter with a Glenmorangie chaser and explained my problem. ‘Show me the guest list dear boy’ he demanded. ‘Cock-a-doodle-doo’ he shrieked, ‘this is a recipe for a massacre; you cannot have this guy with them’. ‘And what about those chaps, they despise each other’. I felt sick, ‘Help me I begged.

After a large number of heavy drinks I had my best solution. Amidst robust cock crowing Charles had divided the party up into sub groups with hints on how to handle each one and who not to sit with whom. It was impressive. Henry Kissinger could not have done better I thought as I weaved back to the Copthorne Hotel where my new brood were sleeping, and possibly simmering.

As soon as they came together for breakfast I set out my new seating plan and the relief was palpable as they all seemed to talk quite amiably to each other. I scrapped the large coach they were due to be transferred by and replaced it with four mini vans and a taxi for the two giant Nigerians who seemed not to like anyone, not even each other.

We went back to the airport and checked them in for the flight to Scotland. The VIP bar got raided even though it was only 9.45 a.m. but thankfully this seemed to sedate them rather than excite. The flight was slightly delayed as we had to convert three seats into two for our Nigerian ‘High’ and ‘Mighty’ guests (these became their nicknames) but otherwise the flight was uneventful. Unlike our arrival in Edinburgh.

We lost one. Somewhere between the aircraft steps and the baggage belt we lost a Liberian. My group were unsympathetic. There were shouts of ‘leave him’ and other inflammatory remarks, with each group trying to out do the other. ‘We must find him, he could be ill’ I said and left them to wait in the VIP lounge.

. I found him but how he did it I do not know. Somehow, without going through immigration or security he had got into the International departures area. He was propped up against a bar with two huge bags of duty free including everything from whiskey to giant Toblerone bars. ‘Ah, Mr Mike’ he grinned, ‘can you pay for my drink please’. I plucked him out and got him back to his name calling friends.

We had a full welcome party waiting for us at the Caledonian hotel. They stood in a line in order to greet our guests one by one. This was not a good idea as all our guests wanted to be at the front of the line. As a result they pushed forward in an untidy V formation towards the startled hotel commercial director. The lady mayoress put out her hand to shake with our man from Douala but he placed his bag in it and told her to take it to his room.

At least I had got them there safely with few scares except a misplaced Liberian, a smothered commercial director and an indignant mayoress. Must be plain sailing now I thought, but no. I still shudder to think of it all in one go so I shall tell the rest of my sorry tale next time!

I had a lonely breakfast in my room. My charges were to have a day ‘free for shopping’ and I simply could not go down to face them in the foyer. I could see it in my mind though; wrecked breakfast buffet, beleaguered concierges trying to explain the Edinburgh road system and cab drivers rubbing their hands with glee thinking about what ‘rip off’ level they could reach.

I stayed in hiding for half the morning and sneaked down when it was safe. It was not. There in the lobby was my Liberian absentee from the previous day wrestling with a multi fold large scale map of Scotland. It was spread over two tables and a stool and he was asking folk how to get to Edinburgh. “Your there mate” came a less than helpful remark from the waiter who was pointing at Aberdeen.

‘Ah, Mr Mike’ he beamed, ‘I have been waiting for you, shall we go now’? I could barely muffle my groan. Gone was the opportunity of a leisurely visit to the spa and instead the prospect of a shop from hell loomed. ‘First we buy a kilt, yes’? ‘Where is Marks and Spencer’?’ Do you have some Scottish money’? The questions came thick and fast as we left, dodging the eager taxi drivers.

The rest of the morning was a busy blur of shops, shops and more shops. I was loaded up with bags like a mule, following my guest up and down Princes Street until we finally got to a kilt shop. At least I will never moan about shopping with my wife ever again I thought as I brooded outside the changing cubicle. And then he emerged. He looked fantastic in his Royal Stuart tartan and spent a great deal of time preening in front of the mirror. ‘OK, I will take three’ he beamed. ‘Mr Mike, do you have a credit card’? He never took it off for the rest of the trip, sporran and all.

We all teamed up again in the evening and we looked a strange bunch what with our Ghanaian in tweeds and spats, my Liberian dressed like Bonny Prince Charlie and the rest in formal dining robes which were exactly the same as the clothes they arrived in.
Our meal was in a ‘traditional’ Scottish themed banqueting hall across town and we all piled into the eager taxis which had lurked around for this moment all day.

The evening was interesting. In came the haggis on a plate carried by a chef surrounded by pipes and drums, and the address to it began. ‘What is this’ one guest demanded in a loud voice. ‘Why is he stabbing it, is it alive’ shouted another? ‘Why does he not speak English’, demanded a third? Snore, grunt went another as he had dropped off.

Then they found out what was in it.’ I think it is against our religion to eat this’ moaned one. ‘You people are not civilized’ groaned another. So they drank the whiskey it came with instead on empty stomachs. They were all near to drunk when the main course of roast beef arrived. ‘More whiskey’ came the shout. Then the dessert arrived. ‘More whiskey’ they called again. By the end of the meal they, and I, were plastered.

‘Now we go to a traditional pub for a whiskey’ somebody said as we left a very relieved dining hall. ‘Let us walk until we find one’ another agreed as we moved deeper and deeper into the less salubrious part of the city. And then we found one. It was next to some very run down tenement flats and the outside walls and windows were covered in years of grime.

‘Hello friends’ my very bulky Nigerian shouted as he walked into a stunned public bar. I saw one person actually drop their drink. ‘Who would like to drink with us’ the other bulky Nigerian chipped in? There was a stunned silence, and suddenly the whole pub rushed to the bar to have a drink with their new found friends. Strangely they all seemed to be on double scotch although they had beer mugs in their hands.

It turned out to be more fun than I expected. We got some strange looks but the locals soon integrated with my group especially while my guys were paying. There were songs from Scotland, Africa and everywhere in between. The bar soon filled as people heard there were free drinks.

Then something happened. My Gambians were shouting and pushing a group of youth and the dreadful word ‘racist’ was shouted. ‘Oh no’, I thought. Some bigot has made a racist comment to my guests. ‘We must go now’, my whole group demanded. ‘We will not stay to hear these insults’ they said and out they walked. I was on my way after them until the landlord called me back. Apparently nobody had paid for their drinks or those they bought the pub and the bill was astronomical.

We got back to the hotel and congregated in the bar for a whiskey. I told them how sorry I was. ‘It is inexcusable to make racist remarks to foreign visitors’ I murmured. ‘Oh no’ a Gambian assured me, ‘it was you they were being racist about. They said you English should crawl back over the border where you belong’!

‘What an evening’ I thought as I slid into bed trying to ignore my queasy stomach. A liquid feast, a huge raid on my expenses and finally an attack on my nationality which was defended by a group of loyal foreigners. It can only get better I thought. But it didn’t as my final instalment will tell.

OK, where was I? Oh yes, that night in the Scottish pub when I rediscovered that some of the locals still maintain that ‘mutual rivalry’ and ‘friendly respect’ between our two great nations. I also learned that, in times of duress you get loyal support from the most unexpected quarters!

The next morning dawned and we were all up early for a tour around the Trossachs and a visit to a stately home. What is a Trosach one guest asked over his full Scottish breakfast? Is it a rodent like the haggis another asked? Is a stately home a home that is in a state asked a third? All will be revealed I said cryptically as I was still feeling the effect of the previous night’s whiskies and could not face a long discussion on Scottish wildlife and ancestral homes.

I was just leaving the room when Mr High (the nickname of one of my Nigerians) stopped me and asked for a bigger room. ‘Why’ I asked? ‘For my wives who arrive today’ he smirked. ‘WIVES’, I gasped. ‘Yes’ he replied. ‘Mine are coming too’ chipped in Mt Mighty (the other one). ‘How many’ I sighed? ‘Three’ said the first. ‘Four’, replied the other ‘and the baby’. Life should not be so cruel, I thought.

This time we really did have to pile into a single coach but thankfully a truce between the nationalities had broken out since their alliance of the previous night when protecting my racial rights. They even behaved (well slept actually) the whole morning as we drove around the soggy Trossach hills and valleys as the tour guide talked to himself. They were even most patient when I stopped the coach so I could be sick behind a bolder to get rid of the previous night’s excesses.

At lunchtime we arrived at the stately home (Prestonfield House). It was incredibly packed and we could not get into the car park as it turned out they were hosting the ‘World Haggis Hurling Contest’ that very day. This involved contestants standing on top of a whiskey barrel and throwing haggis as far as they possibly could and it was being taken very seriously. My gang decided that they were all going to have a go so they could become champions of their own countries in something.

There is an art to hurling a haggis. It involves being able to turn one’s body around to maximum torque before twisting back and catapulting said bladder of offal in a forward direction. All this while balanced on top of a wobbly barrel end. Not as easy as it seems we witnessed as various muscular Scots tried and mainly failed. Finally the organisers ran out of excuses and they allowed my guests to have a go.

First up was the dapper Ghanaian who was still wearing his pin stripe suit and spats. ‘I got the idea from seeing the British boxer Chris Eubank‘ he confided ‘and thought that was what all fashionable English sportsmen wear’. Anyway, he vaulted onto the barrel and got handed his haggis which he held gingerly in his yellow driving gloves to avoid contamination. He crouched, yelled and hurled. The haggis went straight up in the air before arcing down straight onto his head causing him to fall of the barrel and twist his ankle.

My Liberian was next. He was still wearing his full Royal Stuart tartan and looked very grand indeed. ‘Mt Mike, I think I know how they do this’ he muttered,’ it is all in the spin’. Up he got and he started spinning round to get maximum speed of throw. His kilt flew higher and it was then that everyone saw his ‘crown jewels’. Apparently he had read that Scots in kilts did not wear pants so neither did he. His jewels were both enormous and in flight and everyone was mesmerised by the sight. Eventually he got dizzy and fell off with his haggis landing about two feet away.

My turn now my enormous Mr Mighty said. Now he must have weighed at least 160 kilos and there was no way he was going to get on that barrel without help however the team rallied around and tried to lift him. I ended up with my face between his vast bottom cheeks as the Gambians made a joint assault on his thighs but eventually he was up although wobbling dangerously. Someone give him a haggis quickly before the barrel implodes I shouted.

I will remember what happens next for a very long time. The looks on people’s faces, particularly the judges and serious competitors were an absolute picture. Our man just stood there, didn’t twist, didn’t hurl, he just put his hand behind him and threw. The haggis hurtled off as though it was rocket propelled, flew past everyone’s markers and won the competition. He had won that year’s world haggis hurling competition with his first attempt.

We tried to carry him shoulder high but it could not be achieved. He was given his trophy and then the organisers suggested we might like to leave now. Back in the coach we got and sang all their African national anthems all the way to the hotel. I did not even mind when we found the foyer half full of wives, girlfriends and suspect ladies. After a day like that they could do what they wanted.

I ended up really enjoying these trips and practically all I have written is true. I made great friends and was never bored and it has been a joy sharing my memories of them within this

No comments:

Post a Comment