The first time I received an actual wage was somewhere towards the end of 80’s, when my Mum’s mate, Bridget, invited me to work Saturday mornings in her pet shop.
Bridget passed away from cancer in the 90s, far too young, but those hours spent with her left a lasting impression. The warmth and enthusiasm she had for her business made the whole idea of “working” immensely easy. I was probably around 13 years old, but these memories of Bridget are crystal clear.
In the shop, I can recall her instruction to “fluff up the sawdust” in the guinea pig cages – to help with the sales – and then, some months later, in her home, and unbeknown to my brother and I when she was very ill, Bridget had us over one evening to listen to her vinyl back catalogue. Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” still gives me goosebumps, planting me back on the Goan carpet in Bridget’s living room floor, singing along voraciously to the chorus.
To be born, as I was, with all the secure trappings of education, health and support, it has only been during these past two decades, of digging into a career in international development, that has highlighted so relentlessly what a privilege my life has been to date. And also, come to think of it, how much I’ve enjoyed working. Not something I’ve thought about along the way but, truly, I can’t recall a job from which I’ve not drawn something positive.
Perhaps, on occasion, this has been down to my perseverance, or from turning some learning from a previous work experience into practice. I’d argue back, though, that I’ve fallen on my feet most of the time because I’ve worked with some very special people.
From the auspicious heights of selling accessories for pets, through to working in my Mum’s gift shop, carefully sellotaping lavender fragranced pin cushions, and the like, in pink and white striped paper-bags, I ventured into gardening, landing summer work at the Prime Minister’s estate – Chequers – where the head gardener, Bill, taught me a thing or two about planting vegetables and cutting vines, as well as how to drive a car (he first took me, and three summers later, my brother, round the edge of the estate in his blue escort, barking out orders in his colourful South London accent).
From gardening, the inevitable mid-to-late teen indulgence of bar-tending took hold – I worked at The Pheasant pub in Great Missenden, and then at Moor Park’s Golf Club, which was nearby to my school. I did lunch and dinner shifts at the pub and worked the member’s bar and on Saturdays, weddings, at the Golf Club. The head barman at the Golf Club was a raging alcoholic and I often had to hide his car keys and befriend the patrons, in order to help usher him into a taxi. Every shift I remember being a bundle of fun. We laughed in the kitchens, waiting for the food to be plated, and we laughed after hours, smoking fags and knocking back drinks.
On one blessed day up in Moor Park, I served the comedian Peter Cook a pint of lager, not long before his sad passing. To this day I can’t remember what I said to him, but he was sporting a lemon jumper with a blue moniker on the breast, still wearing his one golf glove, and making small talk with his companions. He tipped me two quid.
Not long after I’d earnt my fortune from the catering industry, I left Uni and taught in Uganda for a year, (as I’ve long droned on about on these pages) – an equally rewarding and sentimentally charged chapter in my career. This was prefaced by two summers in Israel, volunteering as a jack-of-all-kibbutz-trades: milking cows, planting citrus fruits, washing dishes and chopping vegetables. I worked with Swedes, South Africans, Americans, French, German and Spanish. Hard work, long hours, and some of the best days of my life.
London next, from 1997 through to 2011, and a clutch of fascinating roles, firstly in the private sector for two years, hocking expensive, but life changing, month long expeditions to Africa and Asia for sixth formers, then a hop into Government, earning my spurs as a would-be civil servant, before landing in the non-profit sector and working my way through three charities specialising, respectively, in disability, cancer and, finally, corporate social responsibility.
2006 was the turning point, cementing my commitment to a mission of understanding how to address poverty and social injustice, and which has compelled me to write regularly (and now consult permanently) on the issue of women’s empowerment.
I know I’ve learnt a thousand things on this journey so far, but the one about women’s empowerment being the ultimate silver bullet to quashing the underlying causes of some of the world’s most profound societal issues, is one I will take to the grave. The formula is so simple, and yet we remain so far away from fulfilling the type of equity (in gender, but also in other areas) that would bring about profound, anticipated and deserved change.
When I think again about Bridget’s kindness and spirit, and how that helped curate a sense for me about what was important when it came to working, I can pick out a similar seam of behaviour from others with whom I’ve shared time in each of these jobs – in an office, a classroom, at a conference, with a community or, more recently, simply on a skype call.
Difficult to sum up in one word, these people, these experiences. Many colleagues have remained close friends, and I’ve long admired their passion for work, or how passionate they’ve been about getting the best out of other people at work. Many of them have also been just plain driven, determined, and steely in their resolve to do things well. Others, still, impressive in their knowledge, their courage, or in their humility.
Maybe the over-arching message I take away from these peers, and managers, over the years, is how important it is to keep one’s perspective in check. To know when to listen, and also when to act, is one skill, but to carry oneself at all times, and especially during the inevitable ups and downs of a workplace, with at least the bare soles of your feet touching one part of the ground, is a true gift.
Bridget had that gift. As did many of the other men and women I’ve worked with since, and with whom I hope to collaborate again in the future.
Philip Larkin wrote about work as a toad squatting on one’s life and I’ve long thought about his imagery since first reading his poems at school. It could be seen as an injustice, almost, that past generations have perpetuated an exhausting norm around a person’s career: that of working to live, of grafting away at a job as a means to an end.
For many billions of people, shaking off the work toad is impractical, ill-advised, or more likely, impossible. Our current Saigon lockdown is the worst yet, and it’s crippling people. Just as lockdowns in other countries have done, and continue to do.
My story and my message aren’t connected or related to the vendors at the end of our street, who have had to close their businesses. Or to the migrant workers from this region who travel to Thailand in search of factory work and higher salaries. My context and my reality is miles away from them, and from all of the communities I’ve visited around the world. This blog isn’t for those UK shop-keepers, either, anxiously opening up to customers next Monday, for the first time in over a year.
My luxury, right now, might not be the freedom of movement (it’s been 16 months to the day since I was last outside of Vietnam) but it is the freedom to work from home, and to continue to work with others whose very way of being inspires me.
If this writing is for anyone, aside from myself, it’s for those who might have lost some perspective, at work or in the day-to-day grind of living through a pandemic.
Virtual workspaces are a reality now for many, but I see not why it can’t still be possible to influence your colleagues in a positive way – be that person, like Bridget, whose breath-taking humanity and compassion might rub off on another, becoming forever etched, always there, just under the surface, glowing.