Changing things

My assistant on the floor, Emily, is only about 20. She has an incredibly level head and a mathematical brain. Very unlike me. I only do people and words. I picked her out of a team of 80 because I clocked that she’s just exceptionally capable, organised and kind too. Yesterday she told me she’s got a fast track into KPMG. She’s going to change the world.

This is the hardest work I’ve ever done. By the end of the lunch shift there wasn’t a single manager that hadn’t found themselves with tears in their eyes. Aside from a small core group of young men and women, there are many new faces every day, and they all need training in the practical aspects of this work, and there’s no time, so half of them are baffled. There are many little details, but the work is in the details, because people who have paid huge amounts for a silver service are looking for ways to make their money back, particularly if they’ve lost on the horses.

Strangely, though, I enjoyed the service. It was ridiculously high pressure. I have no idea how I stayed positive and upbeat. But also, by sticking with my teams and training them up, my work on the floor is so much easier. I kept on arriving to troubleshoot potential concerns and discovering that one of my waiters has learnt enough that they’ve done it for me and done it well.

Obviously I still had to smile as people shouted at me about unpolished glassware. One man actively threatened me when I suggested that if all ten cakes were the same for afternoon tea then there would be no variety. I kept smiling and so did my team. Laura and Keegan arrived on the first day physically shy and awkward, unable to make eye contact, and in love with each other. I took a risk and kept them together, with Laura as head waiter. She was terrified of the guests on day one. By the beginning of day two she was looking them in the eye. By the end of day two she was upright, shining and making them laugh. And Keegan adores her and is constantly making sure she’s okay, while bussing trays with one arm behind his back like a waiter in a film. None of these kids are vocational restaurateurs. Very few people are these days. But all of them are growing through this work.

The service is tough but it’s fun (although one of the managers broke down yesterday because of the pressure and I doubt she’ll be back today). I love it BECAUSE it’s so damn hard. I got an on the spot job offer from two Irishmen who turned out to be The Comer Group. I’ll never take it. But they watched me on the floor, called me over and sat me down at the end of service. Nice to know I’ve still got it. The things I’ve turned down to keep acting. I shiver to contemplate it.

Especially when, finishing a tricky service, I watch all the agency workers clock off knowing that they have to go because they’re as tired as I am. and then having to relay all the placements with a tiny exhausted team, only to discover that there isn’t enough polished glass and silverware to cover all the tables.

I feel happy but utterly drained. My feet hurt and are a little bloody. But I’ve watched kids grow into adults. I’ve watched people understand concretely how they can be leaders, how they can use their natural abilities and just the truth of who they are to make an impact on any task. There’s satisfaction in properly hard work. And Laura and Keegan have worked until the end every day, sitting next to each other polishing cutlery after a hard service, and then rushing it out into the floor as a team.

Emily is going to change the world. That’s a hugely important destiny. All I can do is change people like Emily. But that’s important too.

Off to work again. IMAG0986

Pins and wins

In the middle of a crowded service my manager comes up to me. “Come off the floor, and go to reception.” I am immediately worried that I’ve done something stupid and not noticed. But it turns out that they want to pin an A on me for Ambassador. On my first day there was a manager’s training, and loads of people watched a load of videos in hot rooms. As soon as it was done they all left, but I was slow to go. I noticed a single cleaner contemplating a room full of detritus. “Call themselves managers,” I said, and went round with a bag. Krissy came up much later, tapped me on the shoulder, and said she’d nominated me for a rewatd. She gave me a slip and told me to fill it and what to write (she hates writing) so I did. Turns out I came out of the draw!

I go back to the floor smiling. Everyone in my section seems happy today, but the hours are beginning to wear on me and on the kids. It’s a huge job. And it’s a steep learning curve for them and for me.

On the first day I thought I might be looking to put some bets on. At the time I didn’t know that staff shouldn’t bet. I suppose it makes sense, as if you were to win big in the middle of service it might be a little much to see the floor manager throw off their apron, sit down and bellow “bring me Bollinger!” But if I had been betting on my phone in the morning and then looking at it on the way home I’d be pleased to discover that one of my horses came in while I was working and oblivious. I would be choosing horses by name as I haven’t time for science. I would just go with things I feel speak to me in some way, and “Heartache” would be quite a maudlin choice. But it would’ve been a good one.

Unfortunately my phone went mad in my pocket and sent incomprehensible messages all over the place, so by the time I stopped the battery was gone so I’m writing this in the morning before I start, as it’ll go live at the time I usually schedule it anyway

I’m utterly shattered and I haven’t started yet. Going to wind myself up and spring into Ladies Day. But I haven’t got time for a photo. Got to dress up nicely…

Old friends and lady racers.

I don’t even know who I am anymore and that was day one of operation. I made a lot of people very happy but I also made a lot of people very tired. Thankfully as far as I could tell the happy people were the ones who were paying and the tired people were the ones who were being paid. It was a hot hot day. Looking back it was a 15 hour day but made a little harder because one of my kids lost their lunch so I gave them mine and only had an orange. But I only stopped for long enough to eat an orange and have a wee. Lazy bastard. Mostly I was having to be present and troubleshooting and making decisions. Now we’ve done it once we know the size of it. It’s vast. But we’ve got the staff. And they’re so willing. Good on them all. Some of them had a long day too.

A highlight for me was meeting a “lady rider” from Australia. Forty years ago she was jockeying horses in Oz, and she gave me a photocopy of some of her race cards. At the time they wouldn’t call her a jockey, she explained. She had to be a ”lady rider”. And she had come all the way with a huge party to watch Michelle Payne, and just to BE here. I hope she had a wonderful day. She certainly seemed to. And there’s pleasure in this unbelievably pressurised work when you briefly meet someone like that. A trailblazer.

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It’s hard to remember or break down everything. Fifteen hours on my feet with constant demand on my attention. I thought it would be easier without the white noise. But it seats up to 800 people in there and they all had things they needed and my kids had never done something on that scale before and did it so well. I remember one of them hobbling up to me with blood on her shirt smiling. “Are you sure you’re okay?” I ask her. “Yes, I’m fine!” as a smile that seems genuine. How?

At some point I found myself talking about computer games. My old friend from Drama School was there and even if it was lovely to see him it’s hard not to be a floor manager when that head is on. In one of the rare quiet moments I went up and chatted to his husband and that’s where the conversation went. Computer games. Who’d’ve thunk it.

Meantime over the course of the day some people were winning extraordinary amounts of money while enjoying the free bar very very much indeed. I found myself thinking that if I have a lucky year, I might experience this madness from the other side one day.  But right now it’s only going to get bigger and more high pressure so I am going to sleep for a couple of hours and then do it all again.

“So this is how you do it.”

“Anyone got a spare spine?”, said Will just a moment ago. We’ve been training 80 staff how to do operate this cavernous restaurant we just built, which is a little odd considering we don’t really know how it’s going to play out. They’re willing young men and women though, our staff. I’ll get to know them over the week. It’s a lot of names but they’re all the people we’re going to see. For many of them this will be their first job, so it’s on us to treat them well but get them working. I mentioned my first boss a few days ago here. These things, these moments and these people stick with you, even if you’re just doing it because dad told you to get a job.

We’ve finished comparatively early but the days are long and there’s little if any time to stop, which is not ideal in this heat but at least I’ll lose weight. And I’m always happier busy. I remember emerging from the Open Golf Tournament three years ago blinking in the air, having to rediscover what it is to be a person. To not to have to be thinking ahead about what needs to happen next while also doing something different with each hand, detailing people to do something else and balancing a ten foot pole on a cat.

I’m hoping to put some money on the horses too, but I have literally no clue how to tell which horse is looking fresh. It’ll add a certain something when I’m being genial to someone, seeing Monstrous Plopster thundering through the final furlong ahead of the pack by three lengths and knowing I’ve got a fiver on him. If you know your stuff, I’d gladly take tips by message and if I find time to read them I’ll put a few down. If not it’s gonna be random. I’ll probably try and let you know what I’ve put money on here so you can all laugh as I fritter away my hard earned cash. But this is what one does here, as far as I can glean. That and drink champagne in hats. And I can’t do that when I’m working.

I’ve just sat in a car park throwing jacket potato and curry down my gullet in the sunset. It’s free. Free food always tastes great. But now I’m torn between desire for a beer and the fact I’m up at 5 and should probably shave myself and groom a bit before bed, as I won’t feel like it in the morning.

Opening day tomorrow. I’ve got the song from My Fair Lady on my mind. I think I’m too tired to keep writing sentences. So this will have to do. Here’s a sneaky picture of the training.

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I think at the time we were going through “The golden rules of service.” More adjectives, associated with values and behaviours. When did that become so common? Maybe I’ve just lived in different circles.

Right. I’m off to sleep. Three more words.

Father’s Day

Father’s Day. I never really knew dad as an adult. I was just shifting to adulthood when he died. He exists in the realm of ideas for me. He achieved a great deal. He won a few silver and a few bronze medals driving Olympic bobsleigh long before I was born. He raced cars and powerboats. He traveled the world. He was very much alive for his whole life, and that vitality allowed him to live with cancer for long enough for me to get some paternal advice from him. His last few years he was silent, as the cancer took his voice. He had cravats specially designed to cover the tracheotomy, and he was able to put his finger to a valve and make words, but it hurt him to do so. Even then he kept his vitality and sense of humour. Unable to make a laugh, he would conceal pieces of paper with “ha ha ha” written on them around the room, and when something tickled him he would gesticulate to an object with his stick until someone picked it up and found the note. Then he’d point at himself.

Growing up he taught me by example. I can’t really put my finger on what I know he taught me. He taught me to love being outdoors, to be aware of the beauty around me, and thankful for it. He taught me to speak my mind. He taught me to be suspicious of unearned authority. He taught me a lot more than that, things that I’ll never really know. I think my restlessness derives from him. My desire to see more and feel more.

He gave me my education, and the roof over my head. Every day I thank him for that roof. Without it I wouldn’t be still acting, which he might not be pleased to know. He never wanted me to do this. He once begged me aged 17 to consider something else. Anything else. “I can’t help you with acting. I have no friends at all who do that. I know nothing about it. I can’t give you advice.” He cared about his legacy. He wanted his children to do well. Who knows what he’d make of what I’ve been doing lately. These sporadic varied weird jobs. Although the wide angle focus and the ability to be mutable about my self-identity – I think he might have given that to me.

I miss the old bastard. God he could be mean. But be could be great fun too, and he was fearless.

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Today we’ve just finished building a restaurant. We’ve made up over 1.5k covers in silver service. It’s been too hot for this. I’m totally knackered and I have a premonition that this blog is going to devolve into monosyllabic grunting over the next week as the working days get longer and I get more and more tired. Maybe I could take a leaf out of my dad’s book and just write BLOG and point at it frantically with a stick.

I wish he was still here. I miss him and could use his advice. Life is generally pretty hard to fathom. I’ve been swamped for years and am only recently starting to breathe again. Parents can help with that sort of crap. Happy Father’s Day, Norman Barclay you legend. I found this a year ago on his university webpage. Worth a share. There’s not much of him on the internet. I was his youngest and he was of another time…

Norman Barclay

(matric. 1943)

Born in Glasgow in 1925, Norman Barclay was truly a man of adventure. Nicknamed the ‘godfather of extreme’ by the media, Norman was a daredevil who lived for speed. Equally at home water-skiing across the Irish Sea, motor racing in Formula 2, power boating around the British coast and driving in a road marathon from London to Sydney, Norman frequently risked life and limb in the name of extreme sport.

When he wasn’t speeding downhill or behind the wheel of a racing vehicle, Norman served as a Captain in the Royal Engineers for two years, posted to Malaya and Japan. Later, he built a successful business portfolio in fields as diverse as whisky and plastics.

Norman was a member of the British Bobsleigh team at two Winter Olympics, at Innsbruck 1964 and Grenoble 1968. He also became the President of the British Bobsleigh Association in the early 1990s. Norman spent his final years hunting for treasure on Caribbean shipwrecks and flying hot air balloons.

Kitchen Managing

Three years ago we did A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Sprite. It was the tenth show and final show in the grounds of Ripley Castle, and utterly joyful. I miss that company every summer. The last show, as was customary, was a Sunday matinee and then I jumped in my car and drove to Liverpool. I had three white shirts I’d borrowed from the costume store, and a black suit off the peg at Tesco. I was off to manage a restaurant at The Open Golf Tournament.

I know it’s a cliché of the actor’s day job, being a waiter, but I was an actor that had never set foot in a kitchen. I’d never bussed a plate. I had no clue how silver service works apart from occasionally having received it. My friend Tristan knew how broke I was and had persuaded them I was an experienced manager. I got added to the list and panicked when I got the email. I called him up and he assured me I’d be fine. “I’ll be managing the bar in your kitchen. Anything you don’t get just ask me. It’s common sense and hard work. You’ll be fine.”

Then two weeks before we were due to start, Tristan booked Three Musketeers filming in Prague. Bastard. I finished Midsummer Night’s Dream having spent a week on the internet googling “how to manage a restaurant” and “silver service place settings.” while cursing Tristan under my breath. I frequently considered emailing them and telling them I couldn’t do it. But I wanted the challenge. By the time I got to Liverpool on Sunday night I was both excited and terrified.

Tuesday morning a team of 18 waiters descend on me and I’m having to tell them what’s what with very little practicable knowledge.

“Al, Where’s the slop bucket?”

*What’s a slop bucket?* “Where do you think it might be?”

“Next to the KPs”

*The what?* “Let’s have a look shall we. You lead.”

*Walking*

“Ah here it is.”

*Ah that’s the slop bucket. So they’re called KPs* “Yes. Right where you said it would be!” *Phew*

I got on well with my team, who thankfully all had more experience in kitchens than I had. I felt like one of those aristocratic officers with no combat experience.

I’d have been fine if I hadn’t had to double as kitchen manager. I had to call the pass.

“How do you want me to call the pass?” (The pass is the interface between floor and kitchen).

The head chef smiles and looks me full in the face. He’s old enough to be my dad and he knows his job so well. “Ahh just do it like you usually would, mate.” He says with a twinkle.

“Yeah, but, you know it’s it’s probably best you tell me the way you like it done. You know, different chefs different preferences. Just talk me through what you’d expect…”

He was wise to me. Came up to me on the third day and slung his arm over my shoulder. “You’d never been in a kitchen before had you. Good job. You’d never know it now. But I had you on the first day.”

“I’m sure I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“That’s right, mate. Course you don’t. Now it’s been a long shift and it’s a hot day. Me and the lads are thirsty, if you know what I mean…”

I can be honest about it now as they’ve asked me back. This time I’m definitely on the floor and not on the pass. Hopefully it’ll be a different head chef… But this week I’m going to be very very busy in a hot kitchen. And occasionally looking at horses.

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The Nolan Chart

I’ve heard a lot of people talking about left wing and right wing recently. It got me thinking about the terms we are all using. There are people on ”the left” who I utterly agree with. There are people on “the left” who are being unreasonable. There are people on “the right” who I utterly agree with. There are people on “the right” who are being unreasonable. But there’s a lot of self identity and emotion wrapped up in these terms.

They polarise people – left vs right. Rational people feel they can say “I hate whichever-wing people” and mean it. People I respect on both sides have done it on their Facebook recently. We are instinctively tribal because that’s what we come from – we try to identify what’s not our tribe, we protect ourselves from it, and then we show our teeth and throw shit at each other across the boundary.

After the French Revolution, the parliament called for the exponents of the “Ancien Regime” (the old ways/the aristocracy) to sit to the right of the speaker, and the proletariat voices for republicanism etc to sit on the left of the speaker. That’s the origin. One left, one right. Nobody in the middle but the speaker. Two rows of people looking at each other. One versus the other. Baddies Vs Goodies. Everton Vs Liverpool. That’s the model we’ve taken on. We’re forgetting that there’s more than left and right, there’s up and down.

I was talking with my brother about this. I didn’t go and volunteer today. Volunteering was wonderful, fulfilling but draining. I would advise anyone who is not working to get stuck in particularly now when the cameras are moving on. By volunteering, I could use my privilege to help others, and simultaneously make myself feel better. Double privilege and the chance to be virtue signalling like I am here. Yay.

But the news that was coming in, the weight of hope and sadness about the missing people. The human truth of this fire. How many people burnt? For sure it’s a lot more than they’ve been able to identify. And it was extremely upsetting and draining to remain positive in the face of it when people in the team knew that it’s only a matter of time before they hear the death of a loved one.

That building burnt for a long time. It’s down to gold teeth and pacemakers. But being nearby and helping in whatever way is a good use of time, particularly because of how it has caught the imagination. There’s a lot of stuff that has been given that needs sorting.

But as I was saying before I distracted myself, I spoke with my brother about left and right. He reminded me that the political spectrum is 3d, which makes sense of how frequently people I respect on the left and right are on the same page at heart. Because there are two other dimensions. 

In 1969 David Nolan drew up a chart which I find helpful to contemplate.

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He identified himself as a libertarian and that word has been co-opted in America and shifted its meaning from his intention. But it’s something to think about. Everyone is placed in a more complicated position than just left and right. Left. Right. Authoritarian. Libertarian. Also nowadays there’s Globalism Vs isolationism. But I’m not even getting into that as that’s a big topic.

So left libertarian is Gandhi, right libertarian is Ayn Rand. Left authoritarian is Stalin. Right authoritarian is Hitler. If you haven’t read The Fountainhead / Atlas Shrugged a workable English example of a right libertarian in my lifetime is John Major.

The examples of authoritarianism I’ve given mirror my lifelong distaste for humans that claim to authority. One of my old teachers reads this blog and will probably second me there. One day I’ll probably share one of his school reports. And there are exceptions. My first boss, Digby, was a beauiful poetic man and an authoritarian. His certainty proved an anchor for a clueless teenager and I will respect his memory my whole life. He taught me a lot. I suspect there are more positive examples to be found of Authoritarians. But the point is, it’s a spectrum. It’s more nuanced than just left and right, and speaking as someone who has shifted and might shift again, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t embrace the nuance.

I’m just thinking into a phone. And what I’m thinking is that we should be looking for common ground rather than difference.

Ahh politics.

I’ve just written something about politics, regarding this tower fire. It’s what everyone is doing so I’m in good company. And there’s lots of politics to find. But the more we exploit a disaster for points either way the more we polarise and the more petty we appear to be. And In the end we all want the same sort of thing.

That’s my tuppence. I’ll get back to the acting before long. People in my job are frequently speaking their mind in random issues and as frequently being attacked for having no right to do so. But a big part of our job is to speak. And another part is to understand. I will continue to do my best, from my extremely privileged position, to haphazardly make sense of things. And if this blog is nothing else it’s forcing me to speak my thoughts where I might otherwise be silent.