When I speak to people who believe their destiny is carved in stone I tell them countless stories of individuals whose lives spiral out of control, yet find ways out of the abyss and go on to thrive. There are so many who disprove the notion that what we are today should have any bearing on what we will be tomorrow. I speak of experience of adversity and pain as a propellant – not a barrier to personal success. I tell my own story too – because I can relive it and bring it to life for people. It was not an easy transition to make but at 21 I found from somewhere within, a determination to prove wrong all those people who had called me stupid, a waster and a druggie. I’d had jobs before, but had been sacked from each of them. My work record suggested I was a liability to any employer. But there had been people along the way that pointed out strengths they saw in me. I began to listen. I set out to prove myself by returning to a city I had only ever seen and experienced from the streets.
A new start
When the bus arrived at Victoria Station I had a packed bag and a destination – not as rough sleeper but a young man who wanted a new start in life. I felt good about myself and couldn’t wait to reach the Civil Service Hostel I had booked into on the basis of a fictitious job. Cadogan Square, now the third most expensive street in Britain, is where I was to be stationed. My accommodation was at the slightly lower end of the market. It was situated in a very short mews off the square but for me, in London, this was luxury living. I was to share a room with Ian, a friend from Edinburgh and Phil, a librarian from Shropshire with a ginger, comb over hairstyle and a beard. Phil was quiet and tentative at first. But I quickly discerned a lovely, gentle and caring person.
A job and a chance
I got a job within a day at Moss Bros in Covent Garden, packing and dispatching hire suits. We were located in a large below ground level room, with no natural light. Sol, my supervisor, took his role very, very seriously and I would get away with nothing less than perfectly folded clothes and well-wrapped boxes. I liked Sol’s meticulous attention to detail and despite incurring his wrath on a number of occasions I learned to do things well – to fold a suit and shirts using tissue paper in the right measure and in the right places and tie parcel knots with string and sometimes ribbon. I valued each little piece of the learning jigsaw by watching, listening and practising. I didn’t like being so detached from the rest of store – especially where all the girls worked but I was also free from distraction. Apart from Sol, an east end Jew, most of my colleagues were Mauritian – I learned from them about their country, their food and their culture – a real awakening.
Approach any job as a valuable learning experience, give it everything you’ve got, follow those that do rather than those that don’t and you go home with an extra spring in your step. I made up my mind that I would be the most punctual, most enthusiastic and most hard working employee wherever I worked from now on. I did everything right at Moss Bros and knew that if called on they would give a decent reference. I loved getting up in the morning with a sense of purpose, jumping on a tube train and joining the throngs of commuters.
A real corker
Months later, a friend told me of a vacancy at a wine cellar in Victoria – I jumped at the chance. Within a week I was installed as a wine corker. The company imported wine from France and bottled, labelled and distributed it in the UK. Its customers included such luminaries as Julian Bream, who would regularly show up for tastings. My job was to keep the corks wet and place ready them for corking and pull the lever down to meet the mouth of the bottle. Miss the bottle or allow the cork to get too dry and the bottle would explode.
I was at the sharp end, learning about French wines – each night taking a couple of half bottles back to my room. I explained to the woman who ran the hostel about my undercover role at Customs and Excise and that the bottles that clanked each night when I returned from work were confiscated contraband. Her wry smile told me that she believed none of it but was keeping Mum. Over the next couple of months I bottled Rose D’anjou and Beaujolais. We also imported bottled wine and the cellars were stocked with Gewürztraminer, Chateau Neuf du Pape, Chablis and Muscadet – my wine collection was growing by the day and when it came to Christmas and a return home to Edinburgh I packed a suitcase with one shirt, one pair of trousers and 26 half bottles of wine.
Head held high at home
My trip back to Scotland was a triumphant one – I arrived with money, newfound status and a mini-wine cellar. Dad cooked up a goose on Christmas Day, which we washed down with, what I was now able to agree was a delightful French wine – his selection. It had been so long since I had allowed myself to get close to my family. I almost cried when, visiting my Mum the following day she served up a home made pizza for dinner – cheese, tomatoes, anchovies, prawns, olives – I was transported back to the Mediterranean flavours of my childhood.
Mum talked of her work and I of mine. When I was about to leave she hugged me tightly and told me she was proud of me. I waited until I was on the train before I allowed myself to cry. I had restored some of the damage I had done to family relations.
My years off the radar had caused them so much anxiety – now I was showing that with hard work I could carve out a future for myself.
Years later, after many jobs, a winding road and a host of small achievements I brought her to see my business in Edinburgh – it was flourishing at the time. She was flushed with pride. Sadly, my dad died too young to see what I managed to make of my later life.
I learned in my early 20s to say “NOT YET” not “NEVER”
There is a long way still to travel on my journey but what I know is that each day of my life has been a learning experience. My message is ‘ never lose sight of the value of what you learn in adversity – it gives you an edge not a disadvantage.’