When I was 17 I applied for drama school in the U.K. where I had been partially raised (also in Germany and Gibraltar, my father being in the Air Force). I got two call backs, one from Weber-Douglas and one from the Bristol Old Vic. The call backs were for a year later and with no patience and little long distance vision I decided that was code for rejection! I would never have made it as an actress at that time with such a delicate ego!!
Mother then stepped in with sensible ideas and suggested I apply for a journalism course which I did and got accepted at Cardiff. I didn’t take that up either, and decided to get a job and put college or university on hold for a while.
I got a job locally and looked in danger of settling down with a boy next door type which horrified my mother who wanted to live vicariously through me and that did not include me settling down at 19 like she had! So she scoured the national papers and sent me hurtling off to London (100 miles away) on a job interview for a “multi-lingual sales person to interact with an exclusive clientele” in Piccadilly.
I set off in my banger of a first car and came to what I thought was a VERY BUSY ROUNDABOUT……..found out later it was Hyde Park Corner in the rush hour!! What was my mother thinking, sending me off like that a simple country girl?? She was born and raised near London and worked in the City as a secretary before marrying my Dad.
When I found the place having imagined all sorts of wonderful scenarios on the drive up, it turned out to be a job for a shop girl in a West End tailor shop!! They offered me the job but at half the advertised salary because of my age and inexperience. I got them to promise to put the salary up after a month’s trial when I would prove myself and they agreed.
Not long after starting work with them, during my lunchbreak exploring the wonderland of the West End, I saw David Bowie sitting on the grass on Leicestere Square , where the movie The Man Who Fell to Earth was due to premiere. With ridiculous conscientiousness I ran back to work and asked if I could extend my lunch break to interview David Bowie as I still did a bit of journalism and creative writing. THEY SAID NO!!!! aaAAARGH! And said I would be fired if I disregarded them! Silly me I stayed ha ha!
Whenever they let me sell on the shop floor I would do really well, but they tried to hold me back and have me doing minion jobs so the old timers could make the sales floor commission. The final insult to them was a Saudi millionaire who came in with his driver and bodyguard, took a liking to me, and ordered three of everything I showed him, from cashmere coats to Armani suits to Brooks Brothers shirts to silk ties……….my commission was only about 2% but my wage was jumping in leaps and bounds to the envy of the grouchy old timers!!
He came back three days in a row, insisting on having me serve him despite the bosses best attempts to say I was busy, and sadly the firm did not honor my commission at the end of the month, nor increase my wages as promised, so I promptly visited a recruitment agency in my lunch hour and found another job!
I got hired by the Elite Customer Services department of a merchant bank, owned by Pakistanis and patronised by multi millionaire Arabs………it was what later became infamous, the BANK OF CREDIT AND COMMERCE INTERNATIONAL, which went spectacularly bust a couple decades later.
But at that time it was the fastest growing bank in the world second only I think to Bank of America, and it could do no wrong. They had authorised an elite Customer Services department with a million pound annual budget…eventually we were 18 staff of 16 nationalities and multiple languages and cultiures. Our brief was to fulfil any requests or needs of the top 100 clients of the bank such as organising education for their children, shipping racehorses to the Middle East, renting properties for their summer visits, acting as intermediaries with estate agents as they invested millions in the London property market………..
I was initially hired as the receptionist and was the first person hired by the Pakistani woman who was the unit manager. She was the daughter of a Pakistani ambassador, shunned by many of her country people for being a career woman, she had left her husband AT HER WEDDING when she found he had been having an affair with his secretary right up to the night before the wedding! What a brave woman, the marriage was arranged as was the custom in Pakistan and very high profile.
There was a property boom at the time, late 70’s and we could not hire staff quickly enough to keep up with demand. The Pakistanis understood the Arab culture and mentality, and the wealthy Saudis and Kuwaitis and UAE bilionaires loved having a middle man or woman bridge the gap between them and British Estate Agents and vendors. The Bank interviewed for a Head of Property Services and settled on a hard nosed English woman who confused aggression with assertiveness and made huge demands in terms of salary and benefits, including expense account, driver etc etc. She was reluctantly hired as being the most qualified and was due to start when she had worked out a month’s notice in her current job.
Whilst waiting for her to join the unit, I started meeting client needs in terms of properties to rent or buy. I was a quick learner and a natural sales person, although I always thought I hated sales. I subscribed to a Real Estate magazine and picked the brains of all who courted me professionally…..every real estate firm in London wanted connections with us because of our client list.
Days before the new hot shot woman was due to join us, the Manager and General Manager had a meeting and decided to offer me the job. I was only 18 and flattered and excited. They hiked my salary by about 40% from the entry rate, assigned me a secretary who was older than me, a driver and within a few short months two further assistants, one male and Egyptian, one British and female, who recently tracked me down on facebook! My General Manager would periodically put £100 in an envelope as a clothing allowance, and gifts from Hermes or pearls from Teheran or Dunhill and Dupont paraphernalia were regular offerings for all the unit staff from management.
For the ‘run of the mill’ millionaire clients we would be chauffered around in company Mercedes, and if royalty or mega rich clients wanted to view property limousines would be laid on..A princess from the Saudi royal family gave me a sapphire and diamond ring as a thankyou when she left London. Another Kuwaiti billionaire opened up a briefcase full of solid gold jewellery and told me to choose a gift as a thankyou! The Arabs knew how to live large, and todeay’s Dubai is a symbol of that ability to visualise extravagantly. They were fiercely loyal to people who understood and honored their culture, even if we did not share it, and they displayed a dignity that I admired and still do.
I vowed not to become corrupt, I was young and idealistic. Bribes were offered on a weekly basis by London property companies, seeking any avenue of favor with the cash cow that was the Arab influx to London in the 70’s and 80’s. Cases of rare wine would be delivered to me at Christmas, bottles of cognac and rare Scotch, silver and gold cigarette cases….I was regularly taken to lunch at the best restaurants in Knightsbridge where I worked. I finally stumbled when the Church Commissioners who handled all the property owned by the Crown, ie the Queen, ie most of central London, offered me a sweetener I could not refuse….
They rang me innocently to know did I know anyone who would like to rent a two bedroom apartment in one of their prime developments near Marble Arch with concierge and private gardens and underground parking……….at a set rate because a previous lifetime tenant had had the rent set and secured at a ridiculously low weekly amount of £40. I scribbled a few details and said I would get back to them.
As I mentioned it to my manager, and checked the figures on my calculator because they seemed so low, she said ,’If you don’t take it, I will!’
So I called them back trying to sound calm and non commital and said I would rent the apartment with security of tenure and the fixed rent.
I kept it for ten years, rented it out a couple of summers at £500 a week and went travelling, and finally sold it for “key money” of many thousands when I surrendered the lease. It was a ground floor apartment with direct access to the private gardens, and walking distance from almost everywhere in the West End…Mayfair, Piccadilly, Bayswater. I used to cycle across Hyde Park to Chelsea and Knightsbridge, and arrive quicker than if I had driven.
Obviously the Church Commissioners got a lot of business through me after that, which with hindsight was corrupt on my part, despite being sanctioned and encouraged by my manager.
A couple of women associates at the time who worked in the property business asked me to come in with them and start a new company. All they wanted was a nominal £50 from each of us to register a company name, and we would do a three way split on profits. I declined, preferring the security and glamour of my salaried job, and intending to move on after a while anyway because I was so young and never really intended to work in ‘banking’ even if it was the Customer Services end! They went on to become property millionaires riding on the crest of the wave of the boom, and it became one of many opportunities I ‘missed’ during my working life!
The social life attached to work was also amazing…..nightclubs, 5 star hotels, openings and galas and beautfiul food. I adored Lebanese food and my Egyptian secretary taught me a lot of Arabic cuisine too. A certain class of old money British still held the Arabs at bay, considering the likes of Mohammed Al Fayed to be vulgar, and diistrusting oil money and gold taps and overt wealth as gaudy. But local and foreign, old money and new managed to co exist and London was a vibrant and exhilarating city to live in. I did my corner shopping in Harrods which was literally next door to my office, I bought my clothes in Knightsbridge and was very Sloane Ranger with my Burberry raincoat and Hermes scarf and designer apparel it was like fairyland to a country girl, and on my visits home my parents especially my mother would beam with pride and reflected glory.
I had a Lebanese boyfriend for a year or so………again, with hindsight I wonder if he courted me for business reasons as he was also a property developer! Lets not be too cynical, we had so much fun, he used to make me laugh so much. He cared for his niece a beautiful 4 year old whose mother had died in the war in Beirut. Sadly he got messed up on cocaine and lost everything. I had a love affair with a Financial Director of the bank, who was from Bangladesh and very gentle and lovely and impeccable. Sadly he finished it and married a woman from his own culture as was expected of him.
I had a long term relationship with a German guy I met during this time who was a Press Attachee at the German Embassy in Begravia. What fun we had zipping around London at weekends in his Porsche with Corps Diplomate plates which exonerated him from any speeding tickets!! My relationship with him was on and off for 25 years, we were like ships that kept passing in the night, star-crossed lovers…he proposed to me once when I was unbeknownst to him pregnant to my Lebanese boyfriend. I was too ashamed to tell him so just declined the proposal with no explanation. He went and married someone else within a month, and in that same month I miscarried the baby and broke up with the Lebanese guy. Too late, when I tried to contact my beautiful diplomat he was on honeymoon. Years later, after his rebound marriage had ended in a divorce, he and I tried to recapture our youthful love, but again, addiction raged and he had sadly become alcoholic, unable even to work. Looking back, I have been involved with a lot of addicted men, and wonder if the fact that I grew up with an alcoholic mother had anything to do with my sub conscious patterning. I am trying to break that habit of attracting or being attracted to guys with addictions right up to today!
After three years of working incredibly hard with the Bank I started to weary of it, and also started to sense the inner corruption that eventually led to the Bank’s downfall. The first real inkling I had was when I was given a brief to find an apartment to buy, then refurbish it, decorate and furnish it and rent it out, with funds directed to a Swiss bank account. The budget was huge, and when the mystery buyer showed up to view the 5 properties I had short-listed, I was perplexed when he said to me at the end of the tour in the limousine, “You choose, I leave it up to you”. Flattering as that was, my instincts were right, and I later found out it was a bribe to the Nigerian Foreign Minister…this funny little African man who had followed me silently on the tour of potential investment properties in London. The Bank I worked for had given him a London property as a back hander in exchange for being granted permission to operate in his country which was so oil and mineral rich. Only Bank of America had been given operating permission up to that point.
Another time I did a few weeks field work for a valued client who lived in Chelsea and had a chauffeur and Rolls Royce and housekeeper. His regular personal assistant was on maternity leave and I was seconded to p.a. for him in her absence. He was hotly tipped to be the next Secretary General of the United Nations, was a published author and respected diplomat and politician from the Sudan. He was securing funding of millions from the World Health Organisation and African Congress and various international bodies….millions for irrigation projects, development that would end poverty and bring work to Africa, the vision and scope was inspiring.
But during my few weeks work for him I came across ‘double telexes’…companies tendering for work using the grant aid of millions at a certain price, being selected by him to do the work, and then telexiing to confirm that his commission would be 3% or 5% or in some cases much more. He was making millions in ‘buksheesh’ payments whilst supposedly facilitating the end of poverty and hunger in the African nations. It sickened me to my stomach. I said nothing, but declined his offer of a permanent position at a fabulous salary, as well as declining his many invitations to have dinner with him and influential movers and shakers in his world of politics.
The frantic pace of life and my own emotional fragility were taking their toll. I worked till 8pm many evenings because of the sheer volume of work, and my inexperience in delegating despite having a team of four working directly under me. One night I stayed in the office until 1 in the morning preparing a report and proposal for the bank to set up its own property company, to take advantage of the huge profits available in this crazy property boom.
In my enthusiasm and naivete I presented the report to the General Manager the next morning without going through protocol and the proper channels. He called my Manager in to discuss the proposal and she did not know what he was talking about. He called me in and I briefed him verbally, and afterwards she took me to one side and said ‘If you ever blind side me like that again I will see to it you are fired!’
The bank gave me a budget of a quarter of a million sterling to invest. I had a brief to rent a dozen properties on a year’s lease and then sub let them at hugely inflated prices to our wealthy clients on short lets. It was a giddying responsibility and I was still only 20 or 21. My Manager oversaw the investment but primarily it was left up to me. Still though, it was a diluting of our original role as impartial mediators between the wealthy bank clients and the estate agents and personal property vendors in London at that time. Power corrupts and my choice of properties was influenced by the Lebanese boyfriend and various other contacts who by now felt they had earned the right to find favor with me. I think we only broke even on that venture, but it still blows my mind that I was entrusted with such a huge sum to invest at such a tender age.
My idea was implemented fully within a year with a subsidiary company being set up and housed in our building. I think I had left by then, and they mistakenly staffed it almost exclusively with Pakistanis, thus missing out on the bridging role I had played between cultures when dealing with establishment Britain. They did the same with travel which was another area we handled for our clientele, setting up an International Travel Company, which also handled hotel bookings and limousine hire.
My best friend died around this time of cancer, at the tender age of 18. My parents split up. My German boyfriend disappeared after I laughed at his first protestation of love. Coupled with exhaustion from work, disillusion as I became privy to the inner machinations of business power and corruption, and my own personal unresolved issues about child abuse, I collapsed into a spectacular breakdown necessitating 6 weeks off work.
I became agorophobic, stammered in my speech the small amount of time I would talk, developed an irrational fear of men, slept up to 18 hours a day, I was numb, I hardly cried I just could not function. I was prescribed Serenace which wiped me out and was like a sleeping drug. I fantasised about being able to sleep forever to escape the terrors churning around in my subconscious. I became so fearful I could not relate at all to the high powered executive role I had played at work, and when they periodically rang me for advice or information in my absence, I was terrified.
I went to stay at home in the country with my father at our family restaurant. My mother was living alone in a tiny flat and working full time. My father was busy with the restaurant and had no understanding of mental health issues, he also unrecognised by me at the time was a huge part of my unresolved childhood issues, and I deteriorated. An Aunt who lived in London and had been a nurse, offered to take me in, and I will always be grateful to her for the way she nursed my fragile psyche back to functioning health. I went to see a psychiatrist in Roehampton but sadly fooled him with my fluency and intellect and he dismissed me after one session. With hindsight, if he had recognised my cry for help back then at 21, he could have helped me avoid decades more of chaos and dysfunction in my life.
I decided I would leave my job in the bank and go to University. My General Manager offered sponsorship through the bank if I would study Law or Business…I declined, preferring instead to read Literature and Theatre. I wanted a complete change, I wanted to sit in a field and read Shakespeare!
I interviewed at Cambridge after sitting their entrance exam successfully. I did not get offered a place because they were non plussed at my innocent placing of them FOURTH on my list of preference, and also because the Bank phoned me DURING my interview, before the days of mobile phones, and the Don looked most displeased as he handed me the phone in his office in an ivory tower of tradition, for me to answer silly questions about property deals which seemed offensive in this royal bastion of learning! No matter! I accepted a place at Warwick University, on a cutting edge theatre course the first of its kind in the country, and I went on to enjoy 3 amazing years of learning and academia. I acted in 22 plays and 2 films in my first year alone! I wrote a play and got funding and venue in a 1,000 seater for production. I was in a drama group that got funding to go to the Edinburgh fringe. I co wrote a play which toured Europe and was then spectacularly plagiarised to become the movie GOODWILL HUNTING!
But I digress. I worked in and around the Bank for all my summer vacations from University, able to earn fabulous money to supplement my grant and see myself through University as a mature student. My mother had been horrified at me leaving ‘the good job in the bank’…in her day a job in a bank was a job for life! And she had loved all the glamor and excitement experienced vicariously through me of my job in the West End. The Saudii Minister for Defence at the time asked me to organise a governess for his children for their 2 month summer stay in London. I told him I would do it myself as a summer job from University. I set a ridiculous salary and he agreed to it. I was allocated a driver and bodyguard as the children were high kidnap risks, and was given a fabulous daily budget to have fun with them. I taught them English in the mornings in the sumptious apartment they owned in Knightsbridge. Then the driver and bodyguard would accompany us to lunch and whatever activity i arranged. We would go horse riding in Hyde Park, ice-skating in Queensway, swimming, the movies, museums, arcades we would do something different each day and it was great fun. I was firm with the children who were a little spoiled and were used to firing staff if they displeased them. My boss was so enchanted that his children were having a ball, getting educated and being disciplined, that he offered to finance me buying a building and land with stables outside of London and setting up a permanent school. I declined. Another golden opportunity spurned, I seemed programmed to turn down wealth or opportunities to become very wealthy! I started an agency of governesses as his whole family and network of friends started asking for what he had…a bit like keeping up with the Joneses!! But I was too naive to charge or take a cut from the other staff salaries……….i simply placed friends and sisters with all the different Saudi and Kuwaiti families, giving them a template of how I operated, and an insight into the psyche and culture of the employers. The Royal Family asked me would I convert to Muslim and return to Saudi Arabia with them on permanent staff with any salary demands I liked………..again I declined!
The final opportunity that I ‘missed’ indirectly through the Bank, was an offer to set up and manage an international gift shop at Dubai airport, financed by the Sheikh, with a free hand to buy in whatever designer products I chose, and to hire staff and run the whole thing! I was flown to Dubai on a 5 day trip to see if I would like to live and work there. I was offered an amazing salary tax free plus an apartment and convertible car. I DECLINED!! I thought I was too good to be a glorified shop girl, how stupid was I?? Also Dubai was little developed back then, there were a few 5 star hotels but they contrasted garishly with the stark poverty only a stone’s throw away at every corner. I was afraid of messing up culturally as women were still expected to behave with extreme decorum and restraint, and drinking was of course illegal. The middle man, a senior manager from the bank, who was setting up this deal with the Sheikh as a side earner unbeknownst to the bank, had designs on me which made me feel uncomfortable and made me suspect pay day might come rolling round when I was vulnerable and isolated a stranger in a strange land………..so I turned it down. Ha ha! When I look at modern day Dubai now and the overpowering wealth displayed in it, I laugh at missed opportunities and the wealth and status I could have enjoyed by getting in right at the beginning! Never mind! God always has a plan!!
Towards the end of my time at University, where I felt much more at home being arty and creative, the Bank crashed spectacularly owing multiples of millions and possibly billions. Corruption on a vast scale was uncovered from the very top down to the bottom, which did not surprise me, but saddened me nonetheless. My General Manager and Manager had taught me many valuable lessons in business, they were loyal like family, almost like the Mafia……….they prided themselves on never firing anyone. One manager who became addicted to gambling, he was Manager of the Earl’s Court branch, and embezzled over a million pounds from the Bank to fund his addiction, was simply transferred back to Pakistan and offered help and counselling! The only time my position was ever in danger was when I took a business trip with another Branch Manager who had a crush on me and was always showering me with outrageous gifts. I left the trip early and came back alone when I realised his agenda, which I should have picked up on much earlier. I had brought a colleague along on the business trip, a girlfriend, and I thought this made it abundantly clear there would be no action outside of business. In our hasty departure, we risked offending our host the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi, and my General Manager asked me to write a letter of resignation which he would hold in case the Bank President heard of the scandal and demanded a head to roll. WHY MINE ha ha!!
As it happened the Manager was the same one who was in negotiation on all sorts of private deals with Middle East magnates jumped ship anyway, and my job was safe after a suitable scolding for being naive.
It was fun. It was great fun. I learned some Arabic, and a huge amount about the Arab culture and psyche. I lived the life of a single girl about town in London and made the very most of the fun of the 70’s and 80’s in London. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything! Except perhaps the buzz of the music industry in London in that era, but that was drug fuelled and I managed to avoid that whole drug thing for all of my adult life thank God. !