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Posts Tagged ‘Bluewater’


A little under two thousand days ago (is it really that many?), I snapped my wage slave chains and took early retirement from the public service. It hadn’t been planned, though I was of an age to leave, but it was a sudden opportunity that presented itself that was just too good to ignore.

Even on that last day in service, as I strolled the streets of Paris with my birthday girl of a wife on a balmy spring day, I gave little thought to what I might do next, to what my “second career” might be. After all, I was only fifty six – “nobbut a bairn” as they’d say in Yorkshire.

Cue excuse to post a gratuitous photograph of myself on that fateful day.

Do I look happy?

Relieved?

Too young to retire? (Don’t answer that one).

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And now I am about to return to gainful employment for the first time since.

But more of that later.

There was no rush to find alternative employment at the time – I had a decent occupational pension, though hardly the golden handshake that many believe awaits anyone, irrespective of finishing grade or length of tenure, that leaves the civil service. And it would be another eight and a half years before I was eligible for my state retirement pension.

But I received an income that supplemented my wife’s continued full-time salary (she would have, barring a lottery win, another eight years before she could follow suit). Once a handful of debts had been paid, the residual lump sum could sit in a savings account growing ever fatter with a 0.5% interest rate.

Although the process of offer, acceptance and departure was a swift and painless one, there were sound personal and professional reasons for my decision. I was becoming increasingly disenchanted with the commercial and less caring direction in which the organisation was moving, and felt unappreciated by immediate line management and employer alike. When I added in twenty three years of long distance commuting, I’d had enough.

It “helped”, if that’s the right word, that my father was not in the best of health, and I could now devote more time to his care. And my wife would have her dinner on the table every night when she got home from a ten hour day.

But back to the question of what to “do” next (as if caring and maintaining a home were “doing” nothing).

My preferred part-time job would have been working in a bookshop, but they were already dropping by the wayside in the face of the economic downturn and e-book onslaught.

Book selling had been a long shot anyway, but surely, working in travel and tourism, for which people told me I had a passion and aptitude, would be a better bet?

So I wrote to around twenty travel agents in the area, extolling the inestimable benefits I could bring to their company.

No response.

My education in what happened in the brave new, recession-ridden, non-governmental world of work was expanding daily as my letter box grew rusty with misuse.

I soon realised that, in order to compete for a career in tourism at any level, especially given my age, I would need to “go back to school” and acquire some vocational qualifications. Time was too short to embark on a three year degree course to become a tour guide – for which there were few openings anyway – so I plumped for working towards a prestigious professional diploma from the Home Learning College.

Within a year, I had passed with distinctions in all three elements of the course.

But jobs were still at a premium.

And, by then, having prepared fourteen dissertations, I had rediscovered a long term itch that screamed to be scratched – writing.

There was nothing else I wanted to do. It wasn’t going to pay, at least in the short term, or possibly ever, but it would be the most fulfilling and satisfying thing I could do with my time. I started a blog on New Year’s Eve 2010, focusing principally on my affection for San Francisco, which I maintain to this day – the blog and the affection of course.

In 2013 I published, along with Martin Moseling, my first book, A Half-Forgotten Triumph, which received critical acclaim, but modest sales, in the admittedly niche world of cricket writing. My next book, Smiling on a Cloudy Day, which will attempt to articulate my love for the City by the Bay, is scheduled for publication in the summer of 2015.

I believe that, on the whole, I have managed my time away from the world of “working for the man / woman” over the past five and a half years fairly effectively. And I have certainly never been bored. In fact, how did I ever find the time to go to work?

Do I regret having “retired” when I did?

No.

Have I missed the social interaction, the camaraderie of working in a team, the sometimes unbearable stress?

Maybe, sometimes.

But now an opportunity has arisen that has made me reconsider whether my fierce commitment to customer service, a trait known only too well by my wife as she listens to yet another Victor Meldrew-like rant on the subject, might yet have an avenue of expression outside the home.

Which brings me neatly back to the new job.

A high-end, award-winning cookware company is opening its new state-of-the-art branch in Bluewater, Europe’s largest shopping centre, in October, and I have been successful in securing a part-time position as a sales assistant. As with my early retirement, the process of sending my CV, being interviewed and offered the job took just three working days.

It’s not my first venture into retail – I worked for six months in a local charity shop in 2010 which I enjoyed immensely, though I acknowledge that this will be a far more intense working environment.

Although I had essentially given up on returning to such work, I find myself intrigued and not a little excited at the prospect.

It will mean, of course, managing my writing and other responsibilities more rigorously. And spending less time on Facebook can be no bad thing can it?

But my wife will have to make her own dinner when I’m on an evening shift.

But oh to be back in Paris in 2009! (Another gratuitous photograph).

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Have you ever passed people in the street, or stood behind someone in the queue in a shop, and overheard a snatch of conversation that has intrigued you so much that you wanted to hear more, but could not as they had moved on as quickly as they arrived?

One place in which you may hear hundreds of such snippets in just a single day is the shopping mall, particularly in the build up to Christmas when the numbers of its parishioners escalate.

The Bluewater shopping centre in Kent is the fourth largest in the UK in terms of retail space, and the sixth biggest in Europe. The following quotations were all overheard by myself on a trip there on Monday 19th December. Some are amusing, others intriguing and some just plain weird. The common denominator is that I neither heard what was said before or after – those words, the context in which the comments were made – are lost forever.

Whilst you might be thinking that my behaviour bordered on the creepy side, I should state that acute observation of people is a fundamental requirement for any writer. Moreover, Former Press Secretary to President Lyndon B. Johnson, Bill Moyers, claimed that eavesdropping was the only place in which you could truly “delve into the life of our times”.  And with not one person either casting me a quizzical look or uttering a cross word during this exercise, I must have some talent for it!

I had originally intended to “explain” each comment by reference to the location in which it was made and the gender and approximate age of the speaker. But I think the majority  speak for themselves.

I have confined the number to 20, though I collected many more (which I promise not to inflict on you unless you insist):

1. I’ve got to get one that’s got a slit all the way down.

2. Because my calves are quite big I had to have the zip adjusted last year.

3. I’ve gotta try and find one that hasn’t got that mark on it.

4. Shall we ‘ave a look in ‘ere while we’re ‘ere?

5. Mum, come and look, come and look, they’ve got a Bristol.

6. Billy, you run off one more time and I’ll cancel Santa.

7. Forty five quid? I could make that for a tenner.

8. If I don’t get me money back I’ll kill ’em.

9. I’m tellin’ ya, it’s Southern Comfort ‘e likes, not Jack Daniel’s. 

10. I can’t afford presents like that. I’m at Uni.

11. I bought ‘er some books off Amazon. She don’t read but they were SO cheap.

12. Time for lunch. So what’s it to be – sushi or McDonald’s?

13. Alfie, there’s a spare table over there. Quick, get it!

14. I’ve bought all this lot and I’ve hardly started on my list.

15. Oh…. my…. God, it’s got a Hollister!

16. See, I told ya, Bluewater’s way more poncy than Lakeside.

17. If we keep going we’ll end up outside.

18. After all that, I need Starbuck’s.

19. That’ll do. I can’t be bovvered to look any longer.

20. We can’t go home yet, we’ve still got Mummy’s present to get.

I think a number of those comments would be heard in any other shopping mall in any other town on any other day because, understandably, they reflect many of the preoccupations of modern life – money, obsession with appearance, thraldom to designer names, tainted by desperation in many cases. The only surprising omission was any reference to The X Factor, The Only Way is Essex, and many other alleged celebrity TV showsor what manufactured and over-hyped song would be the Christmas Number 1 – but maybe I just struck lucky.

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I have never been a great fan of Starbucks on the grounds, pun absolutely intended, that I don’t find their coffee strong enough (perhaps I should order something other than latté in future).  I prefer the more astringent taste found in Caffe Nero or Costa Coffee or, even better, a traditional, independent Italian coffee house, though they are becoming, along with corner bookshops and record stores, increasingly hard to find.

That said, I think Starbucks has more to commend it than its core product.  Firstly, it plays the best music, with a lot of classic jazz and blues and a smattering of folk rock.  As I write this in the large branch in Bluewater (Kent), Bob Marley, is singing Three Little Birds, and we’ve just had Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi and Ella Fitzgerald’s Paper Moon – a fine playlist in my books.

The company also has a history of selling CDs exclusively from its outlets.  I was lucky enough to stumble across the live One Man Band by James Taylor whilst on a long, lonely road in California a few years back, but sadly missed out on the live Gaslight recording of Dylan because the offer was only available in the US (a long, expensive way to travel for a $10 album, even for Bob).

Then there is the ambience, which is particularly appealing in this branch – massive picture window opening out onto a sparsely populated mall, a casual mix of comfortable armchairs and stiff backed seating, and wooden framed photographs celebrating the coffee making process and posters advertising the latest special offers.

Shelves of packets of tea and coffee, assorted cups and other merchandise are arranged in the corner by a long perspex fronted counter that displays a tantalising array of things to eat, including tuna melt and mature cheddar panini, skinny lemon and poppyseed muffin and roasted chicken with herb mayonnaise sandwich.

I’ll confess that the food in Starbucks is another selling point for me.  My favourite delicacy is the toasted cheese and marmite panini, whilst my wife, who has a decent claim to being a connoisseur on the subject, asserts that the carrot cake is the best anywhere.  This reminds me that, although I usually eschew the (hot) coffee, I cannot resist a coffee flavoured frappuccino, which may actually be the best frozen / cold concoction available in any coffee chain.

With the busy lunch period past, the branch is now half empty.  The muted lighting generated by small, widely dispersed clusters of yellow and blue lamps, the gentle hum of conversation and the unobtrusive yet satisfying music all contribute to a civilised atmosphere.

Opposite me, two new mothers compare breastfeeding strategies, in word rather than deed, which acts as the perfect sleeping pill for their previously irritable daughters.   In the far corner, a gaggle of young shop girls from Zara, Gap and Hollister meet up in their mid afternoon break to slurp strawberries and crème and caramel frappuccinos and relay tales of annoying customers and bossy supervisors, whilst simultaneously maintaining text conversations with their boyfriends.

An elderly couple on an organised coach trip, nibbling at blueberry muffins and sipping “traditional” tea, suspicious of the exoticism of coffee that isn’t instant, bemoan their blistered feet and the cost of everything.  A bald, middle aged man with paunch protruding through ill fitting suit leers over his espresso macchiato at a female employee, and potential lover, young enough to be his daughter yet flattered by his worldly patter (not an entirely civilised scene then).

As my wife approaches (is that solitary slice of carrot cake still available?) I suddenly reflect – I like the ambience, the food, the fairtrade commitment, the music and some of the drinks  – should I not consider rewriting that first sentence?

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