Last year I was invited to write a review for Resurgence & Ecologist Magazine of two new excellent books about storytelling by American storyteller Laura Simms and by Stroud-based Anthony Nanson. It appeared in the January 2013 edition.I hope that readers of this blog might be interested to read it – and the books themselves!
Paris. Orly Airport. 19.25 à Londres. “CANCELLED” it says in big red letters on the departure board. Snow at Heathrow. But I don’t mind too much. I’m on my way home after a successful gig in a French Château telling stories and exploring Narrative Leadership with an international group of Learning and Development Professionals. I travel quite a lot. I’m a cool customer.
By the time I get to the desk, I’ve already phoned my travel agent, booked a seat on the 09.55 next morning and a room at a nearby hotel. I am given my voucher by the airline to pay for all of this, take a few minutes to buy some fine tea from the Mariage Frères concession at the airport then jump onto the shuttle to the hotel. I’m a cool customer alright.
I borrow an electrical adapter from reception and sort out the internet link, enjoy a large Gin and Tonic at the bar and find a table for one in the restaurant. Tartare d’ Avocat followed by Confit de Canard, washed down with a couple of glasses of Château Neuf du Pape. Next morning I tarry for a minute or two in reception to return the adapter. The hotel shuttle drives off without me. But no matter there’ll be another one along soon. Plenty of time to stand around looking cool whilst I take in the snow-covered vistas beyond the car park.
The shuttle arrives at Orly Ouest half an hour later than I had intended but there is still more than an hour until my flight takes off. Time for a quick exchange of texts with Chris (my partner, who is en route to Heathrow from Dakar) and to contemplate breakfast. No; I’ll cruise through security and get breakfast airside. I’m so cool, I’m froid.
The departure board directs me to Salle 31 for passport control and security check. When I get there, two of the four control points are closed and the queue of waiting passengers snakes the length of the terminal. I am reassured though: a large sign indicates “9 min” to wait. As I’m looking it changes: “16 min”, “20 min”, “Plus de 20 min.” This is slightly worrying as they clearly have no idea how long it’s going to take.
For a seasoned traveller like me, this is a simple matter of queuing strategy. I notice that the line divides in two as it gets closer to the border control booths: one for EU passports and one for all passports. The “Toutes Passeports” line is slightly shorter so, after a painstakingly slow 15 minute shuffle to the point of bifurcation, that’s the one I choose. This soon proves to be a serious mistake.
For some entirely unfathomable reason it takes three times as long to tick a box at our booth. Not only that but another channel runs parallel to ours: “Passeports Diplomatiques.” I hadn’t noticed it at first but now delegations of self-proclaimed diplomats have come out of nowhere and are piling down it. Inspection of our queue’s passports is halted whenever one of them gets to the front, so they can be unctuously ushered ahead of us. I bet half of them have never seen the inside of an embassy. Bastards.
20 minutes pass and I am no closer to the control booth. Come on. Come on! COME ON! Bloody useless French. Bureaucratic nit-picking idiots. Couldn’t organize a piss up in a brewery. I bet they’re enjoying this. In fact, they’re doing on purpose. I know they are. They want me to miss my plane.
10 minutes to boarding time. 5 minutes. Why don’t I just walk up to the front and demand to be seen. Because I’m British and I am constitutionally unable to jump the queue, that’s why. Bugger. Damn. F**k.
Boarding time comes and goes. Eventually my passport is examined and my bags are x-rayed. Inevitably, the alarm sounds as I pass through the metal detector (it’s the clasps on my braces) and I undergo the ritual humiliation of a public body search by a child in uniform. I want to scream at him: “What’s the point of searching me for weapons? The sodding plane has already left.” Instead, I grit my teeth and endure the indignity in silence. After all, what does it matter now?
But what’s this?
Gate D is still closed. BA 333 has not yet left the tarmac. The lounge is full of people drinking coffee and eating croissants, casually waiting to board. There’s time. There’s plenty of time. Time for me to get an espresso. Time for me to calm down. Even time for me to choose a couple of bottles of St Emilion in Duty Free.
I knew all along that it would be alright. I am, after all, a very cool customer.
Don’t you just love David Hockney? His vigorous brushwork; his use of colour; his imagination, his audacity, and above all his trousers? Have a good look at them: serviceable tweed, capacious, high waisted, deep-pocketed, button-flyed, and designed for proper suspenders/braces (none of your cheap clip-ons for our David).
In short, they are the kind of trousers that your grandfather might have worn. And his father before him. Not actually the same pair of trousers of course, although quite possibly they would have been durable enough to have lasted several generations.
I confess that I have long lusted after a pair of Hockneys. High and low have I hunted over the years yet still failed to bag a pair of these elusive creatures. Even the redoubtable Snook’s of Bridport was unable to flush out trousers of this ilk. I came to the sorry conclusion that my trophy room was destined to languish Hockney-less until the end of my days. But fret not dear reader for this story has a happy ending.
There I was, stalking the cobbled streets of Le Marais in Paris, just before Christmas looking for a certain magasin (which for security reasons I cannot name) that my partner Chris Seeley had stumbled upon several years previously – one that had then stocked a select range of gentleman’s handmade clothing by English tailor Paul Harnden. Some astute detective work on the internet had revealed the likely location of said magasin and I found it without difficulty.
The interior was much as Chris had described to me although seemingly devoid of gentleman’s handmade clothing. I took out my iphone and went to take a photograph of the distinctive – and rather witty – chandelier hanging from the ceiling to send to her to double check that I was in the right place.
“Non! Non! C’est interdit,” declared Monsieur L’Assistant.
Clearly a precaution to prevent the place being identified by unwanted foreign shoppers, I thought. Undeterred I enquired of the prickly young man if the establishment had any of Mr Harnden’s apparel in stock.
“Certainment,” was his terse reply.
Monsieur L’Assistant led me to a solitary clothes rail tucked out of sight at the back of the shop, presumably to stop casual customers getting over-excited. A sensible precaution because I myself began to tremble as I saw hanging from it 3 long coats, 4 jackets and… a single pair of tweed Hockneys.
“Je suis desolé Monsieur,” he said indicating the paucity of stock.
“Moi aussi,” I replied, noticing that the label on the trousers was M for medium.
The letter M and I have not been on friendly terms in the trouser department for some time now. I gestured to my comfortable waistline, shaking my head sadly.
“They are tailored quite generously,” said Monsieur L’Assistant breaking into perfect English. “Perhaps Monsieur would like to try them on and see for himself?”
I knew it would be futile but I carried them reverently to the curtained changing room where I could at least fondle them in private. To my complete surprise and utter delight they fitted perfectly. M must mean something else in France. Fate had decided. We were meant for each other.
“I’ll take them,” I said.
Monsieur L’Assistant removed them to the counter, folded and wrapped them in embossed tissue paper, and placed them in a bespoke carrier bag (itself so luxurious that had it been charged for, it would have cost more than the clothes I was wearing at the time). Then came the small matter of the bill. I handed over my debit card to the cashier, wondering if it would be up to the job.
“It’s possible that the bank will query it,” I said, tapping in the pin number and praying that it wouldn’t. “It’s an unusual transaction for me to make.”
The card machine whirred, clattered and pinged.
“Your card ‘as been refused, Monsieur. I am very sorry.”
I tried another card. Whirr, clatter, ping. Also refused.
I stood for a few moments puzzling about what to do next, when my mobile phone rang and the synthesized female voice of my bank’s automated fraud prevention service sought to verify my purchase.
“You have just used your debit card?” — “Yes.”
“A family clothing store in Paris?” — “Yes.”
“One pair of trousers?” — “That’s right.”
There was a short pause…
“Medium?” — “Yes.”
A long pause…
“Really?” — “Yes, really.”
A longer pause…
“Medium? Are you quite sure?”
In the end we came to an agreement. I told my synthesized friend quite firmly that my waist size was my business and – rather chastened I thought – she agreed to pay the bill. Debit card now accepted, I returned to the cashier and was soon striding triumphantly out of the shop, clutching my fancy trousers in their fancy carrier bag.
And here they are safely back home. My very own pair of Hockneys.
I’ve started writing another book (this time on storytelling and leadership) which has been commissioned by Wiley/Jossey Bass. The book’s working title is Telling the Story: The Heart and Soul of Successful Leadership. My partner Chris Seeley interviewed me on video recently to ask how it’s going. Thank you Chris for permission to share the video.