Sunday, 26 February 2012

“If you want to write interesting books . . .

. . . you should lead an interesting life”, Joyce Holms, crime writer.

I wish I’d kept a diary. Not because I believe it could one day keep me, but to jog my memory about how I got to where I am now. Of course, some events stand out. For example, both my weddings, and that one and only time I bought a size nine pair of jeans. And this.

When I left school, the only careers guidance I had received was along the lines of ‘What sort of holiday job have you had? Working in a shop? So why not try that?’. My two A levels got me on to a training course at Harrods, the prestigious department store in Knightsbridge. It was then part of the House of Fraser group, way before being Mohamed Al-Fayed's plaything. My parents were so proud.

The year’s course involved working in a variety of departments, including the Wedgewood Room, which was very scary – you try wrapping a plate worth hundreds of pounds for its journey to the USA. During that time I caught fleeting glances of celebrities like Freddie Mercury, Rod Stewart and the bloke who played the Yorkshire vet on the telly. But my most memorable experience came the day I looked up from my till in the men’s underwear department to see this man.
Roger Moore - The Saint, James Bond, The Persuaders' Brett Sinclair - carefully placed a large pile of underpants on the counter in front of me. I can’t remember what size or even what style they were, but I do know he had a lot of them. He smiled and handed over his store card.

In those days, a Harrods account card was a flimsy piece of white plastic embossed with the customer’s name and account number, and with a signature strip on the reverse. There was no electronic swiping then, no PIN numbers. It was the assistant’s responsibility to compare the signature on the card with the one the customer wrote on the sales slip. An additional security check was required if the total value of the purchase was over a certain amount – about £50, I think (it was a long time ago) – which meant you had to phone the administration office upstairs for a ‘sanction’.

I was embarrassed enough explaining to Mr Moore that I was going to have to uphold this rule, despite it being obvious that he was the bona fide cardholder. But that was nothing compared to being told by a voice on the phone that his purchase could not be sanctioned, and worse still, I must not give him his card back.

‘That card has been reported lost or stolen,’ said the person on the fifth floor.

‘But it’s definitely the customer’s card.’

‘How do you know?’

‘Because I recognise him,’ I whispered, in a futile attempt not to let the living legend in front of me know what was going on. But of course he did. He raised an eyebrow (back in those days, movie stars’ faces could move).

‘Shall I speak to them?’ he asked. Hand shaking with humiliation, I passed him the phone.

‘Hello, this is Roger Moore,’ he said in that suave Bond voice. ‘I’m so sorry, it’s all my fault. I reported that I’d lost my card but then I found it again and didn’t tell you.’

Needless to say, the sceptic upstairs was won over immediately, and I was able to complete the transaction and hand over Mr Moore’s purchase in one (or possibly several) of those shiny green bags. He left, after courteously thanking me for my help, an agreeable contrast to many of the store’s less famous yet more demanding customers. I took an early coffee break to rush upstairs and tell my friends about the experience.

While writing this post I discovered Sir Roger Moore has his own website. Strangely enough, it includes no mention of this incident.

Several years later I was on one of my regular visits to the store as a customer, shopping for a Christmas pudding for my parents (they’d developed  expensive tastes while I worked there). It was 17th December 1983, and I was up on the 4th floor when a bomb, planted by the Provisional IRA, went off. Everyone knew immediately what the muffled boom, followed by silence then the crashing of the glass display units signified.

I was fine, though a little shaken, and we were ushered out well away from the site of the explosion. It wasn’t until later that day I learned six people, three of them police officers, had lost their lives.

Memories come in many varieties.

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