Friday, 19 January 2007
“That’s My Work”
Alex Horne – 19th January 2007
One of the motivations behind this project was the chance to tell stories that would never normally be told. Every single person we meet has decided to leave their home, travel however many miles to London, and start a new life in this cluttered city. For me, that’s always going to be interesting. And sometimes, people tell us their tales in such a way that there’s very little more for us to do than act as international stenographers.
At the end of last year, my wife and I were watching telly when water started pouring through the light fittings in the bathroom. The flat upstairs was leaking. Luckily, our vertical neighbours are both lovely and efficient and within a few hours a man called Rashid had patched up the hole and started drying out our damp. Today he was coming round to give our ceiling a final lick of paint.
On that very first day of ‘the bathroom problem’, I found out that Rashid was from Morocco. But it didn’t seem all that appropriate to ask him to help us with our slightly nebulous quest when there was still a lot of bathwater pouring into the wrong flat. So now, with just hours to go before the job was done, I did my usual sales pitch and he started telling me his story.
Rashid moved to Wembley from Morocco when he was 22. He’s now 44. That’s right, Owen, he’s spent half his life in London (see our Cypriot, No. 13). And no, he didn’t find that a particularly interesting statistic either.
His plan was to stay for about three months and perfect the English he’d learnt for the last couple of years in college in Rabat. Unfortunately, on disembarking at Dover he soon discovered that he couldn’t actually string a sentence together that anyone here would understand. Bearing in mind that he currently has faultless English with a stronger London accent than most of the Eastenders’ cast, this is hard to believe but Rashid says it’s all down to a school on Oxford Street.
Back in 1985 when he arrived, there were even more of these English Language schools than there are today (see Iran and Mauritius, No’s 25 and 32). Margaret Thatcher had just decided that people entering the UK should have visas and to get one of these invaluable bits of paper you needed a letter from a college saying you were doing your best to learn the language. Rashid did exactly that, enrolled on a course then went along to the ‘Alien Office’ (he couldn’t say this without smiling) in Holborn where he was told that yes, he could stay, on the condition that he got a job immediately.
Immediately, then, Rashid found himself work first at the famously luxurious 5-star hotels, Grosvenor House and Claridges, where he soon started picking up his English from people of nearly all walks of life. One of his very first jobs, for instance, was as a runner between the kitchen and dining room at the wedding of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson. Within months of arriving, Rashid was serving potatoes to royalty while crowds of onlookers stared through the hotel’s windows.
By this stage, we were waiting for the penultimate coat of paint to dry so had stepped out of the bathroom when Rashid noticed an exotic lampshade we’ve got hanging in the corridor. “Ah, now that’s Moroccan”, he said with a knowing smile. I explained that we’d picked it up from an Arabian bar off the Edgware Road that was being revamped a couple of years ago. “Yes, I know the one. It’s on Crawford Street, it used to be called The Street, but now it’s called Occo”. Well, yes, that was the one, I mumbled, slightly taken aback by his apparently psychic bar knowledge.
Hiding my surprise well I went on to explain how we happened to be on our way to our new, first house, when we noticed the sale, went in, and picked up the lamps, a load of glasses and our kitchen table for next to nothing. Right away Rashid marched into the kitchen, examined said table, nodded and remarked “that’s my work” with understandable pride. It turned out he’d given all the tables in that bar an MOT a few years’ back and had since been in charge of the whole refurbishment project. Even the table looked happy to be back in the hands of its master.
After a coffee we returned to the bathroom and Rashid’s hotel tales. Ten years after Fergie’s doomed wedding, he happened to be doing the same job for Andrew’s mum, our Queen, when she celebrated her 50th wedding anniversary in the same room. This time, he even got to personally look after Her Royal Highness for half an hour when Carlos, the bloke who usually insisted on playing the part, had to get something from the cellar. According to Rashid, Elizabeth II is a nice and quiet lady.
For him, however, the highlight came when he met the King of Morocco who had organised a state banquet for our nice quiet Queen in a bid to win her support for his country’s proposed entry to the EU. Hassan II’s request was eventually denied but Rashid had come face to face with his leader, something he reckons would probably never have happened had he gone home after those first three months. And, he says, the Moroccans are trying again for EU membership in 2010 and this time look like they might just have a bit more luck. Good news for Morocco – and anyone attempting to recreate this project in years to come.
All of this, he tells me in a fairly matter-of-fact way – which may well be the only way you can tell stories when you’re standing in the bath at a stranger’s house – but with that same knowing smile he’d given to our lampshade. The smile of someone who’s been there, done that, but is pretty happy doing what he does now thank you very much. Because after the Gulf War, the hotel industry went downhill – there was no money left apparently (I don’t know why this was the case but that’s what he told me and that’s what I wrote down). Having met enough monarchs, learnt enough of the language and made enough money, Rashid quickly got out of Claridges and into the building game.
And that’s where he’s been ever since – using the connections and communication skills he learnt in the kitchens to build up enough of a reputation to rebuild the capital’s bars and bathrooms every week of the year. He’s now his own boss with his own business and everything’s just fine. He spent Christmas back home in Morocco where the sun shone and he relaxed with his friends, but his family is here now and even the rubbish weather has its advantages. The night before had brought the strongest winds since 1987 (just after his arrival). Fences were blown down, walls toppled and tiles dislodged; all providing yet more work for a very content Rashid.
*I have to admit that it was only when I came to write this up that I realised that ‘Occo’ is short for Morocco. Oh well.