Sunday, 19 April 2009

Orangutan Diary

The final episode of Orangutan Diary will be shown on BBC2 today at 5.30pm and shows highlights from the past series. Even if you can’t tune in or view the episodes online, I would suggest you get the wonderful DVD of the whole second series. Not only are the baby orang-utans adorable (and disconcertingly like human babies, even laughing when tickled) even to those unsuspecting folks who would not expect to be moved by such things, but the people who look after them are amazing:-
• the Danish former flight attendant who started it all, staying up all night with orphan baby orang-utans in her home and turning that into the world’s biggest ape rescue centre;
• the English GP who acts as chief medic to the orang-utan orphans and also treats the staff when they are ill, balancing his time between an A&E in Scotland and the Borneo jungle
• the impressive babysitters who wander into the forest with numerous young nappy-wearing, dewy eyed orphaned orang-utans draped around them whilst pushing groups of others sitting in wheelbarrows back after a long day
• the delightful groups of technicians (Teknisi) who are sometimes shown wandering into the wilds of Borneo to climb to dangerous heights and to dart adult orang-utans who are in danger of being killed and catch them safely in a net when they fall hundreds of feet to the ground below; and
• the bold souls who stop at nothing to venture to wherever they have heard there is a baby orang-utan illegally being kept as a pet, never knowing what hostility they might encounter.

On my father’s birthday recently, which since his death I have taken as leave from work to avoid bursting into tears under pressure on such a sensitive day, I chose to cheer myself up by watching the entire second series on my recently arrived DVD of Orangutan Diary. It was gripping stuff.

Orang-utan means “man of the forest”, but unfortunately the forest is rapidly disappearing. A Danish flight attendant, Lone Droscher-Nielsen, years ago decided she must do something about the plight of the orang-utans being orphaned through this heartless destruction of their habitat, and she did.

She started the Nyaru Menteng Orang-utan Rehabilitation Project in Indonesian Borneo in 1999, working with the Borneo Orang-utan Survival Foundation (BOS), and it is now the largest primate rescue project in the world, with more than 600 orangutans in its care. I often look at her wandering around the sanctuary in casual khakis and no make-up and can still easily picture her dolled up in the ‘glamour’ expected by that profession, all make-up, uniform and smiles. Yet she could hardly be further from that life now. She is tremendously hands on, meeting and caring in her heart for every ape and every member of staff, training and managing the latter, which includes dozens of local Indonesian Dayak.

Lone is quite amazing. In itself, seeing the problem of Borneo’s forest destruction and the devastating effect on orang-utans and wanting to fix it is impressive, but whereas in my case, that means sending a small donation, in her case, it was an astonishing life change, moving to the jungle in Borneo and starting up the rescue centre, with a whole system of rehabilitation and progression for these apes.

The centre is looking after six times its intended capacity of red apes, which have tragically lost their homes in the wild principally because of the demand for palm oil, which is destroying rainforests at an alarming rate so the land can be used for palm oil plantations. Not only do the orang-utans then lose their habitat and starve, but a shocking number are killed by humans, who often slaughter a mother in front of its traumatised baby and either leave the baby to die or take it as a pet, although it’s illegal and the only home they seem to offer tends to be a tiny wooden box.

Baby orang-utans in the wild would stay with their mums until they were nine years old, and the youngest need constant care and lots of love, like human babies. At BOS, the orphaned babies attend nursery during the day—complete with baby bottles and coconut milk “juice boxes”-- and have 24/7 care from the "babysitters". The youngest babies at night sleep together in a room full of snores with loads of orang-utan orphans in laundry basket cribs, with babysitters present. The slightly older ones are taken out into the jungle each day by their babysitters to learn skills an orang-utan will need to survive in the forest, such as using tools to find food, building nests and climbing trees. The much older ones are taken to a safe island (orang-utans can’t swim) where they have almost no contact with humans, although it is still a false environment as there is not enough space or food to sustain a large population of apes that would normally be spread out, so the humans drop off a food supply each day. I understand there is even a fruit plantation somewhere on the BOS grounds.

A very few orangs are fortunate enough to be released in a safe place in the wild, but of course these safe places are rapidly diminishing. Here again is where Lone is amazing. In addition to keeping an eye on her wonderful orang-utan village and practically acting as the foreman for building works on top of her other duties there, she also scouts out places deep in the remaining forest near a mining outpost, chartering an aeroplane and helicopter, navigating through piles of paperwork and red tape, and arranging an intricate web of schedules that eventually enable some of the orang-utans who more recently joined BOS, and thus are wilder with the necessary skills to survive, to be taken there. This involves a dizzying scurry of activity where orangs are sedated, crated along with food, loaded onto planes and automobiles until they are delivered, dangling in their crates from a harness below the helicopter. The team also need to be dropped in what seems to be remote jungle and camp out until they can release the orang-utans.

Meanwhile, the workers at BOS rescue and, where possible, quickly relocate adult orang-utans that are found near rubber plantations (they eat rubber sap that takes days to collect, so are at risk of being killed by the workers), too near schools or villages, and of course on the dreaded palm plantations, where they can be attacked with machetes if not reached in time. They also go to amazing lengths to find and confiscate babies that are illegally kept as pets.

One of these confiscations shows a waif of girl struggling for many hours in an attempt to reach a rumoured captive baby orang, trying to progress down impassable roads where vehicles become trapped in deep mud and bridges have collapsed, using mopeds that take them for miles until they have to turn back, borrowing a boat that is too weak to fight the river’s current, and finally arriving only to find the people keeping the orang-utans are not home. This young girl, fortunately with someone from the Forestry Commission and a camera crew, which I hope helped, waited until the people returned—carrying a gun—to convince these people illegally keeping two babies (perhaps after killing the mother) to hand them over to BOS without any payment even though each ape is worth a month’s wages if they were to sell them, and to teach them why they should not capture any more.

I missed much of the series when it first aired (I can’t usually watch wildlife programmes as I get upset when I see furry things run for their lives and then get eaten) but when I caught an earlier episode on BBC2, I was entranced—not just because of the adorable animals, so clearly our cousins, but also because of these extraordinary people who work with them.

One puzzle that really caught my eye was the presence of Dr David Irons, whom was referred to as a GP rather than a vet, but I since learned that he heads a medical team that also looks after the 200 staff, and he demonstrated his experience well in one episode by calmly rushing into the forest to administer pain relief to a babysitter who injured her chest in a fall, helping her cope as she was carried on a make-shift stretcher back to the BOS centre and driven to hospital. (It was very serious but also a bit surreal to see hairy orange arms right in there with all the human ones grappling at the patient).

“Dr David” points out that orang-utans have 97% the same DNA as humans and they get some of same illnesses, such as malaria and colds, and “The medicine’s as if I’m in a hospital in the UK but obviously with hairier patients.” And he is in a hospital in the UK fairly frequently, apparently spending a few months as A&E manager at the Galloway Community Hospital in Stranraer, Scotland, to fund his voluntary work at the orangutan centre, where he pays all his expenses. He got involved, following an earlier stint working at a small rescue centre in Borneo, when doing admirable work with impoverished children in Argentina and he saw a BOS appeal for £3,000 to buy a tract of forest and realised that, if he worked over the Christmas holidays, he could earn that amount and donate it himself. I understand he attended a BOS event in London (where have I been when those have come along? Must not be mentioned in Time Out), hit it off with Lone and now spends most of his time in Borneo as the BOS Medical Director at the centre. He and Lone are terrifically impressive; I never meet people like that, but then I’ll never be a person like that, which might have something to do with it. (I should say with some shame that I like my home comforts, my gadgets, PCs, books, music, movies, theatre, art galleries, Starbucks, cooler air and showers.)

Bizarrely, mobile phones seem to work in the Borneo jungle, and Dr Irons in a newspaper interview spoke of how he can’t keep his too near him or the hairy orange charges tend to pickpocket him.

It occurred to me that he would be fascinating to follow on Twitter, but alas, he is not yet with us. Just picture his tweets though: “Cuddling orang recovering from malaria” one day and then, a month later, “busy night in Stranraer A&E, another stabbing but we’ve patched him up”. I assume he’s publishing or at least preparing useful papers and studies on medicine whilst there. He would be fascinating to have a chat with if he ever stopped in London on his way back to Scotland or his family’s home in England.

Steve Leonard and Michaela Strachan present the BBC2 programmes but are hardly in-your-face; in fact, I almost completely forgot that they were involved. Most scenes are just the camera following those who work there daily, showing how it is with some warm narration.

I have heard the odd bit of criticism of this false environment, and some wonder how much it actually helps orang-utans. Indeed, even Lone is no doubt aware that she is unlikely to re-home them all, with only a comparatively few released on precious and rare safe land with rapidly increasing new arrivals, and the newly arrived adults keep pushing the babies they are raising further down the queue.

But what is the alternative? Leaving babies to die slowly in the wild or to go mad kept in boxes by the people who they saw machete their mother, sometimes injuring them, or be illegally sold as pets, and leaving the adults to be destroyed even when you have a chance to save them? That’s no answer, particularly not for an endangered species, and one that is such a close relative. Lone gives them a second chance. She even houses a blind orangutan and another with crippled arms after having been kept in too small a cage, so he cannot now climb trees. The younger ones have love and comfort, and it is important that there are people willing to rescue and rehabilitate the myriad orangutans who need our help because of what we, as humans, are doing to them.

The jungle is being devastatingly bulldozed. Illegal logging is a dreadful problem but palm oil is the single biggest threat to the orang-utans’ survival, and we, consumers, keep feeding the demand for it. It is in everything—food, fuel, cosmetics. Our homes are truly littered with many dozens of products containing palm oil. I try to be aware of it and avoid it, but it is not often listed in the ingredients. Then I was horrified recently to read the box of Nairn’s Oat Biscuits that had been delivered with my grocery order, which I swore by as useful food following stomach bugs and the like, and now see that, like everyone else, I’ve contributed to the destruction of this tremendous world resource as it lists palm oil as an ingredient (though at least they do not hide it like others). We really need to be more aware of what contains palm oil and to campaign for less of it to be used. (There are websites and blogs who try to help educate us on the former.)

There is a BOS UK branch although the website is currently undergoing maintenance (seems fine now, go to: ), but you can adopt an orang-utan there or merely make a donation by visiting . With adoptions at BOS, you receive an official personalised certificate, a background story and an A4 colour photo of your orang-utan, with updates promised on your orang-utan at least every six months.
View the general BOS site at
On that site, you can view a video postcard by Lone from Borneo with some help on the camerawork from a curious Orang. It has also been posted on YouTube, I believe after the first series, at

So many would benefit if you made a contribution to either BOS or WWF, and even more if you did so through both. I adopted as a gift for my mother some years ago an orang-utan via WWF and continue to give a monthly donation for that purpose to the World Wildlife Fund by direct debit, but I also intend to send a small donation (I’m heavily in debt but hope every small bit helps) to BOS. I think it makes an excellent gift—generally, or if you’ve forgotten to order something for someone, and particularly for children who need to be made aware of the need to help the planet in this way.

Whatever you choose to do, please somehow help these lovely creatures who are some of our closest animal relatives, and do, if you can, catch the series. To whet your appetite, a snippet is on YouTube here, focusing on Dr David Irons but also showing the one horrible event seen on camera, when an orang-utan suffers a terrible fall from a tree and bounces off a concrete wall: YouTube - Sumanto Falls . There are also other short clips, including one showing the shocking state in which one nearly dead mother and her baby arrived, and then you see her so healthy after eight months at the centre, just before being released into the wild in a safe area: .

The DVD of the full second series is the best bet, available at Amazon here, and I can only hope some of the profit goes to BOS: .

Monday, 13 April 2009

Missing the Easter Bunny

Well, I’ve tried to celebrate Easter in English style again, but I can’t help thinking back with fond nostalgia to how we celebrate it in America, and I think that comes up trumps.

I love it here in London but I do think that children would surely enjoy a visit from the Easter Bunny more than what seems to be such a serene holiday here. Although I do acknowledge one perk in having such a long weekend here, whereas at home, some regions take Easter Monday as a bank holiday (not that we call them that) and others take Good Friday, but none take both.

Here, Easter seems to mean eating Hot Cross Buns, which I hate, but I bought some low fat ones that I mistakenly thought might be whole wheat versions and not have so much icky orange peel in them, but they were pure poisonous white flour and just as awful as always. Plus, when you think about it, they don’t do what it says on the tin. They’re not hot; you have to toast them. I’m surprised there’s no EU Directive outlawing that claim. Not that it genuinely worries me, it’s just an observation; no doubt the name stems from the old nursery rhyme where a seller is selling them hot.

Easter here also means going to the shop and buying a big single big commercial chocolate Easter egg branded Mars or Cadbury or something ordinary and handing it to your child. How dull, compared to the wonderful Easter egg hunts we had as children, after the Easter Bunny (rumoured to be a relation of Santa Claus) hid coloured real eggs and plastic eggs containing candy for us to seek out and enjoy.

At home, we would, supervised by adults, boil eggs and then dip them into food dye, use stencils and other things provided in egg-decorating kits to make remarkable patterns and exciting little eggshell works of art. Then our parents would assist the Easter Bunny by buying loads of hollow plastic eggs that split in two so they can be filled with jelly beans, an Easter staple, and little edible coloured bunnies made of marshmallow as well as small foil-wrapped chocolate and mini candy eggs. Our parents would also buy standard Easter grass, stringy bright green plastic stuff, and then hide bunches of the stuff throughout the house or, if the weather was lovely as it usually was, throughout the garden, with said candy-filled plastic eggs and dyed hard-boiled ones nestled on each patch.

We were given brightly coloured Easter the baskets in the morning, sometimes along with a cute stuffed bunny rabbit (not a real one of course). Then we would have the joy of rushing around the house or the garden and discovering with glee hidden clumps of Easter grass with eggs on it—plastic and dyed. We would fill our baskets with them and later pig out on the candy (I don’t recall ever actually eating the dyed eggs; that wasn’t the point), but the joy was in the hunt. It was delightful and exciting and a wonderful tradition. Sure, sometimes in June my mother would move some furniture and find some Easter grass with old jelly beans or marshmallow rabbits inside a plastic egg, but that stuff has a long shelf life as it’s hardly made of delicate organic fruit. Or there was that time when we went to church and returned to find that the dogs had done the Easter egg hunt for us and neglected to share the candy. (NB please never give your dogs chocolate as it is toxic to them!). It’s a fun, bright, happy Spring holiday, and although candy is involved, you have to work for it to this degree, and even children realise that’s not what it’s all about.

I don’t necessarily mean they focus on the religious element any more than over here. Indeed, the religious importance of the day seems to be more at the forefront over here, although I think that stems more from the traditions observed on certain days, such as having pancakes on Shrove Tuesday and so forth, because the church and state have been linked for centuries. I don’t recall Lent being so widely observed at home, for instance, with colleagues or fellow pupils discussing what they might give up for it.

It was sweet to hear Dame Judi Dench on Aled Jones’ Radio 2 programme this morning speak of her excitement about this holiday, which she said she loved about as much as Christmas, as Christmas was special but brought with it a great deal of stress and anxiety in the planning, whereas I suppose this was just a calm celebration. That was despite the fact that she was working hard giving numerous performances over the long weekend, including Easter day, in the play Madame De Sade, to which she has returned following a fall when she sprained her ankle. She also loved that Easter meant she could indulge in whatever she had given up for Lent, which this year was chocolate and potatoes. The latter she said she loved more than chocolate, more than lobster even.

I must confess I gave up nothing for Lent this year. It sort of passed me by; I was sick on Shrove Tuesday so couldn’t partake of the traditional pancakes and then time rushed past before I remembered that I should have made some sacrifice. And really all that would have made a difference would probably have been my Chai Tea Lattes, and then I would have either had a nervous breakdown or not bothered to go into work, as that is the carrot on the stick that gets me from the station to my office (see previous blog), and then I would have been sacked and my cats and I would be homeless and I would be bankrupt. So maybe that’s too big a sacrifice. But we don’t need that to prove that I’m perhaps not the best of Christians.

Even though I was less religious, if not agnostic, at home (not that I would think of myself as being particularly God-fearing now but, having lost some dear ones, I somehow have to have a bit more faith now and I never let a day pass without counting my many, many blessings) we would go to church on Easter. Everyone went to church on Easter, even if you never darkened its giant doors any other time of the year. Strangers would flock in, much to the undoubted irritation of the regular congregation who suddenly found that they could not get a pew, and the doors would have to remain open as the crowd spilled out onto the ground in front of the church. I’m surprised they didn’t put up big screens and speakers outside so the people who couldn’t cram themselves into the church could share the experience more from there. Maybe they do that now. But somehow, even if you couldn’t quite make out what the vicar was saying and couldn’t manage to get down to take communion, you could tick an important box to say that you’d gone to church on that holy day, for whatever your reason.

Here, although church seems to be discussed more and more people seem to be openly Church of England (like Episcopalian, as I am in the States) owing to the historical and still present link to the state--whereas at home, one never dares make assumptions about one’s faith because there are so many different accepted and common denominations--I don’t know of anyone who was planning to go to church today. Obviously, some people do.

I might even have felt inclined to go out of tradition, out of a need perhaps to seek some comfort and no doubt many other wrong reasons, but I would feel such a stranger, I would never have the courage. What if I stand when I’m meant to kneel? What if they have some rule where newcomers have to sing a solo? What if they don’t provide the words for the hymns so I can’t even lip sync as usual? What if I put a pound coin in the collection plate and it turns out the norm is a £20 note now? What if everyone stares at me because I’m the only stranger? What if I nod off and snore? What if I’m the only one who turns up at all? Fear of the unknown keeps me out of church today more than the desire to sleep in or just be lazy. A beautiful church is just around the corner and I pass by it every evening, reading the posters on the board about its different services and welcoming recitals and coffee mornings, and I almost want to belong a bit more, but then again it isn’t really me. I’m not sure where this feeling comes from. But I do what I need to from here.

...And in addition to that, I have listened to the odd radio and television show where church choirs sing Easter hymns, although I felt less inclined to enjoy the Easter Songs of Praise than I might, despite some beautiful soloists’ performances, as I seem to recall hearing that they filmed these Easter specials in December or something. A similar revelation many years ago about Jools Holland’s New Year’s Eve Hootenanny programme, which is filmed in November with everyone just pretending to count in the new year and toast it with champagne, means I don’t bother to watch that anymore and just record it. If they can’t be bothered to be there live for me, why should I be there live for them?

But I did half listen to part of Songs of Praise, and I did half listen to some things on the Beeb radio, and I half heartedly ate hot cross buns and I ate some of an organic dark chocolate egg, which I was disappointed to see was not also Fair Trade, and I freaked my cats out with a little toy chick that chirps like a real one when you place it on your hand. And I’ve hummed much of the soundtrack from Jesus Christ Superstar and have been fairly productive in getting a few things done around the house, yet quietly, as it seems wrong to hammer or run washing machines or anything like that on Easter. So I guess I’ve observed it in my own way, but even at the age of 42, I rather wish I was racing around my grandmother’s garden gathering hidden eggs. And if I had children, I would certainly do my best to recreate that American tradition over here. It is a delight that I highly recommend. And kids are too lazy these days! Make them work for their Easter candy, don’t just hand them a big chocolate egg! They’ll thank you for the challenge, I’m sure.

The Church of Starbucks and Encountering Its Leader

Having seen the King of Starbucks, Howard Schulz, recently promoting on BBC Breakfast Starbucks’ Via Ready Brew, its new instant coffee, I was reminded that I meant to blog about bumping into Schulz’ head UK honcho in February

That is, during an excursion to Starbucks for my addictive elixir, I ended up meeting the MD of Starbucks UK. Either that or he was just one of those weirdo attention-seekers who completely fabricate their Walter Mitty existences in order to feel important and gain misguided respect from gullible strangers. But I think now that it was the former.

Numerous colleagues took pleasure in announcing to me that Starbucks had just opened a new branch in Moorgate, closer to our office than the other branches that surrounded us. This was important news as I am a notorious Chai Tea Latté addict.

I know many people are anti-Starbucks. Many felt unhappy about Starbucks’ previous rapid expansion (the satirical The Onion reported many years ago that “Starbucks, the nation's largest coffee-shop chain, continued its rapid expansion Tuesday, opening its newest location in the men's room of an existing Starbucks.”) and feel no sadness that branches are now closing in the States. I keep bombarding colleagues with facts about their Fair Trade and charitable activities in attempts to soften their anti-capitalist pig dog feelings toward it, but I doubt I’ll win that war, although when I’ve treated them to various hot drinks, they’ve all thoroughly enjoyed them.

Not the way I do Chai Tea Lattés, of course. They are my favourite treat, my only vice, but more than that: they are, frankly, the reason I make it to work and get through the day. Not just because of the caffeine content; they are the carrot and stick that keep me putting one foot in front of the other to lead me from the rail station to the office rather than just to another platform where I might board a train that’s headed back home. So, despite my awareness that I’m spending a bazillion pounds a year on tea by buying two of them a day, you could say that, without Chai Tea Lattés, I would be bankrupt and homeless, as work would probably stop paying me if I stopped turning up, and then the mortgage and credit cards would drown me, and my cats and I would be out on the street.

When Starbucks first reached these shores, I would stare longingly at the people walking all around me clutching those magical cups that promised a hot, wet treat, sometimes foamy and sprinkled with cinnamon or chocolate, which seemed indulgent yet couldn’t possibly be as fattening or artery-hardening as, say, a bowl of trifle or a hot fudge sundae. It was just a drink, so surely not so dangerous, yet they were carrying little cups of pleasure to enjoy when they reached their destination. I wanted that, but I detest coffee. That’s one reason they made me leave America.

I would occasionally meet friends there and enjoy a hot chocolate, but that really is too sickly and fattening to get regular pleasure from, plus as a rookie I frequently scorched my tongue and throat by forgetting that it’s much hotter than milky tea so shouldn’t be poured down one’s gullet as soon as one sits down. They eventually came out with Chai Tea Lattés, which had the fun foam of café lattés but rested above delicious black Assam tea with spices such as cinnamon, star anise and cardamom—absolutely scrummy, and if you get it skinny (with skim milk), it’s not half so dangerous. Sadly, I always get the largest size, Venti (which comedian was it who pointed out that Starbucks’ three cup sizes all mean ‘big’ in three different languages?)

So, Chai Tea Lattés were a little bit of happiness for me, but after my father died and I first returned to work following some weeks off trying to grow my brain back, I really did feel I couldn’t possibly leave the station in the morning upon arrival in the City unless it was on a train headed back home. Then I pointed out to myself that there was a Starbucks just a few hundred yards away, in my sights, and if I could just get there…..and once I got there, everyone was very friendly and seemingly supportive, and they gave me a wonderful drink, which really did become the carrot on the stick leading me to my office, where I would be able to sit down and enjoy my treat. Once I was there, it was a bit easier to cope, having already crossed the overwhelming threshold, and if I found myself flagging, it was good to have an excuse to pop out for a 10-minute walk (to a Starbucks) even on the busiest afternoons. I would go to a different branch from the morning one partly as it was closer to the office but also because I didn’t want the people who worked there to realise what a total addict I had become. Though what would they care?

At a good branch of Starbucks, they learn your drink by heart, despite you being one of hundreds of people they see each day. I just walk into the door and, as in a country pub, they start preparing my drink. Sometimes, when there is some loathsome swine in front of me fetching 12 drinks for his office and delaying me hugely, they will pause to make mine and hand it to me before finishing the swine’s thoughtlessly huge order. I love them. They know exactly how I like my drink, which can turn out dreadfully in the wrong hands (and paying over £3 for a cup of tea is ridiculous, but paying over £3 for an undrinkable cup of tea is infuriating and makes you want to kill someone). They are always kind and friendly, bizarrely seem happy in what seems an uneventful job, and even if my train journey has been heinous, which is often the case, their sunny dispositions and the way they know what I want without asking (how many spouses could say the same?) lifts my spirits a bit, and then they hand me my ticket to travel across the City to my office: the promise of a delicious drink. My small reciprocation was to give them a box of truffles at Christmas.

On this day, I had only 15 minutes before a meeting and really couldn’t see how I could make the journey, but was reminded that a branch had just opened very nearby. So I popped out after all and was waiting for my magic elixir to be made when I noticed a man standing half way between where customers waited for their drinks and half-way between the counter, where a member of smiley member of staff was answering his questions. He seemed to have his feet planted firmly there and I wondered whether, despite the smile, the staff member were irritated by this possibly lonely weirdo customer. But it wasn’t my business; I checked the emails on my phone and got ready to grab my drink and get to my meeting.

But then this possibly lonely weirdo customer spoke to me. I flinched slightly as I'm usually expert at avoiding chatty strangers who might want to take my bank details or convince me to change energy supplier. He started by introducing himself, and I never listen to names as I have some disability when it comes to remembering them and I’m usually too busy being judgemental about the speaker to hear what he has said. I did catch the North American accent though, and (despite being American myself), thought to myself in an unfriendly Londoner way: These Americans always have to talk to everybody, don’t they? So I gave him only a quarter of my attention and a brief smile whilst turning back to my phone, ‘til he said he was the Managing Director of Starbucks. He was wearing a baseball cap and, from what I recalled shortly afterwards, fairly casual gear and no tie. I never would have pegged him as an executive of anything.

Initially not sure whether he was THE head of Starbucks (this was shortly before the publicity after that insult exchange between Howard Schultz and Peter Mandelson), although I thought THE head must be CEO rather than just MD, I still assumed he must be from America and asked him what he was doing there. He said he’d been unable to make it for the grand opening of that branch a few days before so he thought he’d pop in (a statement that made me more sceptical as surely the head of Starbucks wouldn’t go to every new branch). His popping in, if he were he who said, must have been a real shock for the employees, particularly as he was travelling incognito. (Unfortunately, it had no softening effect on the very scary woman who I assume is the manager, who rules that branch like some SS exercise, shouting at the staff and humiliating them in front of and as well as the customers, making me dread going in there so much that I usually don’t, which is a far cry from the usual Starbucks philosophy).

He asked if I were a regular, which can’t have meant at that particular brand new branch, and I said that unfortunately, I was one of his best customers. Why unfortunately, he asked. Because it was going to bankrupt me, I replied. I don’t suppose Starbucks execs are amused about constant jibes about how much they charge for drinks (which I happily pay twice a day, it should be noted).

The price of a cup of tea has, I must say, completely skewed my sense of value. If I try to resist purchasing something, I’ll think, well, that’s just the price of a week’s Chai Tea Lattés, so I go ahead and get it. It makes me think how cheap a lottery ticket is, a third of a Chai Tea Latté, and that could be my ticket to a peaceful life of writing rather than a pressured life of a horrid job, so I make foolish decisions there occasionally (as the odds are ridiculous). However, one benefit of this value measure is that I donate to several charities via monthly direct debit as it’s usually paying per month to each what I spend in a morning at Starbucks, so it is easily justified despite my debts (and I’ll give them so much more once that lottery win comes in).

This head Starbucks chap spoke to me a bit more, and I said I’d been meaning to write to them in praise of their Walbrook branch. I raved about its service and country pub ways and said I didn’t know what they did to inspire their staff who might otherwise feel they were working in a tedious job (albeit one I could never, ever do with my lack of memory and of speedy manual skills), but they often cheered me up when I’d just emerged from some hopelessly late train as a ball of furious frustration. He spouted off a bit about the Starbucks philosophy of making each visit a welcoming experience blah blah etc, and I didn't mind though I knew all that. That corporate speak speech was what made me think he most likely really was the MD, and it would have been rude to make my ever-present scepticism evident at the time anyway. I was handed my drink, and he smiled at its complexity when the employee announced to me what they had produced at my request. We were getting along fine (though sadly, he didn’t offer me some high-paying job with free Chai Tea Lattés perhaps doing magical music compilations on their label which people could buy digitally in shop from machines as well…..) until I stupidly said, as I began to depart, that he must be American as I was.

“I’m Canadian”, he said with the cold exasperation that every Canadian must say a dozen times a week when people assume they’re one of us. My assumption had really been more because he was from corporate of a US company; I famously don’t really hear accents and have been known to insist to my colleagues’ amusement that a voice on my voicemail was clearly American when in fact it was Scottish.

So Mr Starbucks went off me quickly when I called him American, and he said he’d lived here about 25 years, which I muttered was a few years longer than me and that he hadn’t lost his accent, which was a daft thing to say particularly as I hadn’t really heard it.

I scraped into my meeting back at the office and announced that I’d just met the MD of Starbucks, unless he was just a pathetic creep pretending to be the MD of Starbucks, and even the anti-capitalists there were impressed as though I’d accomplished something special. I recounted how we’d been chatting along happily until I insulted him by calling him American when he was Canadian.

“Well, if you can’t tell, we have no hope,” one of my English colleagues said. Another proceeded to teach us all the key words he swore were a giveaway if pronounced a certain odd way as a Canadian would. But they were words that don’t often come up in a chat about coffee, like “house” and “quinine”. When I skied regularly in Canada in my youth, it seemed to me that most Canadians added “eh?” at the end of each sentence, but that might be regional or have died out; indeed, I hadn’t known any Canadian singers such as the great Ron Sexsmith to say such a thing constantly during his between-song banter at concerts. And this man hadn’t said, “You’re a regular customer, eh?” yet he still proved to be Canadian.

When I eventually had a chance to Google the MD of Starbucks, having concluded that it was Starbucks UK and not the whole conglomerate who was represented, I started to believe that I had, almost as expected, been hoodwinked, as the MD was a Phil Broad who looked nothing like the chap I met (who, curiously, almost did look a bit like some photos of CEO Schultz). But eventually I found that Broad had stepped down last summer and been replaced with Darcy Willson-Rymer, who was hard to find a photo of, but I believe that surname is Canadian. I eventually found a tiny photo of him sitting around the table with several others from an article on fair trade coffee, and I’m pretty sure that’s the baseball hat guy.

Do I feel like I’ve met my patron saint? Not quite, but it was an interesting few minutes whilst waiting for my lovely nectar. I was glad for more than one reason that I had ventured out to that new branch despite my lack of time. Even if he didn’t offer me a great job in their music business or as Chai Tea Latté Taster purely based on my, uh, magnetism during the few minutes we spoke until I dared to insult him with the A-word, it was an experience to break up the monotony of the days.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

An Alarming Experience

I’m not normally the clumsy, make-a-fool of myself type, and certainly not at work, but then when rushing to a meeting the other day, I certainly messed up with a bang. Or rather not a bang but a shrill alarm sound.

I had about a half hour between meetings but about 40 minutes worth of urgent work to do between them, and also had to go out foraging for a salad to scoff, whilst dealing with the myriad interruptions that always come when you have no time. Consequently, I left myself less than five minutes to get to a crucial meeting where I should have arrived 10 minutes early and was over two minutes away—but first needed to brush my teeth (go on, laugh, but I can’t concentrate without a fresh mouth) and, uh, powder my nose in the sense that doesn’t involve powder of any sort, be it from Maybelline or Columbia.

So it was with a sense of near panic that I ran to the ladies’ room (I prefer women’s room, as an American woman who grew up in the 70s) toting my toothbrush and toothpaste and plans to ensure I didn’t address a crowded meeting with carrots and beetroot strips dangling from my teeth.

I was thus hugely disheartened to find walking into the ladies’ with me the man who restocks the paper towels and toilet tissue. A bit shyly but a lot desperate, I began to brush my teeth in front of him at a nearly dangerous speed as I had no alternative. I figured that he would leave by the time I finished so I could get on with the more private business in a non-Ally McBeal co-ed loo fashion then rush to my meeting.

Unfortunately, the man took his time and seemed intent on moving in, and I could not wait. I remembered there is a separate disabled toilet in the ‘toilet suite’ beside the men’s room, which I would normally never use. But I rushed in there for the first time, not really stopping to take stock when the light came on automatically as I fumbled with the door lock to ensure Replenishing Man wouldn’t burst in. Eyeing the unusual lock with little confidence, I rather backed into the toilet, which was very disgusting as some staff use that loo when they, uh, need privacy and more time than the other loos allow (eg not “number ones”).

I was running out of time, so quickly did the necessary, reached up to pull the cord dangling beside me to flush the toilet, began to sort out clothes etc when—I froze. Just as I was thinking, wait a minute, why did I assume the flush was controlled by a string, and don’t they sometimes have alarm cords in places like this in case someone has fallen and needs assistance, like in sheltered accommodation? ….a distant but loud alarm began ringing shrilly. My heart stopped.

I turned to look at the toilet for the first time and, yes, of course, there was a normal flush handle on it, so there was no need for a pull-cord. My mind turned to a hilarious episode of The IT Crowd, where one of the characters has to use the disabled loo in a theatre but did exactly this, pulling the alarm cord by accident, and then to avoid getting in trouble for using the disabled loo, faked having been mugged and robbed of his wheelchair whilst in the toilet, lying on the ground as though helplessly when the theatre staff rushed in to rescue him.

I would never do such a thing but didn’t have time to come up with any caper in any case. I absolutely had run out of time so could only carry on dressing and washing my hands so I could literally run to my meeting. How awkward though; not only to have someone arrive to assist unnecessarily, and I prayed it wouldn’t be someone who had been alerted to come from a long way away from maybe Social Services, Health and Safety, or the disabled access office, but also, I must admit, to have someone think it had been me who made the loo so gross and smelly (I do apologise, but that entered my mind on the list of worries at the time).

As I carried on rushing to reach a suitable state for departure, I heard the dreaded but hesitant voice outside the door: “Hello?” Worse, there came a second voice: “Are you okay in there? Do you need help?”

I called out in that I was fine and was very sorry and would be out in a minute. I wondered whether, as suggested on The IT Crowd, I would be criticised for the crime of using the disabled loo, when normally I’m so dully law-abiding.

When I was able to pull open the door, I saw two colleagues from my floor, so at least they had not been called from some emergency centre or specialist office. I spat out my story at a hundred miles an hour, they listened, then walked over to the cord and yanked it again, and the alarm stopped. Ugh! So simple. I’m afraid an ‘off’ option had never occurred to me.

I then had to run past them out into the small corridor of the ‘bathroom suite’ before opening the door that led out into the general office. As I opened that door, happy to put the incident behind me and planning to scrape together some dignity as I sprinted to the meeting room, I found about 15 people from around the office, as well as some visiting strangers, all gathered, standing still facing the door I came through, silently awaiting some explanation for the horrid alarm that had been piercing their ears for the past few minutes.

Oh dear. It turns out the alarm sounds loudly throughout the office, and a previously unseen light fixture over the door into the toilet suite begins to flash brightly orange when the cord is pulled. I did not know this because no one has ever ever ever set off the alarm before. How embarrassing. I smiled and rushed out an explanation to the crowd (why?) and fled, and no one at my meeting had any idea what I had been up to, they just thought I looked flustered. I like to think that when I returned to my office hours later, everyone had forgotten, but somehow the myriad wry smiles and snickers, even from people who had been out at lunch at the time, led me to think otherwise. Sigh. Live and learn.