24 September 2019
I have watched the demise of the Thomas Cook travel company with great sadness. Not just because it is one of our old traditions emanating from 1841, when Thomas Cook set up his very first travel business, but because I have a very special association with it. It was my very first employer.
In the summer of 1973, having left university with a degree in German, I knew what I did NOT want to do. My love of German had been purely to learn more about the great writers, the country and discover my roots. I knew I didn't want to be a teacher, an interpreter or a translator, but beyond that I didn't really have a clue what I wanted to do. Around that time, my parents had booked a holiday with Thomas Cook and suddenly the penny dropped that maybe I could utilise my knowledge of German in that great company. I wrote to Head Office, got an interview and was assured my knowledge of German and French would come in very handy. In my head, I assumed I would travel and arrange hotel contracts or sample a resort and do feedback. I couldn't wait. I started working for them in September 1973.
At that time, the Head Office was situated in Berkeley Street, just off Piccadilly. (It relocated several years later to modern offices in Peterborough.) When I turned up on my first morning at the great portals, I felt I had arrived. The offices took up the entire block and looked like a grand hotel. Once off the street and through the grand doors, you entered a massive shop almost akin to an old-fashioned bank with wooden counters and desks dotted about with travel advisers sitting in them. At the front entrance was a reception desk manned by several women in Thomas Cook uniform, not unlike air hostesses, welcoming customers in and directing them to the appropriate travel desks - be it Far Eastern Travel, cruising, the Americas, or UK. Upstairs were further departments dealing with postal bookings coming in from Thomas Cook offices all over the world.
I quickly discovered that my job was not as exotic as I had hoped. I was found a uniform and became one of the receptionists. My use of German and French was non-existent. The majority of customers were from the USA, Australia or Japan. They had booked in their respective countries through Thomas Cook to go on UK or European coach tours. These bookings had been telexed (remember telexes?) through to Head Office and clerks had files on these customers waiting for them to come in and collect their coach tickets once in the UK. My job was to tell the client to take a seat and then I would look up in a manual card index system which booking clerk had the details on that particular client. I would call the clerk to the reception desk and introduce them to the client. Something a trained monkey could do and not something requiring a university degree! We were treated by the booking clerks as brainless, even though I did manage to learn a bit of Japanese to welcome the Japanese clients and tell them to take a seat. Our lowly position was not helped by the Head receptionist, a woman in her forties, who was obviously going through a bad patch in her marriage. She used to disappear every lunchtime at midday with one of the seedy departmental managers and retire to the adjacent Mayfair Hotel for a 3-hour "lunch". She would always roll back extremely dischevelled with a twinkle in her eye and her uniform the worse for wear. I never did discover why it took the hotel so long to serve her lunch.
After ten months, I could stand no more as we were little more than eye candy, so quit and got a job with the Civil Service. However, I have always had a great affection for Thomas Cook, being my first employer, so feel great sadness that it is no more.
02 September 2019
I was down in Brighton at the weekend, celebrating my friend's 70th birthday. We had a ball partying non-stop from 7pm till well past midnight in a quirky venue with a jazz quartet, an Indian renowned chef cooking a two-course dinner and a DJ playing music to which we danced until we could dance no more. Well over fifty people (probably more like eighty) were there in a tiny cramped space, including a large contingent from Paris, who had come over specially for the day, as my friend studied French back in the day. The wine and goodwill flowed. We even stood to attention and sang La Marseillaise. It was a great evening, followed the next day by a wonderful fish lunch in a seafront restaurant. The French were at that too, ordering plate-fulls of mussels and langoustines. Here I am at the party. My 70th is in 15 months' time. I'm going to have to start planning to match that.