Life at the Bottom

In the year before I went to university I worked for four months as a domestic assistant at Banstead Mental Hospital. This was dirty, dangerous and (especially if you worked every possible hour of overtime) highly paid.

By late spring I had several thousand pounds, and I handed in my notice in order to go travelling for the summer. There was one minor problem: in those days a cheque book was useless without a credit card, which doubled as a cheque guarantee card. So I arranged to see my branch manager, to explain the situation and ask for a credit card, which I intended to use only to guarantee cheques.

I arrived after the end of my morning shift, wearing working clothes and an adolescent beard. I assumed that he would at least have looked at my account. My explanation stumbled out, starting with the fact that I had just given up my job as a domestic assistant, and ending with a request for a credit card.

The manager did not hide his disdain, “I haven’t checked your account, so you may amount to something, but it doesn’t look like it to me. We don’t hand out credit cards to every out-of-work kitchen porter who wanders in and asks for one, you know.” He told me to get out.

I stumbled from the branch in a state of shock and confusion, which quickly turned to cold rage. I went back into the branch and asked the teller for an appointment to see the manager. She said, “but you’ve just seen him.” I replied, “yes, and I want to see him again.” I declined an immediate appointment and arranged to see him the day after next.

By then I was ready, in my best suit and tie, my beard gone. I knew to a penny the amount in my account. I was ready to tell him that I was going to Cambridge to read law, and of my plans for a career at the Bar. I intended to move my account, and to make a formal complaint to his head office. I was going to give him the whole nine yards. I never got the chance.

The manager himself came out to greet me, apologizing profusely and holding out my new credit card. Unknown to me, my father had spoken to him on the phone, and warned him what was coming.

I learned several important lessons for business meetings, which I never forgot: go prepared; look the part; never assume anything.

I also learned what life is like, for an out-of-work kitchen porter, at the bottom of the heap.


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Chris Thorpe

Chris Thorpe is a respected independent lawyer in the upstream oil and gas industry, and an established lecturer and author. Chris has a LLB in law from Magdalene College, Cambridge and trained as a barrister in London. He worked for eight years' as an in-house lawyer for BP and Marathon. Since 1991, Chris has run his own upstream legal practice, CPTL, which has acted for many upstream clients. He has extensive experience of international upstream transactions, principally in the North Sea, the FSU, Africa and the Middle East. Chris has spoken at many UK and International Conferences and Seminars, both public and in-house. His most popular current lecture is Fundamental of Upstream Petroleum Agreements, a two-day course with accompanying book.