The scandal that has ensued over the exposing of the 33-year old tradition of the Presidents Club, has bought many things to light. Not least, the treatment and the protection of individuals on 0 contract hours.
I had no idea that this was indeed a thing before I moved to London. Temp agencies and inconspicuous organisations that mass produced well-kept and poised hostesses, retail workers is just not (to my knowledge) a thing in Australia. But for many who move to the Big Smoke, it’s a reality. Everyone needs a job, and temp working is relatively seamless to get into.
But the implications of such a unsatisfactory and unprotected workplace amounts to a lot. When I moved to London, temp working was all I could muster, considering that I wasn’t available for full time or even part time hours (I was a student).
What eventuated, forgive the terminology, was myself being prostituted out to various legitimate working places. Whether that be on Bond Street at Hermes, to selling ovens at a Design Expo – the work was varied and underpaid and you were generally treated like the ‘dog-body’ – a passing nameless individual who wasn’t awarded kindness or even acknowledgement of one’s own existence.
Whilst in those positions I never encountered any overly salacious requests – actually, that is a lie – regularly, as a Hermes shop assistant I was pursued by wealthy Arabs with a penchant for the latest Birkin bag. I was even offered five pounds once at my disposal for something rather underhand – I never took the money.
Yet, the ambiguous lines were in fact very much crossed when I temp worked as a waitress at the Queen’s Club Polo at Windsor Castle. It was an Oxbridge Alumni Polo event in unison with Harvard and Yale, so you can imagine the clientele. My instruction was to wear ‘tight white trousers and a t-shirt two sizes too small’. Evidently, the local elite weren’t just there for the booze and horses.
With me was a flamboyant and gay Frenchman. Fabulous company and a wonderful waiter, his flamboyancy and opulence attracted the seemingly heterosexual elite. While I had to endure the googling snufflings of the over 60 year-old Etonians who enjoyed my rather buxom pair and large bottom squeezed into a pair of skinny jeans, additionally many closeted alumnus started to ‘come on’ to my fellow French hospitality brother in arms. His bottom was pinched, his T-shirt pulled and at one stage an idiotic Cambridge alumni started to smack my colleague with his Cambridge paraphanalia whilst cheering on his son who’d just scored a six.
It was an incredibly strange and somewhat confronting set up. Who knew that when the local elite had consumed too much rose in the sun, their inner most desires and sexual closeted fantasies would come into fruition? And the victims of such fantasies? Naturally, it’s the waiters and hostesses, who’s hands are usually full and cannot protest, and also who are in desperate need of that £150 pay cheque at the end of the day.
I was pursued by a high up neurosurgeon who promised to help me in my quest to become a journalist. I was naive and desperate, the media industry in London is a seemingly impenetrable bubble and if you don’t have the accent, schooling or pedigree – you certainly won’t be able to access the newsroom.
Naturally, I was very touched that an ageing 50-year old with a younger wife at the Ladies would be willing to help me. But, there was a catch (as there usually always is). He didn’t do email, rather telephone instead.
I know it was unprofessional, but I gave out my number willingly. Here was a man who could possibly help me, be a mentor, introduce me to someone! I had two degrees and I was selling ovens and waitressing – naturally, I was desperate for a break.
What happened over the course of two months was a series of persistent phone calls suggesting that he picked me up for lunch in his convertible and go for a drive through Barnes. Would it be wrong of me to say that I was tempted? Not tempted to engage in a solicitous affair, but tempted to do something, anything, to get me to where I wanted to be, even if it was flattering and pandering to a man’s ageing ego.
In truth, I never went and probably never would have gone. But it’s taught me something: this odd power dynamic and relationship between older and successful men and women desperate for a break is something that must be broken.
But in short, it never scarred me or pertained me with a cross that I will always have to bare. I am no martyr nor am I a victim. Those words must be reserved for more serious offences and crimes. Rather, the story and incident has awarded me with some very interesting and creative material that I use often. Yes, it was odd and slightly unnerving on the day, but it’s a fact and a reality that we all must face. Enthusiastic men with a penchant for breasts and a tête-à-tête with a pretty waitress is not reserved for the likes of the Dorchester. It happens everywhere. It’s a cemented social tradition that needs to be broken or at least weaned off subtlety.