Fleeing the nest...
Growing up in England I never even considered leaving the UK and London was about as far as I wanted to go. As an impressionable and middle-class teenager in the 80s, I bought into 'Thatcher's Britain', and I was happy to subscribe for the long-term. Living in the suburbs of Birmingham was as safe as it comes but I loved the vibe of London when I made day trips there in the late 80s. Once I moved there to study in 1990, I soaked it all in full-time and loved every minute. After graduation in mid-1993, I went home for the summer, but it was soon a case of 'London Calling' and I moved back there 'for good' in September 1993.
My University years were a lot of fun. A carefree existence, starting out in the world, pretending to be grown up, but still very much protected in the confines of my college dorm in Sutherland Grove, Southfields, a small area in between Wimbledon and Putney. It was London, but very much suburbia. My first year was about finding my feet - going to many football matches and sports events as listed in the Sporting Travels page. The first Gulf War started in our first term too - I was surprisingly shocked by this - a strange feeling probably caused by it being the first war of my adult life. My political idol Thatcher was deposed too - I shouldn't have been surprised, but she was all I had ever really known. London was a lot of fun, lots of nights out in Putney pubs and I remember doing the Circle Line pub crawl one time - an all day session where you stop off at every one of the 26 stations and drink half a pint. I was never good at pacing myself though, and started off with full pints only to get myself in all sorts of bother as a lairy teenager in central London on a Saturday night. My college-work was just about okay although I was struggling with my Accounting module and I actually had to return to college in the summer to re-take the exam which I just about passed.
During my second year, I messed up my housing options and ended up living with a mate and a group of unknown girls (including the landlord's daughter) in a small house on the Alton Estate in Roehampton. This is one of the largest and roughest council estates in the UK. It wasn't a happy time to be honest and it worked out well when I was turfed out to make way for another of the owner's daughter's friends. For the second and third terms, I rented a room in East Sheen, just off the Upper Richmond Road. I was a stones throw from Richmond park, which I got to know quite well on my new mountain bike. I fell in with some new friends too and I spent many a happy evening in their house drinking and smoking weed. Not my preferred pastime, but I was part of something and was happy. Not so happy on one evening though when I drank tequila for the first time and completely underestimated its strength. I made a fool of myself that night - one of those nights you want to well and truly forget.
During my second year, college arranged a weekend trip to Amsterdam. We all piled into the coach in London on a Friday night and arrived in Rotterdam the following morning. The visit to Amsterdam was actually a day trip on the Saturday and we had a fun day in the coffee shops smoking a fine strain of cannabis. Once back in the hotel, we noticed our mini-bar fridges were locked, so as good, resourceful students do, we turned them upside down and unscrewed the doors. We proceeded to empty two fridges of all their miniatures before putting the doors back on and checking out.
My third year was the happiest of all. Back in college, I had some very good friends, some of whom I still see today. It was an idyllic year - a bit of work, a bit of play and a lot of genuine laughs. I had a car too - my beloved red mini which was a hand-me-down from my brother. I loved that car and it served me well. At the time, my brother was playing National League Hockey and used to travel around the country with his team, Cannock. If they were playing down south, I used to try and meet up to see him play and of course catch up after the match. One one occasion, he was playing in Canterbury and I drove down the M2 with a mate to see the match. As I approached the pitch, he was warming up in the goal itself - a sure sign that he was in the starting 11 for the first time against none other than Olympic Champion from 1988, Sean Kerly. I was pretty nervous watching the match but from memory he came through with a 3-1 win. Great memories.
As the summer approached, the weather was superb and we spent hours playing soccer on the back field. We drank in the evenings and were regulars at the local kebab shop at the close of each day. As the end of term approached, the celebrations were tinged with sadness as we would soon go our separate ways. I don't remember the actual last day, but we all left only to be reunited a month or so later for our Graduation in Guildford Cathedral. That really was the last day of University, and I haven't seen most of those guys since. A few of us met up in 2003 after 10 years and even fewer of us got together after 25 years in 2018, but such is the way, not enough people bothered. After Graduation, I went home to Birmingham, but soon became restless and returned to London in September
It was great being back, but I had no job to start with and even signed on the dole for two weeks. I'm not proud of that, but there weren't too many jobs around for someone with a fairly vague Sports & Business degree. However, I soon found work as a 'SkyCap' at Heathrow Airport which was a great experience. I was only there for the short-term, but got on well with most of the others SkyCaps - from the Indians working there long-term to the Aussie and Kiwi transients who did it for a few weeks or months to keep them afloat. We got to know which flights to be around for and which to avoid. Emirates flights were typically good - we had Arab guys who would give 50 pounds to everyone they engaged with - from the taxi-driver to check-in. The African flights were ones to avoid - so many bags for very little reward. My good references meant I was soon able to go 'airside' which is where I was able to carry the bags of the rich and famous. Where to start? The Bee Gees; Yehudi Menuhin (and his violin); Mike Myers; Nick Cave and politicians Michael Portillo & Michael Hesletine. The tips were great - I would start the week with an empty wallet and end the week with a good 200 pounds in there, all on top of my salary. It was a lot of fun, but I soon decided to get a proper job - something more commensurate with my degree. I managed to find a part-time job at a gym in Ealing, so was working 8 hours a day at Heathrow before having 2 hours to get to Ealing and working there for another 4 hours. With all the driving it was 16 hour days between my flat in Wimbledon to Heathrow to Ealing and back to Wimbledon. I did this for about six months before I landed a proper job - working on the gym floor of an excusive hotel in Sloane Street. Little did I know that this was the start of my ongoing 25-year hospitality career across Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
Full-time work in London was a lot of fun. Five-day weeks with only 8 hours work per day and given our location, we were already in central London at the end of the shift, so we could hit the pubs and clubs straight after work. It was an idyllic lifestyle - my workmates and I lived together in a small flat in Battersea, so it was an easy journey to work - a walk through Battersea Park, over Chelsea Bridge, through Sloane Square and we were there. The hotel was very exclusive so saw a lot of superstars passing through and some staying long term. We 'got to know' Sylvester Stallone and Armande Assante over the course of six months while they were filming Judge Dread. Madonna stayed for three months while recording the soundtrack to Evita. Arnold Schwarzenegger dropped by to use the gym when he was staying nearby, although I missed out on Michael Jackson as I had just left for Macau when he came to stay.
Summer 1996 was my last in the UK and it was a memorable one. Whilst going through some personal issues, I came across and advert for an Assistant Resort Manager position in one of our sister hotels in Macau. Despite not knowing where this was exactly, I applied and was eventually interviewed by my future boss during his summer visit to the UK. Although I was not the strongest candidate (I eventually took on his role and I have his interview notes), he took pity on my plight and the rest is history. I had a wild summer, going on 2 day benders with a mate who was also having a rough time. He was a real friend and I am sorry that we didn't keep in touch after I left. I was living in Twickenham at the time, and would be a regular on the night bus from either central London or from Streatham where he lived. On at least one occasion, I fell asleep and ended up at Heathrow airport in a very sorry state in the early hours of the morning. One time, I decided to walk along the motorway slip road towards the bright lights of the Travelodge. I remember walking in the back entrance and actually surprising the front office staff as I appeared with them behind the counter. Fortunately they took pity on me and sorted me out with a taxi. Not my proudest moment.
November soon came around and it was time for me to leave. My personal issues were resolved which made leaving even harder, but I stayed strong and left the UK on 27th November 1996 with one single suitcase. I returned to Heathrow in a better state than my previous in the summer and had booked Sabena airlines into Macau via Brussels. An easy flight and my only regret is that I didn't fly into Hong Kong's Kai Tak airport and experience the breathtaking approach over Kowloon. Kai Tak closed within a year or so and although I went there to pick up my folks on their first visit to see me, I never did fly in or out. As it was, I put my head in a book and didn't allow myself to think about what I was getting myself into. I touched down in Macau the following day totally out of my depth and my adventures in the Far East began.