The Power of Serendipity

In my previous life as a holiday rep in Spain and Turkey, aged just 22 and fresh from university, part of my job remit was entertaining guests with an elegantly entitled game of ‘Blind Man’s Muff’. (Look away now if you are easily offended/you are my parent!) It went as follows: remove the top half of your clothing, put on a zip-up top (thoughtfully provided by the holiday company and sporting their logo) and then, whilst transporting guests by coach for the bar crawl, run down the coach aisle while the male guests tried to pull the zip down. (Note: this was during the very unpolitically correct 1990s) As a result of this (a) I still have lightning quick reactions; (b) I hate zip-up tops; (c) nothing I have since been asked to do for work has seemed as unreasonable.  Did we have to do it? Yes, and the company’s stance was if we didn’t like it, there were hundreds of people wanting our jobs — which, amazingly, there were. (The so-called ‘glamorous’ jobs never are, particularly those involving the holidaying public.)  Additionally, we had to control drunken crowds of guests  (I once threw an entire rugby club off a coach single-handedly) and spend hours at the hospital and police station translating from Spanish or Turkish.  Then there was the singing and dancing to entertain the guests during cabaret as well as dealing with numerous complaints and endless tedious hours spent in hotels and doing paperwork.  The tourism industry is tough.  I will take the most difficult of judges or barristers and the trickiest of court cases in my now job over dealing with British and Scandinavian tourists any day.

It was a big leap from holiday rep for a large tour operator to the legal profession: as jobs, they are polar opposites. As is the way in life, it is often the things we fall into by mistake that turn out to be the most significant and my job is a good example.  This November it will be 21 years since I first began my day job as a court transcript editor after answering an ad in a copy of The Times left on the train and the five of us who trained together are planning a big celebration.  I had never planned to work in the law and it didn’t interest me one bit but given I am entering my third decade, it must have some kind of pull.  My degrees are in journalism and sociology and my work experience before that was as a medical secretary so nothing relevant.   However, working in the legal profession is just as tough but for totally different reasons but the end result is scarily similar: keeping the clients happy and delivering a good end product.  Just not with zippers …..

I rarely talk about my job to my non-work friends for two reasons: firstly, I like to keep the two halves of my life completely separate and leave my work behind in London; and secondly, confidentiality.   “That must be fascinating” is the first reaction when I meet new people.  No, is the short answer.  I challenge anybody to sit through an eight hour day of shipping reinsurance arbitration with its associated technical terminology and remain fascinated.  Our work is mainly commercial: banking, VAT, breach of contract, big companies, trust funds.  Still awake?

Of course there are the high profile cases.  The celebrities, the oligarchs, the captains of industry, the trophy wives, the super fraudsters.  If you’ve seen a big court hearing on the news, one of the very small number of us stenographers will have transcribed it. There is a lot of travel too: Caribbean tax havens, Bermuda, the Far and Middle East and pretty much all over Europe.  But if you have ever travelled  on business you will understand just how soul-destroying living in a hotel room for weeks on end can be.

The physical side of the job is very challenging: years of wear and tear from sitting  in unergonomic court rooms for hours at a time has brought back and joint problems for many of us.  Keeping a poker face is hard too, even for me as a poker player.   I sometimes find not laughing very difficult: you know when you have to keep a straight face in a serious environment and you really struggle to keep control?  Court is one of those.  And sometimes not crying: inquests, divorce cases, child abuse inquiries.  I really feel people’s pain.  I cry at animal rescue ads on the telly, for God’s sake.   We have to stay completely neutral in court at all times.  How do I get through it?  Caffeine, chocolate and painkillers combined with physiotherapy.   And that most vital of things, a sense of humour.  So perhaps not so different from being a holiday rep.

So what’s the best thing?   My colleagues.  I am lucky to work with some of my very best friends and over 21 years, we have shared a lot together and if I gave it all up tomorrow I would take away some incredible memories. And a lot of very interesting stories too, most of which I am unable to talk about.   The best stories come from the courtroom and not the tourism industry!

I fell into this job by accident and as the saying goes, life is what happens when you make other plans.  Serendipity is a strange concept but I am a great believer in its existence.  As a Type A Capricorn  control freak, letting go and trusting God/the universe is difficult for me, as is the idea that all things happen for a reason and as part of some great divine plan.   After a very stressful day in court I try to remain grateful that I don’t have to herd drunk people around and sing Big Spender in a showgirl outfit.  Or run down the aisle of a coach full of drunken lads trying to get my top off.  So to celebrate my 21st birthday (again!) I am raising a glass to serendipity.  And the fact that I was never once caught out when running down a coach aisle.  The safety pin is a wonderful invention.

 

 

 

 

Stop right there! It’s the punctuation police – and you’re nicked.

imagePunctuation is powerful stuff.  True, nobody ever died from a misplaced exclamation mark, but let’s not risk it.  I’m a constant corrector and it drives those non grammar, spelling and punctuation Zealots around me crazy – particularly my husband.  Luckily most of my friends and colleagues are of like mind and nothing lights our collective touchpaper like a greengrocers’ apostrophe or a fiery debate about the Oxford comma. In fact, several of my work colleagues and I once demanded to be moved from a restaurant table right next to a sign announcing the toilet’s.  It wasn’t the toilets themselves that were offensive, only the sign  – a sign that someone had gone to the trouble to paint on the wall, error and all.  Only last week I tweeted Good Morning Britain to point out a faux pas in a news banner that appeared on my TV screen as I prepared for another day of vigorous punctuating and grammar correcting in the day job.  (I didn’t get a reply but I felt slightly superior all day)  It’s a legal judgment in case you’re interested – see pic.  And one thing I do know about is a missing E.

But how much does such pedantry still matter in the modern world?  Who really cares if you can’t spell or your grammar is sloppy?  Is knowing that they’re going there in their car important?  (Carrie Bradshaw was gleeful in Sex and the City on discovering that her ex’s new wife didn’t know the difference between ‘there’ and ‘their’.)   Wearing my legal proofreader hat, perfect grammar and punctuation is vital.  As a writer, I maintain that it’s all about presentation and polish and attention to detail.   What about everyday life? I really would have to think twice about using a company whose promotional material offered Removal Quote’s or Decorating Service’s: if you’ve put that little thought into the detail of your advert, what is your end product going to be like?   I’m sure that Daves Removal Service’s (No Job To Small) do a sterling job and they are, after all, in the business of hefting about boxes and not proofreading.  But those errors would grate.

Similarly a journalist friend recently confessed that she disregards any reviews of hotels or restaurants containing dreadful spelling and no punctuation.  I’m just the same: if you, the reviewer don’t care about the quality of your writing then surely our views and tastes cannot possibly be similar?  And I’m not talking about dyslexia here or those for whom English is a second language,  just people who don’t care. How can you not care?

Much as I long to prowl the streets with a large permanent marker pen to correct all those signs and A frames I do try very hard to fight such snobbery.   I know lovely people who don’t think being able to use a semi-colon correctly is at all important and even schools don’t place as much emphasis as they used to on getting grammar and spelling right.  What hope is there for future generations?  Or will the need for perfect punctuation soon be as obsolete as the video player?

So as an experiment I tried to relax my punctuation and grammar a little in texts and instant messages. It was tough but guess what? The world kept turning.  I carried on breathing in and out. Nothing major happened.  Nobody even mentioned it. I even bit my lip – hard – when someone said a friend of theirs ‘should of’ done something.  That took some effort.  But stop off at the stall near work selling ‘Tea’s and Coffee’s’? I’m still working on that.  Continue reading