Let’s SOGs Again, Like We Did Last Summer

Tuesday (9th) was another SOGs lunch in Shell Centre. Since Diana was out, I had to catch the bus to the station, rather than blagging a lift. (I never drive to the station on a SOGs day, since this would mean driving back again in the afternoon, which is not really on after a few pints.) Catching a bus means paying a bus fare, which in turn means having the cash.

Strictly, this is not true, as my “future of money” friend, the “cashless guru” Dave Birch, would be quick to point out. Arriva (the bus company) has an iPhone app which enables you to buy your ticket in advance and show it to the driver on your phone screen as you get on. But that requires some set-up – getting PINs and stuff – which didn’t seem feasible in the hour before I wanted to catch the bus.

So that meant really I had to have the cash, which in my case I had not got. We had exhausted our cash reserves buying fish and chips in Wadebridge last Saturday and paying for parking in Oxford last Sunday, whilst unloading Tris at uni, and not got round to replenishing them. I had 13p in my pocket, and I haven’t seen a bus fare that small since I was at school.

So it was round to Waitrose to use the cash machine there, which refused my debit card on the spurious grounds that the chip was damaged. I had to use the household account debit card instead. Then I had to break into one of the tenners because they don’t like large denomination notes on the bus, and also I fancied a bar of chocolate.

I caught the bus and the fare turned out to be £3.80. With a price that high, I needn’t have worried about breaking a tenner. At the station I went to the ticket machines a few yards away from the ticket office, where there was no queue at all. I used to have a debate with myself over whether to get an extra-super-cheapo day return (valid for journeys starting after 11.00 am with the return before 4.00 pm) because I was never sure whether we would finish at the pub in time. South West Trains have very kindly and thoughtfully removed this dilemma for me by making the starting condition “trains arriving after 12.00 noon”. I got a bit worried when someone came and stood behind me, in line for the machine, when there were two other perfectly good and working machines next to me, but this potential ticket-mugger turned out to be a railway employee wanting to extract cash from my machine. There were some train delays which South West Trains automatically apologised for, but at Woking this means that you wait five minutes for the train delayed by 23 minutes, rather than wait five minutes for the train that is on time.

When I arrived at Shell Centre, a few people were already there. I got a text from Alun saying he wouldn’t be coming for lunch after all. Some furniture that he had been waiting for for four weeks had decided to be delivered exactly this lunchtime. And Mike pleaded that work had got in the way again – this work stuff sounds inconvenient, I don’t know why people put up with it. Nigel and Gill also sent last day apologies.

But there was a good crowd: Keith, Keith, David, Geoff, Paul, Malcolm, Gerry, Jeremy and me. One person was missing – Adam. This was a problem, because Adam needed one of us to sign him in as a guest, rather than being an SPA member in his own right, so we couldn’t really go up to lunch before he arrived. Paul reminded me of the train delays, which I realised would have affected Adam as well. He arrived just after 12.00, muttering about 25 minute delays, and up we went to lunch.

After my brilliant success in spending exactly six pounds last time, I tried for it again. My chili con carne was £4.15. I found a fruit juice for 75p, leaving £1.10 for a pudding. Easy, I thought. I found the puddings: £1.16. Poo! I put the fruit juice back and, dispirited, let the 69p go.

Several people that we knew went by and said hello. Dave Durling, clutching a sandwich, stopped as if stunned by the sight of ten old familiar faces, then said he couldn’t stop and chat. He had to run because he had a phone call in six minutes, which is not much time to eat a sandwich, even if he were to start munching in the lift. Work – damned inconvenient, shouldn’t be allowed.

After a leisurely lunch, occupying a full lunch hour, we selected a pub to which to adjourn proceedings, the well-regarded Camel and Artichoke. Three of us arrived, the others vanishing off into the office to look for old colleagues, and one (Geoff) stopping by a bookshop on the corner of Lower Marsh to procure a TARDIS and Dr Who novel, sellotaped together. (A model TARDIS, that is, not a real one.)

We first three selected the largest available space, an area with arm chairs and a low table, to sit with our pints or coffee and waited for the others. A few more arrived and filled the remaining armchairs. When the rest came, they had to sit across the gangway, at a table recently vacated by a family having lunch. They immediately dubbed it ‘High Table’ and looked down upon us.

Keith S’s partner, whose wrist was damaged in a car accident just before the last meeting, is only now beginning to recover. That was some nasty accident. We hope the improvement continues. Paul continues his Citizens Advice Bureau volunteering one day a week. He caught himself thinking about how to do more and move up the ladder and realised that that was how you thought at work, which he wasn’t at any more, and one day a week was right fine, thank you very much.

I was asked if I would still be coming to these lunches in future. I certainly hoped so, I said, although I would have to catch the 06.57 from Bodmin Parkway to Paddington to get there in time. Reflecting on that as a departure time, and allowing for getting to the station, it starts to seem like catching an early flight to the Netherlands did, which is very much too much like work, and more than inconvenient. But I will find a way, with a little help from my friends.

There remained the question of who would take over as organising secretary and with very little prompting Dave was nominated, seconded and put in position, bypassing the need for him to accept. He took the remaining kitty, though.

SOGs on Belvedere

 [With apologies to Damon Runyon]

Well, it is a while since the SOGs get together for lunch, around six months, which is more than somewhat longer than usual, on account of I spend September thinking I should email the guys about getting together for SOGs in October, and October thinking I should email the guys about getting together for SOGs in November, and in November finally sending out an email about getting together for SOGs in December. Even then I announce the date as Friday 15th December and it is a good job I mention ‘Friday’ as 15th December is a Saturday, which is by no means a good day for SOGs to meet. But SOGs have more than a few brain cells and are not confused by this and assume I mean 14th anyway.

About half the guys and exactly half the dolls say they can come and the others say they cannot, except the couple of guys who do not care to reply, and Ian the Adder who is in a superposition of quantum states, being uncertain whether he can come or not. The half of the dolls who can come is Rosemary (SOGs is a tad short on dolls) and this will be her first time.

So a couple of days before the lunch I am expecting nine and a half guys and dolls, which is a good number for lunch, and I send out a reminder. Then the second round of apologies come in. Hands-on Adam has a lot of stuff to do. Rosemary cannot make it after all, so it is only guys again. Keith the Spear’s ever-loving partner is knocked over at a gas station by some dizzy driver reversing around the pumps and fractures her wrist severely so naturally Keith the Spear has to stay with her. Safari Paul has a cough which makes itself known in restaurants and other such places of public amusement and he declines to share it with the rest of us. This is just as well for Safari Paul as if he gives all the SOGs a cough just in time for Christmas we might get to considering this unfriendly and place him in a sack and drop him off Waterloo Bridge. Then Justice Peter says he can come after all. We also hear from Travelling Dave who tells us how hot and humid it is in Singapore just now and there is much muttering about placing him in a sack also.

We assemble at a quarter to twelve at Shell Centre and by twelve the uncertainty about Ian the Adder collapses when he does not turn up. So there are six of us: Athlete Alun, Morbid John, Keith the Bear, Flying Nigel, Justice Peter and me. The guy on the door lets us in and we make our way up to the restaurant on the 2nd floor. The lunch tickets allow us £6 for lunch and as ever it is the challenge to get as close as possible to this price without having to take a yoghurt off the tray at the till. I take the fried fish and chips with mushy peas and a slice of key lime pie and have 75p left. I discover that a fresh orange juice costs 75p. The doll at the till looks at my tray and says like this: “You know you can only spend £6, don’t you?”

I nod and say how it should be OK. She rings up the prices and the total indeed comes to £6.00. “How do you do that?” she says. I smile and walk away with my lunch.

Towards the end of lunch we get to talking about which bar we go to next. I say I do not care to walk very far, as I have an injection in my foot the day before. It is the kind of injection, says the doc, which makes the foot feel worse before it gets better, and he is not wrong about the feel worse part, at any rate. Athlete Alun says he knows this place, and this place is the bar in the Marriott Hotel in the old County Hall. Keith the Bear says he meets us there after he calls in on friends still in Shell Centre.

So we cross the street to the old County Hall and Athlete Alun leads us into the hotel and along the corridors to the bar. I say to him: “I guess it helps if you call Keith the Bear and tell him this is the Premier Inn, not the Marriott.” I for one am pleased that it is the Premier Inn and not the Marriott as it is not so far to walk and I will give plenty of seven to four that the drinks are cheaper. The bar is not one for real ale fans as all the beer is jet propelled, but the Guinness tastes good enough, at that. It is also easy to hold a conversation as the background music has the day off, which makes it a better place than the Allbarone on the corner.

Four of the guys (not including Morbid John and me) have a share in a dog and a great deal of the conversation is about this dog. It seems this dog wins more than a few races and the guys are onto a good thing, but sometimes the dog ambles out of the trap and takes the scenic route round the track and no one knows why. I am thinking maybe the trainer slips the dog a Mickey Finn, but of course I do not say this. And the four guys buy another dog, which is too young to run yet.

Around four it is getting dark outside and I start to feel I drink enough Guinness for one day, and the other guys feel the same, although they are not drinking Guinness. So we all say merry Christmas and happy new year, and I head for the train, which is full of guys and dolls, and go home.

Frivolous Excuses

A week last Tuesday, the venerable members of the unofficial subsection of the Shell Pensioners Association known as the Shell Old Gits convened in Shell Centre for the traditional lunch, a tradition which will soon be two years old. Ten members were expected, following frivolous excuses from the others, such as watching tennis at Eastbourne, exam invigilation, on holiday in Turkey, working in Calgary and Houston (though presumably not simultaneously), on holiday in Spain, and having laser eye surgery. The excuse from Ian that he was working in his new three day a week post as Secretary of the Shell Pensioners Benevolent Association was accepted as entirely unfrivolous; you never know when you might need the SPBA. I almost emailed Ian saying if he was already going to be in work that day, why couldn’t he just pop down and join us, and then it clicked – he’d be in work at Bank Street, from which Shell Centre is five stops on the Jubilee Line, and I wouldn’t want to inflict that on anyone.

By noon, nine people had turned up – Jeremy, Malcolm, Nigel V, Geoff, David, Keith S and myself, plus first timers Gary and Gerry. Notice I use the term ‘first timers’, not ‘new members’. Gary and Gerry have been on the list for quite some time, but have always had frivolous excuses before. This time they made it, which was excellent. Also, it is quite hard to be a ‘new’ SOG. Many former employees of Shell are already Old Gits without necessarily realising it.

The missing tenth person was Adam and no one had a phone number for him to check whether he was on his way, so at ten past twelve we went up to the restaurant. I usually like to get up there early so that everyone can sit at the same table, but this day there was lots of space, so much, in fact, that two separate tables at opposite ends of the room were occupied before everyone could be corralled back together. About halfway through lunch, I realised that I could contact Adam via Twitter, since we both Tweet (him more than me), so I sent him a direct message. A few minutes later, my phone told me the message could not be sent. I seemed to have signal, but my phone insisted on using the office wifi network instead, to which I didn’t have a password, so nothing was getting through. After remonstrating with the phone and telling it to ignore wifi, I re-sent the message, and a bit later got a frivolous excuse from Adam about an urgent job coming up. At least we hadn’t left him moping and alone in the Shell Centre reception.

After lunch, a few people went to see their old departments. I couldn’t do that. The emotional turmoil would be just too great. Also, and possibly more so, my old department (a) went to Bank Street and (b) was disbanded. Makes you feel useful, that. The rest of us went to the Camel & Artichoke. We found the outdoor seating full, so sat indoors until everyone else arrived, at which point there were a few outdoor tables free and we moved. I emailed Alun to express the hope that his eye op (perhaps not so frivolous an excuse, after all) had gone well and he seemed to think it had. We drank beer in the sun until it was time to go. I caught a train, managed to remember that I had cycled in to the station and should find my bike, not a bus, and failed to fall into the canal from the towpath whilst riding home. A most satisfactory day.

Twas the SOGs before Christmas…

… and all through the house, not a creature was stirring – because they’d all gone to Bank Street.

Well, not quite all, but the bits of Shell Centre visible from the walkway out of Waterloo Station looked bleak and empty. Having missed the last SOGs (yes, I know I organise them and pick the date – actually, those two things are pretty much the same thing – so I ought to have been able to manage it, but Cornish events intervened and I had to be in Wadebridge on the date I’d picked), I proposed a December lunch which as it turned out only a few people could get to. Alun and John M came, and newbie SOG Nigel V. plus SOG-in-training Mike, making a select five in all.

Excuses Reasons for not coming included visiting brother-in-law in hospital (hope he’s OK, Keith), making unexpected progress in a golf tournament (hope you had a successful day, Malcolm), a Citizens Advice Bureau party (hope you didn’t end up needing advice, Paul), being in Arizona (not as an illegal immigrant, I hope, Gary) or in Australia (mind the spiders, David), plus sundry other appointments.

There had been some discussion beforehand about the date perhaps clashing with the staff Christmas lunch. Enquiries among current staff revealed a total lack of information, and it wasn’t until Friday 9th that an announcement was made about it being on 13th. And a second sitting on the 14th. Table reservations required. It’s all going downhill. You’ll be telling me next that they’re closing the pension scheme to new entrants. What? They are? Good grief!

We checked in at Reception, having battled against the wind along Belvedere Street to reach the entrance, and made our way up to the second floor. I saw Suzanne in the lift lobby, but she didn’t have time for more than a quick hello as she was heading to meet someone. I forget how not everyone has time to stop and chat. In the restaurant, the game of ‘how close can I get to £6 without going over’ began. My moussaka with salad and a blueberry cheesecake fell 80p short – not really trying there – but it was a good moussaka and a very pleasant cheesecake, so I’m not too bothered.

Mike regaled us with tales of being the oldest one in his department, the font of corporate wisdom, to whom all the young people come to ask ‘Do you know about…’  The answer is typically yes, and when it isn’t, he knows someone who does. The assembled SOGs could be seen nodding in recognition, and were glad to be out of it. Mike has found himself in the unfortunate position of being indispensable, the only one who knows how a particular system really works. To an out-of-work youngster (by which I mean anyone up to the age of about 45), this might sound like heaven, guaranteed employment. To a SOG-in-training it is… different.

After lunch we adjourned the meeting to the Slug and Lettuce across the road. We came here once before, for lunch, and they didn’t have any draft beer. What do you know – they didn’t have any draft beer again. Nor Guinness. It was lagers all round. Maybe one day we’ll learn. No, that’s unfair. We go more often to other pubs where the beer is good, but the Slug has an advantage on a cold, windy day: it is very close.

At about twenty to four, I made a move, since I had only twenty minutes and probably only one train for which my super-cheap rail ticket remained valid. On Waterloo concourse, there were lots of people, too many. On Waterloo train indicator board, there were few trains indicated, too few. Despair gnawed at my stomach. There was one train for Woking, due to have departed already, so I made for it with all haste. It was full, with people standing up in the entrance areas and all seats occupied. Near the front, I got on and decided to go through into the carriage to stand up there. To my surprise and delight, there were some empty seats, so I sat down. People continued to get on for the next ten or fifteen minutes, loosely filling the gangways. The guard pleaded for people to move up inside the carriages and was stoically ignored by the British public. Eventually the train pulled out, only to stop at Clapham, ostensibly to allow more people on. The same pleas had the same lack of effect. At Woking, the train stopped for quite a time to allow the departing throng (me amongst them) to squeeze past the non-departing mass and get off. The reason for the disruption, sadly, was a person going under a train at New Malden. Once again I felt glad not to be doing that journey on a regular basis.

Echoing Corridors

A couple of days ago I went up to London for a friend’s retirement party in Shell Centre. Ian seemed to have been hanging on for ages, managing to miss numerous opportunities to retire early, but finally calling it a day at the end of October, after 41 years service.

In the morning I’d got a phone call from my bank, Lloyds TSB, saying the branch manager had noticed the activity on my account and one of his advisors would like to speak with me about it. In the old days, this might have meant that I was going too much overdrawn and behaving in a financially irresponsible manner and therefore needed a talking to. Nowadays, the banks are not like that (“Overdrawn? Delighted, dear boy. And would you like this payment protection plan while we’re at it?”) and neither am I. What they had spotted was a largish sum in a savings account (and thus the potential to sell me more products). Would I like to make an appointment?

Normally, I would be disinclined to make an appointment, especially since it would cost me £15 in train and bus fares up to London, but since I was going into London already for the retirement do, and would pass right by my bank branch, I asked for a four o’clock slot and got it.

Since I now had more than one thing on, I decided to get out my suit to wear. I hadn’t worn a suit and tie since I don’t remember – oh, yes I do: last Friday at the Woking Liberal Democrats annual dinner. The time before that is the one I can’t remember.

Isabella called up the details of my accounts on her screen and asked if I had considered an “eSavings” account for the money, which would pay better interest than the savings account I was using. I used to have an eSavings account, but the bank unilaterally converted it to the present one a few months ago. I was quite happy with their action, since the eSavings introductory interest bonus had ceased and it paid me a better rate. I explained this to Isabella, but she assured me that I could open a new eSavings account and get the introductory rate again. So I did. That’s an extra 0.9%.

Isabella then went through the list of products I might like to consider. Tying up the money for a longer period wasn’t on because I need it liquid to pay for the new kitchen and extension at Treforest. (“That will be nice for your wife,” said Isabella, an unnecessarily gender-stereotyped remark, I thought. I mean, I like the new kitchen too; it makes emptying the dishwasher easier.)

I wasn’t interested in a credit card that gave me Air Miles, because I can’t be bothered to keep track of them and rarely fly anywhere these days. (I have air miles or flying points on BA, KLM and VLM left over from business trips and on Virgin from my holiday flight last year. I keep waiting for them to expire, since I don’t meet the criteria for retaining them, but every year the airlines change the criteria, so I’m still lumbered with them. Sorry – back to the bank.) I don’t need life insurance, I’ve paid off my mortgage, I am happy with my home and contents insurance, and I use up my ISA allowance elsewhere.

So at the end of the half-hour appointment I was happy at the extra 0.9% and I’ve no idea how Isabella and the bank felt about it.

It was still too early for Ian’s retirement do, so I called Kevin in my old department to see if I could come up and see him. He was aware that I was visiting Shell Centre so it wasn’t completely out of the blue. Fine, he said. I wandered round to the Tower entrance and made my way to reception. The receptionist found my name on a list on the computer. Was I here for the event, because that would mean using the other entrance? I was there for the event, I said, but first I wanted to see friends in the building, which meant using this entrance. The receptionist duly telephoned Kevin who came down to escort me through the building. (This is security, you understand, not recent memory loss.) As she gave me the visitor’s security pass, the receptionist explained that this pass would get me into the building, but was only valid for the Tower entrance. It would not get me out of the birdcage entrance (a name that persists in memory even though it no longer looks like a birdcage) after the party. No problem, we said, we will sort it all out.

The department looks much as it used to – the posters and diagrams I put on the wall by my desk are still there 19 months later – but emptier of people. Per, the boss, got a new job in Shell and moved out. David wangled a desk in the Tower, which means he won’t have to go to Canary Wharf. Lindsey also had moved on. Angus seemed to prefer a desk on the 8th floor in a project office, even though the project was long since over. Maral and Niall were out. That left Kevin himself, Ola and Alan, plus Arthur.

What had surprised me was the corridors. Most rooms were empty. The few people around lighted their way with mobile phone screens down dark corridors from one island of illumination to the next, like modern-day Indiana Joneses. The move to 40 Bank Street has started and my old department will be among the last to leave, on 25th November. Even Isabella had noticed fewer people going into the bank now. I was affected by a brief moment of nostalgia. But only a brief moment.

In contrast to the vast space they now occupy, Kevin and chums will have an allocated area, but not allocated desks. Personal space is abolished. They will have to pick a desk when they arrive in the morning and plug in their laptops and plug all the things like mouse, keyboard and headphones into their laptops. They are allowed two crates, maximum, in which to put their belongings for the move. I’m glad I’ve left.

At around five-thirty I made my farewells and headed for the party. The quick way was down the nearest lift, but I decided to go the long way round, out of the Tower, round the outside and in at the birdcage.  I didn’t fancy trying to explain my way out at eight p.m. after several glasses of wine when my visitor’s pass failed to work on the automatic doors. Had it been raining, I would probably have risked it, but it wasn’t.

Ian’s party had what seemed like a quorum of the SOGs attending and quite a few other retired folks. There were some current workers as well, which was reassuring. That there still are current workers, I mean. The white wine was palatable, quite nice enough to drink several glasses of. I didn’t try the red, but I could see that others were not exactly turning down refills, so I guess it was okay too. There were various snacks, including a savage chicken-on-a-stick coated in invisible chili sauce that went straight for the back of the throat. After quite a long while, as these things go, it was time for the speeches. Hans (Ian’s not-Dutch erstwhile boss) said a few words and then delegated the reminiscences to Jeremy and Mike. With such skills he’ll go far. Ian then spoke, to rapturous applause.

Afterwards, I sought out the signature book and wrote a stunningly witty and not at all bitter comment about Spurs (Ian’s favoured football team) and their double-winning FA Cup victory over Leicester City in 1961. Don’t ask me to repeat it here. Don’t even ask me to remember it. I just know it was bitter and not at all witty. Take my word for it.

I caught the train home and didn’t have long to wait for my bus either. All in all, a most satisfactory way of spending £15 and an evening.