I am sitting in a classroom in an ugly purpose-built facility, about a mile from Old College. There are eight strangers in the room with me, all looking as apprehensive as I feel. We are here to train as bouncers. Once I have completed the course, I will report back to Junior Bursar about its suitability for the Porters.
I must say, it feels very strange to have escaped the cosseted confines of Old College and to be operating, once again, in the real world. The eight other people in the room appear to come from all walks of life. What has brought them here to join the world of ‘professional security’ is not clear. It will be interesting finding out, I am sure.
We are all casting furtive glances around the room, trying to weigh each other up and look for potential allies and foes. Before anyone is brave enough to break the uneasy silence, the door opens and in walks our trainer. He is a short, stocky man in his early sixties. His bare forearms are adorned in faded tattoos, some of which I recognise as being from the military. His white hair is cropped close to his head and crowns a face that has clearly seen it all.
“Good morning, guys,” he says in a thick Scottish accent. “My name is John and for the next few days I will be training you to become licensed security professionals!” John goes on to introduce himself and gives a brief history of his military and, latterly, his security career. Both are impressive and, although he comes across as a very gruff, blunt man, John seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable person to listen to for the next few days.
We then indulge in the training course tradition of going round the room, introducing ourselves and revealing an ‘interesting fact’. I have always found this a particularly humourless task and I can rarely think of anything interesting to say about myself. That is not to say that I don’t have interesting points, just that I don’t generally like to share them with rooms of strangers. But I digress.
This onerous task at least reveals to me the identity of my new chums. We have Paul, an Irish gentleman who is soon to retire from his job as a prison officer and is hoping to do some casual bouncering in his twilight years. There is Pavel, who worked as an inspector in the Bulgarian police force before moving his family to the UK. He is tall and broad and looks a little like David Beckham. I also notice that his trousers are a little too short for him and he is wearing socks so white I have to shield my eyes. Jamie and Simon are two young barmen who have been sent here by their employer. There is a man in his fifties called Steve, and an African man I can barely understand called Samuel. James is an intense and serious-looking young man who for some reason appears to have the weight of the world on his shoulders. Lastly, there is Tim. Tim seems to me to be the most unlikely security professional I could possibly imagine. He has greasy, dyed black hair, a straggly ginger beard and would weigh barely seven stone soaking wet. He looks uncomfortable and says he is here because his girlfriend wanted him to get a proper job.
And so our little band of trainee bouncers is formed. John rouses and cajoles us along and we are soon noisily and enthusiastically engaging as a group. Well, some of us are. Some of us are sitting sulkily and pretending to make notes. Mainly Tim and Samuel. Samuel can be partly excused, as English is obviously not his strong point. Tim regards the class with barely-concealed suspicion and distaste. Or perhaps it is just the thought of getting a ‘proper job’ that he finds distasteful.
We soon discover that John can be easily side-tracked by getting him to regale us with stories from his military days. With gentle coaxing, we can illicit all sorts of gory details and tales of derring-do, which he relays with relish. There is a deliciously schoolboy-like atmosphere as we do our best to distract from our lessons as often, and as for as long, as possible.
Eventually, we reach the point of the inevitable role-playing scenarios. Samuel is given the role of unconscious male, who is to be discovered by Pavel during his tour of duty. Samuel performs his role with great aplomb and lies prone on the floor, every inch the unconscious vagrant. Pavel enters the scene. On seeing Samuel, he strides over and you can see his mind assessing the threat to the security of his imaginary workplace. Pavel then leans down and grabs Samuel by his lapels and starts to drag him towards the classroom door. This is a surprising tactic and no one is more surprised than Samuel who looks around in confusion and mild terror.
“No, no Pavel,” cries John, jumping up from his seat. “Use your communication skills like we talked about, remember? Try it again.”
Pavel unceremoniously drops Samuel back to the floor and restarts his scenario. Samuel keeps one eye open as he awaits the return of Pavel. The scene replays in exactly the same way, but as he is man-handling Samuel, Pavel announces in heavily-accented but perfect English “My name is Pavel. I am the security guard for this place. And now you must leave!”
As Pavel is trying to force Samuel out of the classroom, John intervenes as kindly as he can.
“Pavel, what were we saying about communicating with our customers? About showing empathy? Do you remember what we said about empathy?” John asks desperately. Pavel nods his head.
“Yes,” he replies “It is when you wear the shoes of the customer, yes?”
In my periphery vision I can see Paul desperately trying to suppress laughter. Jamie and Simon don’t bother to suppress it and are giving Pavel a warm round of applause for his performance. Samuel is looking deeply uncomfortable and appears relieved when John announces that it is lunchtime.
The following days pass pleasantly enough and all the talk of patrol plans, reasonable force and ‘high risk situations’ find me on much more familiar ground than the seemingly random and esoteric ways of Old College. Being back in the real world, back within my comfort zone – I can’t deny that it feels good. I am reminded that I am not a heathen idiot who has no idea what she is doing. I have skills and knowledge that are relevant and respected. That said, the real world does not provide you with hot meals on a regular basis and certainly doesn’t offer the surreal entertainment provided by College life.
I make my way back to Old College to find out what I have missed while I have been away. To be honest, I am toying with the idea of giving this ‘security professional’ lark a go. But when I see the iconic and ancient gates looming before me, I realise that there is little chance I will go down that road. The promise of hot meals on a regular basis is too strong to resist. Cursing the weak resolve of my stomach, I return to the Porters’ Lodge and hope that at least some of Old College has missed me. Just a little bit.
But, alas, they appear not to have missed me very much at all. The only remarks passed are that the supplies of tea are notably less-depleted than usual and the kitchens have more leftovers from lunch. It is nice to know my presence makes an impact, no matter how small.