So I got the job at Hampton’s in Paris. The golf connection seemed to have done the trick. At twenty-five I was going to jump head first into a new life across the Channel in the City of Light. I could scarcely believe it and in the cold light of day it was all a bit daunting. I announced the news to George Kendall as soon as I’d received a signed contract. He was generous as ever, wished me well and told me that frankly it was about time I left the Country House department at Raffety’s and experienced something which moved a bit faster. Commercial property surveying in Paris seemed to fit that bill. I set about finishing off several sales instructions and prepared to leave. However all my plans were put on hold when I learnt (over the phone while in a client meeting) that my mother had passed away suddenly. I will spare this story the details of the harrowing weeks which followed and in any case thankfully I can’t recall very much of it. I was finally ready to move in October.
In those days there was no Channel Tunnel. My first working trip to my mother’s old country (before she adopted England and England adopted her) was made by train and ferry. It took most of the day. I was met at Gare du Nord by friends of my sister who had kindly agreed to put me up for a few days while I searched for a flat. We drove through Paris to Villiers in the 17th Arr. All the streets and all the buildings, seemed identical. How the hell was I going to get to know my way around so I could work in this city?
The following day I arrived at Hampton’s office. Clive Llewellyn showed me around and introduced me to my colleagues. I will come onto this eccentric collection of human beings later. More importantly it didn’t take long to realise that my French language skills were going to need a real kick up the backside. A few awkward phone calls had confirmed that the urgent priority was to learn essential, real estate French for words such as ‘lease’, ´rent’, ´office building’, ´ground floor’ and of course ‘commission’. Over the next few weeks I read up as much as I could in French. I enrolled on a course of Real Estate Law at the Institute of Construction and Housing in Paris, although I have to admit this was so mind-numbingly boring and incomprehensible that I abandonned ship after three lectures. In the office and at home, in the small flat I had found to rent in Clichy, I studied leases, sales contracts, letting brochures, the formalities found in different forms of professional correspondence and absorbed as much knowledge as I could. Helping me in this challenging, educational venture, designed to increase my productivity to a minimum level of usefulness as soon as possible, was the man whose office I was designated to share, a fellow negotiator called G. He was about forty with a bronzed complexion and kindly smile, which I subsequently came to see as condescending. He had been asked to mentor me and give me the practical skills to earn commission in what was, in October 1983, a really difficult market. We were coming out of the recession of the late seventies, which had swept Mrs Thatcher into power in UK while the French, as ever making a point of doing things differently to the Brits, had just elected a true socialist, François Mitterand, as President. But I digress.
My main task was to find sales and lettings business with international firms, speaking English being my USP. However this work was hard to find as there were several bigger UK firms already established in Paris. So Llewellyn knew I would have to get my hands dirty. Putting me in with G. was a master-stroke. It was like appointing Ronald Biggs to teach Railway Security. G. knew all the tricks in the book although none of them would have ticked a box for qualification as a Chartered Surveyor and one or two could probably have got me into trouble with the Institution. On the first occasion I actually did a letting to an American company he quickly asked if the tenant needed any works doing. When I replied positively he was all over the deal like a rash, offering the services of one of his mates who had a building firm. I guessed he might have earned more than just thanks for this introduction when a few weeks later he offered me lunch at Lasserre next door.
The cold reality of it was that we were a small company so we had to forage for food. There were five of us in the commercial department. Our team had virtually no instructions, not much help from head office and the international network didn’t seem to give us anything, seeing as Hampton’s business elsewhere was predominantly residential. So we had to go out fighting for every bit of work and not always operating by the Queensbury rules. For a time this gave me a gnawing inferiority complex when mixing with other British surveyors, who worked for heavyweight firms like Jones Lang Wootton or Healey and Baker. Although the sixties and early seventies had been boomtime for British property people coming out to Paris, since the oil crisis of 1973 and the recession of 1979 there had hardly been any new arrivals into the cliquey Paris real estate world. Then suddenly in late 1983, as though a sign that the market was turning up, there were three. As well as myself there was Robert Orr, who went to work at Jones Lang Wootton and Graham Spensely, who joined Weatherall Green and Smith. I met up with them occasionally socially but unlike me they never seemed to have stories of going building to building knocking on concierge’s doors, asking if there were any empty floors, if any tenants were moving out…or tales of phoning managing agents begging for instructions on anything vacant or to be vacated…or afternoons spent cold-calling companies asking whether by any chance they had plans to move and becoming painfully familiar with the reply ‘allez-vous faire foutre !’.
All this crude, often excruciating but highly formative work was choreographed by G. I was his mucker for four months before Llewellyn decided I should perhaps move into an open office with others and begin the process of moral recovery from G’s methods before it was too late. Having said that, G. was hardly more eccentric than other colleagues I had had the fortune to cross paths with before. Three years at Hamnett Raffety in High Wycombe had brought me together with some big personalities. The most wonderful of these were located down on the showroom floor, the front line for selling houses, and if I may digress again I have to remember above all the agency receptionist W. She was a forty-something brunette, with a fuse so short everyone in the office went past her counter on tiptoe. She took an instant dislike to those who treated her with less respect than that reserved for the Senior Partner. She was never phased by tickings off or arrogance from colleagues, even partners, as she would simply imagine the senior figure in question sitting on the toilet. She used to conceal a deodorant spray under her counter, not for her own use but to spray ostentatiously around when anybody with personal hygiene issues entered the office – customer or colleague, she didn’t care either way – and usually while the regrettably malodorous victim was still in the showroom. As though all this was insufficient to mark her out as a female version of Basil Fawlty, on hot days she would turn on an electric fan-cooler in front of her desk and sit in front of it, legs apart and with her skirts up around her waist, gasping with relief. I’ve no idea how she managed to last so long in what was quite a conservative environment and perhaps it’s best not to know the reason.