11 October 2010

I am reminded of John Lennon this weekend who was tragically shot outside the Dakota building, in New York City, on Monday, 8 December 1980. If he’d not died that day he’d have been 70 years old today. I always spare a thought for Julian his son, an old-boy from my school and someone I shared a hilarious weekend with in the early 90’s. I remember Julian explaining how he was in school in Ruthin the day his father was shot and there was so much they never said to each other.

It reminds me of a friend of mine Fred who died before I ever got a chance to properly say “thank you.”Fred told a story beautifully of how his father and he pushed their barrow around the streets of London looking for business. They made wooden roller shutters. His warm cockney twinge made the story so real and authentic and however many times I try to do it justice, when Fred spoke, magic filled the room.

“A van pulled up along side us and the man inside wound down the window. It was raining.  “Mr. Dover” he said, “I don’t suppose you can make those wooden shutters in metal can you?”

“Of course I can, I ‘d be happy to help Mr Sainsbury.” Said Fred’s Dad.

This was one of those “lucky” moments you have once in a lifetime, Fred would say. Yet how much hard work had gone into their lifetime of graft up to this point. And, if you are lucky enough to become successful like Fred, he grafted every day of his life.

I never tired of that story and nor did Fred. No matter how many times I asked him to tell it, he always obliged.

For 4 years of my early period in Manchester, I was a professional pianist. One of my residencies was at the Midland Hotel, that has the best restaurant in the North West of England, called The French. For 4 hours a night, 4 days a week I sat at the piano outside The French wondering “what sort of people can afford to eat in such an amazing restaurant every week?”

“One day,” I thought to myself. “One day, I’d love to be able to eat in there”

Without fail Fred and Elsie, his wonderful wife and business partner, arrived like clockwork every Thursday night. I would play “I wont send Roses” for Elsie, it was from her favourite musical, Mack and Mabel. They always brought me a gin and tonic and said hello. When I left the Midland during the recession of the early 90’s, it was a tough time, I had a mortgage and I’d lost my only source of income. Fred pressed an envelope into my hands and said “thank you son.” Inside was a few hundred pounds a lot of money back then. I never got a proper chance to thank him.

But he is now part of my story, and 10 years later when I started courting the now Mrs Jones, where do you think I took her? Yes you got it, to the one restaurant I could not afford.  The French.

I was greeted like a long lost son by Bruno the maître d’ and his right-hand man Anibel.  But in their eyes, I was still the 18 year old lad sat singing at the piano with Julian Lennon, or Craig Charles until 4am after the Hacienda closed.

I was regularly in trouble for coming back to the hotel with guests staying at the Midland. I could tell you a few stories.

Bringing Gail to the Midland was important for me. They were like family. When I introduced Anibel to Gail he said, “My God, what is a beautiful, intelligent young lady doing with him.” With that he clipped me around the ear in an affectionate way.

A restaurant needs a character like Anibal, someone who exudes warmth. We sat down. I felt so proud. I felt valued. The same team were there, Mark, Michael, they all came over and said hello, calling me “Mr Jones” and welcoming me like a long lost brother.

The night couldn’t get better.

And then in walked Fred and Elsie.

Now I’d spent a fair amount of time taking Gail out-and-about in town wining and dining her. But with all the glitz I could muster on previous occasions, nothing beat that night in the French Restaurant.

I asked Gail if she minded being on her own for a minute so I could play Elsie her favourite tune for nostalgia’s sake, Fred who was undoubtedly one of life’s greatest and most natural sales people invited Gail to sit with them.

He told Gail what a smashing young man I was.

He did me proud that night with the kindest words and sincerity that I am sure I do not deserve.

We dined there for years to come and we loved seeing Fred and Elsie. Sadly he became very ill and when he died, we took Elsie but she couldn’t  face the French without her soul mate. We carried on the eating at the French on “their night” to maintain the tradition. Nothing would stop us, not even when we had our first daughter. We’d wheel her in her pram and she’d sleep through whilst we reminisced and toasted Fred and Elsie.

When you don’t have a family close by, the team at the Midland filled a massive gap in my life through some very difficult years. It is sadly no more.

What I loved about Fred and Elsie was that they were living proof that husband and wife can work together. My parents are living proof that married couples shouldn’t be business partners!

I learnt so much from asking Fred about business and life and every time I see a bright red fire engine, I always look for the Dover Shutters emblem for which he became a legend in his industry all around the world.

Just like Fred told me all those years ago and I can hear his voice as clear as yesterday “Mr Sainsbury was our change in fortune. Yours will come young man, just you be patient.”

I never got the chance to really thank him enough and tell him, that he himself was my Mr Sainsbury moment. God bless you Fred.

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