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Sunday, 16 December 2012

Oh, The Things We Don't See...

Earlier in the week, my wife Alex and I watched Simon Reeve's report about Cuba on the BBC. As with all documentaries about far away lands, we as viewers get the impression that the presenter is all alone, by himself. Bravely trekking through often dangerous territory unknown to tourists, or through a politically explosive environment, the presenter reels off a huge amount of local knowledge, vast enough for the likes of me to ponder how on earth could he have possibly stored it all in his head, and breeze it all out without making any error on the facts. Of course, when he talks, he always looks straight at us from the television screen. Then again don't we all look at the person listening when we are talking to him?

I have watched several travel programmes made by Reeve, including a series about circumventing the whole of the Indian Ocean from South Africa to Perth in Australia. During  this particular journey, he visited countries of political and environmental extremes such as from the war-torn Somalia Republic on the eastern horn of Africa, to the paradise islands of the Maldives. He also made three Round-the-World documentaries as he travelled along the Tropic of Capricorn, the Equator and the Tropic of Cancer. Yet despite his enviable travel adventures and the national fame which came with them, he is a character I grew to admire and respect. One of his attributes I like so much is the way he dresses during presentation: not in a suit and tie but in casual clothes with some face stubble, without the need to deliberately look scruffy, and with a personality to match.

BBC Presenter Simon Reeve

Curious, I decided to check out this globe-trotting presenter on his own website. When I clicked, About Simon, which is to do with his biography, these are the words I read:

Simon attended a local comprehensive in West London and was described as an unspectacular student. After a series of terrible jobs, including working in a supermarket, a jewellery shop and a charity shop, Simon finally found gainful employment as a post boy at a national newspaper.

What? Terrible jobs? Terrible jobs? Wow! So working in Retail is classed as a terrible job? I must admit, I felt somewhat aghast in reading that statement, although I'm not sure if Reeve himself was the author or was this the opinion of the biographer - as the whole page was written referring to him in the third person. True, I guess that a routine in the supermarket can be stressful, with a huge influx of customers, many of them becoming impatient as they wait unnecessarily long at the checkout line. Then again, the job title Shelf Stacker does not convey the idea of the employee having graduated from Oxford. But surely, working at a jewellers must be a totally different environment altogether. Not even during the Christmas rush do people make a beeline to the jewellers. Maybe that was it, the job became crushingly boring, even if the assistant was bestowed with a very high level of trust by the shop owner or manager. However, such attitude reflect our class-warped British culture. It is also true that many of these Retail posts are taken by immigrants, mostly from Eastern Europe but also from Asia. The common thought is that many Britons see Retail as something beneath them, as the above statement so ardently reflects. I would hate how this biographer would have thought about domestic window cleaning, particularly in Winter.

The fact that Simon was "an unspectacular student" was just a posh way of saying that he was either dim in his youth, or he just wasn't interested in the curriculum. He attended a comprehensive, the equivalent of the secondary modern which I attended. In other words, Simon Reeve failed his primary eleven-plus exam and was not selected for grammar school, nor did he wear the famous School Tie of Eton, Harrow, Rugby or Winchester. Yet during his employment as a newspaper post boy, he found time to study foreign current affairs, from which he submitted papers from which publication lead to his big break with the BBC. In other words, he graduated to degree status at home.

Therefore at present, we see him as if he travels the world all alone, well not quite. He always had a local guide with him, and whenever he knocks on the door to where he is to spend the night, the door always opens and is warmly welcomed. I can compare this with my own travels. For example, when I arrived at New York from London in 1995, I entered one backpacker's hostel after another without being offered a bed, due to a surge in students spending the last week or so on the town before returning to their colleges. This was after making one or two calls from my apartment before take-off. Eventually I found a squalid, cockroach-infested room at a seedy hotel on 8th Avenue. And I had no guide, nor was I was in company at the host's table, as Reeve always seem to be.

And oh yes, talking at the TV screen, often walking while doing so. If I was to talk alone into the air, anyone watching would think that I was a nut who had escaped from a loony asylum. With Reeve, we all watch, glued to the screen. There is the difference. Neither Reeve or any other presenter travel alone. Instead, they always have a team with them, including camera crew and a director, plus various other crew members as needed. Having a team also protects him from danger if broadcasting from a political dangerous territory, as he has the whole corporation behind him, who was involved in arranging the local guide as well as hotels, guesthouses and private homes, along with all travel payments and facilities, and what to present along with how to go about it.

That is what is hidden in a typical TV documentary, especially involving travel, the things we don't see. The TV crew who accompanies the presenter, and makes sure everything goes hunky-dory. What I'm really saying is, if given the chance and allowed the right preparations, even over months, I have actually pondered whether presenting such a documentary would have been within my abilities! With such back-up, any potential error in facts would be edited out, and with a speech impediment, a more than average number of outtakes may be required. The only setback to this idea is that our culture requires that a university degree is demanded for this occupation. Simon Reeve has disproved this. Only having done a mere average at school, I believe that a period of his life working at a "terrible job" had benefited him well, refining his character and developed a pleasing personality.

As for myself making a presentation, let's take the Grand Canyon, a location which has always dazzled me since I saw it first time in 1978. We know that it is approximately two hundred miles long and about 1,600 metres deep. It is a huge gorge cut through the Colorado Plateau by the constant flow of the Colorado River. Between 1880 and 1881, Clarence Dutton, a British geologist who also had an interest in eastern religions, gave names to many of the more spectacular features within the Canyon. Buttes such as Buddha Temple, Zoroaster Temple, Cheops Pyramid, Isis Temple, Wotan's Throne, Deva Temple, Brahma Temple, Hopi Point, O'Neal's Butte, Plateau Point, Tonto Plateau and other features were all unknown to me when I completed the two hikes to the River, first in 1978 then again in 1995. But with thorough research, using both maps and photography, all of these became familiar. How possible would it have been to research before the hike, and then give a running commentary on the trail, together with an expert guide who would have corrected any error, itself edited out before broadcast.

Brahman Temple (left) and Zoroaster Temple buttes overlook the Colorado River, Grand Canyon, 1995.

This is one of the things people don't see in me and other like individuals. The potential to shine. Instead, the powers that be looks for a piece of paper with a degree printed on it, along with the sparkling personality which would have enhanced the delivery of the message.

Something like this has occurred already. Back in 1990, I offered to write an article for my former church elder. When the elder received it, he read it and looking surprised, asked,

Frank, did you really write this?

Yes, yes, I wrote it. You thought I was illiterate, didn't you?

(Implied) Illiterate? No, not necessarily. But window cleaners are supposed never to have shone at school, else you would have had a far more respectable career.

A few years later, I offered to write an article about church members helping the unemployed find work. After interviewing the person involved, to collect enough material for composition, I arrived home and started writing. The person I submitted the article to was somewhat flabbergasted! Window cleaners are not supposed to have produced such written work. According to our British culture, such labourers are supposed to be dim. A week later, I believe, the article appeared in a local newspaper, one of quite a number of articles I have written and were published.

I am amazed at the attitude of Paul the apostle. Had he been around in my lifetime, he would have taken me by the scruff of the neck, rebuked my pessimism (inherited from my Dad) and would have told me that God has given everything I needed, so get writing! Because in his first letter to the church in Corinth, he wrote:

I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate. Isaiah 29:14, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31.

I thank and praise my Saviour that he has given me enough enlightenment to glorify him. And that is what I wish to do, glorify God. Paul has also written in his same letter that we as believers are all members of the body of Christ. (1 Corinthians 12). Within this chapter, he emphasises that the parts which are weaker in the body are treated with greater modesty and respect, a direct rebuke to the British obsession with social class.

Am I ashamed of my job as a window cleaner? Do I view my work as "a terrible job?" No not at all.

At the time of this writing, I have been earning a living cleaning windows for the last 32 years. As one who is self employed, cleaning windows comes with responsibility, including that of ensuring that all expenses are met, we are able to eat and stay clothed, keep a roof over our heads, as well as being accountable to the taxman. And if God permits, enjoy some travel too. Sure, my line of work has collected some teasing, like "an up-and-down job" (in referring to the ladders used) and even ridiculous titles, like "Vision Technician" - thought up by the middle classes as a vain attempt to grant us greater respect.

Paul wrote that whatever we do, do for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31.)

Now that is something for Simon Reeve to ponder on.


  1. Frank,

    Here you've touched on something that has troubled me for a long time. Even the church has become enraptured with degrees, and those who have not gotten their doctorates from the highest universities tend to be ignored. Some of the most spiritual and wisest men I have ever known have never attended school, while some of those with the very highest degrees are practical morons. Being able to parrot back the facts a teacher dictates is not a mark of intelligence. Tape recorders don't need any.

  2. Hi Frank,
    yes I thought exactly the same when I read the quote about 'terrible jobs'. I have worked in a supermarket on the till, as a cleaner in a furniture factory and a nightclub, and loved every one of those and the other jobs I have done including office work and care work. I would not change my life for anything. I love traveling and programmes about traveling and do you know what? I only have to come over to your blog if I want an expert commentry on world travel, and I am not one for flattery. God bless you and your family, and have a lovely Christmas.

  3. Excellent post Frank. My dad was basically a 'Navvie', an unskilled labourer and perhaps to someone of a higher class background, he didn't really amount to much. Yet at the same time he was creative and could make amazing things with his hands, paint and draw quite well and was far more than he appeared to be. What those obsessed with high social status always seem to forget, is that every human being is a unique and special creation of God, loved by Him and acceptable to Him.

    What is important is that we as Christians treat others with the same love God treats us with; I have no favourites amongst my mates (friends) and I try to cherish all the friendships and family relationships I have; all are blessings from God.

    I seriously think, when you have the spare time, that you should compile a book of your travels, interspersing it with your humour and, of course, your precious faith in God. You have a way with words and I always look forward to your posts. Have a wonderful Christmas and a Happy New Year, and don't drink too much sherry!!!

  4. Hi Frank yet another gem from you! I have enjoyed reading your post, you point out as I did on my own Blog, that workers are not expected to have a brain. Well we do and you should be proud of being a window cleaner.

  5. Hey Frank! I loved your post! First off, let me say that all members of the body of Christ are important. After all, the hand couldn't do it's job without being attached to the arm, and we couldn't walk on our feet without our toes. You get the picture, I'm sure. Anyway, I shutter to think what the "powers that be" would say about the jobs that I have held in my lifetime. I was a waitress for over 30 years, I was a nurses aid, dressing, bathing, and feeding those who could not help themselves.

    I CANNOT wash windows. No matter how hard I try, I leave streaks, and just end up making them a bigger mess than to begin with. That is the first thing I tell people when they want me to clean their houses. I can't do windows.

    I think that a window washer is a very important position because clean windows are important so that we can look outside and see God's beautiful creation without a wall of dirt separating us from it.

    I also think you are a Wonderful writer. I get engrossed in your posts.

    I welcome you into my circles as a wonderful and faithful reader and a great friend as well.

    God Bless,

    God Bless!

  6. I think it is important that we don’t wander into the prideful delusions of inverted snobbery. Christians can be not unlike football supporters, claiming for their own victories or slights (real or perceived) of their chosen team, even though the supporters have done little, but voiced their affiliation and chanted support from the terraces. When in reality their ‘victories’ are not their own, but those of a tiny number of their forebears (and peers). The truth of the Christian Gospel – particularly of Christmas – is that humanity cannot save itself, so God became man so that man once more could enter the communion of love that is the Trinity.

    There is a wonderful story in the Philokalia (or similar – I can’t remember off hand) of a desert monk who felt rather sure of his own righteousness and spiritual acumen. God said that he would show this monk two even more perfect souls. The monk expected to be led further into the wildernesses of the Egyptian desert to see some aged monk, but was surprised when he was led back into the town he had left long ago to live his life of prayerful seclusion. He was led hither and dither through the streets and was brought to where two housewives were busily about their chores. God told the monk that these two women were far more ‘perfect’ than he in their hectic lives as mothers and wives – for they lived their lives modestly, cheerfully, in thanksgiving and with love for God and their neighbours; they didn’t think themselves ‘special’ or ‘different’ or ‘holy’.

    The following is from a novel I’ve been writing this past year (as yet unfinished) – the protagonist is a guy from a working class background, who through education and ambition (and a good leg up from Evangelical Anglicanism) becomes someone else:

    “The transition was so complete, so convincing, that he easily fitted in at [the City Evangelical church] without question. Indeed he had become so ordinary within his newly chosen milieu that he began, where such revelations could be used to best effect, to let slip some truths about his upbringing and background. For it is not uncommon, when once we achieve mediocrity by being indistinct from our peers that we seek to demonstrate some talent or trait or history to make a claim for individuality and difference...”

    Therefore I would champion equality and social parity within church life, but we must be wary of becoming proud of our humility; such a feat is impossible, humility and pride are like oil and water and cannot be mixed together – tho’ it doesn’t stop many of us trying...