Tuesday, 9 May 2017

A Tale of Two Stuarts

This was the view from my office window for twelve years in an Oxford College.
Well not my sole office, for I shared it with two wonderful Surveyors over the years, both called Stuart, first as a secretary and latterly as a Surveyor's Assistant.

Stuart I and Stuart II were very different characters but I had an excellent giggling chemistry with both.

Stuart I was dynamic and mercurial with a natty taste in bow ties and expensive brogues and could whinge for England, particularly about 'this country going to the dogs' but nearly always holding forth with a twinkle in his eye and a ready laugh. He could crack the whip and had cleared the workshop of the 'dead wood' as soon as he arrived which meant he ran a tight ship by the time I was appointed (the final in a long list of secretaries).

Conversely he could be incredibly kind and compassionate. He was also meticulous about getting every detail right. His friend Robin, a Surveyor as well, worked with us part-time and the two made a tremendous double act, but a tremendous professional partnership as well. Stuart I took the view that he wouldn't ask anyone to do anything he couldn't do himself, so he had trained in carpentry, plumbing, electrics etc. He could literally turn his hand to almost anything. However he also had Robin and myself on our knees with vacuum cleaners when building works overran and the students were about to move in!

By rights we shouldn't have got on for Stuart I was a hunting. shooting and fishing man with a love of 4 x 4's and good beer whereas I was a lifelong vegetarian and teetotaller, but somehow we 'got' each other and clicked, possibly because we were both Sagittarians and spoke our minds with birthdays only days apart. He also had an eye for the ladies and liked the window boxes to be kept short so he could admire them going past the windows!

We worked on amazing projects like the restoration of one of the oldest working mediaeval kitchens in England without compromise to its structure, wall painting restoration, chapel window restoration, roof and parapet repairs and restoration of a mediaeval internal courtyard, almost untouched for centuries.

Stuart I's downfall was that he wasn't much of a professional networker and not very good at compromise. After three years of my working with him (seven years at the College for Stuart I) and a change of Bursar, sadly Stuart had a disagreement with the college and ended up walking out.

I held the fort for a while after Robin also left (to pursue a year abroad to turn his hand to making his sporting activities into a career). The new Bursar (not a buildings man) eventually asked if we really needed another Surveyor to which I replied, shocked; 'Of course we do.'

Cue for Stuart II to appear several weeks later, a man in his early 60s with the bushiest and scariest white eyebrows I had ever seen, but equally dapperly dressed. He was much more laid back than Stuart I but I noticed things still got done and the pace of conservation and refurbishment soon picked up where it had left off. Stuart II also had the benefit of being a big cricket fan which meant he was never short of sporting banter to help him bond with the senior staff and fellows. Moreover he was generous with his time (not wishing to work full-time) and quite happy to help staff with projects on their homes, whereas Stuart I couldn't get home quick enough to spend time with his young daughter at the end of each day.

Perhaps because I had to hold the fort for at least one day a week, if not two, Stuart II started making it his business to teach me everything he knew. I also went on courses and gained an NVQ in Interior Design which I could then immediately apply to whatever project we were undertaking. Together we designed a new (but traditional looking) Porter's Lodge, numerous WC's, two luxurious academic house kitchens, en-suited various staircases, refurbished Fellow's rooms, offices and other areas. We had a rule that if we couldn't agree on a carpet, a colour or some other detail, then we hadn't found the right product yet. I came to be very grateful to Stuart II for his interest in my professional development and mentoring.

There was no such thing as staff development in our College. I didn't have a single appraisal in 12 years and only went on the courses I went on owing to Stuart II's urging. I also ended up writing the first ever Green Policy for the College.

Like Stuart I, Stuart II had an eye for the ladies and liked to joke he was a 'silver fox'. I bought him a silver fox badge for his birthday and he was delighted.
His wife suffered from a chronic illness so I also ended up giving him a lot of emotional support. Eventually she sadly died after a brave seven year battle. About a year later I found myself being consulted for dating advice and lo and behold, the Silver Fox was back on the dating scene for the first time in 45 years! One of the first things I remember saying to him was - 'Just remember, you don't have to marry them all! You can just date a lady!' He seemed quite surprised by this.

One of the most amazing things Stuart II did for me was defend my position when the Bursar (not a buildings man) decided to make me redundant after 12 years for the spurious reason that the building programme was coming to an end and I was no longer needed (though strangely, the programme of improvements and refurbishments subsequently continued following my departure to encompass many further projects).

Sadly my redundancy still went through, but I will always have fond memories of the college and both Stuarts.

This all came to the fore last week when I attended the funeral of Stuart I. A particularly sad occasion since he had taken his own life. Stuart I could fix everything it seemed, except himself. We'd kept in sporadic touch over the years and he had seemed his old jovial self the last time I saw him a couple of years ago, but apparently a few demons lurked behind the scenes. The only positive note was reconnecting with some welcome familiar faces. There was an unspoken feeling that it had been an intense and 'special' time when we were all together at the college and tackling so many core projects (sensitively) after so many years of neglect. On the other hand so many years of neglect were also to be thanked for making our college one of the best preserved Oxford colleges in the city, whereas others had let the most hideous brutalist buildings creep into their quads.

Certainly there are few jobs that you look forward to going to each day knowing you will be working in the most beautiful built environment and have at least one belly laugh per day if not several with your line manager and colleagues. There is something refreshingly down to earth about the world of Surveyors. There's no side to them. Not the ones I've worked with anyway. The workshop was great for camaraderie too and we worked with some wonderful contractors for years including a certain stonemasonry company, to the extent of replacing the worn gargoyles (designs repeatedly rejected by our blue-blooded benefactors for being 'too ugly!) Then there were the regular visits by film companies to use our quads for Morse and assorted costume dramas, so more than once I became a set dresser and met the likes of actors Nathanial Parker and Kevin Whately. Finally there was that most welcome 'conference bonus' each Christmas for putting up with some charming mature Americans over the summer undertaking a literature conference in Oxford and who would always invite me to one of their special dinners.

As for Stuart II? Well he stayed on at the College for another few years, though he complained it wasn't the same without me, before being retired in his early 70s on grounds of age. He now lives nearby with his second lady friend since being widowed.

Happy days in a unique workplace which, unlike some, will still be standing years after we are all long gone, weaving us into their fabric and making some sense of our toil in them.

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