Picture this. You are a young single guy and you have been sent abroad. Your job is to spend anywhere between 2 and 4 weeks in somebody else’s house and look after their office whilst they are back in the UK on annual leave. Money is not too much of a problem because you inherit their food and entertainment budget for the month in question as well as temporary membership to various sporting and social clubs.
Your usual lifestyle is built around the local pub, your shared flat or bed-sit and any party you can con your way into. You are not the tidiest person in the world and your culinary skills extend to spaghetti on toast. All in all not much use to man nor beast except you get transported to far off places where you have cooks, cleaners and lots of spending money. It was rather like sending a voracious fox into a large hen house full of chickens and saying ‘Behave yourself’. A warning that all too often fell on deaf ears.
I went on quite a few of these assignments and they took a bit of getting used to. Instead of wondering where your next takeaway was coming from you would be sitting in some comparably palatial lounge with a large drink and the smell of cooking food wafting from the kitchen every time the servant came through with a refill. Everything you dropped got picked up and your ashtray was emptied about every 20 minutes. I used to feel quite disorientated. And ultimately bored to tears.
There was only so much splendid isolation one could stand. At least if you were staying in a hotel there were other like minded people about and you might even get lucky and pick up an air hostess. If that failed you could maybe take in a club or hit the residents bar. In your house somewhere in the outskirts all you had was your own company and the nagging thought you could be ruining someone else’s house.
I was in this kind of dilemma on my first relief posting to Nairobi. Fortunately this place came with a car and chauffeur so I decided to spend most of my evenings out.
Nairobi in the early 70s was a pretty wild and potentially dangerous place to be and for all I know it maybe still is. I decided to make a tour of the hotels and see what was going on.
Most airline crews stayed at the Panafric Hotel and that was my first port of call. Sure enough a group of cabin staff were propping up the bar and I attached myself to them.
Terry was their chief and, clearly smelling an expense account, he became my new best pal. I am not sure how it happened but the bar eventually closed and I found me, Terry and another guy called Ken being ushered out the door. Strangely all the hostesses had disappeared and my thoughts of skinny-dipping back at the house pool went with them.
Terry said he knew of a ‘night spot’ across the road which would be lively and we decided to go there. It was called the Starlight Club and I quiver as I remind myself of it even now. The place was frankly sordid and little more than a bordello with a large patio and a frantic band playing insanely in the background. It was a place full of furtive foreigners and friendly girls. A place you would definitely not take your granny to.
Like most Nairobi bars of that kind you had to run the gauntlet to get in. This comprised of a group of ‘dusky maidens’ who would stand either side of the entrance corridor and grab at you vital areas as you walked past. This could be some kind of local ethnic greeting but, as once they grabbed you they wouldn’t let go, I doubted it. Terry, Kevin and I were forewarned so we had already pushed some ’borrowed’ hotel menus down the front of our trousers. By the time we got inside they were like origami.
Once inside it went further downhill. It was a wall of sweat, smell and sound. Full of svelte gyrating women and balding clumsy men in loud shirts and louder voices. Maybe a quiet night in was not such a bad thing I thought as I paid a small fortune for three Tusker beers while fending off two of the door-keepers who had followed us to our table. One of them disappeared under it and Ken started shifting guiltily and uncomfortably in his seat. “What is going on under there” I demanded? Can’t say” said Ken “But I’m frightened to move”.
That was it for me and I got up to leave. Another girl threw herself at me but got intercepted by door keeper number two who said she was my girl. An enormous fight started between the two of them with wigs and bits of clothing flying everywhere. I fled while everyone watched them, except for Ken who was still sitting bolt upright with a bemused look on his face. I need to find new friends and a new bar I thought.
I eventually found a new bar to spend my evenings in. It was called The Sombrero club and the only difference to The Starlight was once they knew you and you got chummy with the owner/barman they would leave you alone. Many the evening I sat talking to Moses (the barman) and watching these incredible events going on around me.
I came unstuck at the end of my stay. Our regional director came to Nairobi to do a spot check on our operation. He was staying at the Norfolk Hotel just a short distance from The Sombrero. When evening came he said he wanted to go out for a drink and suggested trying “that bar down the road”. I said that although I had never ever been there I had heard it was a really dangerous and rude place. He could not be dissuaded so off we went.
Needless to say he got the ethnic Nairobi handshake at the door…at least four times. “Ah Mikey” one of the girls said but I ignored her. By the time we got to the bar I had two more “Hi Mikeys”, two hugs and a kiss. I shielded my boss as best I could so he could get a bar stool and before I could order Moses leaned over and said “Hi Mikey. You are late tonight. You want your usual”?
“Never been here before Michael” my new boss probed? Maybe once or twice I admitted. “We expect our relief staff to be perfect ambassadors for the company so we will need to talk more of this tomorrow” he said. He kept me waiting all the next day.
“We will go back there tonight” he said as we closed the office. “OK “I replied “but may I suggest you pick up a hotel menu before you come?”