Saturday, 7 September 2013

You'll Never Walk Alone

We all know the song.  The Liverpool Football fans know it word for word.

Recently I was standing outside Liverpool Football Club looking at the memorial to the Hillsborough tragedy and reading these famous words “you’ll never walk alone…” enthroned on the gate.  It was a moving experience, even more so in the light of last year’s revelations that the fans were not to ‘blame’ for the disaster but rather that the mismanaged crowd had been allowed to enter the stadium until well over capacity, drastically breaching safety standards.  Having carried responsibility for public events many times myself I shuddered at the atrociously poor judgement which led to such an enormous loss of life and suffering for hundreds, if not thousands, of families; all of which was made worse by the infamous cover-up.  Over days in Liverpool filled with enjoyable experiences this was one of only two moments of melancholy.

Why was I there?  Well, laugh if you like, but I was there as an invited VIP – booked for a Close Protection training course so the students had someone to practise on.  I was met at the train station by two cars and a team of five security professionals: what is known as a PPO, a Personal Protection Officer, two drivers and two additional bodyguards.  Bodyguard, I believe, is the old-fashioned term, but forgive me for using it.  I like its hulky, sexy, ready-to-do-anything-for-you inference, which frankly applied well to my attractive, healthy team of two women and three men.

I travelled in the first car with my PPO and driver, behind in another dark car were the other three.  It was just like you see in the movies: alert, athletic people with ear pieces and exceptionally good manners, watching my every move and meeting my every need.  Car doors opened and closed, people greeted me, guided me, glided beside and behind me like I was the President: “watch your step Madam”… “can I get you anything”… “are you comfortable”… “would you like to go to the hotel… yes, it’s on the waterfront…. or would you like…”  the options were endless.  I had a few days in lovely Liverpool – which I hadn’t visited for more than a decade – under warm blue skies to do exactly as I pleased while being exceptionally well cared for and made to feel special.

Clearly the team were being watched from somewhere by the managers assessing them.  I wondered if it was a helicopter or a telescope, as texts occasionally arrived which revealed they knew what we were doing, but they were incognito and wouldn’t tell me their position.  Maybe when that stuff happens in the movies it isn’t as much fiction as I thought?

If you read this blog or it won’t surprise you to learn many of my activities were arts-related but still I was impressed that whenever I arrived anywhere – a museum, a theatre, a bar, a restaurant – a group of people near the front doors discreetly, but carefully, appeared ready for my arrival.  I think my team had ‘cased the joint’ in anticipation… having previously given them a list of places I might visit… but only after direct questioning did I learn Close Protection standards means plans are put in place for escape routes and damage limitation.  Other security guards nodded to my guys with respect, acknowledging their job to look after the chatty, pint-sized, red-head was important or challenging or both.  This made me laugh but also stand a little taller.  Hmm, maybe it was an omen?  A come-back looming?  It reminded me anyway, of the height of my fifteen minutes of fame – which around Neighbours lasted some years – and I couldn’t help but think how much better this ‘protection’ was to what I’d previously experienced.  Perhaps the industry has come on a pace?  Perhaps the right people hadn’t always been appointed before?  But I clearly remember many occasions when there was such a mini-riot in places around London that once I had to hide in a red telephone box in Leicester Square while my loyal Deputy Stage Manager did what he could to move the crowd away who were intent on banging on the door and doing anything they could to get in and touch me.  Seriously, I am not exaggerating.  So once you have experienced such highs of hysteria, anything about fame makes you always consider the perceived elements of success with something of a rye smile.  To be up, then down, in fortunes and fame is a good leveller.   It’s a shame the millions chasing instant profile on the likes of the X Factor don’t realize how flimsy a goal it is.  (But don’t get me started on that subject as I detest reality television for more reasons than boredom.)

Anyway, back to my story.  I was amused when I saw people watch me moving around Liverpool with my team – steering me in such a way that even in a busy museum or shopping street the crowd had no choice but to part – and sometimes a spectator would turn to the other with an expression like “who’s she?”  I felt guilty sitting in the sun with a beer on the pretty Albert Dock while my lovely bodyguards drank nothing but water, but not sufficiently guilty not to do it.  Whenever I was delivered to my charming hotel room in the Radisson, a time was agreed for me to be picked up again, and sure enough at exactly the appointed time there would be a knock on the door.  The lift was opened and held, other people had to wait to go down as my team and I took up much of the space, and when we emerged from the foyer, the Radisson staff nodding at me with indulgence, there was always the two cars waiting.

Ooh, I felt spoilt.  I only wished I’d brought a much higher pair of heels – for in London I tramp home at night so regularly from the tube that often it isn’t practical to wear my best shoes.  Here, however, I could have worn five inch heels as the car was always going to be waiting to deliver me door to door.  One evening I was having dinner in an Italian restaurant called Piccolino, the table reserved, I happened to overhear, in a pseudonym so as to disguise “the Principal’s” identity.  I was seated by a large window with my host from the company delivering the training.  He sweetly maintains “you will always be a VIP to me… videos of you in Neighbours got me through the Gulf War”.  Of course he is too kind.  Nevertheless, to my delight after years living and eating well in Tuscany, Piccolino provided me with the best assortment of seafood I have eaten in two years.  It was absolutely delicious and with great service from a genuine Italian guy waiting on tables as he makes his way around the world.  At one point I moved toward the stairs to find the bathroom, and suddenly two of my protection team appeared at the bottom to check on my well-being and point me in the right direction.  But how did they know I was coming?  I thought they were on a break?  Secret cameras?  Telescope?  No, I think that’s just how clever they are: alert, but not alarmed (to borrow from a slogan Australians will recognise).

Later that evening we went to Liverpool’s stunning Anglican Cathedral to admire the city lights from the top of the tower.  An over-used word perhaps, but our experience was magical.  The moon seemed to have received the memo that a VIP was in town… for at exactly the right moment she came slowly through the clouds… little by little, a partial moon peeping increasingly over the top… the silver lining glowing like a story-book… until suddenly she POPPED above the clouds… FULL and BLUE.  Yes, I wasn’t imagining it.  My PPO googled and we discovered it was indeed the night of a precious blue moon.  For those glorious minutes as she shone blue and golden we fell into silence, a shared sense of hope and awe.  When Nature is that glorious it feels anything is possible.  It was a bonding moment.  I was becoming very fond of my bodyguards.  And go figure, when my PPO is not being a terrific tour guide and companion, she is also an actress.  So we managed a little rendition of Blue Moon and various other snippets of romantic conversation before climbing down the tower’s many steps to explore the rest of the Cathedral with a private guide, another person who’d been hood-winked into treating me like a VIP.

I enjoyed many things about Liverpool: the fearless Mersey River; the interesting history of the docks and the effective redevelopment of waterfront spaces; the elegant Three Graces, one of the buildings topped with Liver Birds from where the city gets her legend; the well-designed Museum of Liverpool and Merseyside Maritime Museum; the scattering of colourful sculptures known as “Lambananas”; Beatles memorabilia; the Liverpool International Music Festival; Sefton Park; Albert Dock; and the Green Room on Duke Street.  Cabaret Lounges are all too rare around the world these days, so I was very pleased to find one thriving in Liverpool.  I managed to meet two of the three partners, including the big man himself, Ricky Tomlinson.  I was happy to discover Ricky’s warmth and humour in conversation and performance is as bountiful as his determination to contribute to society and make his voice heard on many a political topic.  In his down-to-earth style I recognised what I really like about Liverpudlians: a no-nonsense, independent attitude.  Aussies are at home with a straight-shooting, no bull-shit approach, so perhaps that’s why we often get on well with northerners. 

Perhaps too it’s the Celtic influence which makes me appreciate this quote from the wall of the Museum of Liverpool: “If you ask a Scouser to do something for you you’ll get all the co-operation in the world… but don’t tell them to do something for you...” 

Liverpudlians have spirit.  I like their accent too – originally born from affection for Shirley Valentine.  One of my more humorous observations is that the women in Liverpool really like to dress up.  I mean, really dress up; as in make a tremendous effort.  London by comparison is low-key.  High fashion and towering heels are deployed sparingly, selectively.  Even in regular visits to the Royal Opera House most of the audience will be dressed smart-casual to professional-formal.  (Of course West End Opening Nights and Film Previews are an exception, or anywhere one is expecting the paparazzi.)  Yet in Liverpool on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday night you will be surrounded by the highest heels you have seen outside a Russian mllionaire’s party and hair dos to match. The hair-dressers must be making a fortune.  To my mind the hairstyles and glamorous dresses are more suited to a lavish wedding than a bar or nightclub… but far be it for me to criticize girls putting their best foot forward, even if, personally, it seemed a little over the top.  I tell you what though, next time I go to Liverpool, bodyguards or not, I’ll be packing high-heels and a chiffon number.

I should end on a particular highlight: my visit to Crosby Beach and the zone called Another Place.   I wanted a pre-breakfast jog and my bodyguards obliged by arriving early and escorting me from the hotel to a beach-side car park.  Ear pieces were set in place, plans discussed and confirmed, one protector jogged beside me, another behind, and a car followed on the road until sand-dunes made it impossible to continue.  Mile upon mile the team stayed in radio contact and at one point my former driver suddenly stuck his arm out from the dunes to offer me a bottle of water.  Talk about funny.  How did he get there at just the right time?  I felt like Madonna.  And not only on the jog did I get to know a little better the charming bodyguard who had previously been driving the back-up car, but I was surrounded by a stunning view, fresh air, and Anthony Gormley’s startling art installation.  Scattered across a wide expanse of sand there were a hundred bronze figures staring out to sea - some half covered by sand, water or molluscs, but all so lifelike that in the still, eerie glare of the sunny morning I sensed they were waiting for something monumental to happen.  The subliminal message was part science-fiction, part spiritual and definitely artistic, and I felt glad to be starting my day with salty air and invigorating exercise.  Like the statues my bodyguards were standing ready to drive their car onto the beach to save me, or scoop me up in their arms if I hazarded a torn muscle.  How could someone with a larrikin spirit not enjoy every step of such a journey?!   As my friend Fiona would say, “it was too funny”.

When finally the training exercises were complete and my team took me back to the hotel, I emerged from the lift on the ninth floor and for the first time in days I was alone. 

I felt an inexplicable wave of sadness.  No.  I felt lonely.  I was without their care, their company.  I had so quickly gotten used to someone watching out for me… someone, a team in fact, making me feel special.  For those days we’d been a little family and instantly I missed them.

Of course I adjusted fairly quickly to being alone again.  A five star hotel with a view and a mini-bar helped ease the blow.

Yet it reminds me that whatever happens in one’s life or career, we should never forget to be grateful for the people who support us, back us up - whether a Close Protection team, a husband, wife, lover, friend, parent, relative, acquaintance, stranger, colleague or unseen angel.   We are all poorer if we take this care for granted.

Thank you Liverpool.  Thank you my Close Protection team.  Travel safe and whenever I hear “eyes on” I’ll remember you.