Once home, it took me a few weeks before I was back to myself health-wise after the food poisoning I had suffered in India. I moved back in with my parents, as I really did need looking after and my mother did that.
I still owned the building that I had used as an office before I left for London in 1975 and I decided to split it into a shop on the ground floor, which I could rent out to bring in some income and turn the top two floors into an apartment for myself. My parent’s house was just a street away, so it was convenient for me to live with them while doing up my place.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only one who had to adapt to my new financial situation when I went down to London during the recession. My parents had to make difficult adjustments also. Previously, they had retired and lived in a large house with a nice garden that I had bought for them when my business was doing well. However, when financial reverses necessitated that I sell my own house, I had to sell theirs also. They moved into a much smaller house that I had bought to renovate and sell. While not as nice as the first house, it was in the centre of the city and was very convenient for them. My parents were wonderful about it all. They never reproached me for the drop in their living standards.
It was fun to work on my own apartment, as this time I was doing it up to suit myself rather than to please other people. When renovating properties to sell, I had always done what would appeal to the most people, creating a space that a potential buyer could move into right away and personalize later. This time I was turning the property into a home that had my own personal stamp on it.
Once I had made my apartment liveable, I moved from my parent’s place, although they were still, to a certain extent, caring for me, as I would frequently call around for my meals. I began to rebuild my business and make some money. I still had a few properties in Lincoln, so I started doing the necessary renovations and putting them on the market to sell. By that time the property market had improved so, although it wasn’t as buoyant as it had been before the recession, at least property was selling again.
When I started once again to develop property, this time I didn’t allow the business to control me. I wanted to control it, so that if the market were to change again, I would not be caught out like I had been previously. One thing I learned from the problems I had encountered in business was always to ask myself before doing anything ‘What if’? If the answer was the potential of having serious problems, then I didn’t proceed. This is a thought process that I have continued throughout my life.
Something I was determined to do was to travel and get away for holidays. During my time in London, prior to my trip to India, I had had only one holiday, going back-packing in Greece. That was the first holiday trip I had taken since leaving the Marines. Now I decided that there were several places that I wanted to visit, and I resolved to do so. Thus started my love of travelling - something that was to take me to many places in the world and provide me with many different experiences.
Some of my holidays were trips to sun-filled places such as Italy and Greece, as I’ve always loved the heat and sun, while others were more adventurous, like my trip to Russia in 1979.
My visit to Russia was in many ways due to Jo, the lady I was dating at the time. She had always wanted to visit Russia, so we decided that we would go. The trip took place during the Soviet era when Russia was a part of the USSR. We went for a two-week tour, which included Moscow and Leningrad (now known as St Petersburg) in Russia, followed by Uzbekistan (a member country of the USSR at that time) to visit the cities of Tashkent and Samarkand.
I remember well my admittance to the Soviet Union. At the Moscow airport, the man who was checking passports was most unfriendly. He was sitting behind a large desk, and I had to stand in front of it. He took my passport by just holding out his hand without a word. When I gave it to him, he did not move but stared at me for what seemed an age with an expressionless face. He had the most piercing eyes. Eventually, he opened my passport and stared at it. He then looked up and stared at me again, back down to the passport for a prolonged look, and back to me again. I remember thinking, “I hope my passport is in order!” He then closed the passport and thrust it out to me. I took it and with a wave of his hand, he gestured abruptly for me to go. He had not smiled nor said one word.
It wasn’t just the reception we got that was cold, as we were there in the winter months. The Neva River was frozen over and, although it looked beautiful, I remember the bitterness of the weather and the biting cold. Many of our group bought Russian fur hats and I still have mine even after all these years.
Jo on the banks of the Neva River
This was a time of austerity and great shortages in the USSR, and it was normal for the people there to have to queue for everything. The shops were mostly bare and if they did have something you wanted, you had to queue for it, even for bread. In fact, the longest queues were for bread. Our guides did their best to conceal this fact and, if you asked about the lines, they would brush your question aside. But it was obvious that the people had very little. Something else that was obvious was the unhappiness of the Russian people. They rarely smiled. I challenged myself to try to get a smile out of those that I encountered, but no matter how hard I tried, I constantly failed.
One thing about being a tourist was that we were taken by the guide to shops where there were no queues and where we could purchase luxury items not available to ordinary Russian citizens, such as furs and amber jewellery. I can only imagine how that made the locals feel!
That demeanour continued in Tashkent and, on one occasion, a member of our group cracked a joke while our guide was giving a talk. The guide’s reaction was quite hostile, and we had visions of the guy being carted off to Siberia overnight. Fortunately, he was still with us the next day.
When we got to Samarkand, our official Soviet guide warned us not to take photos of the people, as they did not like having their photos taken. He implied that the locals were not the friendliest of people. During our visit, we had some free time, so Jo and I decided that we would go off on our own to the local market. While walking from our hotel, we found ourselves walking past a military base and saw two soldiers walking toward us. It was then I realised that my camera was hanging around my neck. The news headline flashed through my mind: “British Couple Arrested for Spying”. I decided that I would be better off leaving it around my neck rather than trying to remove and hide it. As the soldiers got closer, I was expecting them to stop and question me but, fortunately, they didn’t give us a second look. After they had passed, I discretely put my camera away.
When we got to the market, I wanted to take some photos, so being very careful not to get any people in my shots, I did take a few of the buildings. We then decided that we would have a cup of tea and went to one of the market vendors. We couldn’t speak the language, but Jo had a phrase book and was able to convey what we wanted. After being given our tea, I held out some money but the man refused to take it. He just smiled and went on to his next customer!
We looked around for a seat but they were all taken. We found a short wall at the side of the seating area and sat down on it. Sitting at a table just in front of us was a family of several generations. On seeing us sitting on the wall, one of the men made the children stand up and offered us their seats. We were reluctant to take them, but he insisted, so we sat. A form of dialog then commenced with Jo using the phrase book. I really wanted to take their photo, as one of the older men was exactly the image we visualize of people from that part of the world. The man and his daughter were kind enough to pose for me. I have that photo framed in the hall of my home in England, as it reminds me of how nice people can be despite the image that is often painted of them.
Couple in the market at Samarkand
At that time of my life, my travels were just holidays, but in later years they turned into a paid hobby which enabled me to gain many more experiences around the world. I’ll write about that in a later chapter.
Back home, my entrepreneurial spirit got me involved in several other business ventures besides home renovation. Sometimes this meant going into business with other people, often because I owned a property that was suitable for a particular type of business. I had one property that was ideally located for a hair and beauty salon, so I found a hairdresser who was interested in setting up her own business. I got the business established and then left it for her to manage on a profit-sharing basis.
Kim, a woman I knew who made curtains mentioned to me that she would like to set up her own business. I had some premises which would be ideal so I suggested that, if she would take care of the manufacturing side of things, I would do the management and administration. She liked the idea, and we established Prestige Designs, trading as a partnership. Kim was extremely talented with regard to the tastes of the upper end of the market and the design of styles such as “swags and tails”. In the beginning, I did most of the measuring and fitting until the business developed sufficiently for us to hire someone to do it for us. We also took on Amanda, a young trainee who was with the company for many years.
Me, Amanda and Kim
After a couple of years of growth, we formed a “limited company”, Prestige Designs (Lincoln) Limited, and bought a property on Lincoln High Street, becoming one of Lincoln’s premier curtain and soft furnishing manufacturers and retailers.
Now I look back with amusement as I recall how my teachers advised me to leave school at 15 years of age because they felt that it would be a waste of time for me to continue my education. They were of the opinion that I would never amount to anything.
One of my school friends, Larry Riches, was also advised to leave school, as he too was seen as one of life’s potential failures. We kept in contact over the years and still meet up occasionally for coffee or lunch. He also went into business for himself and was so successful that, by the age of 40, he had sold his business and retired to Portugal, becoming a tax exile. We sometimes laugh about our teachers’ opinion of our “lack of potential” and wish it were possible to meet them again so they could see us now!
Eventually, other factors influenced my business interests, and I developed a desire to further my education and improve my formal educational qualifications.
Also, I met the woman I was to marry.
Chapter 9 - Married Life