It's a Guy Thing

You do WHAT!?

How a job title can shape our identity 

By Ian Kirke

Twitter: @IanJKirke

From experience, once you reach a certain age social gatherings have a pattern of predictability. The preamble, usually with glass in hand, engages with an unspectacular icebreaker: “Tell me, what do you do?” Not wishing to offend these professionals too much, “I’m in IT, HR” or any other job that can be similarly abbreviated can often make the follow-up line somewhat challenging. On the other hand, as a cop I was often interrogated following the utterance of the less than convincing address, “My friend got done for [whatever].” I kind of guessed that in all probability it was they who had been pulled for the misdemeanor in question and one thing was for certain, they would rarely provide a full and unbiased account. 

Once I had obtained my qualifying law degree a friend bizarrely introduced me as his barrister, stretching my legal standing way beyond the realms of reality. At a barbeque, on the way to getting well and truly pissed, a guy once asked if I had studied property law. It was one of the compulsory modules and I loved a bit of trespass, however, when he departed momentarily, only to return with the deeds of his house, seeking advice on ownership of a sliver of land between his and the adjoining property, I knew I needed a future-proof escape plan. Subsequently, thanks to a letter in Readers Digest, I acquired my get-out-of-jail-free card if ever I wanted a quiet evening: “I’m into scaffolding.” The ultimate assassin of all future discussion. 

As the author, Stephen R. Covey once said, “I am not a product of my circumstances. I am a product of my decisions.” As a nineteen-year-old, I decided to join the police and this, inevitably, shaped my identity. The same for anyone in IT or HR. Yet I wondered how an unusual vocation would shape an individual. How much more interesting would a social gathering be if, for example, the person opposite stated that they were an astronaut, astrophysicist, or lion tamer? At this juncture I feel it prudent to manage your expectations in that I have not, yet, interviewed anyone from NASA, The Large Hadron Collider, or the famous Budapest Circus. However, my list of favorite dinner guests has a wonderful pedigree that connects humility, honesty, and a ‘how the hell did this happen?’ Their individual routes to their unique and jaw-dropping professional standing was never one of childhood fantasy or focussed desire.

What do you do Stephen Ellis? 

“I put the zing in Starburst.” 

As a kid, the predecessors of Starbursts were Opal Fruits that were synonymous with the advertising jingle, “made to make your mouth water!” I can vouch that they did too! I had met a veritable food alchemist or, as he modestly put it, a food flavoring specialist. And that wasn’t all! He also had a prominent hand in the creation of Percy Pigs! I was fast becoming a salivating wreck as I listened intently to his story which began in the most mundane of locations – a mental institution. 

A kindred spirit in that, like me, he didn’t have a clue what he wanted to do in life when he left school. As the swimming pool attendant at Darenth Park Hospital, near Dartford in Kent, an eerie Victorian sanatorium that nursed soldiers who had returned from the second World War irreparably scarred by the ravages of post-traumatic shock disorder, Stephen’s career path could not have been more uncertain. To add to the oddity, the BBC filmed the wartime drama Colditz there, and on seeing the actors dressed as Nazis one patient hid in a refuse bin and celebrated his escape, only to be brought back sometime later by the crew of the dustcart. During a chance conversation whilst seated at the side of the outside pool, the question was posed “What are you going to do with your life then?” The puzzled young man had no answer, to which the more worldly-wise chap exclaimed, “It’s fashion or food!” Asserting that people would always need to be clothed and fed Stephen applied for and got a job as a junior food technician at Chiltonian Biscuits. Alighting the train home a mile and a half away the smell of lemon puffs still filled the air! 

My own vocational wakeup call occurred when, aged seventeen, I was delivering the post as a clerical assistant at the Royal Army Chaplains Department, Bagshot Park (now the home of Prince Edward and the Countess of Wessex) and Mr. Purdy, the center manager, said, “You can’t do this for the rest of your life! My son has joined the police. You should too.” Funny how a chance remark can often change your life forever. 

Returning to Stephen, his career path saw him progress within several high-profile food companies including Unilever where he could pop into the Ice Cream laboratory whenever the fancy took him to sample the Ambrosia of the Gods! At this juncture in our conversation, I marveled at the science behind the titillation of our taste buds and urgently required a Mr. Whippy with a flake. Mr. Ellis your curriculum vitae was good enough to eat! 

At a school show and tell Stephen’s seven-year-old daughter Niamh proudly announced that her mum was a nurse and dad put the flavor in Starbursts! This netted Stephen a gig at the school introducing the kids to the science behind taste. And so, to the icing on the cake, the cherry on top and the crème de la crème: Percy Pigs! I can happily overdose on those beauties and still come back for more! What the hell has hooked me? Stephen was, as usual, matter of fact. The food company, seeking new business with the UK retail giant Marks and Spencer, had the jelly (or gummies in the trade) and foam, and Ellis the wizard weaved his secret spells combining the two separate constituents and adding the little craved European flavoring, the humble grape! The rest, as they say, is history and Percy became a confectionary superstar! 

How has this journey ultimately shaped this sweet man? Ask his four children and three grandchildren (with another en-route) whose existence can be traced back to the moment our younger food virtuoso, flush with cash, met his love heart (not to be confused with the Swizzels confectionary creation). 

What do you do Marie Ruffell? 

“I review the circumstances leading up to a domestic-related death.” 

At secondary school, we had career advice sessions. Mr. Hutt, my mathematics teacher, ran these for my year group. He was brilliant at algebra, longitude, and latitude but as inspiration for reaching for the stars, he was a one out of ten. If Marie had been in my class and Mr. Hutt had asked, “what do you want to do when you leave school?” she could not have honestly replied, “to review the causes of domestic homicides Sir,” because up until the passing of the Domestic Violence Crime and Victims Act 2004 this role didn’t exist. 

To be fair, even if this unique position had been available then, this is not what Marie had set her heart on. She yearned to be an air traffic controller and passed her aviation studies certificate with ease but had a change of heart and obtained a Zoology degree at Aberystwyth University to pursue her new dream of becoming a biology teacher. Watching the hit British TV show ‘Juliet Bravo’ with her mum as a young child never did leave her psyche. Who would not want to become a police officer and wear that classic uniform, especially the iconic hostess hat? Phew! Did you manage to keep up with all those twists and turns? 

During an appraisal review with the HR manager, our then uniformed sergeant looked at the noticeboard plastered with yellow post-it notes. Her gaze was drawn to the gap in the Domestic Violence Unit (DVU) position. The temporary role became permanent and she remained there for the rest of her career. 

Sometimes our life choices are paper thin. In this critical role the bombardment of extreme acts of evil, often perpetrated by those who hid behind the front doors of normal-looking homes, led Marie to question if she had, on reflection, developed an emotional immunity? Possibly an understandable detachment where the most grievous of acts rarely raised an eyebrow. The reality of ‘Femicide’ (from research conducted by domestic abuse campaigner Karen Ingala Smith in 2018) is that 61% of women killed by men were murdered by a current or former partner. 

Although the full horror of domestic abuse was clearly visible, an understanding of the psychology involved informed her ability to cope with the frequent return of traumatized people to dysfunctional relationships, which on the face of it, appeared nonsensical. Indeed, as a rookie cop, I was ambivalent and, regrettably, considered ‘domestics’ as an obstacle to dealing with the more exciting aspects of operational policing. Training and reinforcing awareness of the tell-tale signs became Marie’s driving ambition, helping her in turn to better handle her understandable emotional detachment since without this posture she could easily have suffered vicarious mental harm. 

Relinquishing her warrant card upon retirement, she was subsequently drawn back to the police in her current civilian role. Understanding the dynamics of dysfunctional relationships was still vital and the more easily hidden and insidious coercively controlling relationships caused Marie a new anguish, suspecting that many more people suffered terrible and irreparable mental scars. 

During our initial conversations, Marie was pretty matter-of-fact about the impact her vocation had on her life. Ex-cops, and I guess, those from the military and other key emergency services can often, if my experiences are a useful gauge, defer to the process that defines our roles. Yet, I knew that no warm-hearted human being, as she clearly is, could have come through this totally unscathed. After some more gentle probing, she agreed! Her relatives were totally oblivious to the horrors she routinely absorbs. A caring, empathetic mother does get upset. That is being human. However, her roles within this unique environment coupled with her intuitive desire to improve the way the police learn, improve, and protect vulnerable people has created a protective shield. Support from good friends has helped maintain this tolerance albeit she did concede that the removal of a counselor due to budget cuts was harmful. 

Knowing that her current role is examining the aftermath is much less of a burden when compared to the times she went to bed wondering if she had put the requisite safeguards in place when she was at the frantic, fluid, and, often, frightening end of the DVU. The pace of change following her reviews can often be frustrating although the final scripting, by a suitably qualified author, of the concluding domestic homicide review, invariably leads to positive change. 

Reflecting upon her haphazard route into this discipline she was nonetheless enthusiastically optimistic. “Not knowing what you want to be when you leave school isn’t necessarily a bad thing. That’s what I told my kids. They will find their way.” 

What did you do Rob Lambert? 

“I was part of the body recovery team at the Clapham rail disaster.” 

Having known Rob for several years I did a double-take when he casually mentioned that he had entered the terrible carnage of the Clapham rail disaster as part of the body recovery team. I cannot recall how this disclosure tripped out other than I guess we had been shooting the breeze about the old days. 

At 8:13am on Monday 12th December 1988, due to a catastrophic technical fault, three trains collided near Clapham Junction, South West London resulting in thirty-five fatalities and four hundred and eighty-four injured. I vividly recall the news bulletins, the tangled wreckage, scattered personal belongings, and countless members of the emergency services. Until I had this unexpected conversation with Rob, I had not considered what would inevitably happen after such a tragic event. As a fellow cop, I had the first-hand experience of dealing with solo sudden deaths, yet this was hardly a comparable benchmark to what he and his colleagues had faced after the immediacy of saving lives had evaporated and the grim task of recovering so many victims had commenced. Ordinary people on their way to work with, no doubt, Christmas on their minds. 

With his heart set on becoming an RAF pilot, Rob had his ambition snuffed out by color blindness. Joining the Metropolitan Police, he later specialized as a member of the Territorial Support Group (TSG), the specialist public order unit for the capital. A discrete change to the terms of reference for this unit saw officers assigned the task of body recovery since cumulatively this represented a significant cadre of staff who could be deployed en-mass at short notice anywhere within the United Kingdom. The training focused upon evidential continuity. The matching of body parts to the correct victim often situated in hazardous locations. At this time in policing process trumped emotion and there was no psychiatric support. This may, in part, explain why the exhibit bags were colloquially referred to as ‘slop bags’. Interwoven with the requirement to lead the police response to a variety of high-profile outbreaks of mass public disorder, such as the Poll Tax riots of 1990, Rob managed to squeeze in the pursuit of a couple of Irish Republican Army (IRA) terrorist bombers along the towpath under Hammersmith bridge after they tried to plant an explosive device. A typical shift for the TSG? Perhaps not, since there were the times of excessive boredom, sat for thirty-two hours outside of the French Embassy after a guy took someone hostage and, the oddity, such as the schizophrenic man who wired his flat to the electricity supply threatening to jump from the window of a block of flats. 

Scrambling down the embankment from the Putney side the stench of diesel was overpowering. Firefighters seemed to be everywhere. Working in pairs Rob and his partner were tasked to manage the crime scene on a carriage-by-carriage basis. Razor-sharp debris and twisted metalwork made it difficult to navigate. Then he saw a foot. A man’s foot, wearing a brown brogue. Then a leg. Processing these, on the face it, horrific scenes was oddly unemotional. Imagining the body parts as prosthetic Rob’s revelation reminded me of my first post-mortem. The deceased looked anything but human, more like a manakin. In both situations, neither of us had a personal connection to what was in front of us. He never came across a complete person, yet a wristwatch was carefully removed, bagged, and later returned to the victim’s family. He remains thankful that he was not called upon to perform that task. 

The search was exhausting, interrupted by copious amounts of tea and cigarettes proximate to the local supermarket which had become a temporary mortuary. Gallows humor often permeated the nonchalant mood that dominated the process of crime scene management. Not that this should detract from the care and reverence that Rob and his colleagues showed whilst putting their own safety at risk as they negotiated the carnage. Perhaps this was indicative of a coping mechanism born out of repetitive training, camaraderie, and dedicated professionalism. 

A few months later Rob faced the same call, this time on the River Thames when the Marchioness collided with the dredger Bowbelle and sank, claiming the lives of fifty-one people celebrating a birthday. Ten years later he was offered counseling. 

The pragmatic, sensitive, and reserved side of Rob’s character may process this time of his life as simply another day at the office. Yet I would hazard a guess that his remarkable fortitude has shaped him at a much deeper level. I raise my glass to the officers of the TSG who carried out the tasks the more ordinary of us mortals probably would never even think about. 

What do you do Sara Davison? 

“I’m The Divorce Coach.” 

The last fifty years of data provided by the UK’s Office for National Statistics shows that, on average, a third of all marriages ended in divorce. Stateside the highest annual rate over the same period was a little lower at twenty-three percent. This snapshot suggests the role of the Divorce Coach is a must, especially since the ‘till death do us part’ vow has a significant failure rate. I must confess I never knew such a profession existed until I met Sara and listened to her unique and inspiring story. Many of my close friends had endured torrid break-ups and I figured that the usual legal interventions did little to heal the inevitable emotional scars even if they had successfully carved up the finances. As a couple of divorced friends put it, “How do I feel now we’re divorced? I didn’t want to divorce him. I wanted to bury him!” and just as moving, “God it’s a good feeling! It’s as though I have re-joined humanity!” And what about those caught in the crossfire? The unwilling. The frightened. The kids. 

I guessed that this was not a goal nurtured at school, and I was right! She was inspired when she attended a seminar led by the motivational American speaker, Tony Robbins, setting up her own roaring business which connected a UK audience to the same professional knowledge. As a successful coach her own ensuing divorce and the trauma of a legal spat was the best training for the creation of her present incarnation. 

Untangling the anger, depression, deceit, and destruction which can often occur before a positive roadmap can even be imagined doesn’t come without cost. I doubt cupid would ever endorse a marriage made in heaven expecting it to plumb the depths of hell. The tragedy of many client accounts was beautifully balanced by the wonders of a text from a ten-year-old daughter who simply said, “thank you for giving me my mummy back.” Bestselling books, television appearances, and the hit podcast ‘Heartbreak to Happiness’ have cemented her professional standing but I was moved by the overt healing, typified on a first date when a client ran in and hugged Sara and said how she had saved her life. WOW! 

I have never experienced divorce and wondered if this would be a prerequisite should I wish to embark on a similar role. I was pleasantly reassured that this skillset could be trained, and Sara had supported many to become breakup and divorce coach practitioners. 

One fundamental consideration is that everyone is different, and the approach can never be a ‘one size fits all’. For example, a partner leaving had the other distraught, crying, and unable to dress in anything other than an old tracksuit; another was livid, chopping up clothing and embarking on a stalking regime; another was simply relieved. Everyone will have their own life story too, shaped by lifestyle, finances, reliance, and possibly children. So where do you begin to unpick that lot? Sara explained that the first session, circa one and half hours, was simply dedicated to listening, looking for ‘red flags’; those often-discrete pointers that cumulatively identify the reasons for the breakup. The synergy between body language and vocabulary provides Sara with a route map to latterly probe the likely emotional narrative and coach each client to see all available options, creating vivid ‘paint and color’ outcomes. 

Reprogramming self-talk to dumb down the negative and shine a light on the positives seek to create a momentum designed to dial down on destructive emotions. As Sara explained, we are all born with a remote control to our brains but frequently we don’t know how to use it. Incompatible remotes, programmed during our formative years, can trigger conflict in relationships as Sara demonstrated with a powerful example, “Mark’s parents would deal with conflict head-on, remaining in situ until the issue came to some form of conclusion. Claire’s parents would disengage, giving each other space and often sleeping on it. When they married Mark duplicated his learned script believing this to be loving, whilst Claire’s urge was to display her compassion by disengaging. Both thought they were right” Is it any wonder that these contradicting postures would inevitably lead to disaster? 

Anger management is crucial, coupled with empowering her clients to see obstacles as challenges, whilst being cognisant that falling apart can be part of the grieving process. A smile, even artificial, a run, or simply holding your head up high can have a positive effect. Running away and hiding is a human trait which needs to be replaced with sustainable and tangible antidotes. 

Sara is now more attuned to picking up her own red flags which many of us may either dismiss or believe we can simply fix. A life lesson for us all. More grateful for the things that many of us may take for granted, such as kindness and friendship, Sara is happy and content. 

When this pandemic is over these four extraordinary people will be top of my invited dinner guest list and just maybe their collective wisdom will help me to decide what I want to be when I eventually grow up. Cheers to you all! 

© Ian Kirke 2021